Hero-driven development

Some thoughts on hero-driven development, and why we should consider it to be an anti-pattern.


Time and again, I find myself exposed to hero-driven cultures in the technology industry. Common tell-tale signs include:

  • Working very long hours
  • Stress
  • Applying changes to production that have not been fully tested
  • Adding more capacity to production right in the middle of a service-impacting traffic spike
  • Burnout (team members quitting, taking time off for health reasons, becoming demoralized etc.)
  • Management celebrating "getting the project across the line" despite apparently insurmountable odds
  • A lack of clarity on objectives

A hero does well in these environments, because they are able to react quicker than those around them, and they don't mind not having a life outside of the project.

Technology projects should be stable and predictable however, allowing for sensible work practices that do not burn people out, while also allowing for planning schedules that actually reflect reality. Working in a hero-driven environment can be fun for a while as the adrenaline kicks in, but a prolonged adrenaline rush will quickly result in frayed nerves.

"remember if you need a hero, something has already gone wrong."

I once knew a senior business analyst who told me early in my career that "many organizations strive to shoot from the hip more effectively". These organizations are perpetually stuck in tactical, reactive mode, and rarely have time for strategic planning as they are just too busy getting things done. Sadly, those things getting done are often the wrongs things, due to a lack of careful planning in the first place. It becomes a vicious circle.

Hero-driven development is an anti-pattern: remember if you need a hero, something has already gone wrong.

John Collins

I have been writing about web technology and software development since 2001. I am the developer of the Alpha Framework for PHP, and the five.today personal productivity app. I love open source, technology, and economics.

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