The Changing Landscape of Project Heroics

The world of tech has a strange and unhealthy relationship with the idea of project heroics. Synonymous with technical firefighting, the concept of heroics is to enshrine those who sacrifice more than what is fair or healthy for the good of a project. In my experience, much of the need for heroics come from poor (or absent) project leadership coupled with a beleaguered team of technologists that were never given the opportunity to properly catch up on a backlog of tasks. Then, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, knowledge workers must scramble to cut out health and wellness from their lives in exchange for fixing and releasing a few more cogs.

Project heroics are something I touched on briefly about 8 years ago when writing a review for The Phoenix Project. Today, the landscape has changed with many technologists simply saying “no thanks” to such heroics. While the concept of heroics has remained fairly stable – just take a look at When Software Development Depends on Individual Heroic Efforts and Heroic Programming for examples in the software world – the iron grip of business over technologists has been forced to relax in the wake of the Great Resignation.

Saying No to Heroics

I have witnessed a few reasons for this shift.

The first is that firms such as Google Cloud’s DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) team have data on their side. Whereas older arguments against heroics were largely sourced from people-centric data points (e.g. technologists saying “this sucks for me and the team”), these newer reports contain data that clearly demonstrate the financial reasons to obviate heroics from technical work. Faster innovation, more experimentation, quicker resolution to issues, and increased throughput all translate to higher revenue, better IPO / market cap multipliers, and greater margin percentages. It’s sad that we need more than a decade of research to finally push the bean counters into prioritizing changes that literally translate into “happier people make better products,” but alas, this is the world we choose to live in.

Second, the shift is part of the new expectations for technologists resigning from these so called “Bullshit Jobs.” Watch this video from How Money Works titled Your Job Achieves Nothing… (probably). In a nutshell, money alone is not enough to keep technologists captive. We’re already in the top 6 most lucrative industries. The work being done and the impact being realized matter. In fact, they matter quite a lot – the term “time millionaires” is now a thing for folks with the luxury of pursuing such endeavors. Project heroics, on the other hand, stand in direct contrast of working at a job that feels impactful and rewarding, especially for people who have managers cracking the whip and monopolizing most of the fruits of such labor. There’s too many other choices to make this sort of suffering tolerable.

The third and final reason – heroics simply don’t work. Again – project heroics do not work. The very definition of a heroic activity is to make a sacrifice and “push through” some sort of blockage. This means making risky, short sighted decisions that negate healthy patterns such as documentation and using a proper flow while taking on technical debt that is often unnecessary. Just read Dear Coder: Please, Don’t be a Hero for some similar thoughts from Thomas Vanderstraeten. My employer shares this mentality and has an area for tracking heroics as part of the client project delivery process. Whenever project heroics are identified, the project status turns an angry shade of red. It is not sustainable to use heroics for delivery and a red flag is raised to get leaders involved to remove the need for heroics and make the individuals involved whole again.

In closing, project heroics are the equivalent of seeking out a loan shark to help pay down a credit card debt. It can offer some immediate relief, but should be identified as the horrible, risky, and toxic pattern that it is. Business and technologists alike should have a clear path to identify and remediate project heroics while also ditching any sort of hero worship from their culture.

If you’re being asked to be a hero at your job – and being told how “awesome of a rock star” you are – just know that you’re being taken advantage of and that better work exists if you’re willing to seek it out. 🙂