Hero culture must die

For a long time I worked in an environment that I thought was great. People were knowledgable when it came to networking and it was my first real step up from a junior role. I learnt a lot about a variety of systems such as storage, firewalls, servers, networking and management. This young naivety held together this thin veneer that was Hero Culture.

In one of my first changes I was a part of I knew something was wrong. It felt wrong. This is not how I did it in the lab. There was configuration missing and some people hadn’t followed the steps. There had been a distinct lack of peer review (maybe for a reason looking back with a dose of hindsight) and those who wrote it were not committing it. With a network propagating a disaster and user experience getting worse the escalation chain was being rattled. This wasn’t going to go unnoticed now.

When all hope had started to fade as a point of no return or rollback had passed at the stage in the upgrade it was the architect, the person who wrote the initial change, came in the pieces that were missing. Emasculation and demeaning the engineers with a curse and a mutter, the architect moved the fingers over the keyboard in a blur and CLI was slapped into four or five touch points. The disaster was averted.

But what is wrong with this? EVERYTHING. Let alone seeming to have been postured into getting the blame, the change engineers were only following what was laid out by our hero. After having save the day there was little that made this stick however. This shouldn’t have in 2014. We are all of diverse skill sets and backgrounds, we have a variety of skills. We shouldn’t hit these EPIC peaks and dastardly troughs. What we should strive for is operational consistency. Something where every team member knows what is happening, knows how to do the work and there are no land mines for team members to step on.

Now, we have all had a moment where we knew the answer to a tricky problem and the team has come through with the goods. It makes you feel good as it does the team knowing they work with switched on engineers. The problem is when Duplicity is involved. It is very different when information is being intentionally kept from staff to stage the aforementioned hero moments. Once people peel the veneer off and realise what is occurring then watch out.

I think this is something that Derick Winkworth touches on rather well. This is a great article about how Hero culture should be something of the past, especially if trying to develop consistency and a DevOps culture.

It is no longer appropriate for hero culture in our IT environments or anywhere. As Derick put it is time for all of us to have a soul-searching moment.

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  • boece

    A CIO of a Fortune 500 corporation I worked for several years back wrote an almost identical email to department employees.

    The hero mentality needed to be blasted out, one employee at a time if necessary. They had evolved from a massive 30,000+ FTE org. to sub 15K (and now less than 10K) with dozens if not hundreds of IT silos, each group within this company having its own IT organization, hardware, standards, processes, etc. Even laptop models and brands were different from one group to the next.

    CxO-types and director-level types know fundamentally NO ONE is indispensable. NO ONE. Yes the architect who comes down from the mountain top to save the day might look good for a moment but any good manager will look askance at such behavior. This particular F500 was a publicly-traded semiconductor company so truly they could not afford to stake their future existence on some occult knowledge being hoarded by a few individuals given they were more or less in a mode of constant downsizing due to the intensely cyclical nature of that industry. The best and brightest network and systems engineer were all subject to the chopping block when layoffs were being contemplated.

    Hero mentality is especially prevalent in small-medium sized companies where you invariably have that one guy that probably started the “IT group” and built all the servers and desktops by hand (back in the day), wrote the mission critical software that runs the entire company (yep, been there…), and did a billion other things that virtually no one – no newly hired desktop support, no network or server gurus… knows anything about. No documentation, no wiki, no intranet, no nothing. When something goes wrong this is the guy that sweeps in, waves a magic wand and all is well (for a moment). He is trading on the fallacious notion that he is “indispensable.” He’s got a rude, rude awakening coming.

    Personally I think we should always have our work designed for the moment we’re heading out the door: Everything cleanly and clearly documented (and actually tested), our knowledge of new hardware and software being implemented shared preferably with a peer (and preferably worked on during planning, engineering, and implementation with a peer), and generally with a nod in the direction of our being dispensable within that or any other organization. Being collaborative, open, sharing, and innovative are all in their way equally important. There is SOME room for the highly-specialized super-nerd who never leaves his cube but it’s becoming increasingly rare. Our positions always and invariably exist at the pleasure of our employer and there’s hardly a guarantee we’ll have a job from one day to the next. I don’t have a problem with being loyal but I’m also a realist who has been shown the door more than once. Thinking in terms of our long-term value and survival is most likely to preserve our careers.

  • jimbarino

    The problem is have with this: this is just a fancy way of describing the age-old capitalist process of “deskilling”. Systemize things, send out the Taylorite experts with their clipboards and stopwatches, make it so a staff with sub-100 IQs can run them, and get rid of the prickly, demanding, and expensive artisans – in other words, you.

    While this might, in some sense, be necessary and lead to greater economywide efficiencies, it doesn’t really behoove one to wish it too hard on ones own industry. What it means is that even if you still have a job when everyone else is left standing, it will be as a trained monkey or as the handler of trained monkeys.

    Remember, anything that makes your job anything other than a meaningless rote task is an inefficiency to be ruthlessly wiped out. Everytime an employee smiles, a CEO winces.