I was reading the book “An Elegant Puzzle: Systems of Engineering Management” by Will Larson today and stumbled upon a definition of the “hero engineer” problem in software development. It’s a common issue that arises when an engineer takes on too many tasks, often working overtime and under high stress to the point of burnout. The engineer may feel that he’s the only one working hard, leading to resentment, conflicts, and a lack of unity in the team.
How John Became Completely Drained
John let out an exhausted sigh as he squinted at the laptop screen, the hours of coding blurring into a headache behind his strained eyes. Another bug, another late-night grinding away in his home office. The dirty dishes and mugs around him were the only signs of life left at this hour.
His frustration mounted as John plugged away line by line, trying to reproduce the bug. Why does this always fall on me, he thought, while everyone watches Netflix right now? The isolation and injustice he felt cut deep, and his loneliness was only made worse by how much the team relied on him.
Some superhero I turned out to be, John laughed bitterly. He was running on fumes, morale drained just as much as his energy. The constant pressure to perform was crushing — no matter how hard he worked, the mountain of tasks never got smaller. Meetings, messages, and code reviews crowded out any sense of accomplishment or progress.
John felt less like a leader nowadays and more like a pack mule straining under a heavier and heavier load. He trudged step by step out of a sense of duty and not much else. The spark he once had for coding had faded into the blur of monotonous bug fixes and bureaucratic tasks.
Staying late as usual tonight, John knew his family was already asleep. A flash of regret flashed through him. I wish I could close my laptop, walk out of the room, and not look back, he thought, turn my back on all of it. But the team needed him. So the superhero facade stayed on, a mask that grew heavier daily. John sighed again, steeling himself for the long night ahead.
What Leads to the Hero Engineer Mentality?
The hero engineer mentality doesn’t come out of nowhere. It grows from real struggles teams face trying to keep up with too much work and insufficient people. When John stays late night after night to fix bugs because no one else can, he feels it’s up to him to save the project. Or when Mary never takes time off because she worries nothing will get done without her, it seems noble. But it’s not healthy or sustainable.
Developers like Joe and Mary want to do good and help their teams. Some may even put pressure on themselves out of pride in their skills. When managers praise the long hours, it rewards the wrong thing. It leads engineers to think working themselves to the bone is expected.
The Damaging Effects
This takes a real toll, though. Burned-out people quit to get at least some rest, leaving teams without their expertise. It breeds bitterness between those staying late and others on the team. Things slip through the cracks when one person tries to do too much.
At the same time, minimal knowledge sharing or documentation is happening. The engineers who work crazy hours don’t have time to train others or write things down. So you end up with knowledge silos, where what one developer knows stays with them. Then, if they leave, that knowledge is gone, causing confusion and scrambling.
Adding to the problem, this situation creates unhealthy team dynamics. Resentment brews in overworked engineers as they think they’re the only ones putting in real work while others ride along (which is rarely true). The team fractures.
This hero culture creates a poor work-life balance for everyone. By always staying late, the heroes set unhealthy precedents about the level of effort required. Soon, the whole team starts to assume overwork is necessary and normalized when it signals deeper issues of overload and burnout.
Steps to Prevent Hero Culture
We need to spread critical skills and knowledge between team members to prevent engineer burnout. Have people job shadow and train each other — that way, when someone leaves, their expertise doesn’t vanish overnight. And let’s define standards for documentation so it’s not just scattered tribal knowledge. For all that, most teams need more people with adequate skillsets and experience.
Collaboration should be encouraged over siloed work. We build a culture where sharing knowledge is the norm by doing peer reviews, mentoring newbies, brainstorming, and group troubleshooting. But again, when the team’s efforts are stretched thin, this is impossible to achieve.
We also need sustainable on-call rotations and work schedules. No more all-nighters or full weekends crunching away — people need downtime to recharge. Keep the programs predictable, with defined duties and limits on off-hours work. And ensure folks get adequate rest between cycles. And guess what? You also need to size teams accordingly, leaving some slack for unexpected workloads.
Finally, when giving kudos, we must recognize team accomplishments rather than individual heroics. Show appreciation for those who collaborate and lift up the group, not just praise personal output.
We can set our people up for sustainable success with the right environment and policies instead of a burnout breakdown.
The Need for Systemic Change
The mentality of the lone hero engineer trying to solve every problem is extremely harmful to individuals, teams, and companies alike. It leads to burnout, churn, technical debt, and fragmented team dynamics.
Software development organizations must make systemic changes to avoid unhealthy hero culture dependence. This starts with balancing workloads appropriately, allocating enough staff, and then moving to clearly defining roles and spreading critical knowledge across the whole team.
Originally posted on Medium.com