DevOps Culture Anti-pattern: Super Heroes

Personal responsibility and accountability are important traits team members should have in a collaborative work environment. But Super Heroes in the workplace take this mentality to the extreme end of the spectrum. As I review the issues within organizations trying to implement DevOps, this is the most difficult one to reign in. Because this mentality is not far off from an addiction to work, in which the offending resource feels the need and desire to worm themselves into a situation that needs them to save the day.

Before I dig too deep into the details of the problems I have seen here, I want to point to my experiences. I have rarely seen individuals who fall into a pattern of wanting to save the day fall out of this problem without a job change, or multiple years of effort to change. Any single person who sets the expectations that they will answer emails all hours or respond immediately to every request in the queue will fail to change this mode of thinking, and those that they have trained around them will be frustrated with the change in perceived “response quality”. It requires the planning of a team to protect the changes needed to move away from this problem. And it will mean a minimum of buy in from levels of management about what it means to an organization to have teams work towards a DevOps culture.

The death march, firefighting, 70 hour weeks, startup mentality, and many other phrases describe the problem that I see. Employees feel obligated to put in the hours asked of them because of loyalty or the desire to please. And sometimes, the expectations are subtle enough, that people will willingly put forth working more just to try and meet unreasonable or unattainable goals. Work harder, not smarter seems to be the standard practice in technology organizations, even though it rarely benefits the company or the people involved in this bad practices.

Employee burnout is a phenomenon that is well-documented when a team does not build margin into the system. Living in a constant state of high anxiety has adverse health affects that cost employers and managers both in pure hours and efficiency with the hours available.

Some ways to defeat this monster of the Super Hero:

  • Use it or lose it vacation time, coupled with checkpoints throughout the year to see if people are spreading time over the year
  • Monitoring excessive hours about 40 per week and correcting with some compensation time after successful project launches
  • Regular rotation of projects to keep people fresh and interested in the work they are doing
  • Collaboration among other team members to reduce Tribal Knowledge and allow others to burden responsibilities
  • Identify work that can be pushed out of your current system, like asking hosting providers to resolve common problems without an alert or paging on-call

These efforts are not just for the benefit of the employees, and team as a whole. Super Heroes are still people. Running at high RPMs constantly leads to mistakes. Maybe they are minor at first, like mistyping a command trying to fix an alert at 3 AM. But eventually, a problem will raise the stakes to the point that in the retrospective or after action of an incident, it becomes clear that the organization is at fault for having allowed an individual to so carelessly wield so much power. Companies can be more successful, flexible, and stable when the employees have a high level of satisfaction with their work. Set the expectation that teams should have margin in their lives. This will lead to most wanting to pack in their best possible work into a regular work week rather than spreading 30 hours of mediocre work into a 60 hour work week.