Women in IT: Is hero culture an issue?

Last month ‘Women in IT’ advocate and all round amazing techy lady Andrea Goulet, director of US firm Corgybites, penned a guest blog article for us about ways tech companies could encourage more women to the workplace. It was called The Surprising Strength of Vulnerability (you can read it here) and it provoked plenty of debate and comment, including in our own office.

Here, founder of Future Cert Bill Quinn, has written his response and thoughts about the article from a UK perspective.

When I read Andrea’s article last month, one phrase really stood out for me – the “hero culture”. Immediately I disagreed with the comments, until my team of marketing people – who are all women by the way – made me think again. The first point was that this was an article as to why there were so few women developers, and I was male – maybe I hadn’t experienced this prejudice.

This really made me think, as the hero culture element was a valid point made by Andrea, and one that obviously came with experience of being a woman in the IT industry.

However, I also think there are two other factors as to why I haven’t experienced the hero culture – Location and Open Source.

The hero culture has been recently called the death march project, this is typically a project where the solution is either asking employees to work excessive hours or throwing more resource at the problem. Both actions not taking any judgement as to the potential success of the project. Once this mentality is born into a company it is hard to remove “We completed the last project in 3 weeks when it should have taken 7”. All future projects follow the same process, either till the “heroes” leave for better working conditions or the “heroes” get broken (burnout); then the hero culture collapses.

I have personally found by moving from London to the South West of the UK, that there is a different approach and culture in work. In London, it is very much the hero culture, pushing hours to make projects happen, making yourself more valuable for the next pay rise, and so on. This not only exists in software development, but many other professions as well – if you’re not working long hours above your quota, then you’re not an employee dedicated to the job. In the South West I have found a more relaxed work/life balance; people are still dedicated to the job, and they get the job done, but employers and employees understand the value of downtime.

Then we come to Open Source, Linus Torvalds can be quoted from “Just for Fun”: “The hackers – programmers – working on Linux and other open source projects forgo sleep, Stairmaster workouts, their kids’ Little League games, and yes, occasionally, sex because they love programming. And they love being part of a global collaborative effort – Linux is the world’s largest collaborative project – dedicated to building the best and most beautiful technology that is available to anyone who wants it. It’s that simple. And it’s fun.”

I think the combination of where I live and working with Open Source is probably the key factors as to why I haven’t experienced the hero culture in software development. I have also been very lucky to work with teams that were very inclusive – not only females, but also disabilities.

Andrea also makes a valid point that “movements such as Agile. Embracing human connection in software helps us all”. I would go even further. The culture associated with DevOps and Agile development highlights the risks associated with a hero culture from the outset. They don’t allow for “heroes” which makes it more accessible to everyone.

I would like to thank Andrea for a thought provoking and interesting insight.

Bill Quinn, founder and director of Future Cert, the UK and Ireland’s LPI representative