Why Software Projects need Heroes: Lessons Learned from 1100+ Projects

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-10
Keywords: Code Ownership, Software Projects

Forty-five years ago, Fred Brooks advocated a "chief programmer" model of development similar to the "chief surgeon" model used in most hospitals. It didn't catch on—at least not formally—but as Majumder2019 shows, many projects use it in practice. Their research questions and answers are:

  1. How common are hero projects? They define a "hero project" as one in which 5% or fewer of developers are responsible for 95% or more of interactions. They don't just consider commits: looking at both the code interaction graph and the social interaction graph, they find that 80% of the projects they looked at on GitHub fit into this category.
  2. What impact does heroism have on code quality? Heroes commit far fewer bugs than non-heroes.
  3. Does team size alter these results? No.

The authors then go on to say that if two sections of code communicate but the programmers of those sections don't, the code section is more likely to be buggy. They conclude that:

The usual response to the above argument is to improve communication by "smoothing it out", i.e. by deprecating heroes since…that encourages more communication across an entire project… [Our] results…suggest that it is time to explore another response: the best way to reduce communication overhead and to decrease defects is to centralize the communicators [emphasis in original]. In our data, commits with lower defects come from the small number of hero developers who have learned how to talk to more people. Hence, we would encourage more research into better methods for rapid, high-volume, communication in a one-to-many setting (where the "one" is the hero and the "many" are everyone else).

I don't like this conclusion: elitism and exclusion are serious structural problems in tech, and the history of meritocracy shows that if hero worship is condoned, the heroes will wind up being the confident, the well-connected, and those with preparatory privilege more often than the most intelligent or capable. However, it would be hypocritical to ask software developers to pay attention to research and then dismiss an uncomfortable result. As the authors say, more research is needed.

Majumder2019 Suvodeep Majumder, Joymallya Chakraborty, Amritanshu Agrawal, and Tim Menzies: "Why Software Projects need Heroes: Lessons Learned from 1100+ Projects". arxiv.org, abs/1904.09954, 2019.

A "hero" project is one where 80% or more of the contributions are made by the 20% of the developers. Those developers are called "hero" developers. In the literature, heroes projects are deprecated since they might cause bottlenecks in development and communication. However, there is little empirical evidence on this matter. Further, recent studies show that such hero projects are very prevalent. Accordingly, this paper explores the effect of having heroes in project, from a code quality perspective by analyzing 1000+ open source GitHub projects. Based on the analysis, this study finds that (a) majority of the projects are hero projects; and (b)the commits from "hero developers" (who contribute most to the code) result in far fewer bugs than other developers. That is, contrary to the literature, heroes are standard and very useful part of modern open source projects.