🦄 The Unicorn Project - Book Review

5 minute read

A sequel?

The Unicorn Project” is out. Since “The Phoenix Project”, which - according to IT Revolution - “wowed half-million readers” since 2013, a lot of readers from the IT industry are eager to discover the new adventures of “Parts Unlimited”, a company being disrupted on its journey to better value, sooner, safer and happier.

The Unicorn Project

I was privileged to get an early copy of the book and I dove right in. The first question I wanted to answer is if the book was a sequel to “The Phoenix Project”. And indeed, it is. Same company - Parts Unlimited -, same urge to change to survive, same challenges and same project - The Phoenix Project - on which the company is betting its future.

Yet, there is absolutely no need to read The Phoenix Project prior reading The Unicorn Project. All the characters are introduced gradually, as well as the book’s plot.

For this review, I will follow the subtitle of the book as my plan:

A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data

(which can be contrasted with the subtitle of The Phoenix project: “A Novel about IT, DevOps and helping your business win”).

Developers

In The Unicorn Project, we will not follow Bill Palmer - VP of IT operations - the hero of The Phoenix Project. Gene Kim introduces a brand new character, Maxine Chambers - Developer Lead and Architect.

Maxine

Yes, you got it, this time, we are going to dive deeper in the developer’s world. Not that the book is all about developers, debugging, Continuous Integration or unit tests, but it is very much the focus, at least for the first good half of the book.

And it makes sense to me. Actually, I find this very interesting that what used to be details left to developers, like source code management, continuous integration, test automation, environments on demand with Docker, and automation of deployments are now frequently front and center in discussions with executives, up to CIOs and sometimes CEOs. I fully expect that The Unicorn Project will even reinforce this. As you will see while reading the book, transforming the “Parts Unlimited” company to adopt a great engineering culture will directly lead to better business outcomes and organizational performance.

Digital disruption

Remember Eric, board member from the Phoenix Project? Eric acted as the Sensei (guru), advising Bill Palmer. Well, Eric is back, now acting as a bartender 🍸 in the bar where the team meets weekly. That’s obviously a cover as Eric is still a member of the board.

While I found this role of a Sensei sometimes weird while reading The Phoenix Project, I found this time that Eric plays its role fully. And Eric is not alone. Gene references many other Senseis and acknowledges their work - which gives us more references to follow. Here is an awesome list of Senseis I could gather: Rich Hickey, Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble, Risto Siilasmaa, Dr. Steven Spear, W. Edwards Deming, John Allspaw, Paul O’Neill, Dr. Geoffrey Moore, Clay Christiansen.

The Five Ideals

While Eric came up with “The Three Ways” in the Phoenix Project, he now introduces “The Five Ideals” (that Gene Kim introduced first at a talk at DevOpsDays Portland).

The Five Ideals, as detailed by Eric (and Gene) are as follows:

  • The First Ideal: Locality and Simplicity
  • The Second Ideal: Focus, Flow, and Joy
  • The Third Ideal: Improvement of Daily Work
  • The Fourth Ideal: Psychological Safety
  • The Fifth Ideal: Customer Focus

I won’t go into details here, as the book is doing an awesome job at providing explanations, context and ideas as to how to apply them. I will say though that there is a great chance for those to become, like “the three ways”, a great guide for our industry.

The age of data

Data in The Unicorn Project Book, like in real life, takes the front row. It’s with data that Parts Unlimited can now customize its marketing campaigns and optimize revenues and stocks like never before. It’s also with data that the teams operate their applications, make informed decisions on what to focus on and are able to react quickly when things go wrong.

We can often read that data is largely unused and can unlock immense business outcomes. The Unicorn Project gives practical examples of using data, and even the start of a technology stack to get started and grow from there. Impressive.

Transforming and asking for permission

I had a blast reading the story of the team behind “The Unicorn Project”. The story of “The Rebellion” - as they like to call themselves - reminded me of earlier DevOps transformation days at HP, which we shared with Ralph Loura and Rafael Garcia at DevOps Enterprise Summit 2015.

Indeed, it does often take a great dose of courage - and/or really strong leadership commitment - to often break the rules that have been established for years. I experienced this in my first DevOps journey, and it looks like a pattern that I often see elsewhere.

Another technique I used to trigger the start of transformation are “Value Stream Maps” which do a great job of showing the current state, and initiate a transformation.

Workforce optimization and reskilling

The last section of the book is my favorite. So, hang tight and read it through the end!

It’s also a difficult section. When you optimize work, there is a big temptation to take what you save and turn that into opportunities for workforce reduction. “The Unicorn Project” gives guidance in that space too. It’s a set of chapters you will want to read multiple times, like I did.

Parts Unlimited ends up investing in their people and creating a continuous learning organization. I also believe this is the right path, as Joan Watson and I shared during an earlier talk at the DevOps Enterprise Summit.

Conclusion

“The Unicorn Project” is a new reference book. With no doubt, Gene Kim and the Senseis will - again - massively and positively influence any company, any organization which depends on software, that is: all companies in 2020.

Buy it, offer it to your developer leads, to the executives you want to influence. You will not regret it, neither will they, nor their customers.

One more thing

The book has a lot of references: blogs, other books and also videos. So that you don’t have to assemble theme, I created a playlist with all the references from the book. A must watch before, and after reading the book.