[Book] The phoenix project

January 25, 2017 · Book Audiobook DevOps Lean

The Phoenix Project has been my 2016's (audio)book highlight. I listened to it "cover to cover" in a few days and have recommended and offered it multiple times since. Almost a year later, it would almost be time to listen to it again... and even more time to speak about it here.

This book is a fiction that takes place in the IT industry. Using the allegory of a company producing software, it introduces the ideas of lean-manufacturing and DevOps in the world of IT.

Here's the abstract on Amazon:

Bill is an IT manager at Parts Unlimited. It's Tuesday morning and on his drive into the office, Bill gets a call from the CEO.

The company's new IT initiative, code named Phoenix Project, is critical to the future of Parts Unlimited, but the project is massively over budget and very late. The CEO wants Bill to report directly to him and fix the mess in ninety days or else Bill's entire department will be outsourced.

With the help of a prospective board member and his mysterious philosophy of The Three Ways, Bill starts to see that IT work has more in common with manufacturing plant work than he ever imagined. With the clock ticking, Bill must organize work flow streamline interdepartmental communications, and effectively serve the other business functions at Parts Unlimited.

In a fast-paced and entertaining style, three luminaries of the DevOps movement deliver a story that anyone who works in IT will recognize. Readers will not only learn how to improve their own IT organizations, they'll never view IT the same way again.

Bill is in big trouble. The project is failing. Business and development departments are fighting over the rumble of the project, finger pointing at each other. The operations department is left alone, serves as a scapegoat while attempting to keep the lights up.

The important theses

Beyond the story of Bill, attempting to transform a company, that will sound all too real to anyone who has remotely worked with IT in the past years, the authors slowly uncover the Three Ways, one of the core DevOps principles:

  • System thinking
  • Feedback loops
  • Continual experimentation and learning

They also touch on the 4 kind of works and how an imbalance between the 4 of them can cause severe damage to an organisation:

  • Business Projects: ~the projects we do for our clients
  • Internal Projects: ~the projects we do for ourselves
  • Operational change: ~all the things we do to remain competitive
  • Unplanned work: ~all the rest (which makes our lives miserable)

I also loved the part about queuing theory and how a losely handled work in progress will invariably lead to delays and bottlenecks. The treatment of priorities and risks is also a big thing. The definition of responsibilities i.e. not Business in one Team, Devs in another and Ops at the end of the chain, but all together around a product, was also a highlight. And all this under the cover of a fun story.

Beyond that learning and the sheer fun of the story itself, the coaching & mentoring meta-level really connected with me. Throughout the story, Bill is being coached by a "prospective board member" of the company. The way this coaching is being done was really important to me: hinting but not revealing, leading but not managing. I really liked how Bill is being slowly driven toward the answers is needs but with the coach never actually saying any answer out loud.
That's something I am personally trying to learn, and this gave me some more ideas on how to proceed.

As you can see, a lot of theses and topics that are our daily IT bread. If you are even remotely engaged in IT, this will be a fun and interesting book, I assure you!

ImageSource: Phoenix Bird - classic sculpture at 20th & Camelback by Al HikesAZ (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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