Green Go Reads - The Unicorn Project Review

WARNING!!! This post contains spoilers!

A few years ago, I read The Phoenix Project. It was a fictionalized story about a company called Parts Unlimited and it’s journey through a DevOps transformation. As I read it, it seemed more like a non-fiction novel because it was so easy to draw comparisons to real world events that I’ve experienced in IT. I absolutely loved it and I was so excited to hear that another iteration of the book called The Unicorn Project was coming out. I just finished reading it and it did not disappoint!

The Unicorn Project story takes place in parallel with the The Phoenix Project except The Unicorn Project is from the developer perspective whereas, The Phoenix Project is from the operations perspective. The Unicorn Project follows the main character, Maxine, as she continuously runs into roadblocks that prevent her (and the organization) from being productive. She winds up joining “The Rebellion” to essentially overthrow the folks in the company that are fine with the status quo. Rather than conforming to the old saying “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, Maxine is focused on breaking down barriers to make the processes more efficient. Maxine learns that in order to make tomorrow better than today, she has to identify the values and pricipals of the Five Ideals to frame today’s most important IT challenges impacting engineering and business.

The Five Ideals

The Five Ideals build on each other to confirm the importance of the DevOps movement as a better way of working, and delivering better value, sooner, safer, and happier.

1. Locality and Simplicity

Quite simply, the first ideal is being able to get something done quickly without requiring 20 other teams to get involved. Similar to Amazon’s “Two Pizza Team”, the Lunch Factor consists of the following question: How many people do you need to take to lunch to get something done? A handful of people or the entire building? This works best in decoupled applications because smaller teams are responsible for a specific service without impacting various teams.

2. Focus, Flow, and Joy

When developers work on something meaningful and something they enjoy (without interruption or processes that impede their flow), the result is more than likely favorable to the business. A project that provides a sense of creation and satisfaction is beneficial on multiple levels.

3. Empowerment of Daily Work

Technical debt is inevitable. Whether it’s testing something that you never intended on going to production but somehow ends up in production or poor leadership, there are going to be times where organizations will accrue technical debt. However, organizations that identify the technical debt and make a conscious effort to pay it down will be far more successful. In the book, there is a feature freeze which gives everyone more time to work on the things that somehow always get put on the back burner even though it’s completely necessary. It’s important to go back and fix those lingering issues rather than pushing out a new feature.

4. Psychological Safety

Innovation and improvement is impossible if it’s not safe to talk about problems. Let’s face it, a career in IT is not always going to be rainbows and butterflies. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned. That is the nature of the business. However, if someone is not able to speak up for fear of being fired or disciplined, that is not a safe work environment. Leadership and management should assume there is going to be things that happen but shouldn’t discourage team members from learning out loud. There’s no such thing as a 10x engineer!

5. Customer Focus

Customer focus is all about prioritzing the business objectives over functional silo goals. The reason why each of the ideals builds upon each other is because you can’t effectively focus on the business objectives or customer focus until the previous four ideals have been mastered. If the first four are properly in place, engineers and developers can easily focus on the customer needs rather than trying to just get a simple build working on your laptop.

Here is the author, Gene Kim, presenting on the Five Ideals at DevOpsDays in Portland.


The Unicorn Project is available on Amazon and I couldn’t recommend it more!

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