Book Notes #49: The Unicorn Project - Gene Kim

Book Notes: The Unicorn Project - Gene Kim
The Unicorn Project provides insanely useful insights on how to improve your technology business in a story about rebel developers and business leaders working together.


Title: The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data
Author: Gene Kim
Themes: Leadership, Management, Business, Agile, Software, 
Year: 2019
Publisher: IT Revolution
ISBN: 1942788770, 9781942788775
Pages: 352

Unlock the secrets of a high-performing technology organization with The Unicorn Project. 

This bestselling book takes you on a thrilling journey through the ups and downs of a fictional company's digital transformation, providing valuable insights and practical takeaways for anyone looking to improve their own organization's performance. 

From agile methodologies to DevOps practices, The Unicorn Project is a must-read for tech leaders and enthusiasts alike. 

In The Unicorn Project, we follow Maxine, a senior lead developer, and architect, as she is exiled to the Phoenix Project, to the horror of her friends and colleagues, as punishment for contributing to a payroll outage. 

She tries to survive in what feels like a heartless and uncaring bureaucracy and to work within a system where no one can get anything done without endless committees, paperwork, and approvals.

One day, she is approached by a ragtag bunch of misfits who say they want to overthrow the existing order, liberate developers, bring joy back to technology work, and enable the business to win in a time of digital disruption. 

To her surprise, she finds herself drawn ever further into this movement, eventually becoming one of the leaders of the Rebellion, which puts her in the crosshairs of some familiar and very dangerous enemies.

The Age of Software is here, and another mass extinction event looms—this is a story about rebel developers and business leaders working together, racing against time to innovate, survive, and thrive in a time of unprecedented uncertainty... and opportunity.

Book Notes: The Unicorn Project - Gene Kim

Happening during the same time as The Phoenix Project, The Unicorn Project is a fictional story about a DevOps transformation. 

Throughout this novel, Gene Kim introduces the five ideals of locality and simplicity, focus, flow, and joy, improvement of daily work, psychological safety, and customer focus. Maxine, a talented lead developer, and architect is exiled from the Phoenix project after being blamed for an outage. 

Together with a team of corporate rebels, she confronts legacy and change-averse processes and applies the five ideals to transform business, technology, and culture in a positive and lasting way.

Anyone who works in a large company will be familiar with this story. Many organizations trying to transform into digital and elite companies face similar challenges. 

As described in the five ideals, cultural and organizational principles are fundamental to achieving sustainable business outcomes and are already being adopted as DevOps principles and values.

My Book Highlights:

"... Trying to get a Phoenix to build going is like playing Legend of Zelda, if it were written by a sadist, forcing her to adventure far and wide to find hidden keys scattered across the kingdom and given only measly clues from uncaring NPCs. But when you finally finish the level, you can’t actually play the next level—you have to mail paper coupons to the manufacturer and wait weeks to get the activation codes..."

"... There’s a very real cognitive and spiritual burden of having to carry so many unfulfilled promises forever into the future, where anyone can ask at any time 'Where is my feature?'..."

"... Punishing failure and “shooting the messenger” only cause people to hide their mistakes, and eventually, all desire to innovate is completely extinguished..."

"... Simplicity is important because it enables locality. Locality in our code is what keeps systems loosely coupled, enabling us to deliver features faster. Teams can quickly and independently develop, test, and deploy value to customers. Locality in our organizations allows teams to make decisions without having to communicate and coordinate with people outside the team, potentially having to get approvals from distant authorities or committees so far removed from the work that they have no relevant basis to make good decisions,” he says, clearly disgusted..."

"... While the redshirts battle to contain the raging engine fire that is threatening the entire ship, the bridge officers continue to cover their asses..."

"... If there’s any time that deserves courage and relentless optimism, it’s now..."

"... Are we playing to win and to establish the technical supremacy we need to keep up with what the business needs, or do we just keep limping along, shackled to things built decades ago, and tell our business leaders to throw in the towel and stop having good ideas?..."

"... Ward Cunningham in 2003. He said, ‘technical debt is what you feel the next time you want to make a change..."

"... Every incident is a learning opportunity, an unplanned investment that was made without our consent..."

"... Good morning, and I’d like to just answer the question that you’re probably thinking about. The answer is, yes, we’re the team that built the current mobile apps—both of them. We’re not proud, and we’re just glad users can’t rate an app with zero stars..."

"... They start making a list: Every developer uses a common build environment. Every developer is supported by a continuous build and integration system. Everyone can run their code in production-like environments. Automated test suites are built to replace manual testing, liberating QA people to do higher-value work. Architecture is decoupled to liberate feature teams, so developers can deliver value independently. All the data that teams need is put in easily consumed APIs..."

"... Innovation and learning occur at the edges, not the core. Problems must be solved on the front lines, where daily work is performed by the world’s foremost experts who confront those problems most often..."

"... Microsoft still has a culture that if a developer ever has a choice between working on a feature or developer productivity, they should always choose developer productivity..."

"... Everyone around here thinks features are important because they can see them in their app, on the web page, or in the API. But no one seems to realize how important the build process is. Developers cannot be productive without a great build, integration, and test process..."

"... It is ignorance that is the mother of all problems, and the only thing that can overcome it is learning..."

"... As Sensei W. Edwards Deming once observed, a bad system will beat a good person every time..."

"... For the leader, it no longer means directing and controlling, but guiding, enabling, and removing obstacles..."

"... There’s something even more important than code: the systems that enable developers to be productive, so that they can write high-quality code quickly and safely, freeing themselves from all the things that prevent them from solving important business problems..."

The key concepts of the book "The Unicorn Project" include:

The Five Ideals, which are principles for a high-performing technology organization: Locality and Simplicity; Focus, Flow, and Joy; Improvement of Daily Work; Psychological Safety; Customer Focus.

The concept of "The Three Ways" which are the principles of flow, feedback, and continuous improvement that drive the Five Ideals.

The idea of "The First Way" is the flow of work from left to right, from code commit to production, and how to optimize this flow through practices such as trunk-based development and continuous integration/deployment.

The concept of "The Second Way" is the feedback loops that enable fast and frequent feedback, both internally and from customers, and how to optimize these feedback loops through practices such as blameless postmortems and customer feedback channels.

The idea of "The Third Way" is the culture of continuous experimentation and learning, and how to foster this culture through practices such as blameless postmortems, hypothesis-driven development, and a culture of experimentation.

"The Unicorn Project" and "The Phoenix Project" are both written by Gene Kim and share some common themes, but they are different books with different focuses.

Chapters of the Book:


Part One: September 3–September 18
Chapter 1: Wednesday, September 3
Chapter 2: Friday, September 5th
Chapter 3: Monday, September 8
Chapter 4: Thursday, September 11
Chapter 5: Thursday, September 11
Chapter 6: Friday, September 12
Chapter 7: Thursday, September 18

Part Two: September 23–November 9
Chapter 8: Tuesday, September 23
Chapter 9: Monday, September 29
Chapter 10: Monday, September 29
Chapter 11: Wednesday, October 1
Chapter 12: Monday, October 13
Chapter 13: Thursday, November 6th

Part Three: November 10–Present
Chapter 14: Monday, November 10
Chapter 15: Tuesday, November 25
Chapter 16: Friday, December 5
Chapter 17: Friday, December 12
Chapter 18: Thursday, December 18
Chapter 19: Tuesday, January 13

Epilogue: One Year Later
Job Description: Distinguished Engineer

In summary, "The Phoenix Project" provides an overview of the challenges and solutions for organizations implementing DevOps and ITIL practices, while "The Unicorn Project" provides a more detailed and practical guide on how to implement the Five Ideals and the Three Ways to create high-performing technology organizations.

Gene Kim is a multiple award-winning CTO, researcher, and author, and has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999. He was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He has written six books, including The Unicorn Project (2019), The Phoenix Project (2013), The DevOps Handbook (2016), the Shingo Publication Award-winning Accelerate (2018), and The Visible Ops Handbook (2004-2006) series. Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of the DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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