Book Notes #49: The Unicorn Project by 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
Year: 2019
Pages: 352

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

The Unicorn Project 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.

As a result, I gave this book a rating of 8.0/10.

For me, a book with a note 10 is one I consider reading again every year. Among the books I rank with 10, for example, is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Overview of The Unicorn Project

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.

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. 

So, in the Unicorn Project, 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 from The Unicorn Project. 

Many organizations trying to transform into digital and elite companies face similar challenges. 

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

My Book Highlights & Quotes

“… 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…”

“… 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…”

“… 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 shared by The Unicorn Project.

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