The CIO Reading List: The Phoenix Project

Last Published: Dec 23, 2021 |
Graham Thompson
Graham Thompson

The latest book on our CIO Reading List is The Phoenix Project: a novel about IT, DevOps and Helping Your Business Win, by IT veterans Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford. It’s essentially about how to apply lean manufacturing processes to IT operations — but told in a creative, entertaining way. It follows a newly promoted, and immediately overwhelmed, VP of IT Operations at the fictional Parts Unlimited, a nationwide auto parts manufacturer and retailer with a turnover of $4 billion.

The CIO Reading List[/caption] The inspiration for the book was Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt's seminal 1984 book, “The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement.” That book follows Alex Rogo, a plant manager who must fix his cost and due date issues in 90 days or his plant will be shut down. Goldratt’s book has been incorporated into many MBA curriculums and has influenced multiple generations of business leaders. And despite the DevOps reference in the title, breaking the divide between dev and ops is really just a small part of the overall cultural shift the book puts forward. The book addresses the divide between security compliance and IT, between dev and QA, between marketing and IT, and finally the divide between business goals and IT delivery.

A million fires to put out

The book opens with Bill Palmer’s baptism of fire. Both Palmer’s boss, the VP of Operations, and the CIO were fired overnight — and now Bill is the new VP-Ops. Barely minutes into his promotion, a crisis breaks out as a serious system glitch threatens the upcoming payroll run. As Bill scrambles to track down the problem and fix it, it feels a bit like watching Jack Bauer race the clock in 24. And the action never lets up. The book really captures the frenetic environment of the IT department of a large organization. Every day brings a new challenge as priorities are bumped to attend to the most pressing problems, inter-tribal warfare breaks out and system thinking is replaced by local optimization. At the same time, Bill has inherited responsibility for the Phoenix Project, a hugely ambitious IT program that the firm is pinning its hopes on. They’re being “killed by the competition” and Phoenix is essential to closing the gap — connecting their retail and Internet operations to allow a seamless customer experience. But it’s already two years late, and has swallowed up $20 million. The Phoenix Project is very realistic, with an entertaining cast of characters that many CIOs will recognize—including Sarah, the SVP of Operations, who wants Phoenix available ASAP even if it’s not ready (“Perfection is the enemy of the good!”) and Chris, VP of Development (“From the very beginning, we all knew that this was a date-driven project.”) — to say nothing of Brent, the one developer who’s so good, he’s always indispensable but hopelessly backlogged (“Every time we let Brent fix something that none of us can replicate, Brent gets a little smarter, and the entire system gets dumber.”). I challenge you to read the book without substituting Brent and Sarah’s names for real people in your company — we all have them!

The DevOps vision

The basic problem with Parts Unlimited is one you’ll be familiar with: the ongoing conflict between Development and Operations over how to deploy constant production changes without compromising quality or disrupting business. And in trying to solve that problem, Bill encounters a wise guru, a sort of Obi-Wan Kenobi who points him toward solutions to his IT bottlenecks. The book expands the DevOps notion of Dev and Ops collaboration to include also business, marketing, QA and security teams, all working together to enable quick business decisions and implementation. It demonstrates that a DevOps approach is essential to solving this conflict, ensuring that everybody works together to help each other and reach the organization’s goals. DevOps makes companies more agile and gives them a significant competitive advantage — but it’s a major shift in mindset and the novel captures that perfectly.

Going with the flow

And that’s where a key question is answered, in a section entitled “Why do DevOps?” Because, the authors say, “technology has become the dominant value creation process and an increasingly important (and often the primary) means of customer acquisition within most organizations.” The Phoenix Project is a novel that first describes the problems that almost every IT organization is faced with, and then shows the practices of how to solve the problems, improves the lives of those who work in IT and be recognized for helping the business win. I think you’ll find The Phoenix Project a great read, as I did, with many moments of recognition that’ll bring a smile to your face. It’s not only a memorable story, it has valuable insights and practical advice that we’ll all use way more often than any of us will admit. And if you enjoy it, be sure to check out The DevOps Handbook, also by Gene Kim.

First Published: Nov 01, 2017