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Today, I’m going to tell the story of parts unlimited parts. Parts Unimited is a fictional company described in two different books. The first is the Phoenix project published in 2013. And the second is the Unicorn Project published in 2019. Both books are published by ITRevolution press.
This is the company behind the DevOps Handbook, Accelerate, and a bunch of other books sort of in this theme of, you know, software delivery, business performance, operations, all this kind of stuff.
First off spoilers ahead for these two books, I’m going to just talk about everything that happens. These are fictional books written for software professionals and people who work in IT. They chronicle the story of different people involved in these organizations and the challenges and things they have to overcome and what they do and how they react to situations, how they handle problems, this type of stuff.
So let’s begin with some context here. So parts unlimited is a auto parts company. You can think of them like O’Reilly, Napa. They are definitely an established business. They’ve been around for decades and they are trying to come into the so-called digital world, trying to compete with, other companies that have better online experiences, you know, all this right? They’re, kind of a representation of a old incumbent player who needs to adopt a new ways of working and thinking, kind of becoming what we now call a technology first company to compete in today’s market.
Both books begin at the same point, but cover different characters in the same story. So the first book, the Phoenix project covers the story from an ops perspective. And the second book, the unicorn project covers the story from a development perspective.
They start in the same place. Parts Unlimited has just experienced a huge production outage, a huge issue that has resulted in, messed up billing, firings, really, really bad stuff. That kind of thing that just makes you at least made me grimace and think, Oh my God, I never want to work in a place like this. And, luckily I haven’t, but fingers crossed that it never happens.
There’s a few main characters in these books. The first character is Bill. Bill is the reluctant a CTO who gets promoted after these firings and ultimately is in charge of righting the ship.
And the second book you have Maxine. Maxine is a developer who is kind of an avatar for what we would consider a, you know, pretty good software developer who has experienced different ways of working knows what works knows what doesn’t, you know, does things like automated testing, continuous delivery, blah, blah. After this shakeup, she gets relegated to work on what is called the Phoenix project.
So the Phoenix project is a code name for then if the next generation system of Parts Unlimited. No surprised this project is years delayed and drastically over budget, but the company–of course–is betting their future on this project. As the project gets delayed more and more, it only gets delayed longer because of–well, you know, what happens to projects that go on for a long time and never ship?
Well, the scope gets bigger. Requirements change. Things happen to continually push back the project. As a result releases take longer. They become more difficult. Things are more likely to break more negative consequences, yadda yadda, yadda, this whole, negative feedback loop of the opposite of short delivery cycles or working in small batches.
That’s Bill and Maxine, the two main characters from the different books and the characters are shared across these two stories. So if you read one or read the other, you’ll see these people show up in different ways.
One of the other main characters is Eric. He’s actually my favorite character. He’s kind of this, mysterious sensei type character. In my mind, I kind of thought of him or at least the way he was portrayed as some of these kind of California type hippies with long hair; driving convertibles, living in Santa Cruz, surfing, you know, just sort of like, ah, kind of out there, but knows what he’s talking about. They call him a sensei and he refers, refers to other people he’s learned from as the sensei’s as well.
So he guides Bill and Maxine in the two different books to different objectives. So in the Phoenix Project Bill guides, Eric through what we now call the three ways of DevOps. In Unicorn Project Eric and others guide Maxine into uncovering the five ideals which we’ll get into later.
Brent is the engineer who is totally overloaded because he works in a lot of different areas. He knows a lot of stuff and unfortunately many different things have to go through Brent because he’s the only one who knows how to do it or really the only one who can get it done. He’s a bottleneck in the process for sure.
You have John who is the annoying security engineer. Who’s always trying to stop releases and inject requirements at the end of the process that you know–in the Phoenix project they make no bones about it. They do not like John at all.
It’s really interesting to see the transformation in John, as he realizes how much of a problem he is and that the way that he is trying to approach his goal of improving information security is having the exact opposite approach. And as a result, people just avoid him and take, just, don’t take him seriously.
You also have the classic executive infighting of executives and project planners are kind of the bureaucracy of people who want this, or don’t want that. And. The people who are trying to provide cover two different teams or empower different things in the organization. But there is the point that these executives who represent the cross purposes in leadership and that’s a problem.
One other main character is Kurt. Kurt is a pretty smart–what was he called, a QA engineer. He plays a big role in both of the books as a powerful force for getting things done.
The real story of these two books is the Phoenix project. So as I mentioned earlier, the Phoenix Project is code name for the the next generation version of the system. That they’re going to release. In order to really get out of the swamp that they’re in, they need to drastically change the ways of working.
And both these books, like I said, cover the transformation inside the company to move away from –for want of a better term–waterfall development and months or years long cycles. They adopt things like, well, the first way of DevOps, so continuous delivery, the second way of DevOps feedback. So using information and telemetry to make empirical decisions about what’s happening. And then the third way of DevOps experimentation and learning along with the continuous improvement to get into this virtuous feedback loop.
That’s pretty much the whole story.
So in this fictional thing, you have Parts Unlimited who is in a horrible place in the beginning–and I’ve really mean horrible. If you read this book or any of these books, you’ll think, Oh my God, I don’t want to be involved in anything like this.
Then surprise, surprise. They adopt DevOps and do these things. Things start to go well. Everybody’s happy at the end. The Phoenix project is released. People get promotions. Everything is good. So major success.
The Pheonix Project
Now let’s move on to the different high-level theories introduced in both these books. So the Phoenix Project introduces the Three Ways of DevOps. It actually came out before the DevOps Handbook. I think DevOps Handbook was published a few years later. So in the Phoenix project Bill uncovers the Three Ways of DevOps guided by Eric. Eric is the experienced leader who has seen these things in practice.
Eric takes Bill through the progression of lean manufacturing into DevOps, right? DevOps was certainly inspired by lean manufacturing. In the book actually. This is probably one of my favorite parts about the Phoenix Project is that Eric takes bill on gemba walks.
Gemba walk is concept from Toyota, where you go to the factory, you see what’s happening. You watch how the work happens and observe and learn from that.
This is a real life forum to see how things work or how they don’t. Eric uses this as a training session to introduce things like the theory of constraints to Bill to help him understand that Brent, remember that Brent is this overloaded engineer that everything has to go through.
So, if you imagine you’re looking at a factory and you see an assembly line, if there’s a bottleneck where everything in the factory has to go through this one choke point at that choke point is overloaded, then. All the other things in this factory now have to wait on that.
That’s an example of Eric teaching bill how Brent is a bottleneck and that’s probably one of the first things that he should work on improving in the organization.
Eric shows Bill the Three Ways of DevOps through all these exercises and Sort of leaving him just dead in the water sometimes when he has questions, letting him figure out how to sink or swim for himself.
That’s the Phoenix Project and the Three Ways of DevOps: flow, feedback, and learning. We’ll cover them a lot on the show. So I’m not really gonna repeat them here. Just go to smallbatches.fm to find the first three or four episodes of this podcast cover these things in depth.
The Unicorn Project
Next the unicorn project which is told from Maxine’s perspective.
Maxine is the great developer. She’s relegated into the Phoenix project at the beginning of the Unicorn Project. The Unicorn Project is effectively a code name for taking the Phoenix project And transforming it into a better version of itself.
This is where the idea the Unicorn Project comes from because it’s almost in their mind, like impossible that this project could actually be transformed and they could succeed. Hence the Unicorn Project.
Maxine was actually inspired by Michael Nygaard. If you don’t know who Michael Nygard is, he’s a pretty awesome guy. He wrote Release it! the first edition and now the second edition, which is a great book. Great book. You can go to my website to Hawkins IO to find a review and summary of Release It!
If you haven’t read it, then please do. It’s great. It totally changed the way I thought about operations and releaseability. It’s just great. So do check it out if you haven’t. The second edition is I think released.one or two years ago; but it’s new, covers all the stuff from the original book and it introduces some more stuff like chaos engineering.
Plus, it’s really fun to read. I don’t know about you, but when I read some of these tech books, they’re dry, you know, they’re just talking about ideas, but the way that Michael writes, he adds just so much life into the text. Like you can feel that this guy is with you. You’re like having a beer with him. He’s telling you these stories. It’s just actually fun to read and that’s rare in tech books.
Back to the Unicorn Project. Let me pull up my notes here and tell you the progression, like sort of the outline for what happens in The Unicorn Project.
First Maxine is exiled to the Pheonix Project as the scapegoat for the payroll outage. Well scapegoat. Immediate red flag that they had this whole organizational shakeup, and they had to put the blame on somebody. Of course, Maxine didn’t do anything about this, but they needed somebody to blame. They blame Maxine. They relegate her to the dustbin of the organization, which is the Phoenix project.
And when Maxine gets there, she can’t believe the ghetto that she finds herself in: months to get a working environment on her laptop; there’s hundreds of tickets filed and so much bureaucracy to get anything done like getting a test environment or deploying a change to production.
Now bear in mind that Maxine is coming from a previous working environment where all this is at the opposite. Now she was able to clone code, start working on her machine, start making immediate changes. Now she’s stuck on the Phoenix project, which is just months.
Actually, if I think I remember correctly in the book. Have this internal dialogue with Maxine where she has just really frustrated, really sad and practically, probably borderline depressed about the whole situation. Like she wants to quit and overall just really not a good thing.
The thing about Maxine is that she is not happy with the status quo. That’s a good thing. So she wants to do something about it. She knows that there’s a better way to work. So she starts this, what they call a rebellion in the company.
So what she does is she gets a bunch of people together that are aligned to her cause and they meet at this place called the dock side bar after work, where they go and talk about whatever happens, what to do and all these types of things and figure out ways to bring more people into their cause and continue to expand this rebellion in the organization.
And their goal at the rebellion is to effectively apply DevOps to the unicorn project. So Kurt, I mentioned earlier, he’s kind of QA manager, he’s part of this rebellion and there’s an internal shakeup that allows Kurt to get his own team.
Now bear in mind that this is a hidden rebellion. People don’t know that it’s happening. So. Kurt gets his team and he uses that as organizational cover to just ignore the status quo, get things done, and allow his team to work in whatever way is the best way possible to deliver whatever they need to do.
One of the things I like about Kurt and this part of the Unicorn Project is it doesn’t really tell what he does, but he’s a stand in for the manager or the person kind of higher up in the organization and knows how to play the politics effectively. Just to make sure that his team is isolated from whatever politics and other things that are going on that may inhibit them, such that they can just work effectively.
So once they have this organizational cover. They start doing things like making continuous integration, automated environment provisioning and automated deployments.
They, being Parts Unlimited, are in a time crunch for getting the Phoenix project out the door because you know, they’re losing money and this thing eventually has to ship at some point.
They use this to cut through a lot of the red tape required to launch a successful black Friday promotion that demonstrates the business value of this new way of working. And they pull this whole thing off. It’s a wild success. Everybody is happy. Maxine is promoted to a position of distinguished engineer with a job description of effectively what she basically did throughout the book.
Cut to black.
The Five Ideals
Throughout this whole process she discovers what is called the five ideals.
Let me just read off these five ideals to you.
The first one is locality and simplicity. The idea here is that you shouldn’t have to load up a huge amount of global things to make a small pointed change.
So, again, coming back to Maxine who was previously working in a better environment than she got into, she was able to have a code on her machine, work with it, make a change, test it. Get it out simple, right? Not having to provision N number of huge things and wait for all this, but just be able to focus on local and small changes.
The next one, number two: focus, flow, and joy. This to me is the first way of DevOps. Actually it was continuous delivery. That developers should be able to enter the so-called flow state where they’re able to work through a problem, focus on it, and work it in a way that makes them happy. Key thing, being happy.
If you’ve worked in an organization. Where the work you do is soul sucking or, just takes a long time, or you just think to yourself, man, I do not want to do this. This just sucks. Well, let’s avoid that. Right? Let’s create systems in a ways of working that actually bring joy into people’s work. This is what continuous delivery has been proven to do.
They mentioned in Accelerate that continuous delivery is a direct contributor to employee happiness and satisfaction.
Alright. Number three: improvement of the daily work. Okay. If you’ve read, Mike Rother’s Toyota kata. You know that what I’m getting at with this one. The idea here is that we make the improvement of the daily work, the daily work.
So I think this is episode. Episode four of small batches, so smallbatches.fm/4, to learn more about the Toyota kata and improvement of the daily work.
Ideal four: psychological safety. This is a new one for me in that the first three, I think are, related to DevOps and. You know, DevOps handbook accelerate, all that.
Psychological safety is the idea that people should feel safe in their work, like secure in the sense that they don’t have to worry about being fired for making a mistake or shipping some bug to production; Or that the work that they do is not going to create issues.
So bringing us back to the beginning of both The Unicorn Project and Phoenix Project: horrible, right? Somebody, some poor soul made a mistake. We’ve all made mistakes. I’ve shipped a plenty of bugs to production that have had negative consequences. I certainly wouldn’t want to be fired over that, but that’s what happens at Parts Unlimited. That’s one factor of this is that you shouldn’t have to worry about huge negative ramifications from the things that are bound to happen to every person who works in software.
And that we have to also build tools that promote a safety, like building automated testing into the deployment pipelines. Such that we don’t ship regressions into production or we’re confident that the code or the change in question is not going to break production in any known way.
If developers feel safe to make changes, they’re more likely to make changes. If they’re more likely to make changes and more likely to deliver on the business outcomes you’re trying to achieve.
Next the fifth and final one is customer focus. In the unicorn project and the Phoenix project the employees have to go to one of the physical store storefronts, right? Actual brick and mortar place where the company. Sells parts to the customer in exchange for money. Right? This was definitely different from working in a purely online business.
In the Phoenix project, I think Bill goes there and gets a feel for the current system, like the like sales system, these things that are running in the terminals in the stores. Get a feel for the problems of the employees and what the Phoenix project actually needs to do to improve the workflow for these frontline employees.
And same thing in the unicorn project, Maxine goes to storefront and sees what’s happening with the software that she’s responsible for and how that interacts or how that interplays with the frontline employees and the end customers.
The idea behind the fifth ideal is that the developers should have focus on the customer. So they can see that the work that they’re doing is having impact on the end users of this whole system.
That’s the five ideals.
After I read the Unicorn Project, I started to think that, well, there’s actually a three or four, five out of a ladder here. If you think of these things in sequence, you’ll see how they all play together.
So when I say three or four or five, I mean the three ways of DevOps: Flow, Feedback, and Learning; the four metrics of software delivery performance: deployment frequency, lead time, meantime to resolve, and change failure rate; then the five ideals: locality, simplicity, focus, flow, joy, improvement of the daily work, psychological safety, and customer focus. So if you put these three different things together, you have a good picture of how to think about this problem? It’s just a good framing.
I want to wrap up this episode by giving you some of my thoughts on these two books.
First of all, I much prefer the Phoenix Project. I think that one was much more fun to read and much more interesting. Seeing things from Bill’s perspective–this is the CTO, the manager type person–this was far more interesting to me was this was new territory. I also think of the writing was better. It was just more fun.
The unicorn project. Eh; I think you pass on it. You see some infographic or some blog posts about the five ideals any pretty much got the whole thing.
So take it from the other perspective. Let’s say that you’re a manager and you associate yourself more with Bill and you don’t really know about how developers think. Then reading Unicorn Project would be more interesting than reading the Pheonix Project. So now you can decide based on what your role is which one might make more sense to you; but I could pass on the Unicorn Project. I think that the Phoenix project is just more fun. And. Frankly, the content of the Unicorn Project was just more obvious to me.
Who Should Read These Books?
So who should read these books? Since you’re listening to this podcast, you don’t need to read these books anymore. Cause I think I’ve given you all the information that you need to know. However, you can recommend these books to your colleagues.
If you are interested in that from a fictional perspective Like, if you don’t want to read, say the DevOps Handbook or Accelerate, you like reading stories, you can read both these books and get the high level picture and then fill it in with more information by listening to podcasts like this one or reading the books or reading blog posts, whatever.
So recommending the Unicorn Project to managers or recommending the Phoenix Project to more technical types, more engineers that you may know.
All right. I think that’s enough for this episode. We’ve covered the unicorn project the Phoenix project,the story of Parts Unlimited and their transformation of adopting DevOps principles, and saving the Phoenix project going from unprofitable, horrible place to work, to a happy place to work that’s making money; and the five ideals and the three ways of DevOps.
If you want to learn more about these books then head to smallbatches.fm for links. Also there’s plenty of blog posts written in depth analysis on both these books, YouTube videos and all that.
That’s a wrap on this one. I’ll see you again for the next episode. It will be a special interview. So thank you for listening. See you later.