Recommended IT Reading: The Phoenix Project

Beyond Agile development, The Phoenix Project is an entertaining narrative about a new way of working in IT called DevOps. The book contains a great deal of dramatic crises and conflicts, as well as humor. IT troubles and successes are exaggerated in this fictional account to make some important points. I found this book to be highly enjoyable, informative and quick reading. This book is recommended by Gartner Group as well as our very own Senior Director of Quality and Process Management, Gene Rogers.

In this IT novel, the main character (Bill Palmer) arrives at Parts Unlimited, to discover that his boss (the VP of Operations) and his boss's boss (the CIO) have left the company. The CEO wants to meet with Bill immediately. Bill is promoted to VP of Operations, and his quiet life as an IT middle manager ends abruptly, as he's thrust into a world of extreme daily stress and IT firefighting.

Bill meets a Yoda-like consultant, an IT and manufacturing guru (Erik), who guides his growth as an effective leader. Erik uses Parts Unlimited's manufacturing operation to illustrate the relatively invisible challenges of IT. Visualizations are used very effectively in the story. Bill's team implements a change management process with index cards on the wall that makes Work in Progress (WIP) visible. Later, deployment processes are mapped out, making bottlenecks, wait times and other process issues visible. Visualizations become opportunities for tactical and operational improvements.

Erik introduces the concept of technical debt. If an IT organization is performing well, tasks are developed with high quality and do not require rework. This reduces the IT work backlog; thus paying down the technical debt. Conversely, an IT organization which is not performing well generates downstream rework that becomes unplanned work. Unplanned work consumes resources from planned work that further drives quality downhill, creating a sort of death spiral.

There are themes (or "Ways") to the DevOps method. For example, increase the flow of work through development and IT operations. Another way involves mitigation of the biggest sources of unplanned work. This is done by focusing on the process constraint (or bottleneck). In this book, the developer Brett is their bottleneck: people from all over IT and the business are directing emergency (unplanned) work to his desk. He often loses track of the real business priorities.

Throughout the story, Brett is gradually redirected from firefighting to focus on strategic process improvements. Eventually Brett and an integrated team from development, operations and the business create highly automated IT deployment processes. This innovation yields dramatic improvements in the company's ability to execute strategic and marketing initiatives, accelerating the pace of innovation from years down to hours.

I would recommend this book to other IT professionals as an inspiring read and a fun way to learn new techniques for improving your work environment.

Full Citation: The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford, IT Revolution Press, 2013.