My Review of “The Unicorn Project”: Lessons in Common Sense

Cover of The Unicorn Project.

I have read both The Phoenix Project and just finished The Unicorn Project. If you have never heard of these books, I highly recommend both. I will give you the “without spoilers” review part first and warn you once I switch to the spoiler parts . . .

I must warn you that this review has some smugness, which, I should like to hope, is something you rarely experience from this blogger. There seems no humble way of expressing myself here: I have drunkenly hacked away at this post for three days and I am currently on about the 19th draft I have attempted. So, I hope you’ll forgive me for some brief moments of candor, 6 followers of my blog.

Here’s my advice about these books without giving you any spoilers:

If you read the first 5 chapters of these books and know how to specifically resolve the problems presented there, then there is no reason for you to read the rest of their pages. Reading them to completion will just confirm everything you already know. The books strike me as extremely common-sensical and the guidelines there are essentially some iteration or version of the work that originated from the Continuous Improvement “OG” W. Edwards Deming, just simply applied to the processes of IT and . . . buzzword alert . . . “DevOps”.

My Process Efficiency Creds

Just so you know I am not just making this stuff up . . . fun fact about me: I got my Master’s Degree in Information Systems Management (MISM).

Not kidding. It was the first thing I got when I changed from humble schoolteacher to IT Technical Trainer at the turn of the century.

In that Master’s program, I inevitably bumped up against people who were getting their MBA’s and took classes that covered a lot of the MBA-adjacent topics. Stuff like Accounting . . . and . . . you know . . . whatever MBA’s study.

One class that I remember fondly was called, “Managing Organizational Change”. In that class, I learned about Deming and the work he did with the Japanese and their Manufacturing industry. His focus on “continuous improvement” spoke to me and has been a side-passion of mine throughout my career.

I read Deming’s book Out of the Crisis. There he talks about his 14 Points. You can see evidence of this in The Phoenix Project, and this is continued with more of a Dev-focus with The Unicorn Project.

Spoiler Alert: The Five Ideals

The author of The Unicorn Project, Gene Kim, emphasizes “The Five Ideals” (with a focus on Software Development):

  • The First Ideal – Locality and Simplicity (of code and resources).
  • The Second Ideal – Focus, Flow, and Joy (Side note, on the topic of “Flow,” I recommend this book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Fascinating stuff.).
  • The Third Ideal – Improvement of Daily Work.
  • The Fourth Ideal – Psychological Safety (A no-blame, no-retribution, non-punitive culture that rewards calculated risk-taking and sees experimentation and mistakes as something to learn from and improve).
  • The Fifth Ideal – Customer Focus.

These Five Ideals are detailed throughout the novel in what I would call a “Karate Kid”/storyline way, in that the characters and you, the reader, are presented with these lessons “when you are ready”.

These Five Ideals seem common-sensical to me, but, maybe I am overlooking something? Maybe I have been fortunate in my career to have worked (mostly) with people who inherently follow these five ideals?

I will say that I have not, to date, been a Developer. I would imagine there are some Devs out there who have been “doing it wrong,” or are made to watch other people “doing it wrong” and this book is a, “finally someone is saying it out loud!” phenomenon. I’ll concede that.

But, I really want to meet the person who reads this book and says without irony or sarcasm, “What? . . . . You mean we’re not supposed to have information silos? NO WAY! We’ve been doing it wrong this WHOLE TIME!”

Spoiler Alert: Some Criticisms

The book is, of course, not without its flaws. The usual gripe about each of these “Project” books is their format. They’re novels, and a lot of “brainiac logic types” don’t want to deal with stories.

But, two things:

  1. The format can be considered reminiscent of Eli Goldratt’s works. You know, the guy who came up with the Theory of Constraints? Yeah . . . that guy. Many of his works were in this storytelling format and I think the homage is purposeful.
  2. More importantly (and less nerdy): Consider the audience(s). This book is for Managers too, and you know how managers love a good story, right . . . something they can retell while hobnobbing with the muckety-mucks?

My biggest criticism is very specific: I couldn’t help but chuckle at the scene where Parts Unlimited was doing a second rollout of their code for their Black Friday sale. It was the scene were the code rollout wasn’t flawless, but everyone was “doing it right” because everyone was working transparently and in harmony as a team . . .

I found it hilarious how conveniently everyone knew the resolution to each problem that arose, like in those scenes of Law and Order SVU where each detective conveniently and all at the same time come back with the results of their little pieces of the investigation to keep the plot moving.

It rarely works that way. The usual first answer to, “. . . It’s not supposed to do that . . . Why is it doing that?” is overwhelmingly, “Uhhhh . . . no idea.” People usually have to “put their Engineering hats on,” to theorize and investigate. That usually takes time; sometimes it can be solved in seconds or minutes, but it’s usually longer.

But I get it, it’s an allegory. . . .

Spoiler Alert: One More Thing . . . and It’s Kind of Dark

Here’s one practical thing I will say about The Unicorn Project:

If you’re a manager at an Enterprise Organization, or even if you are a manager at a Small Business, there is a clarion call in our line of work. That clarion call is all about automation, efficiency, seamless access to data-driven decision-making tools, and all of those eye-rolling buzzwords like “DevOps” and “Infrastructure as Code”. You may not label your practices as such, but like it or hate it, cliché or not, the worlds of Dev and Ops are merging. And as the ending of The Unicorn Project seems to imply, try as you might, you will need to purge those who can’t adapt.

That’s easy for me to say . . . I am not a manager.

Hit me up on twitter @RussianLitGuy or email me at bryansullins@thinkingoutcloud.org. I would love to hear from you!

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