It’s been nearly seven years since The Phoenix Project made The Three Ways a regular topic of Tech conversation. These days most tech companies are at least aware of, and hopefully embracing Systems Thinking, fast feedback loops, and learning cultures to deliver value to the customers. 

In his new book The Unicorn Project, Gene Kim revisits the fictional company “Parts Unlimited” to explain the five ideals of Locality and Simplicity; Focus, Flow and Joy; Improvement of Daily Work; Psychological Safety; and Customer Focus. For anyone looking for, or undergoing a digital transformation these five ideals will be very familiar. Just like with The Phoenix Project, The Unicorn Project excels not from introducing radical ideas but in helping to highlight a path through the chaos. 

The Unicorn Project is set at the same time as The Phoenix Project and follows Maxine and a “Rebellion” team as they battle to break team dependencies, and operational silos to allow teams to deliver customer value, fast. For many people working in tech the description of discovering valuable customer features hidden in Jira backlogs and having to raise tickets with multiple different teams to access code, environments, and even to release will be painfully familiar. I loved seeing enjoyment and job satisfaction getting so much focus, Kim did a great job of capturing the levels of frustration that poor build and deployment setups can bring.  

Following a fictional team in a fictional company gives great creative licence and allows many of the most painfully secret Tech practices to be included and resolved. Not everyone will love the fable style of storytelling but I think it’s a powerful way to share the darker side of many tech teams; we see the power struggles that can play out, and the resistance to change surfaced. In one section the “Rebellion” team accidentally cause a Production Incident as they work to build an independent release pipeline. These are the realities of many tech teams but are rarely covered in real experience reports.

On the flip side the fictional storytelling does lead to some fairly incredible situations. Firstly the timeframes, whilst I know that developers only needing days, or sometimes hours to solve the trickiest of problems is useful to keep the story moving, it is incredibly unlikely that any company would manage to solve so many issues with this level of ease. Secondly Parts Unlimited seems to have somehow hired, and retained, a huge number of talented people, all of whom have been sitting waiting for this opportunity to come along. Again I know this helps keep things moving along nicely but anyone going through even a fraction of these issues needs to prepare themselves for at least a few months of code and platform wrangling. 

Despite this the story is engaging and does a great job of following the team as they fix things, step by step. In the real world dependencies, data needs, security, and more can end up becoming so entangled that it’s difficult to see a way out. In The Unicorn Project we get to see the whole messy, uncertain path to fixing things. It shows that things do go wrong, people lose trust, and maybe you make the wrong decisions along the way. Despite this by working together, and having a really clear end goal you can make a huge impact on your job, and on the company.

In conclusion I’d say that The Unicorn Project does a fantastic job of covering many of the current tech challenges. Anyone working in tech should read this book and either celebrate that they don’t have to work in an environment like this, or be encouraged, and inspired, to see how much different an individual can have. Now go and find your own Rebellion.

Full disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of The Unicorn Project in exchange for a review. All views are my own. 

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