Book Review of The Phoenix Project:

The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win belongs to that rare category of books: a business novel. It’s written as fiction but it teaches us something serious. The most well known book in this category is The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. The Goal is a long-term best selling business book and required reading for nearly every MBA student for the last twenty-five years.

What The Goal did for lean manufacturing, The Phoenix Project will do for managing IT.

Bill Palmer is the reluctant protagonist who is thrust into managing IT Operations. He inherits a world of hurt: new business innovation projects are so far behind that the corporation’s ability to remain competitive is threatened; standard business functions like payroll, data storage, and point of sale systems suffer from recurrent outages like lights flickering during a storm; and the whole IT organization is so buried firefighting that critical maintenance is neglected.

I immediately resonated with the situation. In fact, if you work in a business of any size, in IT or not, you’ll quickly find similarities.

In my day job, over the years I’ve found myself wondering why small startups can outcompete two hundred person strong development teams, why certain deployments are multi-day affairs that nearly always fail, why we must wait months for to release software, why the releases that do get to the light of day are nearly always missing key features, and why we seem incapable of fixing bugs so awful that we drive our customers away.

In The Phoenix Project, the protagonist Bill Palmer encounters all of this and more. It’s written as a fast-paced business thriller (I couldn’t put it down and spent much of Christmas day hiding from my kids to read -- in fact, once I hit the halfway point, I literally did not stop reading it except for bathroom breaks.) But it’s also a serious business book about managing IT.

Through an enigmatic board member, Bill is forced to question his assumptions about IT. What is the role of IT Operations, and even all of IT? What are the four kinds of work that IT must do? What’s the silent killer of all planned work? What does the business need?

Through comparisons with how work is managed in a factory and examples from The Goal, authors Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford show how the time tested techniques of lean manufacturing (also the Toyota Production System) apply to IT work. By applying these principles, Bill Palmer is able to:

  • speed up the time it takes from implementation to deployment by reducing work in progress
  • increase the amount of useful work completed by reducing dependencies on key resource bottlenecks, whether those are people, hardware, or systems
  • reduce outages by addressing technical debt on fragile IT systems (such as old databases, tricky routers, etc.)
  • increase the IT contribution to the business by gaining a better understand of the business requirements, and focusing effort on those features that make the largest beneficial impact to the business.

One of the authors, Gene Kim, is the original creator of Tripwire, a widely used tool for managing IT changes; cofounder of the company by the same name; and author of The Visible Ops Handbook. I’ve seen him give talks on these concepts to a packed audience and receive a standing ovation.

For years, I’ve wanted to be able to bring these ideas back to my company because I’m convinced we could be ten or a hundred times more effective and delight our customers if only we could overcome our IT dysfunctions.

I’m thrilled to see them now in written form. If there was one book I’d want every employee of my company to read, it would be this one. You can get The Phoenix Project in kindle or hardcopy.
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