Friday, March 8, 2013

Book Review: The Phoenix Project

Everyone who attended the “Rugged Devops” panel at RSA this year received a free copy of The Phoenix Project (by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford – the authors of Visible Ops), the fictional story of the education and transformation of an IT manager, an IT organization, and eventually of an entire company.

I'm not sure why they wrote the Phoenix Project as a novel. But they did. So I’ll review it first as a piece of story telling, and then look at the messaging inside.

The reason that I don’t like didactic fiction is that so much of it is so poorly written – generally forced and artificial. I was pleasantly surprised by the Phoenix Project. The first half of the novel tells a story about an IT manager forced into taking on responsibility for saving his company. Our well-meaning hero, an ex-marine sergeant (for some reason unclear to me, the hero, the CEO, and even the mysterious guru all have a military background) with an MBA but without any ambition except to quietly provide for his family. He has been successfully running his own little part of the IT group, so successfully that he is dramatically promoted to take over all of IT operations (and so successfully that his own group is never mentioned again in the story – it seems to run on auto-pilot without him). For a successful manager, our hero knows alarmingly little about how the rest of the IT organization works, or about the business, and so is unprepared for his new responsibility. He reluctantly accepts the big job, and then regrets it immediately as he realizes what a shit storm he has walked into.

It’s a compelling narrative that draws you in and is seems realistic even with the stock characters: the sociopathic SOB CEO, the unpopular everything-by-the-book CISO, the Software Development Manager who only cares about hitting deadlines (but not about delivering software that works), the Machiavellian Marketing executive, and the autistic genius that the entire IT organization of several hundred people all depend on to get all the important stuff done or fixed.

As a pure piece of story telling, things start to unravel in the second half with the emergence of the IT / Lean Manufacturing guru – when the story ends and the devops fable begins. From this point on, the plot depends on several miraculous conversions: everyone except the marketing exec sees the light and literally transform overnight. They even start to groom themselves nicely and dress better. Lifetime friendships are made over a few drinks, and everyone learns to trust and share: there’s a particularly cringe-inducing management meeting in which people bare their souls and weep. Conflicts and problems disappear magically usually because of the guru’s intervention – including an unnecessary scene where the guru shows up at a crucial audit meeting and helps convince the partner of the audit firm (an old buddy of his) that there aren't any real problems with the company’s messed up IT controls (“these aren't the droids you’re looking for”).

But the real heroes are the people running the manufacturing group: the one part of this spectacularly mismanaged company that somehow functions perfectly is a manufacturing plant where everyone can all go to learn about Kanban and Lean process management and so on. Without the help of the smug and smart-alecky guru - who apparently helped create this manufacturing success - and his tiresome Zen master teaching approach (and sometimes even with his help), our hero is unable to understand what’s wrong or what to do about it. He doesn't understand anything about demand management, how to schedule and prioritize project work, that firefighting is actual work, how to get out of firefighting mode, how to recognize and manage bottlenecks in workflow, or even how important it is to align IT with business priorities (where did he get that MBA any ways?). Luckily, the factory is right there for him learn from, if he only opens his eyes and mind.

What will you learn from The Phoenix Project?

The other problem with this story telling approach is that it takes so damn long to get to the point – it’s a 338 page book with about 50 pages of meat. Like Goldratt's The Goal (which is referenced a couple of times in this book), The Phoenix Project leads the reader to understanding through a kind of detective story. You have to be patient and watch as the hero stumbles and goes down blind alleys and ignores obvious clues and only with help eventually figures out the answers. Unfortunately, I'm not a patient reader.

This is a gentle introduction to Lean IT and devops. If you've read anything on Kanban and devops you won’t find anything surprising, although the authors do a good job of explaining how Lean manufacturing concepts can be applied to managing IT work. The ideas covered in the book are standard Lean and Theory of Constraints stuff, with a little of David Anderson’s Kanban and some devops – especially Continuous Deployment as originally described by John Allspaw and Continuous Delivery.

The guru’s lessons are mostly about visualizing and understanding and limiting demand – that you should stop taking on more work until you can get things actually working so that you’re not spending all of your time task-switching and firefighting; identifying workflow bottlenecks and protecting or optimizing around them; how reducing batch size in development will improve control and to get faster feedback; that in order to do this you have to work on simplifying and standardizing deployment; and how valuable it is to get developers and operations to work together.

My complaints aren't with the ideas – I buy into a lot of Devops and agree that Kanban and Lean have a lot to offer to IT ops and support teams (although I'm not sold on Kanban by itself for development, certainly not at scale). But I was disappointed with the unrealistic turnaround in the second half of the book. It’s all rainbows and unicorns at the end. IT, the business, development and security all start working together seamlessly. Management is completely aligned. Performance problems? No problem – just go the Cloud. And they even bring in the famous Chaos Monkey in the last couple of pages just because.

Spoiler Art: Everything goes so well in a few months that the company is back on track, plans to outsource IT and to break up the company are cancelled, the selfish head of marketing is canned, and our hero is promoted to CIO and put on the fast track to corporate second in command. Sorry: nothing this bad gets that good that easily. It is a fable after all, and too hard to swallow.

The Phoenix Project is a unique book – when was the last time that you read an actual novel about IT management?! It was worth reading, and if it introduces devops and Lean ideas to more people in IT, The Phoenix Project will have accomplished something useful. But it’s not a book that you can use to get things done. There are lessons and recipes and patterns but they take work to pull out of the story. There’s no index, no good way to go back to find things that you thought were useful or interesting. So I am looking forward to the Devops Cookbook: something practical that hopefully explains how these ideas can work in businesses that don’t look all like Facebook and Twitter.

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