The Phoenix Project had great ideas.

This is an amazing book that reflects upon many of the problems software development organizations face on a daily basis. The story starts with a mid-level manager in a moderately large manufacturing company as he is suddenly promoted to head up IT operations. The previous head and the CIO were suddenly separated from the company; it’s not made clear if they left the burning ship of their own accord or were pushed out. The organization is in a massive death spiral. Technical debt is massive; there are no IT controls, and the number of change requests is in the hundreds. Managers are purely reactive and respond to whoever screams the loudest. It’s pretty horrible.

The first several chapters of this story demonstrate these problems in gory detail. It really feels like a horror story. Perhaps I had that unpleasant reaction because many of the issues described were so similar to the problems I have seen at several real companies. The political backstabbing, the shadow IT, the marketing people who feel free to disobey the rules, the people who go around other’s backs, the blame games… all of these I have seen at several real companies. Heck, one really good reason to work at small startups is that they haven’t gotten big enough to encounter these problems yet. The plot turns were so horrifying that I almost didn’t make it through the book.

Thankfully, the hero of the story, the new head of IT operations, starts to make a few smart decisions and changes processes for the better. It’s slow going, but he eventually starts to right the ship. He’s assisted by the “wise old teacher” character, who, aside from being a bit of a cliche, is fascinating to watch. Basically, he takes the lessons from manufacturing and helps the hero apply them to IT operations. Things like the Toyota Production System, Kanban, Lean, the Theory of Constraints, and many more.

Now, the problems in the book get resolved much too quickly to reflect reality, but the lessons learned from the various techniques are quite valid. They will make a big difference and can be applied to many organizations. As such, I highly recommend this book for IT operations and software engineering managers everywhere.

One of the biggest ideas in the story is that it is critical to model the workflow and identify the constraint. Modeling the workflow is also the first key point of Kanban, and Kanban’s ideas weigh in heavily in the book. Here, though, it is merged with the lesson from the Theory of Constraints: any improvement to the workflow that doesn’t improve the constraint is an illusion and a waste of time and resources.

There were many other important ideas, as well. Such as:

  • the importance of establishing metrics
  • identifying the various different types of work and allocating resources for each
  • reducing WIP, less multitasking (also from Kanban)
  • reducing cycle times and wait times (also from Kanban)
  • faster, smaller releases
  • automating parts of the integration and deployment processes
  • avoiding speculative code (YAGNI)

In addition, the sage in the book pushes the idea of the “Three Ways”. The first way is all about maximizing flow. The second way is about improving feedback, including alerts and metrics. The third way is about continuous improvement, which means applying 20% of resources towards nonfunctional improvements.

The book also spent a lot of time educating the reader on the four types of work. It identifies these as: 1) business projects, 2) IT projects, 3) changes, and 4) unplanned work (bugs and support issues). Only when all four are properly being tracked does the organization fully account for the use of resources.

Another lesson taught in the book was that much of the work in traditional IT Audits is a waste of time. This is a strange lesson, as finding material weaknesses is critical to system security. Perhaps the key thing here is that if an excessive effort is wasted on findings of low value instead of items that will increase business value, the result will be suboptimal.

Finally, things really don’t start turning for the better until the hero and his partners start interviewing the business unit owners. As part of the new focus on delivering business value, the goals change, and for the better. Also, the business unit leaders switch from being complainers to being champions, which is crucial towards getting their buy-in for the significant changes.

Overall, this book had an amazing amount of good ideas to offer. Also, it framed it in an exciting, compelling story. I highly recommend this book.

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