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The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project is a best-selling novel about DevOps. The book's characters reveal through their actions why it's so important for organizations to put security first and tear down the silos that have traditionally existed between development and operations teams. The Phoenix Project’s subtitle is "A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win." The book, which was written collaboratively by Gene Kim, George Spafford and Kevin Behr, is widely regarded as the DevOps "bible." 

Apart from being a rare genre of literature (a work of fiction about IT), The Phoenix Project is often used as a guide for helping IT managers change the way employees think about the way they plan, schedule and complete work. The book introduces concrete strategies for building a DevOps culture to improve organizational agility and shares technical information in a way that's very easy to understand. A downloadable PDF excerpt from the book  is available from the publisher, IT Revolution Press. 

The Phoenix Project was inspired by Eliyahu M. Goldratt's seminal business book, "The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement." Like The Phoenix Project, The Goal also uses a narrative approach. Both books teach the reader about the importance of breaking down silos at the organizational level in order to identify and manage constraints that negatively affect production. Both books also teach the value of building collaborative corporate cultures and use relatable characters to illustrate why fostering a blameless organizational culture is so important.

Plot

The protagonist of The Phoenix Project is Bill Palmer, the director of IT operations for a large auto parts company that has both manufacturing and retail business divisions. When the company's stock suddenly goes down, Bill finds himself promoted to Vice President of Operations and is tasked with rolling out an important business initiative called the Phoenix Project.

Historically, a phoenix is a creature from Greek mythology that is commonly used as a metaphor for rebirth. In this book, the Phoenix is a complicated waterfall software development project that is viewed as a major 'project management fail' by the press. 

Bill is tasked with moving the project out of development and into production in a matter of weeks. When Bill takes over, it's with the knowledge that if the Phoenix release is not successful, there's a strong chance the company will be split up and the IT department's work will be outsourced.

Book review

The Phoenix Project has reached #1 bestseller in its related categories on Amazon several times over the years. The novel has appeared in countless What Corporate America is Reading lists since its release and has been called a must-read for anyone working in IT.

The Phoenix Project, Anniversary Edition

The book's novel format (pun intended) allows rather dry information to be explained in context through character-driven conversations. While the strategies Bill's team learns for managing change are useful, it's really the interpersonal conflicts in the book that keep the reader's interest.

Readers will recognize a lot of the imaginary characters in the book from their real-life workplace counterparts. That's part of what makes this book so fun to read. 

Over the years, the Phoenix Project has received criticism for being a fairy tale that oversimplifies the way change typically occurs in a corporate culture. Proponents of the book are quick to point out that the book is not meant to be a case study, and the WhatIs.com team agrees.

We loved this book and recommend it as an excellent teaching tool for anyone who wants to understand how their IT department works. This includes those employees who actually work in IT -- as well as the line of business (LOB) folks who rely on IT services to do their work. 

We knew from past experience that the Phoenix Project's original hardcover edition is perfect for self-guided, individual study. What hit home during the pandemic, however, is that the book's Kindle and Audible versions are also an inexpensive (but extremely valuable) vehicle for staff development.

Editor's note: This is one of those rare business books that benefits from being re-read periodically. There's a lot of information packed in this story -- and as with all good books, it's likely the reader will gain new insights with each reading. BTW, Gene Kim's follow-up book is entitled The Unicorn Project. It retells the same story from a developer's point of view, and it brilliantly uses many of the same characters to create continuity and allow for even more complex technical  information to quickly be shared in an entertaining manner.

Using this book for staff development

During the recent pandemic lockdown, it was challenging for WhatIs.com writers to stay close to our audience but this book helped fill the gap. We started out by reading a new chapter of The Phoenix Project each workday and met for 15 minutes each day after our daily status meetings on Microsoft Teams to discuss what we learned.

Before the end of the first week, it was crystal clear that our "virtual book club" minutes were a valuable use of time. In fact, the book club quickly became everyone's favorite part of the day. What we discovered was that even though the book is marketed towards audience members who want to learn about DevOps, the book is actually a great learning tool for any team that is responsible for producing work of any type.

Take the WhatIs.com production team, for example.  We produce learning content, not software applications, but it turns out we have a lot of the same pain points as the characters in the Phoenix Project. We decided to mirror how the book characters used kanban to manage workflow and tried out the Microsoft Teams Planner app to see if kanban helped us manage our own production workflow.  (Spoiler alert: It did!) 

Just like Bill's team in the book, we also reached out to ask colleagues from various business silos within our organization what a good day looks like and what a bad day looks like.

The Phoenix Project Pandemic Book Club

Reading this book together, as a team, reinforced the value of failing fast and experimenting with new ways to meet business goals. And just like Bill's team in the book -- we continually learned more about the competing priorities and unknown dependencies in our own company. This led us to the idea of creating a podcast by recording the virtual book club sessions we ran during the pandemic and posting a transcript to go with it. The first two recordings are posted below as videos.

Book Club discussion: Chapters 1 and 2

Book club discussion: Chapters 3 and 4

Book club discussion: Chapters 5, 6 & 7

Professional development resources

When reading the book, WhatIs.com team members began to take notes and share them in a Teams wiki that turned into a Lessons Learned from reading The Phoenix Project article.

Another team member volunteered to keep track of the book's characters as they were introduced. And someone else volunteered to create chapter summaries that could function as SparkNotes or CliffNotes for the book. 

Another team member volunteered to create a glossary and keep track of terms mentioned in the book that we should update or add as new definitions and it wasn't long before it became clear that if we found these resources to be useful, someone else might too.

Right now we are gathering the resources our self-directed team created and preparing them for publication. Please reach out to mrouse @ techtarget.com if you'd like to share ideas for how to use The Phoenix Project to train new employees, build a DevOps culture that encourages self-directed learning or simply join our virtual book club!  

This was last updated in September 2020

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