The Unicorn Project: Lessons I learned

Bookcover from The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim

The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data by Gene Kim

I got an advance copy of this book because of the review I did of the previous book of the author: The Phoenix Project.

I will try to review the book as an independent piece from the Phoenix Project. The author mentions that both books are independent, but at the same time, complement each other.

At First Glance

The book follows Maxine as she is punished for a mistake she made and she is sent to join the Phoenix Project. The Phoenix Project is a digital innovation effort from Parts Unlimited, a big company (maybe F500?), but everything that can be going wrong it is going wrong with the project.

Using the experience of Maxine, the author highlights different aspects of software development under an agile paradigm compared to traditional (or not agile) approaches.

The Book

The book is something between a novel and an academic book. You follow Maxine, as she has to survive her exile in the Phoenix Project. You learn about the problems first from her perspective, but later as other characters join, you get to know other things that are happening related to Maxine in the project and her efforts to get stuff done.

Maxine is trying to get features delivered first to the Phoenix Project and then into the Unicorn Project. In that process, she discovers that the company is heavily divided into silos, internally overregulated, adverse to risks, and actually delivering value is shunned in favour of following procedures.

However, the weird thing is that those problems were not present when she was in the original division of her company, and only appeared in the Phoenix Project.

Lessons

The book covers different elements from agile software development such as Continuous Integration, Product Ownership/Management, User Experience. But everything is seen under the paradigm of the “5 Ideals” that the organization should seek:

  1. Locality and Simplicity
  2. Focus, Flow and Joy
  3. Improvements of Daily Work
  4. Psychological Safety
  5. Customer Focus

A software development team, as it is the case in the book, should aim to achieve those ideals.

At the end of the book, there is an exchange where they focus on the business side of the company, referring that they need to define the Horizons of the business.

  1. Horizon 1: Your line of business
  2. Horizon 2: Your next line of business, the one that will replace 1.
  3. Horizon 3: Your playground, here you explore different lines and see what can become your number 2.

On a different note, the story talks about how to create disruption within a big organization (the rebellion). The protagonist are looking to make a positive change in the organization, not to play politics. In some, it shows an example of how to have a positive influence on a big organization where procedures kill values.

I did not Like

  1. The book tries to cover a lot of information coming from the same problems, so when something is needed, suddenly a new project appears or a new division. It felt a bit artificial.
  2. As someone who used to do research on Flow, I don’t like when the concept is used as synonymous with Happiness. It is a more complex topic. However, I do get the point of where was the author going.
  3. UX and Product Management get sent to the Marketing department. This is a huge problem. UX is not only “UI”. However, the author does talk about the importance of working in coordination the business and the technology.
  4. The Agile principles are not fully explained. However, I don’t think this was the goal of the book. I do like the five ideals though, and I think they are a good guide.
  5. The story sometimes is entertaining, some times corny, and some times just like “uh?”.

Overall

I come from an agile software development philosophy. So when I see the problem and the solution, my answer is “Of course”. However, when I have worked on big companies with engineers or developers coming from a traditional approach, I can see how they could benefit from reading and contrasting the difference.

I found the book not as good as the Phoenix Project, however, when I read that book, I was trying to understand better DevOps. In this book, it comes directly into my area of expertise.

If you come from a traditional software development approach, this book will be good for you. If you have experience with hands-on Agile, look somewhere else.

Dr. Eduardo Calvillo Gamez

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