Gene Kim’s “The Unicorn Project” – my view

“The Unicorn Project” by Gene Kim finally became generally available last week, and I took couple of days while stuck in Toronto to read it. The book describes same events as the DevOps classic – Gene Kim’s “The Phoenix Project”. At least because of that “The Unicorn Project” was a must read in the top of my reading list.

“The Unicorn Project” is largely orthogonal to “The Phoenix Project” as it shows different angle of the same events. However, almost 7 years have passed since “The Phoenix Project” was published – so what’s new in “The Unicorn Project”? Below are my most significant impressions after reading:

  • “The Unicorn Project” is much more female-centric, which is great and shows (hopefully) shifting trends in IT industry.
  • Psychological safety is now included as one of The Five Ideals. The Five Ideals is in turn one of the key new concepts introduced in the book. To me, psychological safety and more generally – humanity in teams – is the most important thing that changed in today’s perception of how organizations work relative to when I started my career as a management consultant in the early 2000s.
  • Sarah (the villain) did something good. She’s still the villain but the fact is – she is now more human also. Usually, the villains like Sarah appear in real life as the result of the Peter principle (where people promoted to the level of their incompetence) – which is way too common. So she could be a great employee at a lower level role, but instead was bringing a lot of harm in an executive position.
  • Business analytics and DataOps got a spot in the book.
  • More details were added about the actual mechanics of digital transformation (relative to “The Phoenix Project”). This is a great response to certain concerns that were raised past “The Phoenix Project” by some people – those people were mainly appealing that such quick organizational transformation is largely unrealistic, especially given the timeline. While the timeline is now included in the book, to me the most important is the sequence of events and their more detailed description – which was now added.
  • The now-popular concept of “Jobs to be done” and customer orientation in general was highlighted in the book. “Why” gets its prominent place – not only “what” and “how” – which is great. “The Unicorn Project” also encourages experimentation mentioning ideas for which I also highly recommend Kent Beck’s article.

There are also few things that I’d like to see more of (or maybe explored in the later books):

  • The concept of remote and asynchronous work was largely missing and mentioned only briefly. On the contrary, some focus was made on collocation of the teams (which I agree is a great first step – but only a first one). With the book focusing on team productivity (as “The Unicorn Project” is) – asynchronous remote work is a wildly important concept nowadays. As we’re moving to more mature organizations, we should embrace remote work. Maturity enables remoteness and naturally leads to it.
  • While DataOps got a spot, it was largely shown as a black box, with few exceptions. The internals of DataOps were largely skipped – that is data modelling, managing those models and unlocking usefulness in data.

Overall, “The Unicorn Project” does a great job of highlighting many of the latest developments in DevOps and IT industry as a whole. It’s an easy read and I truly enjoyed and loved it 🙂

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