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Digital Transformation Takeaways from the Unicorn Project

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By Kyle Prawel, Cloud and DevOps Architect, Logicworks


As Digital Transformation practices gain popularity, we often need narrative examples to help us conceptualize these new paradigms for our organizations. 

The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim helped many understand DevOps practices and had a huge impact on our industry. Now a new book from the same author, The Unicorn Project, offers similar value to the reader aiming to understand Digital Transformation. After reading the new book, I thought I would share my thoughts and any key takeaways.


No Need to Re-read The Phoenix Project

The Unicorn Project is not a sequel to The Phoenix Project as much as another take on the same story, with many of the same characters. The book takes place in the same company and follows the same plot, but is written from the perspective of a person in development rather than IT and infrastructure operations. 

The need to unify development perspectives with operational perspectives is a goal of DevOps, and many felt The Phoenix Project was lacking in this area by highlighting operation’s concerns. With The Unicorn Project, the reader now gets the perspective from a developer, highlighting that business requirements often start in development. Through this, we unify the vision of DevOps started in Phoenix, while also bringing about the basics of customer driven Digital Transformation.


The Unicorn Project Is More for Team Members than Management

The Phoenix Project is about a manager forced into the executive team to lead digital transformation ‘do-or-die’ for the organization. It highlighted his team’s challenges, successes, and broad philosophies to enable success, and how that success ultimately helped him become part of the C-suite. The Unicorn Project is about a developer enabling their fellow team members to drive those management demanded improvements, highlighting the specific development tactics used to bring about success. 

The book’s title comes from this tight development team and its comradery; it’s about the team making magic versus management realigning strategy. The team wants to enable the best practices of a Unicorn company at their aged established enterprise, so they name their initiative the Unicorn Project. Teams come up with names like these, rarely management.


“Why” Not “How” Remains the Teaching Mechanism

The Phoenix Project demonstrated why improvements are needed and why they work, not just “how to do DevOps”. This type of teaching mechanism is powerful because it enables the reader to find improvements within their own enterprise rather than following a prescriptive approach. When we see ourselves in the challenges and chaos of Parts Unlimited (the fictional company from both books), we also get to identify with the improvements made and are driven to brainstorm how to accomplish similar improvements in our own companies.


Reiterates DevOps Principles, Updated for 2020, but Also Includes Digital Transformation Thinking

While The Phoenix Project highlighted the philosophical underpinnings of DevOps, The Unicorn Project is much more specific about the approaches and release pipeline alterations DevOps teams should make. 

Six years have passed since The Phoenix Project’s original release, so many of these updates bring the story’s setting into a more modern context. DevOps principles are much more popular and established today than they were six years ago, so this book is more focused on the big picture of digital transformation. This is useful, because one of the setbacks to DevOps’ wider acceptance over the years has been terminology use. DevOps feels like a technical term limited to IT, where digital transformation is clearly a company-wide initiative. It’s easier for an executive to understand marketplace changes to accommodate and maximize value for the customer, whereas DevOps asks an executive to connect-the-dots that improved efficiency in IT/IS somehow leads to customer value. In this way, DevOps feels less germane and impacting to the executive. 

The Unicorn Project does a good job of demonstrating customer value delivered through innovative technical thinking, which will resonate with executives versus a buzzword like DevOps. The main character in the story takes the time to go into the field to understand what customers and retail employees actually experience. She finds previous failed initiatives and the insularity of “innovation” from a backroom without real-world observation, the bane of many companies. This demonstrates that improved customer and business outcomes happen by looking at real field data to drive decisions — not just assuming improvements come from a corporate office or the myopia of staring at code and tickets. These methods to drive digital transformation are extremely apparent through the narrative and are excellent to highlight for readers.


Prepare for the Word ‘Complected’ to Become Popular

The Unicorn Project clarifies that technical debt is the result of complexity debt. “Complected” is a word that describes how environments take on complexity, which is ultimately what really drives technical debt. The book does a great job of highlighting that business requirements are often what creates additional platforms and release features, which then lead teams to put more duct-tape in place to integrate the new complexity. 

This is a valuable way to see technical debt as driven by the business; in other words, the duct-tape is there for a reason. Teams have to resolve the requirements driving business complexity before resolving technical debt and integrations. Said another way, resolve the complexity in the business by finding common, aggregatable, value derivatives — then work on technical debt informed by those new more efficient combinations.


Stories (and Problem-Solving Abilities) are Made Better Through Inclusion

The primary character of the book is a woman, providing a refreshing reminder that our work and lives are made better through the inclusion of multiple perspectives. While our industry is still male-dominated, it is enlivening to have an active example of problem-solving achieved faster when everyone is enabled to participate. We don’t solve challenging problems by involving the same players with the same life experiences and thinking. While the author is male, I look forward to seeing more inclusion of different life experiences and worldviews within business popular culture in the future.


Downsizing/Rightsizing Practices

The Unicorn Project also discusses technology improvements driving downsizing and rightsizing practices. This is a fair, moral, and overdue point to highlight. The future we are all working together to make happen, is change, and change means that old positions will as well. The book gives people the foresight and understanding to think about the bigger picture and to start making career preparations now.


Mr. Kim is a Trekker?

As a fellow fan of Star Trek myself, it was fun to see Gene Kim willing to show off his own trekkie cred. The Unicorn Project has many references to running a ship, and those references are helpful in demonstrating how painful modern business practices can be. Why work at a bureaucratic enterprise ready to sacrifice peons to corporate overlords, when we could be shipmates onboard the Enterprise, flying to new worlds and possibilities together?  {ahem} Well, I appreciated the metaphor anyways. Maybe we served together under Captain Desoto — best boss I ever had! (Yes, that’s a nerd joke, my apologies).


Overall, The Unicorn Project is a Good Read

Like The Phoenix Project, I highly recommend The Unicorn Project to those in our industry interested in digital transformation and improving their organizations. When we calculate the amount of time we spend at work, it’s crazy to think we don’t spend more time strategizing about how to make everything better. Not just for our customer’s and shareholder value, but for ourselves. Through their narrative formats, both books demonstrate that business is a large part of life, and that the stories we share can help others empathize and persuade towards ongoing improvement, to life AND capital.

Logicworks is a cloud migration and managed services company with 27 years of experience in enterprise IT. To learn more about our cloud and DevOps services, visit our website or contact us

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