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The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim has been recommended reading for the IT industry for a long time now. It’s been on my to-read list for a good while, but to be candid, it never made the top of my reading list, as I had some reservations. Who wants to read a novel about IT if you already work and live it every day.

Recently IT Revolution, to celebrate its 10th anniversary, offered the book through Amazon for free for a limited period (even now, as a Kindle ebook, it isn’t that expensive anymore). Given I had determined I should read it at some point, I took the opportunity to get a copy. As it happens, through the Christmas break, I got into a run of reading books, and with it being at the top of my ebook list, I bit the bullet.

First of all, the story was engaging and very readable, characters are likable, human, and relatable. It isn’t a huge book either (perhaps I’ve been looking at too many 500+ page novels), making it a fairly quick read. As a pure novel, some of the devices to keep the narrative moving along were perhaps a little obvious, but then given the goal of the story, that isn’t really an issue. It didn’t break the reading flow, which did keep the pages turning with a plausible story; plausible enough to wonder how much of the story was based on a real-life experience of Gene or one of his writing collaborators.

What struck me the most is that most industry writing I have read doesn’t address all the points the book makes. So, DevOps, as is typically presented by a lot (most ?) content, uses some variation of a diagram like the infinite cycle, as shown here:

Image courtesy of Amis.nl

Not only that, it is common to view DevOps as focusing on either :

  • Automation, particularly around CI/CD and IaC (Infrastructure as Code)
  • The development team also owns the operations tasks

But the book portrayed DevOps as both and neither of these. I say this as these approaches can help with the goal, but they should be subservient to the larger objective. Unfortunately, we do get caught up with the mechanics and tools and not the wider goal. The story is about how to deliver business value and needs in a streamlined manner, so we aren’t tying up the investment (time or spend) any longer than necessary. Yes, that does mean IaC and CI/CD style automation but only in service of the goal, which is the business need, not IaC.

The book also highlights the point of continuously working on improvement and paying down against debt, as removing debt is part of the way we remove the blockages to the streamlining (in the story, we actually see the release pipeline being temporarily stopped so that time could be invested in paying down the debt). Yet, this aspect is rarely discussed in a lot of the industry content on the subject. Maybe we are, in part, our own enemy here, as debit work is not greenfield. It is going back over old ground and making it better. We all love breaking new ground and leaving the past behind. Not to mention many organizations measure progress on the number of features rather than how well a feature serves the business goals. I have to admit to that mistake, which in our world of microservices is a bit of a mistake. After all, aren’t microservices about doing one thing and doing it well?

Another interesting view that the book put a lot of emphasis on was a variant of what is sometimes called the Eisenhower matrix. Anyone who has done any leadership training will most likely recognize it (see below).

However, the quadrants of work are as the book describes them are:

  • Quadrant 1 – Project work (i.e., planned activities central to the business)
  • Quadrant II – IT work (work that is planned and needed but doesn’t originate from the business, such as building new infrastructure)
  • Quadrant III – Updates and changes (e.g., system patching)
  • Quadrant IV – Unplanned (e.g., outage recovery work, demands on the team that has bypassed scheduling / divert individuals from the agreed goals, etc.)

The key difference between this representation and that of the book’s work definition is the words on each of the columns and rows. For example, Quadrant IV isn’t ‘Not Important’ and ‘Not Urgent’ – but it would be fair to say ‘Not Wanted’ and ‘Not Productive’. Unplanned work is the killer and roughly aligns with quadrant IV. This comes from the issues of not dealing with technical debt and solution facilities etc.

My last observation is that in the last couple of years, we have seen the rise of DevSecOps, which recognizes the need that security should be as much of the delivery process as Dev and Ops. The book (written 10 years ago) showed that security should be part of the DevOps process. Like other areas, the story seeks to address the point that security focussing on just the development and operational processes while necessary for things like catching OWASP Top 10 also needs to see the bigger picture otherwise, you could easily add additional needs that are already handled by controls elsewhere in the end-to-end business processes. That doesn’t mean to say security controls can5 be in software, but are they part o& improvement and pushing actions left vs. getting out of the starting blocks?

More reading

The book provides references, but for my own personal benefit, a number of particularly interesting and useful references are made, which may interest: