"The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Developers, Digital Disruption, and Thriving in the Age of Data" by Gene Kim is the successor to the book "The Phoenix Project", although the books can be read independently. As the subtitle suggests, it's a novel that shows the importance of digitalisation, data, innovation as well as modern engineering and organizational practices.

The protagonist, Maxine, is a talented senior software engineer with a passion for functional programming principles. She works at "Parts Unlimited", a century old company with more than $ 2 billion in yearly revenue which is primarily generated by the business units "retail operations" and "manufacturing". The company is losing market share to competitors and revenue is declining.

Maxine is scapegoated for a payroll system outage and gets transferred to the Phoenix project as a result. Her boss urges her not to attract any attention and to transfer back to her old team after a few months. Although the project is seen as a critical modernization initiative, Maxine is horrified about joining. Release of the project has been postponed many times in the last 3 years and even though hundreds of developers are part of project Phoenix, seemingly no progress is made.

Once Maxine starts at the Phoenix project, her expectations are confirmed. Trying to build the project locally becomes a quest of collecting documentation fragments, finding credentials, tracking down people for more information, requesting access to all kinds of systems and creating an ever growing number of tickets... However, her efforts don't go unnoticed. A small group of engineers and managers that calls itself "the Rebellion" approaches Maxine. Their stated goal is to improve developer productivity however they can. Unfortunately, because the functions of the technology organization are siloed to a high degree, they have to operate covertly to prevent office politics and turf wars.

The Rebellion gradually improves engineering and organizational practices. At some point, the group wins the trust of the company and is eventually able to cause a radical culture shift towards DevOps ideals. For example, instead of firing people that caused an outage, blameless post mortems and continuous improvement are practiced. The main goal of the Phoenix project is identified and tackled in a new initiative, the Unicorn project. The Unicorn project introduces self-service platforms, data pipelines and more which, together with a reduction of processes and higher trust, enable reduced inter-department dependencies. Ops develops into a platform team and internal consultants. The final part of the book adresses an innovation initiative that leads to market success and company growth.

The book proposes 5 ideals that create the right environment for business innovation and technological success:

  • Locality and Simplicity
  • Focus, Flow, and Joy
  • Improvement of Daily Work
  • Psychological Safety
  • Customer Focus

In my opinion, the book does a great job in contextualizing these ideals and other engineering practices. The gradual transformation of the company culture is presented clearly. All in all, I enjoyed "The Unicorn Project" tremendously.