IT fiction:The Phoenix Project

Thoughts on the first half of the business book

I’ve been reading The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win the past couple days. It’s an interesting book that takes a fiction approach to teaching “the Three Ways”, which are some devops patterns and principles. It’s really interesting, although some of the setup seems a bit contrived, the writing is good enough that I found myself blowing through half the book in two days, and found myself reading it through past my bedtime last night.

Part one of the book is a journey into enterprise IT hell, as our hero, Bill, is promoted from his small operations group to IT director for the large automotive parts company that he works for. They’re in the midst of preparing for a huge software rollout, which is bound to fail, and Bill struggles to get a grip on things before things inevitably crash and burn. In short it it’s a trainwreck, and the authors start introducing the reader into change management devops concepts.

I think anyone who’s ever worked in an enterprise environment will have PTSD from reading this, I know I sure did. Although it’s aimed squarely at teaching workers in larger firms understand these best practices, I think it may be useful to smaller operators and teams like the one I work with. The book was written more than six years ago, which seems like a lifetime ago in IT, but it doesn’t get into the details of any actual tech tools, instead focusing on the process. In fact, the change management process they use in the book is literally postcards on a whiteboard, and the description of the rest of the environment is literally generic enough that it’s irrelevant.

Part one ends with Bill quitting after too many of his warnings are unheeded by the CEO, and part two starts with said CEO seeing the light and bringing him back in as they struggle to work together and save the company.

I’m already thinking that this will be one of those books that I recommend to all my IT colleagues. I may buy a few copies and send them to a few people I’m working with. I think it could be a valuable book for people who haven’t actually operated in a large corporate environment. It may be good for stakeholders as well. Hell, it might actually be good to give a copy out as a sales tool next time we have a big prospect.

One thing that I’ve taken away from the book so far is the breakdown of four types of work: projects, internal IT tasks, changes, and unplanned work, which I’ve always referred to as firefighting. They describe it as anti-work, which is an apt description, and I’m going to be more cognizant about the type of work that I’m doing from day to day.

The Phoenix Project falls in an interesting class of book that I haven’t run into before, business fiction. I’m curious if there are any others that are similar. I’m sure that the situation told within it is real enough, probably culled together from various real experiences, names changed to protect the innocent and all that. The first-person voice used by the authors is a style that seems familiar from many business books going all the way back to Dale Carnegie, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it deployed in quite this way, with the book as one large case study.

Besides the operational side of things, there were a couple of work-related things that struck out at me like a sore thumb. During the failed deployment of the new software product, the entire core project team is forced to pull an all-nighter trying to restore operations, and then spend many long days during the following weeks trying to shore things up. After Bill’s promotion to IT director, he seems to lose all grasp on work-life balance. He’s reading a story to his kid and means to lookup something about Thomas the Train when he gets drawn into a work email and then another call. The situation completely disrupts his family life. Another employee at the firm, Brent, the key-man with a hand in seemingly every system at the company has gone years without taking a vacation without being on call.

Apparently these two issues will somehow be resolved as Part Two progresses, but there was one detail about Bill’s circumstances that really had me shaking my head. Near the end of Part One, as he’s fretting over losing his career, he questions how they’re going to pay off their second mortgage and start saving for their kids’ college. Apparently they were just treading water, and the unexpected promotion has finally put them on the right track. This detail caught me, and I found it interesting. Perhaps to appeal to a broader base of people, or elicit sympathy, but to me it struck me as slightly incongruent with the rest of Bill’s disciplined personality.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. If anything, The Phoenix Project has reminded me of the life that I don’t want. I spent four years working in an enterprise firm, and I came out of there in a rough way. I’m going to need to think long and hard before I think about getting back into a leadership role at a large firm where I have the type off responsibility where I’m going to be on call for emergencies in the middle of the night, or get sucked into some project deployment that’s going to require anything resembling a war room.

I’ll find out how life changes for Bill and the employees of Parts Unlimited soon, as I’ll probably wrap the book up over the next day or two. I’m looking forward to getting copies in the hands of a few more people to see how they like it, and, more importantly, to see what effect it has on our operations and service delivery.