Book Review: The Phoenix Project

Just finished reading Gene Kim’s, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford’s new book, The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win. Gene Kim is well known for the The Visible Ops Handbook: Implementing ITIL in 4 Practical a…

Just finished reading Gene Kim’s, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford’s new book, The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.  Gene Kim is well known for the The Visible Ops Handbook: Implementing ITIL in 4 Practical and Auditable Steps, which came out during the early days of the ITIL movement, and I know it was my first real deep dive into change management. The book is written in a similar style to the 5 dysfunctions of a team which is a “leadership fable”.  

The Pheonix Product follows a fictional auto parts suppy store called parts unlimited, it opens with Bill the main character being promoted by their CEO with little guidance to the VP of IT Operations after the CIO and CTO are fired and that there is a critical payroll issue that must be fixed ASAP.  Bill’s prior experience at Parts Unlimited is running IT Operations for the “Midrange Server Group”, but he has no oversite of the distributed or helpdesk operations of the parts unlimited which are now under his perview.

Several IT Charicatures are represented in the book, your typical Process Guru/ITIL person, your overconfident/arrogant IT Manager, Obstructive IT Security team, etc.  While character development isn’t a strong suit in this book, I was easily able to see links to people that i’ve worked with in the past.   

The first half of the book consists of a ton of outages and problems caused by this completely mismanaged IT organization. Familiar statements like “IT is in the way, IT screws up all the time, etc” are all represented.  They finally start getting on the right track when a new board advisor starts coaching bill on identifying the types of work in the IT shop, and relating it to factory floor operations. This drives the team into implementing change management, Kanban methodologies for workflow, and eventually continuous deployment with even a few mentions of being “allspawed” which i didn’t realize had become a verb. But Kudos to John Allspaw over at etsy, you’ve crossed over to the otherside. 

Overall the book is quite good especially for teams that haven’t embraced ITIL, Lean Manufacturing and Devops into their culture and business processes. For me I really liked the setup of the book (the first two chapters I read after Velocity last year when Gene published them as an early preview) are excellent. I felt a lot of unnecessary time was setup in showing how piss poor the operations were and not enough time in the solutions. I would have hoped for more detail on Kanban processes, ITIL and Devops practices, but instead they were regulated to a single chapter and the complexities of setting up this infrastructure was a bit glossed over.  

There is one character in the book called Brent, that I actually found to be quite unannoying, he is the “know it all” IT guy characture, and of course all changes, and major sev 1 issues always require Brent to be involved to get the issue fixed. At numerous points the management team puts in processes to elevate him as their “most critical resource” and to limit the work coming into his area of expertise. While this is good, and you should follow similar processes to make sure the constrained resources in your group have a clear work allignment and goal.  He may not have been malicous in his retention of tribal knowledge that only he knew, but several times I would have leaned towards firing him. Ultimately I never felt that he was a team player, was protecting his base of knowlege as he liked being the Hero.  Maybe i’m alone in this, and with the limited character development i shouldn’t get hung up on it, but its probably the one piece of the book that I felt was counter-culture to the devops movement. 

Overall, I liked the book, i’ll be sending it to some friends as gifts in the future as there is a lot of good stuff in there. But i don’t know if it will become a favorite of mine as the Visible ops handbook is. I’m excited to see the next collaboration from Gene Kim and his team at ITRevolution the devops cookbook. I think what I was hoping to get out of The Pheonix Project will end up in the cookbook, and than this may be the perfect pairing! Rating B+

Gene Kim and his coauthors are all excellent people to be following on twitter and their respective blogs.

IT Revolution Website

Gene Kim’s site:  or twitter @realgenekim

Kevin Behr’s site:

George Spafford twitter: @gspaff



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