Book review: The Phoenix Project

Read about an IT department that is constantly putting out fires and putting out spaghetti code, while the business is consistently falling behind their competitors. And then see what they did to turn it around.

I haven’t been reading very many books lately. Most of my training has been coming from videos, documentation, blogs, and, of course, podcasts. In almost every podcast I’ve listened to in the past couple months the book ThePhoenix Project, by Gene Kim, has come up at least once. I decided to put it on my Kindle and then immediately forgot about it until one of my IT mentors suggested I read it…so that I did!  I went on to suggest it as good reading material to all my coworkers and then about two days later, Nick Weaver, star guru of automation at VMware suggested it in his keynote speech at the Indianapolis VMUG conference. That should be enough to convince you people are liking this book!

The Phoenix Project is about a large public company that just can’t seem to get things together. Their IT department is constantly putting out fires in some chaotic way, the developers are putting out spaghetti code, and the business is consistently falling behind their competitors. It’s very much a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. In fact, for the first nine or ten chapters I would have laughed at the extreme amount of failures and missed opportunities if I hadn’t also seen this first-hand in real-life companies.

Kim presents all of this in such a way that you can actually feel your heart rate increase because you remember going through some of the issues he describes in the book. This is when the main character in the book, acting VP of IT operations, starts learning about and implementing DevOps and more efficient IT operations. He eventually learns to work not only within operations, but also development, marketing, sales, etc., etc. He gains an understanding that allows IT to enable all of the other departments in the company.

What is DevOps exactly? The answer to that question is not easy. According to Wikipedia, “DevOps (a portmanteau of development and operations) is a software development method that stresses communication, collaboration and integration between software developers and information technology professionals.”  Through the use of DevOps developers can be more agile and usually have more frequent releases of code, which according to the book, increases the ROI on the code more quickly. From the IT operations side, it requires standardization in the test and production environments, along with automation of packaging the code releases, among other things including standardizing processes and troubleshooting techniques.

Even though the book is about a company that heavily utilizes development, in my mind this book applies to pretty much any company with an IT department. Automation can be the key to efficiency in both large and small IT departments. This, along with having processes and reasonable change management policies, can make any IT department and maybe even entire company run like a well-oiled machine. As much as I hate to use buzz words, the ongoing trend of the software defined data center will also only increase the need for DevOps within the IT department. If you’re a one man show or a department of thousands, chances are you spend a lot of your time dealing with unplanned work (aka “putting out fires”). This book can help you think outside the box and understand business and IT operations in a big picture kind of way.

Although the book can be a little frustrating, if not depressing for the first half or so, it’s only that way because you can probably relate to it. Once things start coming together for the IT department as well as the company, you can’t help but think to yourself: “How can I apply this methodology to my company?”  That’s where the value of this book really lies. It doesn’t spell it out for you and it’s definitely not a step-by-step instruction manual, but it makes you think. I would highly recommend this book to anyone in and around the IT department.