The Unicorn Project : My Review


The Unicorn Project is a follow-up to The Phoenix Project. Actually, it’s more like the same book again, but written from different person’s perspective.

I loved The Phoenix Project, but absolutely hated The DevOps Handbook, so I was a little reluctant to start reading The Unicorn Project, as I was really worried I would hate it, and it would tarnish the memory of The Phoenix Project.

Overall it was fine, but IMHO it was nowhere near as good as The Phoenix Project.

I’m not going to talk details here, but instead talk about my feelings about the book. You don’t have to agree. ๐Ÿ™‚

Let’s talk about Maxine

In The Phoenix Project, Bill was an experienced manager, but he was asked to take over a role that was totally out of his comfort zone. He was mentored by Eric, who helped to develop him in his new role using “The Three Ways” and giving him an understanding of the 4 types of work, and how they affect productivity. Bill was gradually introduced to the three ways, one at a time, and we as the reader went on that journey with him and his colleagues. There was a definite story arc and a clear development of his character.

In The Unicorn Project, Maxine is a super God-mode developer/architect that has done pretty much everything before, and is totally amazing at almost everything. The first two chapters tell us this repeatedly. At the start of the book she is already the finished article. As a result of this there seems little in the way of character development here. Where do you go from amazing? When she does interact with Eric, he basically brain-dumps “The Five Ideals” in one shot to Maxine and friends, and they pretty much run with it. The story arc and development of Maxine as a character, and most of the other characters also, is weak in comparison to Bill’s story from the first book.

You see this problem in reality TV competitions. If a person’s first audition is “too good”, they won’t win the show. The show is built around the journey. The alternative is to craft a back story that fakes a journey, which is why they didn’t mention Kelly Clarkson had already recorded demos and turned down 2 record contracts before she auditioned for American Idol. The character arc is built around the journey from waitress to diva.

The lack of “progress” of the lead character is the biggest problem with this book from my perspective. I know it’s a DevOps book, but it’s not a reference book. It’s meant to be like The Phoenix Project, which uses a story to convey the message.

I like the fact there is a female lead character, and I certainly understand the problem with making her a newbie, mentored by an old white guy :), but I think this situation caused a problem with the story line, and ultimately how “The Five Ideals” were presented to us as the reader. The concepts and meaning of them should have been drip fed to us, like they were in the first book. Almost making us feel like we’ve discovered them for ourselves.

As far as I see it, one of the following would have solved this problem.

  • Leave Maxine as a super God-mode developer, and have her introduce the rest of the characters in the development teams to “The Five Ideals”. Maybe she learnt “The Three Ways” from Eric in the past, and developed them further, giving them a more development focused slant? I guess how you play this depends on how wedded you are to the idea that Eric is involved in this part of the company transformation. She could have just figured this stuff out for herself.
  • Make Maxine less capable, and have a female mentor that teachers her about “The Five Ideals”, allowing her story arc to be similar to Bill’s, and allowing us to go on the journey with her. If you need a link back to Eric, you can always make this mentor one of Eric’s proteges or a former colleague. Hell, make her the person who taught Eric.
  • Make Maxine less capable and let Eric mentor her, like he did with Bill. Yes, people will criticise the fact you showed her as less capable, but the development of her character would have been more interesting.

So the problem isn’t the fact the lead character is a woman. There is no journey!

Why do you care about the story?

The great thing about The Phoenix Project was we learned about The Three Ways and the types of work as part of the story. It was not a technical reference book, but allowed someone new to the concepts to understand them, and see why they were important. I think a lot of people from a less technical background could pick up the book and see exactly why this stuff made sense. It was in itself a good tool to promote change.

The main purpose of The Unicorn Project is to tell us about “The Five Ideals” and how they relate to the three horizons framework. I don’t think it did a good job of that. When I finished the book I found myself asking, “Did they really explain any of this stuff properly?” I Googled some of the concepts to make sure, and learned more in a couple of pages than I did in the whole book.

I feel like you would get more value out of reading The Phoenix Project, then following it up with this interview with Gene Kim.

It’s interesting that in the interview Gene Kim says, “Maxine who is a very talented architect, knows the five ideal patterns.” From where? Just from what Eric said? OK. Is she meant to be relating what Eric tells her to what she already knew? If so, how did she find this stuff for herself? I feel like that journey is a lot more interesting, and likely more informative than what we actually got. After all, that journey is the one we saw Bill make in the first story.

After reading the interview I can see what was actually meant to be happening here was Maxine was just observing what was going wrong, whilst already knowing the solution. Eric was effectively irrelevant to her progress. In fact, her progress was not the point. It was the progress of the project that was the point. I don’t think I got that from the book at all, and if that were the case, why not go with my first suggestion and make her the “Eric” of this book? I think that would have worked a lot better! Maxine is Yoda. That works for me.

As it stands, I don’t think you can give this book to someone and say, “This is why DevOps matters”, in the same way you could with The Phoenix Project. If that’s what it was meant to be, then I think it has probably failed. If it’s a rallying call for people who already know about DevOps, then it’s probably not too bad, but could have made most of the important points in a blog post.

I see some very gushy comments about how “amazing” the book is. That is not the book I read, although you will read the word “amazing” all the time in it…

What really matters I guess

The Five Ideals are pretty much a different take on The Three Ways. The Phoenix Project and The Three Ways probably feel more infrastructure focused, while The Unicorn Project and The Five Ideals are more development focused. At least, that’s what my boss tells me. ๐Ÿ™‚ That might make The Five Ideals more attractive to a section of the audience, as they may feel more relevant. Being someone that bridges the infrastructure and development gap, I think they both apply equally well really, but I can see how they might have a different appeal. They are different ways of stating the same thing.

There are some great messages in this book, and I agree with the vast majority of them. If you can focus on “the message”, I think you will enjoy it a lot more than me. Having said that, it feels really badly written compared to The Phoenix Project. To the point where I can hardly believe these two books are by the same author. Better editing, and maybe reducing many chapters to two thirds or half their current size, could have given this more punch and made it much better. Better than The Phoenix Project? I don’t know, but as it stands it feels like a pale imitation of it. I keep wanting to say the word “clumsy”, and everything about it feels that way. Having said all that, there were a couple of chapters towards the end which were quite exciting, so it’s not all bad.

Despite all this, I think it will be a valuable source of quotes, or paraphrased statements, and similar to The Phoenix Project, it will be used to help effect change in stubborn organisations. For that alone I guess we should be grateful.

I wonder how I would have felt if I had read this book first?

I’m interested to know what others felt. Maybe I was just expecting too much, having been such a big fan of The Phoenix Project, which I guess you already figured out. ๐Ÿ™‚



Author: Tim...

DBA, Developer, Author, Trainer.

12 thoughts on “The Unicorn Project : My Review”

  1. Tim, great review. On the dot everywhere! Including your remark at the end about seeing value in using the book to get stubborn organizations moving. However….. I think overall I am more positive. Your criticism is completely correct but still……. I see purposes and there are not much comparable alternatives. Let’s be realistic: How many good fiction writers know also about IT?? ๐Ÿ™‚

    I was wondering…. what are the reasons that you are so negative about the DevOps handbook? Can you gives us a glimpse?

  2. Rik: I’m not saying Unicorn is terrible. It is just a big step down from Phoenix IMHO.

    I found The DevOps Handbook really boring. I guess I was hoping it would be more of a reference or teaching aid. I found it really dry and quite uninformative. It mostly felt like a bunch of people “bigging themselves up”. Like, “When I worked at X, things were terrible, and I turned it around by myself and now things are fuckin’ A!” Similar to this book, I think the important messages could be put across in a tiny fraction of the space.

    It goes back to what I was saying. What is the purpose of these books?

    The Phoenix Project : Make everyone, including less technical people, see why DevOps is important, and allow you to see your failing organisation and colleagues reflected in it. It did this.
    The DevOps Handbook : I’m not sure what it was meant to be, apart from “dick waving”.
    The Unicorn Project : Make everyone understand Maxine is amazing, and maybe say something about DevOps? ๐Ÿ™‚

    Just my take on it though. All three books have great ratings, so perhaps I’m just being negative about the last two… ๐Ÿ™‚



  3. Really spot on. Iโ€™m slogging through Unicorn. Whereas in Phoenix the world just kept melting down and Bill was struggling to stay alive, this book has no narrative tension. We just keep getting told Maxine is the greatest engineer ever and the only villain is the need to file tickets.

    The chapters are clumsy, full of long exposition of how great she is and allusions to obscure technology, as if to tell us research was done.

    The real problem is that this isnโ€™t a sequel or prequel, but a side-quel. We know everything that happens, we are just seeing it from a different point of view. We know this team becomes Unicorn and saves the day. Where is the drama?

  4. Sureshoe: I agree. Having said that, the fact it is a retelling will always limit to drama. Even so, it could have been better, especially for people who end up reading this first.

  5. I agree. The Unicorn Project feels like such a slog, Iโ€™m more than halfway through and could really take it or leave it, only my stubbornness keeps me going. When I started reading the Pheonix project I couldnโ€™t put it down and kept texting quotes to my colleagues because there were so many truths in it and i ended up feeling positive about change and possibility. Probably due to the environment I work in currently, I am too cynical to believe that donuts and a cheese message on a white board brought by a too cheerful visitor would really make a difference. In the Pheonix project we were able to see progress through real action by believable characters who I bought into . I will finish Unicorn but I will not rave about it and ask everyone I see at work if theyโ€™ve read it ( I really did this for the PHeonix project, I am not ashamed!)

  6. Heather: I understand your last comment completely. The Phoenix project so closely resembled my company, that I talked about it non stop (and still do)! In comparison, The Unicorn Project is totally forgettable.



  7. I worked briefly in tech, long ago. Basically I don’t know the developer jargon but I’m still a nerd, so I made the mistake of trying to read this book.

    Good grief. As a piece of fiction it is *dire*. Nobody talks nor thinks like an actual human being. I wanted to learn from it but I found the writing simply infuriating.

    Also for much of the book I didn’t understand what the Parts Unlimited company did, nor what the Phoenix Project was supposed to be doing. Aren’t those kind of fundamental things an author needs to explain?

    Sorry I tried to read your book, Mr Kim, it’s clearly not meant for the likes of me. I’ll go away now.

  8. Jens: I don’t know what that reference is, other than a description of the previous sentence maybe.

    I don’t believe it is a reference to “square” as in old fashioned or conventional.



  9. Yes, completely agree with what you said here. I listened to both books on Audible whilst driving back and forth to work. I found Phoenix so compelling I was itching to hear more each day. As you say, we go on the journey of discovery with Bill. Eric is essentially Gene, gradually introducing us to the concepts in a relatable way.
    With Unicorn, I knew as I was listening to it that I was learning valuable information, but Maxine was incredibly difficult to relate to (and consequently I could only find myself listening to much smaller snippets at a time). She has zero character arch, as she starts the book the perfect developer, of which the book goes to unrelenting lengths to inform us of. There is definitely an attempt to focus heavily on how much contribution women make in tech, but in doing so without anything of a character journey for Maxine, it falls flat and I found it came accross a bit patronising to women at times.
    Maxine emerges perfectly formed into the story, and it’s only when people start listening to her or enable her to do what she wants do things improve. Unfortunately this results in most things feeling unearned, and too far distanced from real life.
    That said, I agree that there are still big takeaways from the book, but it just didn’t come close to being as mind blowing as Phoenix.

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