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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Unicorn Project and the Five Ideals: Interview with Gene Kim

The Unicorn Project and the Five Ideals: Interview with Gene Kim

Key Takeaways

  • The Unicorn Project is a fictionalized story about a DevOps transformation taking place at the same time as The Phoenix Project. In this novel, Gene Kim introduces the five ideals of Locality and Simplicity; Focus, Flow and Joy; Improvement of Daily Work; Psychological Safety; and Customer Focus.
  • The book confirms the importance of the DevOps movement as a better way of working, and delivering better value, sooner, safer, and happier. It addresses the invisible structures, the architecture, needed to scale DevOps and to enable developers’ productivity.
  • The synchronization of the five ideals creates the right environment for business innovation. It allows organizations to keep the structure that is needed to sustain profitable business, while augmenting and disrupting the structure needed to support growth and innovation
  • The five ideals can be used as a blue-print to the three horizons business model introduced by Geoffrey Moore. Horizon one is the core business, stable, predictable, and bureaucratic. Horizon two are smaller businesses that generate new customers, new capabilities and new markets. Horizons three businesses are the highly innovative organizations that explore brand new, disruptive and risky ideas.

The Unicorn Project is a fictionalized story about a DevOps transformation taking place at the same time as The Phoenix Project. In this novel, Gene Kim introduces the five ideals of Locality and Simplicity; Focus, Flow and Joy; Improvement of Daily Work; Psychological Safety; and Customer Focus.

The key protagonist, Maxine, is a talented lead developer and architect blamed for an outage and exiled on the Phoenix project. Throughout her journey, she partners with a team of corporate rebels, and together they confront their legacy and change-averse processes and apply the five ideals to lead a positive and lasting business, technology and cultural transformation.

This story will not be unfamiliar to anyone who works in a large corporation. The challenges are common to many organizations that are trying to transform into a digital and elite company. The cultural and organizational principles, as described in the five ideals, are foundational to accomplishing sustainable business outcomes and are already being elevated and adopted by the community as DevOps core values and principles.

The quote from Fernando Cornago, Senior Director Platform Engineering at Adidas describes the level of impact this book will have on many developers and business and IT leaders: "The Unicorn Project is amazing [...]. It made me remember every step we’ve gone through at Adidas in the last 4 years" as presented at DOES 2019. This book and the five ideals will definitely accelerate the understanding and the course of DevOps adoption and will guide leaders on how to structure their organizations to achieve their performance goals.

The Unicorn Project is coming out on November 26th and InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of the book.

InfoQ: Congratulations Gene for publishing the Unicorn project! And thank you for doing this interview for InfoQ. What are the key takeaways you would like to share with our readers?

Gene Kim: The key takeaways I want to mention are the Five Ideals. In The Phoenix Project, I used the Three Ways and Four Types of Work to describe important concepts. Similarly, in The Unicorn Project, I’ve identified values and principles I call the Five Ideals to frame today’s most important IT challenges impacting engineering and business:

  • The First Ideal is Locality and Simplicity
  • The Second Ideal is Focus, Flow, and Joy
  • The Third Ideal is Improvement of Daily Work
  • The Fourth Ideal is Psychological Safety
  • The Fifth Ideal is Customer Focus

My main objective is to confirm the importance of the DevOps movement as a better way of working, and delivering better value, sooner, safer, and happier. I do this by addressing what I call the invisible structures, the architecture, needed to enable developers' productivity and to scale DevOps across large organizations.

InfoQ: Could you elaborate on the Five Ideals? How can we leverage them in our organizations?

Gene Kim: The first ideal is Locality and Simplicity. Locality relates to the degree of which a development team can make local code changes in a location as opposed to many places, without impacting various teams and other locations. If a team needs to schedule a deployment and it requires 40 to 50 other teams to work with them into the schedule, nothing will ever get done. And if a team delivering on a single feature has to coordinate with 2 or many other development teams, it only creates delays and challenges for all of these teams. That's the notion of locality.

Locality requires simplicity: to what degree can we really uncouple applications from each other and keep them completely separate. This first ideal applies to architectural patterns and relates to the third ideal of Improvement of Daily Work, because to achieve the first ideal, we need to make room for daily improvements and prioritize technical debt reduction.

The second Ideal is Focus, Flow, and Joy. When developers are able to focus on developing their code with minimum dependencies, delays and impediments, it creates flow of value, therefore joy. When they are absorbed in their work, they’re really having fun, loose sense of time, and even sense of self. I think that's what being a developer means to me.

The third ideal is Improvement of Daily Work, which addresses technical debt and architecture. The FANGs, which are the elite organizations such Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, eBay, LinkedIn, Microsoft are successful because they all made the conscious decision to pay down their technical debt. They all did whatever it took to make sure that developers’ daily work could be done and could flow with as little interruption and impediments as possible. It’s interesting to note that all these companies’ CEOs were technical leaders.

On the other hand, we have companies, and Nokia is a good example, that didn’t prioritize tackling their technical debt or modernizing their technology and architecture.

When I contributed to Accelerate and to The State of DevOps Reports with Dr. Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble, we established that architecture is a top predictor of performance.

Architecture enables teams to independently develop, test, and deploy value to customers without being coupled to 20 30 40 other teams. This finding really got me interested in exploring how important it is for developers to write code that can be decoupled from everybody else.

This year at DOES Vegas, I’ve asked Scott Prugh, senior VP and Chief Architect at CSG to present their technology and architectural transformations. I think it's important to raise awareness among technology leaders about how technical debt and legacy systems slow down valuable development work. If developers need to access four different systems and spend more time negotiating with people that don't care about them, or have to wait months, these impediments are devastating to their overall experience and to enterprise performance goals.

The fourth ideal is Psychological Safety. We know from the State of DevOps Report, and from various major Google studies that psychological safety is one of the top predictors of team performance. Google established to what degree team members feel safe to talk about problems, to say what they think without fear of castigation and of being ridiculed or blamed.

In the opening scene of The Unicorn Project, Maxine, the main protagonist of The Unicorn Project, is unfairly blamed for a payroll outage, while some people are fired and some fear losing their job.

Lastly, the fifth ideal is customer focus. It was a really fun one to explore, and it was brought to my attention by Chris O'Malley, CEO at Compuware, and by Jeffrey Snover, technical fellow at Microsoft. Customer focus relates to the difference between core and context as defined by Geoffrey Moore. Core creates lasting durable business advantage, whereas context is everything else. Core is what customers are willing to pay for, context is what they don't care about. As an example, we love our HR systems, we love payroll and the systems that support employees, but customers are not willing to pay organizations for world-class payroll systems. These systems are mission critical, but they don’t create competitive advantage. As we fund core features and applications, we need to make sure that context doesn't kill core.  

Maxine who is a very talented architect, knows the five ideal patterns. As she rebuilds her reputation and career credibility, she observes anti-patterns. Whenever she looks around her, she can see opposite patterns of the first ideal, opposite patterns of the second ideal, and so on.

I recently presented the Five Ideals at DevOpsDay.

InfoQ: Through Maxine’s journey, you explore various business models and how organizations can create the right structure and environment to innovate and continuously respond to market change. Could you tell us more about the business innovation models you explore?

Gene Kim: The story really fits customer focus, and this is where the big battle takes place. The synchronization of the five ideals is what creates the right environment for business innovation. Maxine can see first-hand how difficult it is for her organization to accomplish that because they have many legacy back office systems that they need to retire, old products and services and too much architectural debt; all supported by rigid policies and processes.

The five ideals allow organization to keep the structure that is needed to sustain profitable business, while augmenting and disrupting the structure that impedes growth and innovation. The five ideals can be used as a blue-print to the three horizons business model discussed by Geoffrey Moore in his books Crossing the Chasm and Zone to Win and popularized by McKinsey.

Horizon one is the core businesses that generates billions of dollars per year versus horizon 3 which is the startup initiatives, that potentially holds the future of the company. This horizon is predictable, slow and where the culture becomes bureaucratic and risk averse. Legacy organizations generally battle horizon three to protect the status quo of their horizon one.

Horizon two are smaller businesses that generate typically one hundred million dollars, and that are growing up to become horizon one businesses. These opportunities generate new customers, new capabilities and new markets. They explore new supportive processes for efficiency.

Then we have horizons three businesses that are the long-term, the future, the highly innovative experiments. Here people are exploring new ideas, different markets, different business models. Almost every startup is horizon three. These businesses are highly adaptable as they welcome risks. They learn as they experiment.

Horizon two business and revenue come from horizon three, and horizon one come from horizon two. Horizon two companies look like start-ups, without the funding risk, because they operate like a start-up and they constantly pivot trying to figure out what it takes to get traction.

Horizon two and three are characterized by their culture of learning, while horizon is often seen as the culture of compliance, and the horizons are very much at odds.

InfoQ: Business innovation and value flow are at the center of the story, yet Customer Focus is the 5th and last ideal. Did you intend to put the developers’ work experience, architecture and safety before the customer value?

Gene Kim: That is a great question. I think I organized the 5 ideals in this order because it fits the narrative, the flow of the story. And it’s like Maslow's pyramid: if we all know what the most important thing is but we can’t do it, we can't even get to build on our laptop, we can’t really deliver value to our customers. I wanted to focus on getting the developers’ support system in place, making them happy, so that they can autonomously focus on delivery. Next, we can work on fixing the workaround root causes, and then let's make it safe to talk about these problems. The last ideal is at the highest level of the company, which is: are we really clear about what is core and what is context. This is where the developers have the least degree of control and influence.

InfoQ: The Phoenix Project came out in 2013. What are the key events or people that since influenced you and the Unicorn Project’s narrative?

Gene Kim: There are two major events that led me to writing this book and that influenced the story. The first is having started the DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, which culminated in one of the largest and most amazing global DevOps enterprise community. I got to see and hear about all these heroic transformations and I got to interact with these very courageous people who are often paving the way of new ways of working in their organizations, often creating a rebellion, like Maxine did, trying to overthrow the very powerful but ancient legacy order. One of the Unicorn Project goals is to pay a tribute to that amazing DevOps enterprise community that inspires me every day. These communities and engineers are elevating technical practices across teams, they are helping their organization survive and win in the marketplace, and they're doing it often at great personal risks, like Maxine, because many people and leaders don't want to go on that transformation journey. It takes very special leadership to bring an organization along.

The second important thing that changed my perspective and led me to writing this book, happened roughly 3 years ago, when I started learning a new programming language, Clojure. Clojure, not only brought the joy of coding back into my life but showed me all the invisible structures that are absolutely required to enable developers’ productivity and innovation. What I call invisible structures are architectures, which I define as the opposite of technical debt. One of the things that really separates large complex organizations from the elite FANGs – the Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Microsoft, etc. is their 40 to 50 years of accumulated technical debt, that younger companies don't have. The FANGs and tech unicorns have all at a certain point of their history, not only realized the importance of addressing their technical debt and of modernizing their infrastructure, but they also made the business decision to go through feature freezes; they declared technical debt bankruptcy and agreed to dedicate the right amount of resources to do whatever it takes to re-platform their architecture and to allow their engineers to build code at the rate that is needed to win.

That's a decision and change that most large complex organizations haven't made. They are running 20 years old SAP instances, they use four or more different warehouse management systems, and so on. This is one of the reasons why we wanted our hero in the book to be a developer: Maxine is a very talented developer who sees all the problems and who, with the help of her partner Kurt, influences the right changes.

InfoQ: Considering the story and the scope of the unicorn project, did you have a different audience in mind than for the Phoenix Project?

Gene Kim: The audience is different you’re right. This was a tough decision, and something that I kept revisiting even until the very end of the publishing deadline. The audience of the Phoenix Project was mainly leadership. The protagonist, Bill, is VP of Operations, and his boss is the CIO. The book really intended to target technology leaders and their counterparts on the business side.

The Unicorn Project audience is different. I aimed at the developers’ community. I would love to have technology leaders read the book, but if I have to choose between technology leadership or the developers, I want the book to be read by the developers. Hopefully it will inspire them to engage their leadership and share how technical debt is killing them. I hope it will help developers communicate to their leaders the business urgency of digital disruption, and as an example the need for them to access resources and data they need in their day to day work to deliver business value.

I hope that technology leaders will also read the book and will remove technical obstacles to support corporate rebels who want to improve their engineering culture.

InfoQ: There’s a great quote in the book that resonates with me: "This is not a story about small beating large; it’s fast beats slow." Today every organizations aspire to get to market quicker than the competition, and The Unicorn Project offers hope and a blueprint to any legacy and large organizations. Could you elaborate on what that means and on how we can accomplish this at scale?

Gene Kim: I borrowed that quote from Chris O’Malley, who mentioned this during last year’s DOES panel discussion. The corollary to that is fast and big crushes slow and big and demolishes slow and small. In my mind this is obvious: the majority of economic value that DevOps will create is going to come from the largest brands in every industry vertical because these large companies have the customer base, they have the channels, they have the market expertise, and they have the engineers, 10,000 plus engineers. These large organizations, that invest in DevOps at scale and in breaking down complexity to allow the flow of work and value have every right to win.

InfoQ: You wrote in the book "Technology needs to be embedded in the business, not external to it or merely 'aligned with it'." There is an emphasis in the story on the importance of collaboration among all the various roles involved in the product value stream, and this across technology and business roles, such as architects, developers, testers, designers, suppliers, leaders, etc. That resonates well with me because of the work I do in removing barriers between the business and technology. How do you see the relationship between the business and engineering teams evolving?

Gene Kim: I wanted to explore what it looks like when the product responsibility becomes everyone's job, when security becomes everyone's job, etc. An important theme and goal of my book is to show that when everyone on the  team, from product to development, has the same vision, the same desire to learn about the customers they serve, and the same goal to create value for them, they work better together and create the best products.

Instead, DevOps teams have to wait for product owner to do hand them user stories. That’s just not enough. In fact, one of my favorite lines of the book is when someone says: "we have to go ask the business" and development replies "we're the business, I’m the business, they're not our customer, they are our colleagues!"

I think we need to change the way we’ve organized technology and business. I wanted to show how we treat development teams, and how we treat the business as something external. But business and engineering, more than ever, need to work together to deliver value to their end users.

It’s important teams to be included in some business and product management activities, because if they are only provided with the immediate product backlog without having any understanding of the context or any visibility to the product roadmap, it’s very difficult for them to reconstruct what the real customers' needs are. Having interactions with the customers and listening to them provide developers with the context they need to generate innovation.

InfoQ: There are already a lot of great feedback about the book and about the fact that it dedicates an important place to data-driven and data-enabled digitalization.

Gene Kim: Yes, that’s right, great observation! The Phoenix Project was about DevOps and helping businesses win. The Unicorn Project is a novel about developers, digital disruption, and thriving in the age of data, which is in fact the book’s subtitle. This is so important to me because it's not just about getting data, it's also about enabling developers to learn how to instinctually generate data they can put back into their code, so that they can help the next initiatives after them. We need to get to get better at understanding and getting insights about what customers' needs are, and how we can fulfill their needs. It's also about arming everyone else in the organization with better information. I love Dr. Steven Spear quote: "it's how we can combine the efforts of many to create lasting business advantages for all". I think that's a story about data, we're learning to generate code as data, and that data enables every future effort to achieve better business outcomes.

About the Book Author

Gene Kim is a multiple award-winning CTO, researcher and author, and has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999. He was founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He has written six books, including The Unicorn Project (2019), The Phoenix Project (2013), The DevOps Handbook (2016), the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), and The Visible Ops Handbook (2004-2006) series. Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of the DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations. In 2007, ComputerWorld added Gene to the "40 Innovative IT People to Watch Under the Age of 40" list, and he was named a Computer Science Outstanding Alumnus by Purdue University for achievement and leadership in the profession.


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