Book Review–The Phoenix Project

Rating – Highly Recommend

When I sat down to start writing this review, it was almost 11:30 PM on Friday night.  For some reason, I’m wired even though I’m running on about five hours of sleep total.  My mind is racing, and I can’t get it to settle down.  So, I’ve decided to try writing my first book review instead.

I’ve just finished reading The Phoenix Project (Amazon)(Barnes and Noble) – a book about how IT is intertwined with the business and is now a critical role in it’s success or failure.  Modern businesses live and die by the information that is contained in and produced by those system.  If they don’t work, the business doesn’t work either.

The book follows Bill, a mid-level IT manager who gets gets a surprise promotion to acting VP of IT Operations one morning and has to take charge of an IT Operations group that is overworked to the point of being dysfunctional.  The group is sorely lacking in basic IT practices like adequate change control procedures that cause numerous severity 1 outages that bring the business to its knees, poor relationships with other departments, no budget, and most of the knowledge living inside the head of the senior systems architect.  At the start, Bill has to scrape by with what he has.

Bill is accompanied on this journey by Patty and Wes, the two department managers within IT Operations who act as Bill’s superego and id respectively; Brent, the systems architect who is the cause of, and solution to, many of the problems they face early on; John, the CISO who is loathed by everyone around him; and Steve, the CEO of “Parts Unlimited” who promoted him. 

Other key players include members of the senior management staff such as Chris, the acting CIO and head of Development, Dick, the CFO/COO, and Sarah, the …um…ambitious and troublemaking VP of Retail Operations and the driving force behind Project Phoenix, the expensive and expansive IT project that “Parts Unlimited” has staked its future on.

The story wouldn’t be complete without the enigmatic Eric, a prospective board member who acts as an eccentric mentor to Bill, John, and others at Parts Unlimited.  It is through Eric that Bill is introduced to many of the bits and pieces that will transform him and the Parts Unlimited IT Team.  In some senses, he’s the Yoda or Dumbledore to Bill’s Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter by not always giving the answers or answering with another question.  Eric also comes off as an author avatar at times to discuss the concepts that the book is trying to teach.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, because they allow Bill to reach many of the conclusions himself.

Overall, the characters are flat.  I’m not sure if they were intentionally designed to be that way to act as self-inserts or if it is because the authors are trying to present a management text as a work of fiction.  Either way, its not too big of a detriment to the concepts that the book is trying to teach.

There are a number of factors that come off a little too unrealistic for my tastes – the changes happen very quickly and without much resistance, or everyone comes around in the end to that way of doing things.  Or Wes falling in line under Bill rather quickly.  But like I said with the characterizations, this isn’t critical to what the book is trying to accomplish.

Where The Phoenix Project excels is breaking down the ideas behind lean operations such as kanban and the Toyota Production System and presenting them to technical people who might not have been exposed to them.  It also does a good job avoiding overly technical jargon and of comparing IT operations to that of a factory floor in order to make it accessible to non-technical managers who want, or need, to know about IT and how it relates to and integrates with the operation of a business.

It’s also spurred my interest in learning more about some of the lean manufacturing and continuous improvement process techniques.  I’m not the management type – I see myself as more of a systems architect – but I can see how techniques that are used on a production floor can be applied to improving IT operations – even if it is something as simple as automating routine operations like account creation or virtual machine deployments.  It also gives me an excuse to dig out my copy of Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal that I received from a former boss of mine as it is heavily referenced in the book.

The Phoenix Project would have been a great book for my boss at my last job.  She had been hired to oversee one department and had IT tacked onto it as one area of responsibility.  This would have given her a management-level perspective of what IT is about and would have better prepared her for managing that group without bogging her down in technical minutia.  This isn’t meant as a slam against her – in the year I worked under her, she learned a lot about IT and was able to instill a customer-oriented focus in the organization, but this type of resource may have better prepared her for the challenges that overseeing an IT Department presented and helped us better address the bottlenecks that we had as a department as a result of the focus change.

Provided that this book is approached as a management text disguised as a novel, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in IT, especially if they aspire to a management or senior technical role.  I also think this book would be a good read for non-technical senior management.