The Unicorn Project – Review

The Unicorn Project Review

It’s been a while since my last book review of “The Revenue Marketing Book“… Covid lockdowns are not helping me find a bit of free time for reading!

This time around, I’ve decided to de-route from my usual marketing readings and go for something more engineering-related. I don’t remember how I’ve discovered “The Unicorn project” but I’m glad I have. This book by Gene Kim is a little masterpiece.

Why I loved The Unicorn Project

If I’ll ever decide to write a book, this is gonna be my point of reference. It’s a non-fiction book written in the style of a novel. Something that I’ve always found amazing when well executed.

The closest comparison is another of my favorite books, “The Goal“, a business book around efficiency and how to deal with bottlenecks in manufacturing written as a fiction book.

What I love about both books is how enjoyable they are to read. By the end you’ll realize you’ve learned a lot on very technical matters but while enjoying a well-written novel that is a real page-turner.

Let’s get back to “The Unicorn Project”. The book follows the adventures of Maxine, an experienced software engineer who’s unfairly moved by her boss to the phoenix project… one of the most important software development projects of the company… and also a complete train wreck with hundreds of developers allocated, millions of dollars spent and not a single working milestone.

I don’t want to spoiler too much of the story. Still, Maxine is quickly enrolled in “The Rebellion”, a group of cross-functional, extremely talented people involved in the phoenix project who are trying to save the project by ignoring corporate rules and trying to bring software development best practices within the project to pay off the huge technical debt and enable developers, IT, DevOps, QA and marketing to do their job effectively.

Gosh… I’ve seen this problem so many times in real life. Like revenue marketing focuses on the importance of bringing down silos in marketing, sales, customer success, “The unicorn project” is an ode to removing silos in software development.

The Unicorn Project core concepts

As the story unfolds, the narration reveals the 5 core ideas behind the book:

The 5 ideals that this book talks about are:

  • Locality and Simplicity:  Simple process and architecture that allows every team to be self-sustained and able to make decisions without too many interdependencies. Each team should be able to deliver value independently.
  • Focus + Flow + Joy:  The point here is around each development team having a clear focus, a simple flow to follow, and most of all enjoy what they are doing. This is not about removing pressure, deadlines, etc. It’s about enabling people to work on what they do best without distractions and following best practices.
  • Improvement of Daily Work: Improvement happens when you are allowed to experiment, try new things and fail. Only exiting from the comfort zone improvement happens. This needs to be in the company DNA.
  • Psychological Safety:  This is really not just needed in software development. In my experience, this needs to be true company-wide. Senior Management has to create an environment of safety. Only when people feel comfortable in making mistakes and failing you can generate true progress for the company.
  • Customer Focus:  In the novel, true business results and revenue are delivered only when Maggie and the whole team start talking with customers and employees in every department to understand what are the real pain points that the software can fix. Before this epiphany, most of the team was busy building features no one cared about.

Book Details

My Vote: 8

Author: Gene Kim
Price: $13.85 for the Kindle version
Purchase: Amazon Kindle
Pages: 352
Publication Date: November 26, 2019

Conclusions

I strongly recommend this book, not only to anyone involved in IT, but also to the senior managers of every company that has a strong technology component (any company nowadays).

The one thing you should be aware of is that the book is set in a traditional enterprise selling auto components. It’s not a book about Startups. And likely the software development setup of a tech startup is not gonna be as broken or messy as the one narrated in this book. Nonetheless, even if you are a startup and already following all the latest best practices, this book will be a joy to read and provide useful insights and ideas.

PS: If you’ve read this book or “The Goal” I’d love to hear your feedback on writing a technical book in the form of a novel.

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