An uncomfortable book hits too close to home

Cover art of The Phoenix Project

The CEO (and CIO, and VP of IT) have resigned.

The board president/former CEO has come back from retirement, to quell any potential stockholder revolt. In the last month, stock prices have fallen 30%.

A Mid-level IT Operations Director has been thrust into an interim VP of IT role, to stabilize a big, years-overdue project to fully integrate retail store POS and online sales, which involves getting various IT teams to (gasp!) work together: Servers, DevOps, Engineering, InfoSec, Purchasing, and Client Services. In the course of this, undocumented patch upgrades for one breaks things for others, and deadlines continue to slip. Technical acumen bottlenecks exist, where only “Brent” knows how to do too many things that all other groups rely on.

The SVP of Retail Operations is using this turmoil to lobby for her appointment to be the new CEO.

Oh, and did I mention there’s a SOX-404 Audit going on?

So begins “The Phoenix Project,” by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford, released in 2013.

If there is ever a book that hits so close to home for IT leaders as to be uncomfortable, this is it. The thing I can’t figure out is how I missed it for so long.

A Tulsa CIO Forum colleague offhandedly mentioned this book last Spring, and I immediately downloaded a free 70-page excerpt. For IT leaders, it’s so true to life that it’s a book you can’t put down — after devouring the excerpt in short order, I had no choice but to buy it outright and keep going like it was a Stephen King thriller.

Even when you get that knot in the pit of your stomach because you’ve lived it.

I have to say that it’s not great literature: linguistically, it resembles a lot of business books like “Who Moved My Cheese?” or “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” But it keeps you coming back with familiar anecdotes we’ve all told each other, like “CIO stands for ‘Career Is Over,'” and “IT is like a Utility. No one thinks of us until the lights don’t come on.” Professional IT leaders know that the secret is doing good, meaningful work and trying to avoid the political battles that shorten one’s career lifespan.

But after you get over identifying with The Phoenix Project’s plight, you do get some good tools and approaches. More than anything, those approaches are built around process and people. The process is ways in which IT throughput is not handcrafting, but more closely aligned with manufacturing approaches and the flow of component parts. This resonated with me, someone who started out working in manufacturing and building forecasting models. The people is one of my leadership mantras: People First, Domain Knowledge Second.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I do recommend you give it a look. Even CEOs and other members of the executive leadership team will learn things and maybe come away with a new appreciation.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win: Kim, Gene, Behr, Kevin, Spafford, George: 8601404253799: Amazon.com: Books

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