DevOps Institute

8 Key Points from The Unicorn Project

Culture and Human Skills, DevOps Basics, Transformational Leadership

April 2, 2020

By Niladri Choudhuri

I have recently finished reading the latest book by Gene Kim. The Unicorn Project is a great book, easy to read and has plenty of insight. Even though it is made into a fictional story, this is actual learnings from various organizations on their journey.

Key Points from The Unicorn Project

DevOps is about Software Engineering – This book highlights the process of DevOps around the execution of Software Engineering. Ultimately, it is about delivering software faster, safer, better and happier. This cannot be delinked from Software Engineering Principles. Hence, finding a better way of doing Software Engineering in every aspect of it, and looking at it holistically is important for success. Enter the need for the “rebellion” team consisting of experts from every department of software engineering. This point is also highlighted in a recent book by Marc Hornbeek called Engineering DevOps – From Chaos to Continuous Improvement and Beyond.

Transformational Leaders – This book shows the importance and support of the leader. We need someone like Kurt who can make decisions for the greater good even if it is not something that top management may agree on. The buy-in of top management is important and hence we need to have some friends in the bridge group like Ms. Maggie. However, for that, we need to understand their requirements and pain points to  show how it will help solve the problem. We need to demonstrate results and scale gradually rather than trying to go for a big bang approach. Even though sometimes they need to make tough decisions, they still need to be rational and decide on the basis of what is good for the vision of the organization and not on any other factor. An experienced mentor like Erik is good to have. The top management needs to drive hard the organization’s vision to every employee in the organization.

Architecture is Critical – This book also emphasizes the need for good, loosely-coupled architecture. We need to first get the architecture in place and gradually work on technical debt. Again, a big bang approach is not the best option. The expertise and skillset of the people are also equally important. What we also see in this book is the need to have an understanding of the business. We also need to simplify the process, architecture and code. When the IT team understands who is using the product and how and why the outcome is much better. We need to look at outcomes and not deliverables. Designing a good architecture is critical to success.

Technology – We definitely need to use new technologies. We should not be holding on to the old technologies that we are having for years if the needs of the customer has changed. We must start thinking of what technology is needed to deliver the outcome that the customer is looking for which helps in achieving the vision of the organization. Using cloud, containers, immutable infrastructures, etc., are very helpful.

Skills and Experience matters – The book also shows the value of experience. We need people who are experts and not filling up headcounts with numbers. We need experts in each department who comes together and does the work like Brent, Maxine, Shannon, Wes, etc.

Continuous Improvement – Continuous Experimentation, Continuous Learning and Continuous Improvement only can help achieve the outcome that we wish to achieve. If we do not cross-skill and upskill, there is no way that we can keep the pace within and outside.

Collaboration – We need people to come together and solve the problem holistically rather than looking at just their own area. We see how the results improved when the business and all departments (including security) came together and delivered. We also saw collaboration helped in increasing earnings with the new product ideas which came from business and IT helped the Proof of Concept, leading to more revenues from the initiatives. Customer focus is the key to the result.

Culture – This book drives home the importance of Culture Change. It is one of the values of DevOps (CALMS). What we saw was that the culture of the organization changed by doing things differently. We do not change culture by trying to change it. We do things differently together and all the above points mentioned help in finally achieving the new culture that we want.

The 5 Ideals from The Unicorn Project:

  1. Locality and Simplicity – Simple logic and process. The team should be able to make a decision without going outside for permission and the software should be such that it can deliver independently and without dependency on other pieces of code
  2. Focus + Flow + Joy – There is a need to have a flow and not ad-hoc work, focusing on the outcome. An important point here is Joy. People should be having fun working and not getting burnt out. This does not mean that there is no pressure. It means that people enjoy doing what they want to do and what they enjoy doing and do best.
  3. Improvement of Daily Work – Improvement happens only when we try new things and move out of our comfort zone. For that, we need to experiment and practice. This has to be in the DNA of the organization and done as part of the daily work. This requires investment and business SMEs along with tools.
  4. Psychological Safety – Senior Management needs to create an environment of psychological safety. People should be able to feel comfortable making mistakes as mistakes equates to learning. People should be able to come out with bad news and not hide it. Blameless Postmortem is important. We have seen that people like Sarah is used to working in a different way all through their life and needs to change and understand the new way. They also need help to change their way of working.
  5. Customer Focus – We need to continuously think of the customer- what they need and what will help them. In effect, we try to find out what activity we do that the customer is willing to pay money for. We should be doing those activities and deprioritize others. This should be kept in mind for all decisions.


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