Gene Kim is an author who writes about topics like DevOps and the digital age. His works include The Phoenix Project, The Unicorn Project, and The DevOps Handbook. Prior to picking up a pen, Gene served as CTO and founder of Tripwire, was the founder and director of research at IT Process Institute, and worked as an independent director of the Energy Sector Security Consortium in Portland, Oregon. He’s also the founder of the DevOps Enterprise Summit.
Join Corey and Gene as they discuss what it was like to revisit the Parts Unlimited world for The Unicorn Project, where Corey stands on the should I stick around or should I leave the company spectrum, the Five Ideals, how Corey helped Gene zero in on his core audience for The Unicorn Project, what Gene admires about the DevOps Enterprise Summit community, the tremendous impact that Gene believes the DevOps community will have on the future, and more.
About Gene Kim
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 DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.
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Corey Quinn: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. I’m joined this week by a man who needs no introduction but gets one anyway. Gene Kim, most famously known for writing The Phoenix Project
, but now the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of The Unicorn Project
, six years later. Gene, welcome to the show.
Gene Kim: Corey so great to be on. I was just mentioning before how delightful it is to be on the other side of the podcast. And it’s so much smaller in here than I had thought it would be.
Corey Quinn: Excellent. It’s always nice to wind up finally meeting people whose work was seminal and foundational. Once upon a time, when I was a young, angry Unix systems administrator—because it’s not like there’s a second type of Unix administrator—[laughing] The Phoenix Project was one of those texts that was transformational, as far as changing the way I tended to view a lot of what I was working on and gave a glimpse into what could have been a realistic outcome for the world, or the company I was at, but somehow was simultaneously uplifting and incredibly depressing all at the same time. Now, The Unicorn Project does that exact same thing only aimed at developers instead of traditional crusty ops folks.
Gene Kim: [laughing] Yeah, yeah. Very much so. Yeah, The Phoenix Project was very much aimed at ops leadership. So, Bill Palmer, the protagonist of that book was the VP of Operations at Parts Unlimited, and the protagonist in The Unicorn Project is Maxine Chambers, Senior Architect, and Developer, and I love the fact that it’s told in the same timeline as The Phoenix Project, and in the first scene, she is unfairly blamed for causing the payroll outage and is exiled to The Phoenix Project, where she recoils in existential horror and then finds that she can’t do anything herself. She can’t do a build, she can’t run her own tests. She can’t, God forbid, do her own deploys. And I just love the opening third of the book where it really does paint that tundra that many developers find themselves in where they’re just caught in decades of built-up technical debt, unable to do even the simplest things independently, let alone be able to independently develop tests or create value for customers. So, it was fun, very much fun, to revisit the Parts Unlimited universe.
Corey Quinn: What I found that was fun about—there are few things in there I want to unpack. The first is that it really was the, shall we say, retelling of the same story in, quote/unquote, “the same timeframe”, but these books were written six years apart.
Gene Kim: Yeah, and by the way, I want to first acknowledge all the help that you gave me during the editing process. Some of your comments are just so spot on with exactly the feedback I needed at the time and led to the most significant lift to jam a whole bunch of changes in it right before it got turned over to production. Yeah, so The Phoenix Project is told, quote, “in the present day,” and in the same way, The Unicorn Project is also told—takes place in the present day. In fact, they even start, plus or minus, on the same day. And there is a little bit of suspension of disbelief needed, just because there are certain things that are in the common vernacular, very much in zeitgeist now, that weren’t six years ago, like “digital disruption”, even things like Uber and Lyft that feature prominently in the book that were just never mentioned in The Phoenix Project, but yeah, I think it was the story very much told in the same vein as like Ender’s Shadow, where it takes place in the same timeline, but from a different perspective.
Corey Quinn: So, something else that—again, I understand it’s an allegory, and trying to tell an allegorical story while also working it into the form of a fictional work is incredibly complicated. That’s something that I don’t think people can really appreciate until they’ve tried to do something like it. But I still found myself, at various times, reading through the book and wondering, asking myself questions that, I guess, say more about me than they do about anyone else. But it’s, “Wow, she’s at a company that is pretty much scapegoating her and blaming her for all of us. Why isn’t she quitting? Why isn’t she screaming at people? Why isn’t she punching the boss right in their stupid, condescending face and storming out of the office?” And I’m wondering how much of that is my own challenges as far as how life goes, as well as how much of it is just there for, I guess, narrative devices. It needed to wind up being someone who would not storm out when push came to shove.
Gene Kim: But yeah, I think she actually does the last of the third thing that you mentioned where she does slam the sheet of paper down and say, “Man, you said the outage is caused by a technical failure and a human error, and now you’re telling me I’m the human error?” And just cannot believe that she’s been put in that position. Yeah, so thanks to your feedback and the others, she actually does shop her resume around. And starts putting out feelers, because this is no longer feeling like the great place to work that attracted her, eight years prior. The reality is for most people, is that it’s sometimes difficult to get a new job overnight, even if you want to. But I think that Maxine stays because she believes in the mission. She takes a great deal of pride of what she’s created over the years, and I think like most great brands, they do create a sense of mission and there’s a deep sense of the customers they serve. And, there’s something very satisfying about the work to her. And yeah, I think she is very much, for a couple of weeks, very much always thinking about, she won’t be here for long, one way or another, but by the time she stumbles into the rebellion, the crazy group of misfits, the ragtag bunch of misfits, who are trying to find better ways of working and willing to break whatever rules it takes to take over the very ancient powerful order, she falls in love with a group. She found a group of kindred spirits who very much, like her, believe that developer productivity is one of the most important things that we can do as an organization. So, by the time that she looks up with that group, I mean, I think she’s all thoughts of leaving are gone.
Corey Quinn: Right. And the idea of, if you stick around, you can theoretically change things for the better is extraordinarily compelling. The challenge I’ve seen is that as I navigate the world, I’ve met a number of very gifted employees who, frankly wind up demonstrating that same level of loyalty and same kind of loyalty to companies that are absolutely not worthy of them. So my question has always been, when do I stick around versus when do I leave? I’m very far on the bailout as early as humanly possible side of that spectrum. It’s why I’m a great consultant but an absolutely terrible employee.
Gene Kim: [laughing] Well, so we were honored to have you at the DevOps Enterprise Summit
. And you’ve probably seen that The Unicorn Project
book is really dedicated to the achievements of the DevOps Enterprise community. It’s certainly inspired by and dedicated to their efforts. And I think what was so inspirational to me were all these courageous leaders who are—they know what the mission is. I mean, they viscerally understand what the mission is and understand that the ways of working aren’t working so well and are doing whatever they can to create better ways of working that are safer, faster, and happier. And I think what is so magnificent about so many of their journeys is that their organization in response says, “Thank you. That’s amazing. Can we put you in a position of even more authority that will allow you to even make a more material, more impactful contribution to the organization?” And so it’s been my observation, having run the conference for, now, six years, going on seven years is that this is a population that is being out promoted—has been promoted at a rate far higher than the population at large. And so for me, that’s just an incredible story of grit and determination. And so yeah, where does grit and determination becomes sort of blind loyalty? That’s ultimately self-punishing? That’s a deep question that I’ve never really studied. But I certainly do understand that there is a time when no amount of perseverance and grit will get from here to there, and that’s a fact.
Corey Quinn: I think that it’s a really interesting narrative, just to see it, how it tends to evolve, but also, I guess, for lack of a better term, and please don’t hold this against me, it seems in many ways to speak to a very academic perspective, and I don’t mean that as an insult. Now, the real interesting question is why I would think, well—why would accusing someone of being academic ever be considered as an insult, but my academic career was fascinating. It feels like it aligns very well with The Five Ideals, which is something that you have been talking about significantly for a long time. And in an academic setting that seems to make sense, but I don’t see it thought of or spoken of in the same way on the ground. So first, can you start off by giving us an intro to what The Five Ideals are, and I guess maybe disambiguate the theory from the practice?
Gene Kim: Oh for sure, yeah. So The Five Ideals are— oh, let’s go back one step. So The Phoenix Project had The Three Ways, which were the principles for which you can derive all the observed DevOps practices from and The Four Types of Work. And so in The Five Ideals I used the concept of The Five Ideals and they are—the first—
Corey Quinn: And the next version of The Nine whatever you call them at that point, I’m sure. It’s a geometric progression.
Gene Kim: Right or actually, isn’t it the pri—oh, no. four isn’t, four isn’t prime. Yeah, yeah, I don’t know. So, The Five Ideals is a nice small number and it was just really meant to verbalize things that I thought were very important, things I just gravitate towards. One is Locality and Simplicity. And briefly, that’s just, to what degree can teams do what they need to do independently without having to coordinate, communicate, prioritize, sequence, marshal, deconflict, with scores of other teams. The Second Ideal is what I think the outcomes are when you have that, which is Focus, Flow and Joy. And so, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, he describes flow as a state when we are so engrossed in the work we love that we lose track of time and even sense of self. And that’s been very much my experience, coding ever since I learned Clojure, this functional programming language. Third Ideal is Improvement of Daily Work, which shows up in The Phoenix Project to say that improvement daily work is even more important than daily work itself. Fourth Ideal is Psychological Safety, which shows up in the State of DevOps Report, but showed up prominently in Google’s Project Oxygen, and even in the Toyota production process where clearly it has to be—in order for someone to pull the andon cord that potentially stops the assembly line, you have to have an environment where it’s psychologically safe to do so. And then Fifth Ideal is Customer Focus, really focus on core competencies that create enduring, durable business value that customers are willing to pay for, versus context, which is everything else. And yeah, to answer your question, Where did it come from? Why do I think it is important? Why do I focus on that? For me, it’s really coming from the State of DevOps Report, that I did with Dr. Nicole Forsgren and Jez Humble. And so, beyond all the numbers and the metrics and the technical practices and the architectural practices and the cultural norms, for me, what that really tells the story of is of The Five Ideals, as to what one of them is very much a need for architecture that allows teams to work independently, having a higher predictor of even, continuous delivery. I love that. And that from the individual perspective, the ideal being, that allows us to focus on the work we want to do to help achieve the mission with a sense of flow and joy. And then really elevating the notion that greatness isn’t free, we need to improve daily work, we have to make it psychologically safe to talk about problems. And then the last one really being, can we really unflinchingly look at the work we do on an everyday basis and ask, what the customers care about it? And if customers don’t care about it, can we question whether that work really should be done or not. So that’s where for me, it’s really meant to speak to some more visceral emotions that were concretized and validated through the State of DevOps Report. But these notions I am just very attracted to.
Corey Quinn: I like the idea of it. The question, of course, is always how to put these into daily practice. How do you take these from an idealized—well, let’s not call it a textbook, but something very similar to that—and apply it to the I guess, uncontrolled chaos that is the day-to-day life of an awful lot of people in their daily jobs.
Gene Kim: Yeah. Right. So, the protagonist is Maxine and her role in the story, in the beginning, is just to recognize what not great looks like. She’s lived and created greatness for all of her career. And then she gets exiled to this terrible Phoenix project that chews up developers and spits them out and they leave these husks of people they used to be. And so, she’s not doing a lot of problem-solving. Instead, it’s this recoiling from the inability for people to do builds or do their own tests or be able to do work without having to open up 20 different tickets or not being able to do their own deploys. She just recoil from this spending five days watching people do code merges, and for me, I’m hoping that what this will do, and after people read the book, will see this all around them, hopefully, will have a similar kind of recoiling reaction where they say, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible. I should feel as bad about this as Maxine does, and then maybe even find my fellow rebels and see if we can create a pocket of greatness that can become like the sublimation event in Dr. Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Create that kernel of greatness, of which then greatness then finds itself surrounded by even more greatness.
Corey Quinn: What I always found to be fascinating about your work is how you wind up tying so many different concepts together in ways you wouldn’t necessarily expect. For example, when I was reviewing one of your manuscripts before this went to print, you did reject one of my suggestions, which was just, retitle the entire thing. Instead of calling it The Unicorn Project. Instead, call it Gene Kim’s Love Letter to Functional Programming. So what is up with that?
Gene Kim: Yeah, to put that into context, for 25 years or more, I’ve self-identified as an ops person. The Phoenix Project was really an ops book. And that was despite getting my graduate degree in compiler design and high-speed networking in 1995. And the reason why I gravitated towards ops, because that was my observation, that that’s where the saves were made. It was ops who saved the customer from horrendous, terrible developers who just kept on putting things into production that would then blow up and take everyone with it. It was ops protecting us from the bad adversaries who were trying to steal data because security people were so ineffective. But four years ago, I learned a functional programming language called Clojure and, without a doubt, it reintroduced the joy of coding back into my life and now, in a good month, I spend half the time—in the ideal—writing, half the time hanging out with the best in the game, of which I would consider this to be a part of, and then 20% of time coding. And I find for the first time in my career, in over 30 years of coding, I can write something for years on end, without it collapsing in on itself, like a house of cards. And that is an amazing feeling, to say that maybe it wasn’t my inability, or my lack of experience, or my lack of sensibilities, but maybe it was just that I was sort of using the wrong tool to think with. That comes from the French philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss. He said of certain things, “Is it a good tool to think with?” And I just find functional programming is such a better tool to think with, that notions like composability, like immutability, what I find so exciting is that these things aren’t just for programming languages. And some other programming languages that follow the same vein are, OCaml, Lisp, ML, Elixir, Haskell. These all languages that are sort of popularizing functional programming, but what I find so exciting is that we see it in infrastructure and operations, too. So Docker is fundamentally immutable. So if you want to change a container, we have to make a new one. Kubernetes composes these containers together at the level of system of systems. Kafka is amazing because it usually reveals the desire to have this immutable data model where you can’t change the past. Version control is immutable. So, I think it’s no surprise that as our systems get more and more complex and distributed, we’re relying on things like immutability, just to make it so that we can reason about them. So, it is something I love addressing in the book, and it’s something I decided to double down on after you mentioned it. I’m just saying, all kidding aside is this a book for—
Corey Quinn: Oh good, I got to make it worse. Always excited when that happens.
Gene Kim: Yeah, I mean, your suggestion really brought to the forefront a very critical decision, which was, is this a book for technology leaders, or even business leaders, or is this a book developers? And, after a lot of soul searching, I decided no, this is a book for developers, because I think the sensibilities that we need to instill and the awareness we need to create these things around are the developers and then you just hope and pray that the book will be good enough that if enough engineers like it, then engineering leaders will like it. And if enough engineering leaders like it, then maybe some business leaders will read it as well. So that’s something I’m eagerly seeing what will happen as the weeks, months, and years go by.
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Corey Quinn: One thing that I always admired about your writing is that you can start off trying to make a point about one particular aspect of things. And along the way you tie in so many different things, and the functional programming is just one aspect of this. At some point, by the end of it, I half expected you to just pick a fight over vi versus Emacs, just for the sheer joy you get in effectively drawing interesting and, I guess, shall we say, the right level of conflict into it, where it seems very clear that what you’re talking about is something thing that has the potential to be transformative and by throwing things like that in you’re, on some level, roping people in who otherwise wouldn’t weigh in at all. But it’s really neat to watch once you have people’s attention, just almost in spite of what they want, you teach them something. I don’t know if that’s a fair accusation or not, but it’s very much I’m left with the sense that what you’re doing has definite impact and reverberations throughout larger industries.
Gene Kim: Yeah, I hope so. In fact, just to reveal this kind of insecurity is, there’s an author I’ve read a lot of and she actually read this blog post that she wrote about the worst novel to write, and she called it The Yeomans Tour of the Starship Enterprise. And she says, “The book begins like this: it’s a Yeoman on the Starship Enterprise, and all he does is admire the dilithium crystals, and the phaser, and talk about the specifications of the engine room.” And I sometimes worry that that’s what I’ve done in The Unicorn Project, but hopefully—I did want to have that technical detail there and share some things that I love about technology and the things I hate about technology, like YAML files, and integrate that into the narrative because I think it is important. And I would like to think that people reading it appreciate things like our mutual distaste of YAML files, that we’ve all struggled trying to escape spaces and file names inside of make files. I mean, these are the things that are puzzles we have to solve, but they’re so far removed from the business problem we’re trying to solve that really, the purpose of that was trying to show the mistake of solving puzzles in our daily work instead of solving real problems.
Corey Quinn: One thing that I found was really a one-two punch, for me at least, was first I read and give feedback on the book and then relatively quickly thereafter, I found myself at my first DevOps Enterprise Summit, and I feel like on some level, I may have been misinterpreted when I was doing my live-tweeting/shitposting-with-style during a lot of the opening keynotes, and the rest, where I was focusing on how different of a conference it was. Unlike a typical DevOps Days or big cloud event, it wasn’t a whole bunch of relatively recent software startups. There were serious institutions coming out to have conversations. We’re talking USAA, we’re talking to US Air Force, we’re talking large banks, we’re talking companies that have a 200-year history, where you don’t get to just throw everything away and start over. These are companies that by and large, have, in many ways, felt excluded to some extent, from the modern discussions of, well, we’re going to write some stuff late at night, and by the following morning, it’s in production. You don’t get to do that when you’re a 200-year-old insurance company. And I feel like that was on some level interpreted as me making fun of startups for quote/unquote, “not being serious,” which was never my intention. It’s just this was a different conversation series for a different audience who has vastly different constraints. And I found it incredibly compelling and I intend to go back.
Gene Kim: Well, that’s wonderful. And, in fact, we have plans for you, Mr. Quinn.
Corey Quinn: Uh-oh.
Gene Kim: Yeah. I think when I say I admire the DevOps Enterprise community. I mean that I’m just so many different dimensions. The fact that these, leaders and—it’s not leaders just in terms of seniority on the organization chart—these are people who are leading technology efforts to survive and win in the marketplace. In organizations that have been around sometimes for centuries, Barclays Bank was founded in the year 1634. That predates the invention of paper cash. HMRC, the UK version of the IRS was founded in the year 1200. And, so there’s probably no code that goes that far back, but there’s certainly values and—
Corey Quinn: Well, you’d like to hope not.
Gene Kim: Yeah, right. You never know. But there are certainly values and traditions and maybe even processes that go back centuries. And so that’s what’s helped these organizations be successful. And here are a next generation of leaders, trying to make sure that these organizations see another century of greatness. So I think that’s, in my mind, deeply admirable.
Corey Quinn: Very much so. And my only concern was, I was just hoping that people didn’t misinterpret my snark and sarcasm as aimed at, “Oh, look at these crappy—these companies are real companies and all those crappy SAS companies are just flashes in the pan.” No, I don’t believe that members of the Fortune 500 are flash in the pan companies, with a couple notable exceptions who I will not name now, because I might want some of them on this podcast someday. The concern that I have is that everyone’s work is valuable. Everyone’s work is important. And what I’m seeing historically, and something that you’ve nailed, is a certain lack of stories that apply to some of those organizations that are, for lack of a better term, ossified into their current process model, where they there’s no clear path for them to break into, quote/unquote, “doing the DevOps.”
Gene Kim: Yeah. And the business frame and the imperative for it is incredible. Tesla is now offering auto insurance bundled into the car. Banks are now having to compete with Apple. I mean, it is just breathtaking to see how competitive the marketplaces and the need to understand the customer and deliver value to them quickly and to be able to experiment and innovate and out-innovate the competition. I don’t think there’s any business leader on the planet who doesn’t understand that software is eating the world and they have to that any level of investment they do involves software at some level. And so the question is, for them, is how do they get educated enough to invest and manage and lead competently? So, to me it really is like the sleeping giant awakening. And it’s my genuine belief is that the next 50 years, as much value as the tech giants have created: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, they’ve generated trillions of dollars of economic value. When we can get eighteen million developers, as productive as an engineer at a tech giant is, that will generate tens of trillions of dollars of economic value per year. And so, when you generate that much economic activity, all problems become solvable, you look at climate change, you take a look at the disparity between rich and poor. All things can be fixed when you significantly change the economic economy in this way. So, I’m extremely hopeful and I know that the need for things like DevOps are urgent and important.
Corey Quinn: I guess that that’s probably the best way of framing this. So you wrote one version that was aimed at operators back in 2013, this one was aimed at developers, and effectively retails and clarifies an awful lot of the same points. As a historical ops person, I didn’t feel left behind by The Unicorn Project, despite not being its target market. So I guess the question on everyone’s mind, are you planning on doing a third iteration, and if so, for what demographic?
Gene Kim: Yeah, nothing at this point, but there is one thing that I’m interested in which is the role of business leaders. And Sarah is an interesting villain. One of my favorite pieces of feedback during the review process was, “I didn’t think I could ever hate Sarah more. And yet, I did find her even to be more loathsome than before.” She’s actually based on a real person, someone that I worked with.
Corey Quinn: That’s the best part, is these characters are relatable enough that everyone can map people they know onto various aspects of them, but can’t ever disclose the entire list in public because that apparently has career consequences.
Gene Kim: That’s right. Yes, I will not say who the character is based on but there’s, in the last scene of the book that went to print, Sarah has an interesting interaction with Maxine, where they meet for lunch. And, I think the line was, “And it wasn’t what Maxine had thought, and she’s actually looking forward to the next meeting.” I think that leaves room for it. So one of the things I want to do with some friends and colleagues is just understand, why does Sarah act the way she does? I think we’ve all worked with someone like her. And there are some that are genuinely bad actors, but I think a lot of them are doing something, based on genuine, real motives. And it would be fun, I thought, to do something with Elizabeth Henderson, who we decided to start having a conversation like, what does she read? What is her background? What is she good at? What does her resume look like? And what caused her to—who in technology treated her so badly that she treats technology so badly? And why does she behave the way she does? And so I think she reads a lot of strategy books. I think she is not a great people manager, I think she maybe has come from the mergers and acquisition route that viewed people as fungible. And yeah, I think she is definitely a creature of economics, was lured by an external investor, about how good it can be if you can extract value out of the company, squeeze every bit of—sweat every asset and sell the company for parts. So I would just love to have a better understanding of, when people say they work with someone like a Sarah, is there a commonality to that? And can we better understand Sarah so that we can both work with her and also, compete better against her, in our own organizations?
Corey Quinn: I think that’s probably a question best left for people to figure out on their own, in a circumstance where I can’t possibly be blamed for it.
Gene Kim: [laughing].That can be arranged, Mr. Quinn.
Corey Quinn: All right. Well, if people want to learn more about your thoughts, ideas, feelings around these things, or of course to buy the book, where can they find you?
Gene Kim: If you’re interested in the ideas that are in The Unicorn Project
, I would point you to all of the freely available videos on YouTube. Just Google DevOps Enterprise Summit and anything that’s on the plenary stage are specifically chosen stories that very much informed The Unicorn Project
. And the best way to reach me is probably on Twitter. I’m @RealGeneKim
on Twitter, and feel free to just @ mention me, or DM me. Happy to be reached out in whatever way you can find me.
Corey Quinn: You know where the hate mail goes then. Gene, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, I appreciate it.
Gene Kim: And Corey, likewise, and again, thank you so much for your unflinching feedback on the book and I hope you see your fingerprints all over it and I’m just so delighted with the way it came out. So thanks to you, Corey.
Corey Quinn: As soon as my signed copy shows up, you’ll be the first to know.
Gene Kim: Consider it done.
Corey Quinn: Excellent, excellent. That’s the trick, is to ask people for something in a scenario in which they cannot possibly say no. Gene Kim, multiple award-winning CTO, researcher, and author. Pick up his new book, The Wall Street Journal best-selling The Unicorn Project. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts. If you hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on Apple Podcasts and leave a compelling comment.
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