The Phoenix Project

by David Lutz

The other day I read The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford.

This is not a review as such, but may contain spoilers, so stop reading now if you haven’t read the book. Then go read it! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The characters and scenarios in the book are easily recognisable for anyone who has worked in IT. Sometimes painfully so.

I’ve since found myself pondering some of the decisions made by the main character, Bill. I spend a fair bit of time thinking about what motivates people at work and what’s the secret sauce that makes for a highly effective team.

Bill is the low level team manager suddenly given a promotion and real power in a highly dysfunctional operations team.

Bill wonders what to do about Brent. Brent is the archetypal brilliant guy who knows how everything works. Later Bill realises Brent is also the biggest bottleneck to getting work done. Every small project involves Brent somehow. He makes the technical decisions and has made people other depend on him. The throughput of work for the entire operations team is constrained.

I find myself wondering what the outcome of the project would have been if Bill’s first action was to fire Brent. Would the project have been finished earlier? (I don’t have a moral problem firing a fictitious character in a thought experiment. I wouldn’t do this in real life of course!)

Brent is a rockstar engineer. Lots of organisations have them. Often brilliant. Sometimes eratic. Sometimes unwilling or unable to share their knowledge. I can understand the thinking. “It’ll take me two hours to explain how to do job Y, but 10 minutes if I do it myself. Let me just do it.”

I’ve also come across otherwise smart guys who are of the mistaken belief that if they hold on to a task, something only they know how to do, it’ll ensure job security. These people are knowledge Hoarders.

It doesn’t work. Everyone is replaceable. No matter how talented they are. Sure it may take longer at first to find out how to do that special task, but it will happen without them.

The other kind of people are Sharers. They believe job security comes from  sharing knowledge with colleagues. If everyone in a team thinks this way, people are able to watch each other’s backs and easily step in to each other’s roles. The sum of team knowledge and capability increases. This is a highly effective team. People can even go on vacation in these ones!

I guess this post is playing devil’s advocate against hiring rockstars.

I can’t count the times I’ve seen job ads stating “Rockstar Engineer required.”

Really? Do you want a whole team of them? That might not work out so well.

Interviewing applicants for a role in my team is something that keeps me up at night. Just like nagios! Making a mistake can mean misery for all.

It’s tempting to hire the person who appears to be the smartest, but I urge you to look deeper into what kind of person is best for the team.

Will they be a Sharer or a Hoarder of knowledge.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Phoenix Project

  1. Total agreement with your analysis of “Brent” and was wondering the same as I was reading through, expecting him to be demoted or something. I actually see this kind of behavior as amateurism, if you let become yourself irreplaceable you’re doing it wrong, basically you’re allowing yourself not only to become a single point of failure (the “hit by a bus” issue) but also a major bottleneck.
    That was actually one of the reasons that pushed me away from your analogy with the Rock Band, what are the Doors without Jim Morrison? The Pixies without Frank Black? Nirvana without Kurt Cobain?

  2. Bob

    Brent is a representation of a bottleneck rockstar, but that bottleneck could be because of various reasons.

    Firing Brent is acceptable if Brent doesn’t want to share on purpose.
    But firing Brent is simply an amateurism if Brent can’t share because of looming deadlines and lack of time.

    I once worked with a Brent and asked him how can I help, and his response was “Get 2 people to help me out, I’ve been doing long hours and weekends, sacrificing my personal time.”

    I knew he wasn’t documenting as much on that project because he simply had to meet the deadline. He had been behind on his documentation todos because of this, other things have higher priorities for the business. It’s not his choice to not do the sharing part.
    I’ve known this Brent from various projects, and he was actually the person with the most documentation done on our previous projects. And from his involvement with the open source community (prior to the disastrous project), he was top notch on knowledge sharing.

    From my point of view, bad management can turn a rockstar into a bottleneck.
    Firing the Brents of the world is never the right thing to do.

  3. Whilst I kind of enjoyed the Phoenix project, not mentioning Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal looks wrong to me, so I’m mentioning the book that this was basically a rewrite of.

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