Chapter 1: Wednesday, September 3 – The Unicorn Project


• Wednesday, September 3

“You’re doing what?” Maxine blurts out, staring in disbelief at Chris, VP of R&D at Parts Unlimited.

Chris smiles weakly from behind his desk. Even he realizes how absurd he sounds, Maxine thinks.

“Maxine, I’m really sorry about this. I know it’s a terrible way to come back from vacation, but this payroll outage created an incredible crap storm. The CEO and CFO wanted heads to roll. We agonized about this for days, but I think we came up with a pretty good solution … after all, no one is getting fired.”

Maxine slaps the printed copy of his email onto his desk. “You say right here that it was caused by ‘human error and a technology failure.’ And now you say that I’m the ‘human error’? After all that time we spent together deciding how to resolve that compliance finding, you’re placing all the blame on me? What sort of bullshit is this?” She glares at him furiously.

“I know, I know … It’s not right,” Chris says, squirming under Maxine’s intense gaze. “Everyone here values your incredible skills and talents and your fantastic contributions to the company over the last eight years—no one actually believes it was your fault. But the payroll issue was front-page news! Dick had to give a quote to keep the unions from filing a grievance! Given all that, I felt like we came up with the best solution in a pretty awful situation.”

“So you blame the person who was on vacation because that person couldn’t defend herself?” Maxine says in disgust. “That’s really admirable, Chris. Which leadership book did you get that from?”

“Come on, Max, you know I’m your biggest fan and biggest defender. In fact, take this as a huge compliment—you have one of the most stellar reputations of anyone in IT,” Chris says.

Blaming someone for a payroll outage is a strange way of appreciating someone, she thinks.

He continues, “Everyone knows that this isn’t actually your fault. Just think of this as a vacation—you can work on anything you want, and you won’t have any real responsibilities if you don’t want.”

Maxine is about to respond when she thinks about what she just heard. “Wait, treat exactly what like a vacation, Chris?”

“Uh …” Chris stammers, buckling under her stare. Maxine let’s him squirm. As a woman in what remains a largely male dominated profession, she knows her directness might be contributing to Chris’ discomfort, but she will always stand up for herself.

“… I promised Steve and Dick that I’d put you in a role where you couldn’t make any production changes anymore,” Chris says, squirming. “So, uh, effective immediately, you’re moving from the manufacturing plant ERP systems to help with documentation for the Phoenix Project …”

“You’re sending me to …” Maxine can’t breathe. She can’t believe what she’s hearing.

“Look, Max, all you have to do is lie low for four months. Then you can come back and have your choice of any project you want to work on, okay?” Chris says. Smiling weakly, he adds, “See, like a vacation, right?”

“Oh, my God …” she says, finding her voice again. “You’re sending me to the Phoenix Project?!” she nearly yells. Maxine immediately kicks herself for this brief moment of weakness. She takes a deep breath, adjusts her blazer, and pulls herself together.

“This is bullshit, Chris, and you know it!” she says right into his face, pointing her finger at him.

Maxine’s mind races, thinking about what she knows about the Phoenix Project. None of it is good. For years, it’s been the company death-march project, having ensnared hundreds of developers, achieving unprecedented levels of notoriety. Maxine is pretty sure that the reason nothing is going right is simply because they’re not doing anything right.

Despite the Phoenix Project’s obvious failures, it keeps going. With the rise of e-commerce and the decline of physical stores, everyone knows something has to be done to ensure that Parts Unlimited stays relevant in the increasingly digital age.

Parts Unlimited is still one of the largest players in the industry, with nearly a thousand stores across the nation. But there are times when Maxine wonders how the company will fare beyond its hundredth anniversary, which wasn’t that long ago.

The Phoenix Project is supposed to be the solution, the shining hope that will lead the company into the future. It’s now three years late (and counting) and $20 million has disappeared, with nothing to show for it except developer suffering. It stinks of impending failure, which will have grave implications for the company.

“You’re going to take one of your best people and exile her to the Phoenix Project because you need a fall guy for the payroll outage?” Maxine says, her frustration boiling over. “This is not a compliment—this is the best way that you can say, ‘Screw you, Maxine!’ Hell, there’s probably nothing in Phoenix that is even worth documenting! Unless it’s to document incompetence? This is like labeling all the deck chairs on the Titanic. Have I said that this is bullshit already, Chris?”

“I’m sorry, Maxine,” Chris says, throwing up his hands. “It’s the best I could do for you. Like I said, no one is actually blaming you. Just do your time and it’ll all go back to normal soon enough.”

Maxine sits, closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and steeples her hands in front of her, trying to think.

“Okay, okay …” she says. “You need a fall guy. I get it. I can take the blame for this whole fiasco. That’s cool, that’s cool … that’s how business is done at times, right? No hard feelings. Just … put me to work in the cafeteria or in vendor management. I don’t care. Anywhere but the Phoenix Project.”

Listening to herself, Maxine’s aware that in less than two minutes she’s moved from denial to anger and is now in full-blown bargaining mode. She’s pretty sure she’s missed a step in the Kübler-Ross grief cycle, but at the moment she can’t think of which one.

“Chris,” she continues. “I have nothing against documentation. Everyone deserves good documentation. But there are tons of places that need documentation way more than Phoenix does. Let me go make a bigger impact somewhere else. Just give me an hour or two to come up with some ideas.”

“Look, Maxine. I hired you eight years ago because of your amazing skills and experience. Everyone knows you enable teams to do the impossible with software,” Chris says. “That’s why I fought for you, and why you’ve led the software teams that are responsible for all our supply chains and internal manufacturing processes for all twenty-three manufacturing plants. I know how good you are … But, Maxine, I’ve done everything I can. Unfortunately, the decision has already been made. Just do your time, don’t rock the boat, and come back when everything blows over,” he says, looking so remorseful that Maxine actually believes him.

“There are executives being shot left and right, and not just over this fiasco,” Chris continues. “The board of directors just stripped Steve Masters of the chairmanship, so now he’s just CEO. And both the CIO and VP of IT Operations were fired yesterday, no explanations given, so Steve is now acting CIO too. Absolutely everyone is worried that there is going to be even more blood in the streets …”

Chris looks to make sure the door is closed and, in a lower voice, says, “And there are rumors of potentially even bigger and more sweeping changes coming …”

Chris pauses, as if he might have said too much. He continues, “Look, whenever you’re ready, go get yourself set up with Randy, the Phoenix development manager—he’s a good guy. Like I said, think of this as a four-month vacation. Seriously, do whatever you think will be helpful. Heck, you don’t need to do anything at all. Just keep your head down. Don’t rock the boat. And whatever you do, just stay off Steve and Dick’s radar. Sound good?”

Maxine squints at Chris as he name-drops Steve Masters and Dick Landry, the CEO and CFO of Parts Unlimited. She sees them every other month during the company Town Halls. How did she go from a two-week vacation seeing the wondrous sights of Kuala Lumpur to having Chris dump all this crap on her?

“Maxine, I’m serious. Just lie low, don’t rock the boat, stay clear of outages, and everything will be fine, okay? Just thank your lucky stars you weren’t fired for the payroll issue like the two other people were last year,” Chris implores.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t rock the boat,” she says, standing up. “See you in four months. And you’re welcome for helping you keep your job. Super classy, Chris.”

Chris is actually getting more spineless each year, she thinks, storming out of the room. She considers slamming the door, but instead closes it … decisively. She hears him say, “Please don’t rock the boat, Maxine!”

When she’s out of sight, she leans against the wall. Tears well up. Suddenly she remembers the missing step in the Kübler-Ross cycle after bargaining: depression.

Maxine slowly makes her way back to her desk. Her old desk. Where she used to work.

Maxine can’t believe this is happening to her. Trying to counter all the negative self-talk flying through her head, she reminds herself of her qualifications. She knows that for the past twenty-five years, her job has been to bend technology to do her bidding—efficiently, effectively, precisely, with creativity and flair, and most importantly, competence.

She knows she has unmatched real-world experience building systems that run under adverse and even hostile environments. She possesses a fantastic intuition about which technologies are best suited to achieve the mission at hand. She is responsible, meticulous, and careful about her work, and she insists on the same level of excellence and diligence from everyone around her. After all, dammit, I was one of the most sought after consultants at the top Fortune 50 companies, Maxine reminds herself.

Maxine stops mid-stride. Even though she is a stickler for details and doing things right, she has learned that mistakes and entropy are a fact of life. She’s seen the corrosive effects that a culture of fear creates, where mistakes are routinely punished and scapegoats fired. Punishing failure and “shooting the messenger” only cause people to hide their mistakes, and eventually, all desire to innovate is completely extinguished.

During her consulting days, she could always tell, usually within hours, whether people were afraid to say what they really thought. It drove her crazy when people were careful about how they phrased things, speaking obliquely and going to extreme lengths to avoid using certain forbidden words. She hated those engagements and would do everything she could to convince the client to end the project, saving them time, money, and suffering.

She can’t believe she’s starting to see these red flags at Parts Unlimited.

Maxine thinks, I expect leaders to buffer their people from all the political and bureaucratic insanity, not throw them into it.

Only yesterday, she and her family were getting off of a nearly twenty-hour flight back from Kuala Lumpur. When she turned her phone on, it nearly melted from all the incoming messages. While Jake and her two kids went to find food in the airport, she finally got ahold of Chris.

He told her about the payroll failure and filled her in on the mayhem. She listened carefully, but her heart stopped when she heard Chris say “… and we discovered that all the Social Security numbers in the payroll database were corrupted.”

She broke out in a cold sweat, her hands tingled, and there was ice in her blood. For what felt like a lifetime, she couldn’t breathe. She knew. “It was the tokenization security application, right?”

She cursed loudly. Parents all around herded their young kids away from her on the airport concourse. She heard Chris say, “Yep. And there’s going to be hell to pay. Get into the office as soon as you can.”

Even now, she’s still in awe of the scale of the carnage. Like all engineers, she secretly loves hearing disaster stories … as long as she doesn’t have the starring role. “Stupid Chris,” she mutters as she thinks about dusting off her résumé, untouched for eight years, and putting out feelers for any job openings.

By the time Maxine reaches her work area, whatever equanimity she had managed to muster is gone. She stops before she walks in. Her armpits are sweaty. She smells them to make sure she doesn’t stink of the humiliation she feels. She knows she’s being paranoid—she put on so much deodorant this morning her armpits were chalky-white. She was glad she did.

She walks into the work area. Everyone knows she is being reassigned but are trying not to let on. Glenn, who has been her manager for three years, comes up and squeezes her shoulder, a pained expression on his face. He says, “Don’t worry, Maxine. You’ll be back here before you know it. None of us are happy with the way things went down. A bunch of people wanted to throw you a big party, but I was pretty sure that you wouldn’t have wanted to make a big scene,” he says.

Maxine says, “Damned right. Thanks, Glenn.”

“No problem,” he says with a wry smile. “Let me know how I can help, okay?”

With a forced smile, she says, “Come on, it’s not like I’m dying or being sent into outer space! I’ll be closer to headquarters, which is where all the action is. I’ll send updates to all you ignorant villagers who aren’t good enough to be in the thick of things!”

“That’s the spirit. We’ll see you back here in four months if all goes well!” he says, giving her a playful jab. Maxine’s brow furrows slightly at the “if all goes well” bit. That was news to her.

As Glenn heads to a meeting, Maxine goes to her desk to start packing up. She picks the most critical things she’ll need during her exile: her carefully configured laptop (she is very picky about keyboards and amount of RAM), pictures of her family, her tablet, and the USB and laptop chargers carefully selected and accumulated over the years, along with the big sign that hangs over them: “DO NOT TOUCH, under penalty of death!”

“Hi, Maxine! Why are you packing up?” she hears someone ask. Looking up, she sees Evelyn, their promising young computer science intern. Maxine recruited her. All summer long, Evelyn has dazzled everyone with how quickly she picks things up. She’ll have her pick of jobs when she graduates, Maxine thinks. Which is why all summer long Maxine has been relentlessly selling Parts Unlimited as a great place to work and learn. Which she herself believed, until this morning. Maybe this isn’t such a great place to work after all.

“I’ve been temporarily re-assigned to the Phoenix Project,” Maxine says.

“Oh, wow,” Evelyn says. “That’s awful … I’m so sorry!”

You know you’re in real trouble when even the intern feels sorry for you, Maxine thinks.

She leaves the building, carrying her plain cardboard box, alone. She feels like she’s reporting to prison. Which is basically what the Phoenix Project is, she tells herself.

It’s a four-mile drive to the corporate headquarter campus. While she drives, she thinks about the pros and cons of staying at the company. Pros: Her husband is a tenured professor, which is why they moved to Elkhart Grove in the first place. Her kids love their schools, friends, and activities.

She loves her work and all the challenges; she loves interacting with the countless and complex business processes that span the entire company—it requires an understanding of the business, incredible problem-solving skills, patience, and the political sophistication to work with sometimes Byzantine and occasionally incomprehensible processes that every large organization seems to have. And the pay and benefits are great.

Cons: The Phoenix Project. Working for Chris. And the feeling that the corporate culture is changing for the worse. Like how I just got scapegoated for the payroll outage, she thinks.

Looking around, she sees buildings designed to exude status and success. Parts Unlimited earned that level of prestige by being one of the largest employers in the state, with seven thousand employees. They have stores in almost every state and millions of loyal customers, although every metric shows those numbers declining.

In the age of Uber and Lyft, the younger generation is more often choosing not to own cars at all, and if they do, they sure don’t fix their cars themselves. It doesn’t take a strategic genius to realize that the long-term prosperity of the organization requires something new and different.

As she drives deeper into the corporate campus, she can’t find Building 5. When she circles around for a third time, she finally sees the sign to the parking lot. Her heart sinks. The building’s a dump compared to the others. It even looks like a prison, she thinks.

Building 5 used to be a manufacturing plant, just like MRP-8, her “old” building. But where MRP-8 is obviously still the pride of the company, Building 5 is where they dump misbehaving IT people like her and throw away the key.

If the Phoenix Project is the most important and strategic project for the company, don’t the teams who work on it deserve a better building? Maxine wonders. But then again, Maxine knows that in most organizations, corporate IT is rarely loved and is often parked in the least attractive properties.

Which is odd. At MRP-8, the ERP technology teams work side-by-side with the plant operations people. They’re viewed as partners. They work together, eat together, complain together, and drink together.

On the other hand, corporate IT is usually viewed as ranks of nameless faces whom you call when there’s something wrong with your laptop or when you can’t print something.

Staring at Building 5, Maxine realizes that as bad as the reputation of the Phoenix Project is, the reality is probably much, much worse.

Everyone tells Maxine that one of her most endearing qualities is her relentless and never-ending optimism. She keeps telling herself that as she walks toward Building 5, carrying the cardboard box full of her belongings.

A bored security guard inspects her badge and recommends she take the elevator, but Maxine chooses to go up the stairs instead. She wishes she had a more cheerful bag to carry all her things in instead of lugging this dumb box around.

As she opens the door, her heart sinks. It’s a vast cubicle farm with drab gray partitions separating each work area. The maze of cubicles reminds her of the old computer text game Zork—she’s already lost in a series of twisty passages, all alike.

It’s like all the color has been drained from the building, she thinks. Maxine is reminded of her parents’ old color TV set when her brother had fiddled with the brightness, contrast, and color dials to make everything look a sickly gray and green.

On the other hand, Maxine is delighted to see that each desk has two massive LCD screens. She’s in the right place—these are developers. The new monitors, open code editors, and the high percentage of people wearing headphones are dead giveaways.

The room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. It’s like a university library. Or a tomb, she thinks. It doesn’t look like a vibrant space where people work together to solve problems. Creating software should be a collaborative and conversational endeavor—individuals need to interact with each other to create new knowledge and value for the customer.

In the silence, she looks around, feeling even worse about her fate.

“Do you know where I can find Randy?” she asks the person nearest her. He points to the opposite corner of the room without even taking off his headphones.

Walking through the hive of silent cubicles, Maxine sees whiteboards and people huddled in groups, speaking in hushed tones. Along one long wall are enormous Gantt charts easily four feet high and thirty feet across, assembled from what looks like more than forty sheets of paper taped together.

Alongside the Gantt charts are printouts of status reports featuring lots of green, yellow, and red boxes. Standing in front of the charts are people dressed in slacks and collared shirts. Their arms are crossed and they look concerned.

Maxine can almost feel the people mentally trying to compress the bars closer together so that they can hit all those promised dates. Good luck, she thinks.

As she walks to the opposite corner where she was told to find Randy, Maxine suddenly smells it: the unmistakable smell of people who have slept in the office. She knows this smell. It’s the smell of long hours, inadequate ventilation, and desperation.

In technology, it’s almost a cliché. When there’s a need to deliver capabilities to the market quickly, to seize a market opportunity, or to catch up with the competition, long hours become endless hours, where it’s easier to sleep under your desk than to go home only to come right back. Although long hours are sometimes glorified in popular culture, Maxine views them as a symptom of something going very wrong.

She wonders what is happening: Too many promises to the market? Bad engineering leadership? Bad product leadership? Too much technical debt? Not enough focus on architectures and platforms that enable developers to be productive?

Maxine notices that she is wildly overdressed. She looks down at the suit that she’s worn to work for years, realizing that she sticks out like a sore thumb. In this building, T-shirts and shorts far outnumber the collared shirt crowd. And no one is wearing a jacket.

Tomorrow, I’m going to leave the jacket at home, she thinks.

She finds Randy in a corner cubicle, typing away and surrounded by huge stacks of paper. Randy is a redhead, wearing the management khaki-land uniform—a collared, striped white shirt and khaki pants. Maxine guesses he’s in his late thirties, probably ten years younger than her. Judging from his low body fat, he probably runs every day. But he looks stressed in a way that no amount of running can take away.

He gives her a big smile, standing up to shake her hand. She puts her big cardboard box down and realizes how tired her arms are. As she shakes his hand, he says, “Chris told me about how you ended up here. I’m sorry to hear about all that. But trust me, your reputation precedes you, and we’re so excited to have someone of your experience on this team. I know it’s not the best use of your skills, but I’ll take any help we can get. I think you can make a real difference here.”

Maxine forces herself to smile because Randy seems nice enough, even earnest. “Happy to help, Randy. What do you need to get done?” she asks, trying to be equally earnest. She does want to be useful.

“I’m in charge of documentation and builds. In all honesty, things are a mess. We don’t have a standard Dev environment that developers can use. It takes months for new developers to do builds on their laptops and be fully productive. Even our build server is woefully under-documented,” Randy says. “In fact, we’ve had some new contractors on site for weeks, and they can’t even check in code yet. God knows what they’ve actually been doing. We’re still paying them. To do nothing, basically.”

Maxine grimaces. She hates the idea of paying expensive people to just sit around. And these are developers—it deeply offends her sensibilities when willing developers are prevented from contributing.

“Well, I’m happy to help out wherever I can,” she says, surprised at how much she means it. After all, making developers more productive is always super important, even those working on the Phoenix Project in its fiery, meteoric descent.

“Here, I’ll show you where we’ve got you set up,” Randy says.

He leads her past more rows of cubicles, showing her an empty desk, a filing cabinet, and two large monitors connected to a laptop. It’s plainer and smaller than she’d like, she thinks, but it’s fine. Especially since she’ll only be here for a few months. One way or another, I’ll be out of here soon, Maxine thinks. Either my prison term will end or I’ll get another job somewhere else.

“We got you a standard developer setup, just like any developer who starts at Parts Unlimited,” he says, gesturing at the laptop. “You’ve got your email, network shares, and printers set up with your existing credentials. I’ll send out an introduction email this afternoon. And I’ve assigned Josh to help you get everything set up.”

“That’s great,” Maxine says, smiling. “I’ll take a look at what you have in terms of Dev onboarding and maybe come up with some recommendations. I’d love to get a Phoenix build going on my laptop too.”

“That would be great! Wow, I’m so excited, Maxine,” Randy says. “I never get senior engineers to work on these problems. Any engineers I have that are any good are always poached away by other teams. They’re lured away by feature work that customers see instead of working on boring infrastructure … Now, where is Josh?” he mutters, looking around. “There are so many contractors and consultants running around here that sometimes it’s hard to find the actual employees.”

Just then, a young kid carrying a laptop walks by and sits down at the desk next to them. “Sorry I’m late, Randy. I went to go check on last night’s build failure. Some developer broke the build when they merged their changes in. I’m still looking into it.”

“I’ll help you in a second, Josh. In the meantime, meet Maxine Chambers,” Randy gestures at Maxine.

Maxine does a double-take. He looks barely older than her daughter. In fact, they could be classmates at the same high school. Randy wasn’t kidding when he said he had junior people on his team.

“Maxine is a senior engineer in the company, and she’s been assigned to us for a couple of months. She’s the lead architect for the MRP system. Can you show her what she needs to know to get productive around here?”

“Uh, hi, Ms. Chambers. Nice to meet you,” he says, holding out his hand and looking puzzled. He’s probably wondering how he ended up being responsible for someone who could be his mom, she thinks.

“Nice meeting you,” she says, smiling. “Please, just call me Maxine,” she adds, even though it usually irks her when her daughters’ friends call her by her first name. But Josh is a work colleague, and she’s glad to have a native guide who can show her around. Even if he’s not old enough to drive, she jokes to herself.

“Okay, let me know if there’s anything you need,” Randy says. “Maxine, I’m looking forward to introducing you to the rest of the team. Our first staff meeting is next week.”

Randy turns to Josh. “Tell me more about the build failures.”

Maxine listens. All those stories about caveman technical practices in the Phoenix Project are actually true. She’s learned over her entire career that when people can’t get their builds going consistently, disaster is usually right around the corner.

She looks around at the entire floor. Over a hundred developers are typing away, working on their little piece of the system on their laptops. Without constant feedback from a centralized build, integration, and test system, they really have no idea what will happen when all their work is merged with everyone else’s.

Josh spins his chair around to Maxine. “Mrs. Chambers, I’ve got to go show Randy something, but I just emailed you what we’ve got in terms of documentation for new developers—there are wiki pages where I’ve assembled all of the release notes we’ve written and the documentation from the development teams. There’s also links to the stuff we know we need to write. Hopefully that will get you started?”

Maxine gives him a thumbs up. As they leave, she logs in with her new laptop and is able to get in and open her email, miraculously working the first time. But before looking at what Josh sent, she pokes around to see what else is on her new laptop.

Immediately, she is mystified. She finds links to HR systems, network shares to company resources, links to the expense reporting system, payroll, timecard systems … She finds Microsoft Word and Excel and the rest of the Office suite.

She frowns. This is fine for someone in finance, she thinks, but not a developer. There are no developer tools or code editors or source control managers installed. Opening up a terminal window she confirms that there aren’t any compilers, Docker, Git … nothing. Not even Visio or OmniGraffle!

Holy cow! What do they actually expect new developers to do? Read emails and write memos?

When you hire a plumber or a carpenter, you expect them to bring their own tools. But in a software organization with more than one developer, the entire team uses common tools to be productive. Apparently here on the Phoenix Project, the toolbox is empty.

She opens her email to see what Josh sent. It takes her to an internal wiki page, a tool many engineers use to collaborate on documentation. She tries to scroll up and down the wiki page, but the document is so short there isn’t even a scroll bar.

She stares at the nearly empty screen for several long moments. Screw you, Chris, she thinks.

Driven by morbid curiosity, Maxine spends the next half hour digging. She clicks around and finds only a handful of documents. She reads PowerPoint slides with architecture diagrams, lots of meeting notes and Agile sprint retrospectives, and a three-year-old product management requirements document. She is excited when she finds tantalizing references to some test plans, but when she clicks on the links, she is prompted by an authentication screen asking for her login and password.

Apparently she needs access to the QA servers.

She opens a new note file on her laptop and types a note to herself to find someone who can give her access.

Giving up on documentation for the moment, she decides to find the source code repositories. Developers write code, and code goes into source control repositories. There are developers working on Phoenix, ergo, there must be a Phoenix source code repo around here somewhere, she thinks.

To her surprise, despite almost ten minutes of searching, she can’t find it. She adds to her notes:

Find Phoenix source code repo.

She finds links to internal SharePoint documentation servers, which may have more clues, but she doesn’t have accounts on those servers either.

She types another note:

Get access to DEVP-101 SharePoint server.

For the next hour, so it goes—Search. Nothing. Search. Nothing. Search. Click. Authentication screen. Click. Authentication screen.

Each time, she adds more notes to her growing list:

Get access to QA-103 SharePoint Server.

Get access to PUL-QA-PHOENIX network share.

Get access to PUL-DEV-PHOENIX network share.

She adds more notes and to-dos, accumulating a list of more user accounts that she needs, adding the QA wiki server, the performance engineering wiki server, the mobile app team wiki, and a bunch of other groups with acronyms she doesn’t recognize.

She needs network credentials. She needs installers for all the tools that are mentioned. She needs license keys.

Maxine looks at her watch and is surprised to see that it’s nearly one o’clock. She’s achieved nothing in two hours except document thirty-two things she needs. And she still doesn’t know where the development tools or the source code repositories are.

If the Phoenix development setup were a product, it would be the worst product ever.

And now she needs food. She looks around, and seeing the nearly empty floor, realizes that she missed the lunch rush.

It would have been nice if she had followed them, but she had been too engrossed in digging through the labyrinth of Phoenix docs. Now she doesn’t know where people find food. She wonders if she should add that to her list too.

Right after “update and send out my résumé.”


Alan Perez (Operating Partner, Wayne-Yokohama Equity Partners)


Steve Masters (CEO, Parts Unlimited)


Dick Landry (CFO, Parts Unlimited), Sarah Moulton (SVP of Retail Operations), Bob Strauss (Board Chair, Parts Unlimited)


6:07 a.m., September 4


Go Forward Options, January Board Session **CONFIDENTIAL**


Good seeing you two days ago in Elkhart Grove. As a newly elected board director, I’ve been learning a lot and appreciate the time being invested by the management team to get me up to speed. I’ve been especially impressed with Dick and Sarah (CFO and SVP Marketing, respectively).

Although I’m new, it’s clear that Parts Unlimited’s failed efforts to increase shareholder value have raised questions of confidence and created need for action. We must work together to break the string of broken promises repeated quarter after quarter.

Given how essential software is to your plans, your decision to replace your CIO and VP of IT Operations seems proper—hopefully this will restore accountability and increase urgency in execution.

To reiterate my motivation for reviewing strategic options at the board level: revenue growth isn’t the only way to reward shareholders—we’ve put so much focus into forcing Parts Unlimited to become a “digital company” that I believe we’ve lost sight of low risk ways to unlock value, such as restructuring the company and divesting non-core, poor-performing assets. These are just two obvious ways to increase profitability, which increases shareholder value and provides working capital for transformation.

We need to quickly assemble options for the board to review and consider. Given how much time management is spending on the current strategy, the board chair asked me to work with a few key members of the executive team to generate options for the board to discuss. I will work with Dick and Sarah, given their tenure and breadth of experience at the company. We’ll have bi-weekly calls to discuss and assess ideas, and we’ll be ready to present strategic options to the entire board in January.

Our firm bought a significant interest in Parts Unlimited because we believe there’s considerable shareholder value that can be unlocked here. I look forward to a productive working relationship and improved outcomes for Parts Unlimited that we can all be proud of.

Sincerely, Alan