Chapter 5: Thursday, September 11 – The Unicorn Project


• Thursday, September 11

Still on a high after getting so far on the Phoenix build, Maxine hops in her car to make the five-minute drive to the Dockside parking lot, right on time for Kurt’s mysterious meeting.

She suspects that the shiny new Lexus IS300 in the parking lot is Kurt’s. She doubts it’s the Datsun 300 she parked next to. It’s surprising that the meeting is at Dockside. It’s not one of the usual hangouts for technology people, but she knows it’s a longtime favorite for many of the factory workers.

Maxine asked some people about Kurt that afternoon. Three people gave her enthusiastic endorsements, describing how competent and helpful he was. One development manager in her old group called him one of the smartest people in the entire technology organization. Curiously, one of her colleagues texted her:

Kurt? He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, which is why he’s stuck in QA. He’s also really nosy. Why do you ask?

This made Maxine even more curious. What exactly is Kurt up to? His gift of the binder probably saved her months of waiting. But what is his motivation? He clearly has an inside track on getting things people need. She’s pretty sure he isn’t pilfering corporate resources—and even if he was, why would he give them to her?

As she walks in the door, she’s immediately hit by the smell of hops. She hasn’t been here in years. She’s relieved to see that it’s much cleaner and brighter than she remembers. There’s no longer sawdust on the floor, and it’s more spacious than it seems from the outside.

The bar is half-full, but it’s loud—maybe because of the cleanly swept cement floor.

Seeing her, Kurt smiles and waves her over to a group of tables on the far side of the room by some booths. “Hey, everyone, meet Maxine, the newest member of the Rebellion if I can help it. She’s the person that I’ve been telling you all about.”

She immediately recognizes the cranky developer who backed her up in the Phoenix status meeting about environments and is startled to see the petite woman named Shannon who was with John earlier today. There’s another man in his late thirties sitting next to someone who looks out of place—he’s in his fifties and wearing a bowling shirt. Next to him is Brent, who she also saw in the Phoenix release meeting. He and Shannon are the youngest people at the table.

Everyone has an open laptop in front of them. Suddenly, she wishes she had hers with her—she’d gotten out of the habit of carrying it around lately because she’s had so little to work on.

“You remember Dave?” says Kurt, gesturing at the cranky developer. “He’s one of the Dev team leads. He complains a lot, but he’s probably banging the drum loudest on the need to pay down technical debt and modernize our architecture, platforms, and practices.”

Kurt laughs. “The reason Dave is so good is that he never asks for permission!”

Cranky Dave raises his glass at Maxine with the smallest of smiles, as if smiling causes him physical pain, then takes a sip of his beer. Up close, he looks older than her. “Breaking the rules is the only way anyone can get anything done around here,” he grumbles. “Can’t do anything without twenty meetings.” Cranky Dave pauses. “You know, that’s the best compliment Kurt has ever given me. You’ve probably noticed that he’s running his own black market inside the company, right?”

Kurt laughs, clearly not bothered by the characterization. “I’m just trying to solve people’s problems. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s that I care too much about the success of Phoenix, and even the whole company, to allow bureaucracy to kill it! And if that’s a crime, I plead guilty! It’s a pity no one will ever give us a medal for the great work we do. The satisfaction of helping people must be reward enough, right?”

Everyone groans, and someone from across the table hollers out, “Good one, Kurt.”

Ignoring the banter, Kurt points to the man in his late thirties who is wearing a funny vendor T-shirt. “This is Adam, one of my test engineers. But don’t let his title fool you—he’s a developer at heart, and he’s also one of the best infrastructure people I’ve ever met.

“You can thank him for the all those virtual machines and pre-built containers you got—he built them all. And that’s only a fraction of what Adam does. His day job is helping automate a big chunk of the legacy test suite that we inherited from an outsourcer.”

Adam smiles sheepishly. “Actually, Brent over there did most of the work,” he says. “He’s an ace at infrastructure. We’ve been working together to try to automate environment creation for over a year. It’s been a tough road, working evenings and weekends, because it’s not officially sanctioned. Despite all the dead ends and cul-de-sacs, we’re proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.

“Your build notes were awesome, Maxine. Brent here almost fell over and died when he was reading through them. He’d been trying to piece that together for months,” Adam says.

Brent smiles at Maxine. “That was amazing detective work, Maxine. Documenting all those environment variables was so helpful!”

“Let us know how the environment works for you,” Adam continues. “It’s such a pain to get things from Operations through normal channels, so we scraped together enough hardware to build a cluster big enough to support a couple of teams. Now you can get an environment on demand, without needing to open up a ticket.”

Maxine blurts out, “Wow, thank you so much. The environment worked! I got three hours into the Phoenix build with it until it failed because of a missing certificate.”

“Wow! That’s amazing,” Brent says.

“So where did all that hardware come from if not from Operations?” Maxine asks.

Adam smirks. “Kurt has his ways—a little from here, a little from there, you know? Kurt keeps saying that it’s best not to ask where it comes from … I’ve always suspected there are a bunch of people missing entire server clusters if they’d bother to check.”

Kurt feigns a hurt expression. “Server-hoarding is a huge problem,” he says. “Because it takes so long for Ops to get anything to us, people always ask for way more than they need. And that makes Ops’ job harder and lengthens the lead times for everyone else, making the shortages even worse! It’s like being in the old Soviet Union, where you have to wait in line for everything. You could say we’re creating a secondary market to ensure that some of those unused environments go where they’re needed most. You know, to ameliorate the mismatch between supply and demand,” he says.

Cranky Dave mutters, “Don’t get him started,” rolling his eyes as Kurt lectures like a professor.

Adam adds, “But Dave is right—Kurt is running a black market.”

“Pay no attention to them, Maxine,” Kurt continues. “Next down the table, we have Shannon, a security engineer who works on building automated security tools. She spent nearly five years in the data warehouse team before that. She’s currently working with Brent, experimenting with some machine-learning and data visualization toolkits and standing up some big data infrastructure, trying to get ahead of some of the marketing initiatives that we know are coming. You probably remember her from the full-scale red-team exercises that she ran last year.”

Maxine smiles. That’s why she looked so familiar. She definitely remembers—it was the first time she had been the target of a no-holds-barred penetration test. They had tried to plant malware by getting physical access to the manufacturing facilities, sending emails with malicious links, pretending to be company executives, and, in one case, one of their most critical vendors.

She had been very impressed. It takes a lot of balls to run those types of exercises, she thinks. Maxine remembers one person being fired for trying to do one because he made a bunch of people look bad.

Shannon looks up from her laptop and says, “Nice meeting you, Maxine. I remember your group. You were one of the best-prepared in the whole company. I was very impressed that everyone in your division knew not to click on links in emails, no matter how official they looked. Someone did a great job training everyone.”

Maxine nods with respect, saying, “Nice meeting you, Shannon. We spent weeks fixing the problems you all found. Nice work.”

Shannon looks back down at her laptop and types something. Suddenly, she looks up at everyone and says, “Oh, by the way, sorry about that episode with John. He’s such a tool. But he’s my boss.”

Everyone laughs, and several people imitate Shannon’s expression from earlier today.

“Up next is the aforementioned Brent, who has his hands in everything infrastructure related,” Kurt continues. “If it connects to AC power, Brent has probably mastered it. Networks, storage, compute, databases. But he’s not just good with a screwdriver, he’s always on the frontier of automation. Unfortunately, he’s so good at what he does, everyone seems to have him on speed-dial. And he’s on pager duty way too often, which we’re trying to fix.”

Brent merely shrugs his shoulders. Suddenly, the camera flash on his phone flickers and notifications flood his screen. He picks up his phone and mutters, “Dammit, another outage call. I probably need to jump on this.” He drains the rest of his beer and starts dialing his phone.

“Yeah, that’s a real problem,” says Kurt, watching Brent walk away. “We’ve got to bring some sanity to his work life. He’s brilliant, but because of the way people dump things on him, he hasn’t been able to go on vacation without a pager for years …”

He pauses. “In the meantime, last but not least is Dwayne,” says Kurt, gesturing to the oldest person at the table. He’s not only dressed differently than everyone, his laptop is different too—it’s a beast with a massive screen. “He’s a senior database and storage engineer from Ops and was the person who brought Brent into this group. They conspire all the time to find better ways to manage infrastructure.”

Maxine smiles. To most people on the Phoenix Project, centralized Ops are merely the people on the other side of a ticket. They’re the people everyone is always complaining about. But clearly Kurt and this motley crew have a different way of working, bypassing the normal organizational lines of communication, however informal.

Dwayne reaches across the table, extending his hand. “Great to meet you, Maxine.”

Maxine realizes that Dwayne is wearing an actual bowling shirt, complete with his initials sewn on it, “DM,” and a faded mustard stain right next to them.

“Dwayne has been trying to get automation initiatives going for years, but he and Brent always get shot down,” Kurt continues. “So, they’ve been helping Adam build up our own infrastructure instead. He knows almost everyone in Operations, and he can usually get them to do anything. Like earlier this week when we needed a firewall port opened between two internal networks. Dwayne made that happen.”

“All in a day’s work,” Dwayne says with a friendly smile. “But to be fair, Kurt is really the master of getting the impossible done … I’m just learning from him!”

Maxine is certain Dwayne is exaggerating. Dwayne looks like he’s in his mid-fifties. Just how much could he learn from a young guy like Kurt?

Kurt leans back in his chair, arms spread out. “Maxine, your work cracking the code of the Phoenix builds has impressed us all. We are in awe of the technical and social skills you displayed to successfully hunt down almost all the pieces of the environment, which required incredible perseverance, focus, and never taking ‘no’ for an answer!”

Confused, Maxine looks around, but she sees everyone nodding at her, genuinely impressed at her work. Kurt continues, “We invite you to be a part of the inner-circle of the ‘Rebellion.’ We’re recruiting the best and brightest engineers in the organization, training and preparing in secret for the right time to overthrow the Empire, the ancient, powerful, and unjust order that definitely needs to be toppled.”

Everyone chuckles, and Cranky Dave raises his glass, shouting with a laugh, “To the overthrow of the Empire!”

Confused, Maxine looks around the table. These are people from Dev, QA, Security, and Ops—a very unlikely group of people to be socializing, let alone working together. And she notices that everyone has a small sticker of the Rebel Alliance from Star Wars on their laptop, just like the X-Wing pilots wore on their helmets. She grins at their subtle but subversive badges of solidarity.

Seeing Maxine toast with an empty hand, Kurt jumps up. “What do you want to drink?”

“A pinot noir, please.”

Kurt nods and heads toward the bar, but before he can take three steps, a tall and somewhat overweight man with graying hair walks up to him and gives him a big hug. In a loud and boisterous voice, he says, “Kurt! Good seeing you again, my young friend. What do you need?”

Noting the attention that Kurt’s group gets from the bar staff, Maxine guesses they must come here often. She smiles. For the first time since her move to the Phoenix Project, she feels like she’s in the company of kindred spirits.

“Who are you people? Why are you all are here? What are you possibly trying to achieve?” she asks quickly, while Kurt is at the bar.

Everyone laughs. Dwayne says, “As you know, we’re a huge Kumquat database shop, which is what I cut my teeth on. I want to migrate us to MySQL and open-source databases wherever we can, because I’m tired of sending millions of dollars each year to an abusive vendor. We’re figuring out how to engineer our way there.”

Looking around, he says to everyone, “Other companies have done this already. I think that anyone who is still paying Kumquat database maintenance fees is simply too dumb to migrate off it.”

Maxine nods in approval. “Smart thinking! We’ve saved millions of dollars in my old group doing this, which we can now spend on innovation and other things the business needs. And it’s been fun. But why this crusade for open-source software?”

“I’ll tell you why,” Adam says. “For almost five years, back when I was in Operations, I had a team that kept getting pager alerts at two in the morning for some middleware we used. In almost every case, it was because of their database driver. I was the guy who had to generate a binary driver patch! After all that work, the problems started happening again six months later, because when the vendor released their patches, they didn’t integrate my fixes into their code. Next thing you know, we’re all up at two a.m. doing the same thing over again.”

Maxine is impressed. Adam has great kung fu too. And so does everyone else here.

Cranky Dave frowns. “I’ve been at Parts Unlimited for almost five years, and I can’t believe how the bureaucracy and silos have taken over. You can’t do anything without first convincing a bunch of steering committees and architects or having to fill out a bunch of forms or work with three or four different teams who each have their own priorities. Everything is by committee. No one can make decisions, and implementing even the smallest thing seems to require consensus from everyone. Almost everything I need to do, I have to go up two levels, over two levels, and down two levels just to talk with a fellow engineer!”

“The Square!” cries out Adam, and everyone laughs.

Dwayne chimes in. “In Ops, we often have to do the return path—up, over, down, and then back up, over, and down before two engineers can finally work together to get something done.”

“I want to bring back the days when a developer could actually create value for someone who cares, easily and quickly,” Cranky Dave says. “I want to build and maintain something for the long haul, instead of shipping the ‘feature of the day’ and dragging all this technical debt around.”

Cranky Dave is on a roll. “This company is run by a bunch of executives with no clue about technology, and project managers who want us to follow a bunch of arcane processes. I’ll scream at the next one who wants me to write a Product Requirements Document.”

“The PRD!” everyone shouts, laughing. Maxine raises her eyebrows. Those made sense decades ago, when you wanted written justification before you wasted a bunch of developers’ time. But now you can prototype most features in the time it takes to even write one page of a PRD. One team can now build things that used to require hundreds of people.

Kurt sits next to Maxine, putting a glass of red wine in front of her. “We’re like the redshirts in Star Trek who actually get the real work done.”

“I was literally thinking that earlier,” Maxine says, smiling.

“Right? You’ve seen firsthand the reality bubble the bridge crew is in,” Kurt says. “They know the Phoenix Project is important, and yet they couldn’t have come up with a worse way to organize everyone to achieve it. They outsourced IT, brought it back in, outsourced one piece, maybe two pieces, shuffled them around … In many areas, we’re organized as if we’re still outsourced, and nothing can get done without permission from three or four levels of management.”

“Kurt’s right,” says Cranky Dave. “We’re just another cost center, little cogs in a big machine that can be easily outsourced to some random corner of the globe. We’re viewed as replaceable and fungible.”

“That’s why I’m here, Maxine,” Shannon says. “We could build a world-class technology organization and create an engineering culture. That’s how we survive and innovate for our customers. And my dream is that everyone is the custodian of company data. It’s not just the job of one department.

“In Steve’s Town Hall, he talked about how we’re being disrupted and how we need to compete with the e-commerce giants,” she says. “Well, we can only win by innovating and understanding our customers, which we can only do by mastering data. I think the capabilities we’re building are the future of the company.”

Everyone cheers and hoists their glasses.

After everyone is done toasting each other, Dwayne turns to Kurt and asks, “So, how did the meeting go with your boss? You said you pitched William on funding an automated testing pilot.”

Everyone leans in.

“You know, I really thought he was going to go for it. I had testimonials from two of the Dev managers and a product owner about how great it would be. One of them had this great line: ‘Without automated testing, the more code we write, the more money it takes for us to test.’ Ha! I really thought that would scare the pants off of William!” Maxine can feel the mood deflate around the table.

“Don’t keep us in suspense, Kurt. What did he say?” prompts Dwayne.

“‘Son, let me explain something to you,’” Kurt says, in a shockingly good impersonation of William. “‘You’re young. You clearly don’t understand how this game works. We’re QA. We protect the organization from developers. It sounds to me like you’ve been hanging around too many of them. Do not trust them. Do not get chummy with them. You give developers an inch, and they’ll take a mile.’”

Maxine laughs at Kurt’s uncanny impression.

“‘Son, you’re a pretty good QA manager with a half-million-dollar budget.’” Kurt’s on a roll. “‘If you do your job well, you can be like me with a three-million-dollar budget. And if I do my job well, then I’ll get promoted and have a $20 million budget. You go around automating your QA, your budget shrinks instead of grows. I’m not saying you’re stupid, son, but you sure don’t seem to understand how this game works.’”

Maxine laughs with everyone else. She is sure Kurt is exaggerating.

“William is like a union leader, not a business leader,” Shannon says. “He only cares about growing his union membership dues, not about what’s right for the business. You see the same thing inside Ops and even Infosec.”

A frown crosses Dwayne’s genial face. “Trust me, it’s way, way worse in Ops. At least Development is seen as a profit center. In Ops, we’re a cost center. The only way to fund infrastructure is through new projects. If you don’t find new funding sources, you’re screwed. And if you don’t spend your whole budget, they’ll take the money away from you next year.”

“Ah, the project funding model … Another big problem here at Parts Unlimited …” Kurt says, as everyone groans in agreement.

“So, what’s your plan now, Kurt?” Dwayne asks.

“Don’t worry, Dwayne. I’ve got another plan,” Kurt says, confidently. “We’re going to lie low and keep doing what we’re doing, looking for new potential customers and recruits. We keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities to get in the game.”

“Oh, that’s a great plan, Kurt,” Dwayne says, rolling his eyes. “We hang out at a bar, complain, and drink beer. Brilliant.”

Dwayne leans over to Maxine, explaining, “It’s actually not that crazy. It’s like in that movie Brazil, where the number-one fugitive is the rogue air conditioner repairman who fixes people’s air conditioners because Central Services never gets around to it. That’s us. We’re always on the lookout for places we can help. It’s a great way to make friends and find potential new recruits for the Rebellion.”

“What?” she says in disbelief. “That can’t work, can it?”

“Well, it’s how we got you here, isn’t it?” Dwayne says with a big smile.

“I’m working all the angles,” Kurt continues. “I’m even thinking about asking William if I can have a meeting with him and his boss, Chris. I’d tell William that it’s really important to me that Chris hears my proposal and that I want him there.”

Wow, Maxine thinks. That’s pretty gutsy, maybe savvy, and probably fatal.

“I’ll keep you posted,” Kurt says. “Okay, who has new information or intelligence to share?”

Shannon updates everyone on a nascent data analytics group in Marketing she’s been working with and how she’s setting up a meeting between them and Kurt. “They’re working on a bunch of projects to increase customer promotion conversion rates, and boy, they really need help. They’re not even using version control! They’re struggling with basic data engineering problems, and they’re still trying to get what they need from the data warehouse people,” she says, visibly bothered by their suffering. Kurt quickly pulls out an org chart on his laptop.

He asks her, “Another data analytics project? Who’s funding it? How much budget do they have? Who’s leading it?” As she talks, he takes notes.

When it’s his turn, Dwayne says, “I’ve got bad news. The Phoenix release caught everyone in Ops flatfooted—no one had it on their radar until last week. No budget was assigned to support it. Everyone’s scrambling to find enough compute and storage infrastructure. This is the biggest launch we’ve done in almost twenty years, and everything we need, we don’t have enough of. It’s bad.”

“Holy shit,” says Adam.

“Yep,” Dwayne says. “I’ve been trying to tell everyone for months, but no one cared. Well, now they do, and everyone’s dropping everything to support the Phoenix launch. Today, I heard someone trying to work with procurement so they can break the rules and order outside of the annual ordering process.”

Despite the crisis, bean counters are still bean counters, Maxine thinks.

“Everyone is still scrambling to get environments ready for the release tomorrow,” Dwayne says. “No one has any build specifications that Dev and Ops both agree on. I gave them the ones we wrote, and they pounced on them and started using them right away. But still, this release is going to go real bad, real fast.”

“I think you’re right,” Maxine says. “I’m really, really good at this stuff, and I spent nearly a week trying to get a Phoenix build going. If it weren’t for the environment that Kurt gave me, I’d still be at square one. With the release team only starting today and the launch tomorrow, they are in big trouble.”

Kurt leans forward, a serious look on his face. “Tell me more.”

Suddenly, Maxine realizes why she was invited and that Kurt is no dummy after all.

Over the next twenty minutes, Maxine describes her experiences, reading from her work diary, which she can access from her phone. She mentally kicks herself again for not bringing her laptop. Everyone takes notes, especially Brent when he returns. He and Adam pepper her with questions as if she were a captured secret agent being debriefed by the CIA. Everyone’s interested in how she was able to piece together the Phoenix build puzzle faster than anyone else had done. They ask lots of questions about who she talked to, what teams they were on, where she got stuck, and so forth.

“That’s really impressive, Maxine,” says Cranky Dave. “Years ago I put together a build server that my team could use on a daily basis. But that was when Phoenix only had two teams; now we have over twenty. The build team is completely out of their league, with people who, I’m sorry to say, are the people who didn’t have enough experience to be application developers.”

Adam says, “We’re really close now. I think we’re down to just one missing signed certificate for the payment processing service.”

“He’s right,” Brent says. “Maxine, can you show me the build logs? I bet we can create that certificates ourselves—it wouldn’t actually be valid, but it would be good enough for a Dev or Test environment.”

Maxine curses, mentally picturing her laptop still on her desk. “I can show you first thing tomorrow,” she sighs.

“This is great, people. Here’s what we still need: we need an automated way to create environments and perform code builds,” Kurt says, counting off on his fingers. “We need some way to automate those tests and some automated way to get those builds deployed into production. We need builds so that developers can actually do their work.

“So, who’s willing to volunteer some of their time to help Maxine get those Phoenix builds going?” Kurt asks. To Maxine’s surprise, all hands shoot up.

“Maxine, would you be able to lead this effort, with the help of any or all of these willing and talented volunteers?” Kurt asks.

Maxine is overwhelmed by the sudden support of all these people. Last week, she was unable to get help from anyone and was thinking about interviewing at other places. Suddenly, she’s not so sure.

She takes a moment to collect herself and says, “Yes, I’d love to. Thank you, everyone. I look forward to working with you all.”

Maxine is excited. She’s genuinely amazed at what this group has been doing and that she’s been chosen to help. I’ve finally found my tribe, she thinks. And this is what an effective network is all about—when you can assemble a group of motivated people to solve a big problem, even though the team looks nothing like the official org chart.

I’m pretty sure I’ll learn and achieve more with this group then I would by having lunch with Sarah, she thinks. She wonders if she’s being small-minded and petty. She still wonders if she should take the meeting or just wait for Sarah to forget about her.

“Excellent! Let me know if you need anything from me,” Kurt says to the table. To Maxine, he says, “We try to meet every week. We typically have only two agenda items. First, we share intelligence on who needs help and other people to potentially recruit. After that, we usually share about something we’ve learned lately or new technologies that we think could change the game here at Parts Unlimited. I propose we add a third agenda item, which is discussing the progress of Phoenix builds, yes?”

Everyone nods.

Kurt looks at his watch. “Folks, one more thing before we adjourn. I’m starting a betting pool on when the release team will have the Phoenix application successfully running in production.”

The most optimistic bet comes from Cranky Dave, who guesses Saturday at two a.m., fully eight hours after the deployment starts. Most bets are scattered between three and nine a.m., with Maxine betting six a.m.

“After all,” she says, “the in-store point of sales systems need to be up by eight on Saturday morning.”

To everyone’s surprise, Dwayne bets Sunday evening, “You people have no idea how unprepared we really are for this release—this one will go down in the record books.”


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


Dick Landry (CFO, Parts Unlimited), Sarah Moulton(SVP of Retail Operations)


Steve Masters (CEO, Parts Unlimited), Bob Strauss (Board Chair, Parts Unlimited)


3:15 p.m., September 11


Maximizing Shareholder Value **CONFIDENTIAL**

Sarah and Dick,

Thanks for the call today, and for walking me through the strategy and the Phoenix Project. I agree that an omni-channel strategy is required for any retailer to survive these days, especially given the e-commerce threat. And selling products manufactured in-house with low cost of sales is intriguing.

However, I’m concerned at how much cash you’ve diverted from Manufacturing ($20MM) to invest in Retail over the last three years, with no obvious return. The question becomes what return you could have gotten if this were invested elsewhere in the business or just returned to shareholders. As of right now, investing in lottery tickets would have made more economic sense.

Stories about innovation and omni-channel are nice, but the board needs more than stories and PowerPoint slides.

Good luck with the Phoenix release tomorrow. I know a lot rides on it.