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Cheat Sheet - Characters and quotes from The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project is a business novel that provides a fictional use case for the adoption of DevOps methodologies. Each of the main characters in the book plays an important role in advancing the book's plot. Through their actions, the characters help the reader understand why it's important to understand the Three Types of Work, break down departmental silos and use the Three Ways principles to change corporate culture.

The Phoenix Project is written by Gene Kim, George Spafford and Kevin Behr. (Check out a free chapter excerpt here.)

characters in The Phoenix Project

To help you get to know the main characters, we've provided quotes from the book that we think will help you quickly grasp each character's personality and point of view (POV). 

Bill Palmer

Job title:Vice president of IT operations; former director of midrange (middleware) operations.

About Bill: Protagonist Bill Palmer is the new VP of information technology at Parts Unlimited. Under Erik's mentorship, he uses his teamwork and interpersonal skills to improve collaboration between IT operations and development.

Quotes from or about Bill:

  • "Situations like this only reinforce my deep suspicion of developers: They're often carelessly breaking things and then disappearing, leaving Operations to clean up the mess."
  • "My replacement laptop appears to be almost ten years old -- it's twice as large as my old one and looks three times as heavy. The battery has been taped on, and half the keyboard lettering is worn off from heavy use. For a moment, I wonder if this is a practical joke."
  • (on Chris's invitation for Bill's team to stop by their party) "Still, I think it's important that we get our guys to drop by the party. In order to succeed, we need to create these relationships with Chris' team. Even if it's only for a half hour."

Steve Masters

Job title: Chief executive officer (CEO), acting chief information officer (CIO).

About Steve: Parts Unlimited CEO Steve Masters is a persuasive leader and must get his company to perform by any means possible to keep it afloat.

Quotes from or about Steve:

  • "What's at stake here is not just my job, but the nearly four thousand employees who work here at Parts Unlimited."
  • "What I want is for IT to keep the lights on. It should be like using the toilet. I use the toilet and, hell, I don't ever worry about it not working. What I don't want is to have the toilets back up and flood the entire building."
  • (to Bill) "I'm tired of your Chicken Little routine, screaming that the sky is falling and then happily saying 'I told you so' afterward. I need you to come to me with some actual solutions."

Dick Landry

Job title: Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

About Dick: Dick is gruff, brusque and one of Bill's more vocal critics until the end of the novel. His idea of a good day is "beating the pants off the competition" and writing excessive commission checks to the sales team. A bad day for him is when the organization is getting their pants beaten off.

Quotes from or about Dick:

  • (To Bill about his promotion to VP) "Congratulations. Now look, my people found a huge payroll irregularity. When can you get to my office?"
  • "My official title doesn't have 'operations' anywhere in it, but it's the part of my job that I love most. When a company is as big as we are, with so many business processes, so many managers and workers, almost everything is complex. As smart as Steve is, even he needs help making sure the company strategy and goals are realistic and making an objective assessment of what we're actually capable of."
  • (Bill about Dick) "I've never actually seen someone who routinely hangs up on people."

Wes Davis

Job title: Director of distributed technology operations

About Wes: Wes is impatient, combative and outspoken. Though blunt and often abrasive, Bill learns he can rely on Wes as a trustworthy ally.

Quotes from or about Wes:

  • Wes pounds the table, saying, "Just get the vendor on the phone and tell them that unless they get a tech down here pronto, we're going to the competition. We're one of their largest customers! We should probably have abandoned that pile of crap by now, come to think of it."
  • (Wes to Bill) "So now we're supposed to take orders from you? Look, no offense, pal, but aren't you a little out of your league? You've managed the midrange systems, which are basically antiques, for years. You created a nice little cushy job for yourself up there. And you know what? You have absolutely no idea how to run modern distributed systems -- to you, the 1990s is still the future!"
  • (Wes to Chris) "Oh, do you guys not need a test environment anymore? You haven't done any real testing of your code yet, because that fell off the schedule, too!"

Patty McKee

Job title: Director of IT service support

About Patty: Patty initially ran a complicated change management system that no one wanted to use. With her attention to detail and organizational skills, Patty builds a more efficient and collaborative change management process that gets things done without excessive delays and conflicts.

Quotes from or about Patty:

  • "I've been trying to keep John's people in line for years. They never follow our process, and it always causes problems."
  • (Patty to Bill, after his surprised reaction that Sarah [VP of Retail Operations] might be the next CEO) "Wow, boss. You don't hang out at the water cooler much, do you?"
  • (Patty to Bill in the Change Coordination room) "It's a Kanban board. After our last meeting, I went to MRP-8 myself. I was so curious about this work center notion that I had to see it in action. I managed to find one of the supervisors that I've worked with before, and he spent an hour with me showing how they managed the flow of work."

Brent Geller

Job title: Lead engineer

About Brent: Brent is the most knowledgeable engineer at Parts Unlimited. He has a monopoly on knowledge of the company's IT systems and therefore must be present for anything to get done.

Quotes from or about Brent:

  • (when questioned about the payroll failure) "Well, now that you mention it . . . A developer for the timekeeping application called me yesterday with a strange question about the database table structure. I was in the middle of working on that Phoenix test VM, so I gave him a really quick answer so I could get back to work."
  • (Bill on Brent) "He's definitely a smart guy but can be intimidating because of how much he knows. What makes it worse is that he's right most of the time."
  • (Bill talking to Wes about Brent) "Oh, come on. Brent. Brent, Brent, Brent! Can't we do anything without him?"

Sarah Moulton

Job title: Senior vice president of retail operations

About Sarah: Sarah, the main antagonist, is Steve's right-hand person and has ambitions to replace him as the next CEO. She has a competitive streak and will not hesitate to break the rules to get what she wants. She has a reputation within Parts Unlimited for being difficult to work with.

Quotes from or about Sarah:

  • "See, Bill, in order for us to increase market share, we must ship Phoenix. But for some reason, you and your team keep dragging your feet. Maybe you're not prioritizing correctly? Or maybe you're just not used to supporting a project this important?"
  • "Maybe if IT didn't cause the failure in the first place, you wouldn't have blown your commitments to us. I don't think we can depend on you and your team."
  • "This just shows how Bill and his team lack the necessary sense of urgency. Perfection is the enemy of good. Bill, we simply do not have the luxury of time to polish this to whatever gold standard you're proposing."

Chris Allers

Job title: Vice president of application development

About Chris: Chris has a reputation as a "capable and no-nonsense manager."  Bill's IT operations team initially is in conflict with Chris's development team, who they blame for being late and delivering low-quality code.

Quotes from or about Chris:

  • "It's crazy what programmers, and even managers like me, have to learn every couple of years. Sometimes it's a totally new database technology, a new programming or project management method, or a new technology delivery model, like cloud computing."
  • "It's harder than ever to convince the business to do the right thing. They're like kids in a candy store. They read in an airline magazine that they can manage their whole supply chain in the cloud for $499 per year, and suddenly that's the main company initiative."

John Pesche

Job title: Chief information security officer (CISO)

About John: Often seen with his black three-ring binder, no other character embodies the transformation of Parts Unlimited as much as John. For years, John's rigid attempts to improve security led to him being intentionally excluded from meetings by his colleagues. After being harshly criticized by Erik, a board candidate who becomes Bill’s mentor, John rebuilds himself and becomes an important piece of the company's success.

Quotes from or about John:

  • "Dick and Steve have every reason to be climbing the walls: Compliance is not optional. It's the law. My job is to keep them out of orange jumpsuits, and so I did what I had to do."
  • "Do you know how much political capital I've spent over the last two years, trying to get everyone to do the right thing? This organization has been kicking the information security can down the road for a decade."
  • "I'm rebuilding our compliance program from scratch, based upon our new understanding of precisely where we're relying on our controls. That dictates what matters. It's like having a magic set of glasses that can differentiate what controls are earth-shatteringly important versus those that have no value at all."

Erik Reid

Job title: Board candidate

About Erik: Mysterious tech hotshot, Erik is the quintessential odd genius. Perhaps wired a bit different than others, he is presented as an omniscient mentor figure. He appears to have studied Lean and Agile principles, which he speaks about with a scholarly air, and uses his knowledge to guide Bill's thinking.

Quotes from or about Erik:

  • "If you think IT Operations has nothing to learn from Plant Operations, you're wrong. Dead wrong."
  • (to Bill) "Until you gain a better understanding of what work is, any conversation we have about controlling work will be totally lost on you. It would be like talking about acrobatics to someone who doesn't believe in gravity yet."
  • (to Steve) "That's some pretty nice, soaring rhetoric, Steve. Very moving. But you know what your problem is? You guys in the business are punch drunk on projects, taking on new work that doesn't have a prayer of succeeding. Why? Because you have no idea what capacity you actually have. You're like the guy who is always writing checks that bounce, because you don't know how much money you have and never bother opening your mail."

Supporting characters

  • Ann: Operations Manager in the finance department, works for Dick
  • Maggie Lee: Senior Director of Retail Program Management
  • Stacy: Steve's assistant/secretary
  • William Mason: Director of Quality Assurance
  • Kristen Fingle: "runs the Project Management office"
  • Ron Jonson: VP of Manufacturing Sales
  • Laura Beck: VP of HR who first informs Bill of his unexpected promotion
  • Nancy Mailer: Chief Audit Executive
  • Ellen: Bill's assistant
  • Paige: Bill's wife
  • Max: Developer suspected of causing payroll outage. Only seen on vacation after the payroll fiasco
  • Bob Strauss: Lead Director of Parts Unlimited Board, former Chairman, former CEO
This was last updated in August 2020

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