Those of you in the DevOps community know exactly who I am talking about when I use the term Unicorn. Amazon, Netflix, and Disney all come to mind. After two days here at the DevOps Enterprise Summit, we shouldn’t be using the term unicorn at all to describe these high-performing IT organizations. If we have to choose four-legged animal, they are more like a thoroughbred than a unicorn. Here’s why.
When trying to strategically position a firm in the marketplace, scholars like to use Resource-Based Theory (sometimes called the Resource-Based View of the Firm), largely popularized in recent literature by Jay Barney. His seminal paper in 1991 is frequently cited when trying to understand why one firm has competitive advantage over another. In the late 1990s to mid 2000s, researchers started to realize that there are some gaps in the theory when it comes to softer, intangible assets like corporate culture. For example, companies like SouthWest can create competitive advantage over other carriers given a similar set of inputs.
Interestingly enough, IT is a big driver of this as well. Think about how IT works. We all build upon ubiquitous technologies and code is infinitely mobile (even when we try to keep it under wraps), yet we’ve all seen examples of high performing organizations that outpace their competitors—even when building upon the same technology available to everyone. These are what the DevOps movement calls Unicorns. David Teece explains some of this in his work on Dynamic Capabilities—specifically those intangible things that can create competitive advantage—as a way to add to RBT. Everyone is CAPABLE of doing great things with DevOps, but not everyone is WILLING to do what it takes to get there.
Here’s a pop-culture example for you. In the following commercial, unsuspecting patrons were treated to a ride in Nissan’s most advanced Altima race car. The window dressing serves to trick these individuals into believing that this is not your ordinary car and is unavailable to the general public. After they go for a thrilling ride, the props are removed and the riders realize they were driving around in the same Altima they could go down the street and buy.
Any company can build a high-performing IT organization, but it takes lots of work and a change in culture. Calling companies unicorns makes the performance and speed from DevOps feel unattainable. This is obviously not true. These companies are thoroughbreds, or if you want to use the car example, they are the race car version of the Altima. Our IT departments could all be compared to some kind of car—some better than others. Every organization can become a thoroughbred with the right approach. We have the capacity, now we must develop the capability!