My 5 Laws of Facilitation

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Law # 1 - Prepare, but don't stick to the plan

You need to come in prepared. I usually spend twice as long as the session itself to prepare for it. The trick is to be prepared to let the plan go. Have a sample agenda ready. There's nothing like killing a great discussion by sticking hard to an agenda and forcing people to move on. Creativity gets stifled and peoples' minds remain on the previous discussion, as you try to move onto the next subject.

One of the biggest novice mistakes a person can make is forcing a conclusion to a thoughtful discussion. Time boxing is an art not  science. 

Flexibility is key to this first law.  

Law # 2 - 20/80

The key to this law is remembering it is not about you, it is about the people in the room. This is not a presentation. This requires a different set of skills. Don't worry about what you are going to say. The more you are focused on yourself, rather than the group, the more likely you are to stagnate the facilitation. Make sure the attention is off of you, do not stand in the front of the room especially when discussion is going on. See Sharon Bowman's technique for training from the back of the room.

For the 20% of the time you are talking, your role is to ask questions, as well as synthesizing what people are saying in the discussion. Synthesis should come after someone has given a long and elaborate explanation that can really be shortened into a Tweet, give them that Tweet so they understand that discussion isn't a place for wasting others time with drawn out statements.

For the 80% of the time that you are being a listener, you need to develop two habits: Active listening (see below) and reading the room. Reading the room is an art. If there is just two people talking back and forth, that means the discussion is falling flat. Stop those people who dominate the discussion with humor, or volunteer someone who has been quiet to give their thoughts. It is your duty to make sure everyone is contributing. If people are having trouble keeping their eyes open, something is going wrong and an adjustment needs to be made. But by the same token, if everyone is ultra engaged in what is going on, do not interrupt, unless the discussion has become repetitive and what is being said is not adding benefit overall. 

Make sure everyone is working. This can be accomplished by checking in on individual groups. Ask each member to use one word that describes their mood at that moment. Ask them to anonymously describe how safe they're feeling on a sheet of paper, and then read it back to the group. Have everyone say what one thing they want to accomplish in the meeting that day. 

Active listening can be broken into four parts: 

1) Contact

Listen to each participant and reinforce what is being said by maintaining eye contact and/or non-verbal responses

2) Absorb

Take in what each person says as well as their body language without judgment or evaluation.

3) Feedback

Paraphrase and summarize what the speaker says back to the speaker.

4) Confirm

Get confirmation from the speaker that you understand their points accurately.

Law #3 - Find the Qwan

The goal of the facilitation is to create a shared understanding amongst the group, it should ideally be a shared mental model. Your job is to take their ideas and help them build towards that common model. The tools are your disposal are:

The 5 whys: Simple enough, ask why continuously to get to the underlying cause or reason for a certain problem, or goal.  

Casual loop diagram: A visualization of how different variables of a system are interrelated. 

Sequence diagram: Shows how objects relate to each other and in what specific order. 

Influence diagram: A graphical representation of a decision situation. It shows all the key elements that go into the decision as well as outcome effects.  Great video by Kent Beck using influence diagram

The Qwan is found when there is a collective "aha" moment. When everyone gets on the same page, and has the same understanding, your job is complete. 

Law #4 - It should be fun

There might be nothing worse for a groups creativity and morale than monotony. You should start off by disorienting your group. Change the location of the session, take them outdoors if the weather is nice. Make the group do something that seems completely random, like making a group of MD's do air squats. It makes everyone seem a bit ridiculous and gives everyone the courage to be seen failing. 

Keep the sessions light-hearted. Be self-deprecating and employ humor into your facilitation technique, it keeps people lively.  People who are generally uncomfortable in group situations, become more comfortable with humor and group laughter. This allows everyone to feel like they can share their ideas, and the creativity flows even better this way. You can even play music, and start singing along and force others to sing as well ( The measures of success for this law are smiles and laughter. 

Law #5 - Continuously Improve

Your first experiences as a facilitator likely won't be the best, so take every opportunity to practice facilitation. It may sound silly, but you can even try it with your friends or your kids at the dinner table. Take a step back from dominating the conversation and get others to throw their ideas out there. You'll gain subtle practice in asking the right types of questions in a comfortable environment. More practically, get feedback from the sessions you facilitate. Ask them what they liked, what they didn't like. Also, make sure to observe other facilitators, what do they do that intrigues you? When do you find yourself most engaged? And then add those things to your own arsenal. It's okay to steal from others if it makes you better!

UltraFamily Draft

This is draft story of my UltraFamily

Health warning: This is very much in a draft state. I am publishing it on my blog in the hopes it provides you some value and so you can help me finish it. Please feel free to comment directly in the doc below...

Hackers and Slackers (Guest Post)

By Lynette A Cain (Scrum Master, Former Actress, Improv & overall awesome human)

Think back to the old Waterfall Days - not so long ago - and imagine the office at 5 PM. Most of the staff is packing up their bags, shutting down their computers, and has their minds on dinner. At 6 PM a handful of people remain, trying to finish up that last email or task. By 7 PM, only three are left: Molly, Evan, and Linda. Molly has been in the department for over eight years. She knows the most complicated rules engine code inside and out, and everyone knows it. The whole team runs their client-related tests through Evan. He has a dozen polite ways to tell the client that the problem is on their end without making his executive director nervous. Linda is the only person the department trusts to break down an intricate client request. Molly, Evan, and Linda have a bit of running banter, when they see each other at the water cooler: they’re the heroes, the ones who can fly through dozens of tasks after the slackers go home. They enjoy the rush of putting out fires and rescuing projects. Their peers quietly acknowledge their prowess. The heroes’ managers know they’re saving the day. It all seems to work.

Now let’s come back to the present time, in which Scrum has replaced Waterfall. Molly, Evan, and Linda each chose a different Scrum team. As usual, Molly, Evan, and Linda still rescue the department, while their teammates do…very little. Their lack of delivery is clearer, now. The “slackers” have little to report at daily Scrums while the heroes have a long list of what they completed and what they have in progress. The managers, and their own managers, wonder how they can get everyone else to work with the same sense of urgency. The Scrum Masters see waste, an unsustainable pace, and other symptoms something is very wrong here.  The heroes don’t want to hear the Scrum Masters’ observations.  Molly, Evan, Linda still know they are carrying the department and feel the Scrum Masters add no value - where are they at 7 PM while the heroes are still working? Long gone.

It’s clear the heroes are valued team members. But what if, in fact, they’re also bottlenecks? The Theory of Constraints tells us the entire team can only work as fast as they can. The knowledge and experience Molly, Evan, and Linda have is limited to them. If Evan gets hit by a bus tomorrow (and he could, since he’s so tired he’s barely aware of his surroundings), so much for the client testing. So why, knowing that Molly, Evan, and Linda are so valuable, isn’t anyone learning from them? They’re endlessly busy executing, with no time to mentor or teach new employees. Other team members are bored and frustrated because they want to do more than busy work.  They aren’t slacking; they’re frozen assets, unable to reach their potential.

Something has to change. The Scrum Masters propose an experiment: for a sprint, Molly, Evan, and Linda are not allowed to take on sprint deliverables – they are reserved exclusively as teachers and mentors. In the short term, this experiment is incredibly painful. The Product Owner sees a sharp temporary drop in velocity. The heroes sit on their hands, willing themselves not to take over and save the day as they have so many times before. Theirs is, in many ways, the biggest leap of faith. Surrendering knowledge and expertise makes them feel vulnerable. Who are they, if they aren’t always SMEs? Can they learn something new, becoming humble beginners again? The frozen assets, the people who weren’t previously meaningful contributors, are also forced to step outside of their comfort zones, unable to vanish into the background. They now carry responsibility for delivery. They fear, what if I can’t learn fast enough? The Scrum Masters observe, encourage, facilitate…but mostly worry that the results of the experiment will not come fast enough to make the sacrifice worth it in the eyes of the Product Owner and managers.

The experiment runs for a sprint, and then another. The product team gets benefit from starting to relieve the bottlenecks, and decides to continue in this manner. They document everything the heroes have been doing, so the next time that Molly fixes an obscure rules engine bug, someone else knows how to do it. Molly’s mentees are accountable for retaining and spreading their new knowledge; they are now the first responders. Linda and Evan take similar approaches, so that they are able to spend more and more time anticipating ways to add value instead of reacting to problems.

For a while, everyone works as if this is temporary, and some day Molly, Evan, and Linda will all return to their former habits when the team is up against a tough deadline. But somewhere along the way, Molly takes a vacation. Evan gets to learn performance testing, and it’s a nice change of pace. Linda feels a little exposed, since the teammates that never used to touch client requests have learned her tricks of the trade. She may doubt her value, but they don’t. They’re impressed by what a great teacher she is.

The truth is there are many experiments that could allow the teams to break through the bottlenecks. All of them come back to control, though: the heroes must surrender their burdens to both lighten their own loads, and give the others a chance to be meaningful contributors. Molly, Evan, and Linda aren’t the whole department. Once they don’t have to be, they will get to (or have to) turn to their coworkers and see true peers: equals, partners, and the reason they go home for dinner on time tonight.

No lunch but plenty of food for thought...


  • Class deck (Link)
  • Class mind map(Link)
    Note: Requires XMIND 
  • Metrics Spreadsheet(Link)
  • Printable Scrum Mindmap (Link)

Articles I mentioned

  • Unfreezing an organization (Link)
  • How to form teams at scale (Link)
  • The taxonomy of A-Holes (Link)
  • Running an impact mapping session (Link)

Books I mentioned


  • Become a faster reader using RSVP (e.g. Spreader)
  • Prepare your speaking voice via repeating: " I slit the sheet, the sheet is slit, on the slitted sheet I sit" (Video)
  • Mindmapping as a tool to retain and correlate information. (Video by Creator)
  • Pomodoro technique (Video)
  • Glucose Transporter type 4 (Link)

Class soundtrack

  • Led Zepplin 
  • Cat Stevens
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Grateful Dead
  • Brian Adams
  • My Saxobeat
  • James Taylor

Class blog posts

LeSS – Day 1

By Scott and Abishek

Over the course of Day 1 in our 3 day LESS training which is designed to scale scrum across larger teams/projects in BNY.  We adopted a repetitive learning approach where we covered high level the principles, people, process and adoption on day one and then will explore these concepts in much more detail on day 2 and day 3.

We utilized techniques like mind mapping, classroom exercise and instructor lead learning. Each methods of these yielded real-life examples of application and successes. One of the key evaluation was the queueing theory at Starbucks- separate queues for the people who wanted regular coffee vs special orders to expedite the delivery. Automating the orders through smartphone apps. At the same time, barista was limited to not more than 2 orders of coffee maintain the high quality. Similar technique can be applied in software processes by reducing the queueing of requirements by letting the team work in collaborative manner with product owners to create the requirement themselves. It also explains that by limiting the work queue hence increasing the throughput.

Also reviewing the principles outlined in the program allowed us to visualize or better understand where we at BNY could make significant strides for a better agile adoption. Specifically, a single product owner across x number of teams, co-location and dedicated scrum masters to help serve and support the value generating development teams.  Product owner, location strategy and scrum master expertise are all quite immature in practice amongst many of the teams.

As a group we discussed the concept of waste within a system specifically how we may invest a lot of time in unnecessary waste tasks (like the beautification of communications and ppt) vs necessary waste like crafting  wiki for teams to consume information.

We also learnt about an example of finding the root cause of the delay in delivery through the 5Whys and “Go See” technique. After some hesitation, senior Management (CIO/CTO) committed to meeting the team at different geographical locations with diverse culture, understanding the technical issue by casual conversation. It revealed the root cause as the non-realistic timeline given to the development team to build a feature that resulted in technical debt creating the overall code to become complex to change.

Looking forward to day 2!

LeSS Is More

By Ciara, Brian & Laureen

Today we attended the LeSS is More Agile Training for product development. This is the first day of a three-day training. Can you imagine changing the culture within your organization where someone with total understanding of the product is working with the team to add purpose and priority to your work? Well… it can happen to you as we learned today! How would you do this? By being part of a smaller team where labels do not exist. You have to trust one another to gain knowledge of the product together and learn the process.

 All the while the customer is the primary focus as you are developing and working on the product.  Increasing customer satisfaction by having your customer at the table and having accountability along with the team.

Working towards perfection helps to continuously learn and constantly apply what you’ve learned the day before. Infinite Improvement! Imagine spending 85 of your years perfecting the art of sushi and still not feeling satisfied with your work and ready to retire. A sushi chef in NYC works every day to continuously improve his work. He is not content with mediocrity and every day he is working towards perfection. Now take this lesson and apply it to your product development. 

The TEAM….. small, no labels, no manager.  What no MANAGER!! Teams will rely on each other to get the job done!  

And, last but not least you deliver something viable after 2 weeks instead of waiting several months before testing and delivering what the customer does not want! Even though it may be smaller, it is something of value to the customer that can be applied to the system much quicker.


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Click to download

Bad coffee, good cookies & great people


  • Class deck (Link)
  • Class mind map with guides (Link)
    Note: Requires XMIND 
  • Metrics (Link)
  • Printable Scrum Mindmap (Link)
  • Behavior Stories (Link)  

Articles I mentioned

  • Unfreezing an organization (Link)
  • How to form teams at scale (Link)
  • The taxonomy of A-Holes (Link)
  • Running an impact mapping session (Link)

Books I mentioned


  • Become a faster reader using RSVP (e.g. Spreader)
  • Prepare your speaking voice via repeating: " I slit the sheet, the sheet is slit, on the slitted sheet I sit" (Video)
  • Mindmapping as a tool to retain and correlate information. (Video by Creator)
  • Pomodoro technique (Video)
  • Glucose Transporter type 4 (Link)

Videos you watched

Class soundtrack

Class Blog

Break Your Mental Model

By Susan and Jeff

A mental model is a thought process about how something works in the real world.  For instance, when you think about getting medical care, would you want the receptionist at the hospital front desk to be the person to treat your illness when you are sick?  Of course not, your mental model demands that you see a qualified doctor or nurse because you want to have an in-depth conversation with them to describe your condition and find out how to solve the problem.  You want to work with the people who know how to meet your needs.

Today, our mental model for product development is based on specialization by role and hand offs between our customers and development teams and development teams and deployment teams. To break the mental model, let’s move forward and have development teams work directly with customers to understand and seek feedback about the business needs, perform all the tasks needed to build a quality product, and then deliver the product to production as ready-to-use.

This requires that product owners invest time with teams to elaborate on the full “definition of done” for the product and work with the teams to estimate relative size of effort.  This partnership will help to create a new model in which the product purpose is constantly clarified and the backlog of work is prioritized to align with customer value.  The scrummaster is a change agent helping the product owner execute on their role and encouraging the team to stretch their skillset beyond their existing expertise.  During this change, management leaders will support the team’s pursuit by removing obstacles and focusing on improving the organizational system that may be an impediment. Finally, the development team will work to become poly-skilled, no longer boxed in by their specific role titles, they will begin mastering skills that support better, faster, cheaper delivery of client needs.  As an example, development team members will embrace learning a wide range of soft skills and technical knowledge, thus enhancing communication, requirement elicitation, testing, coding, security, risk management, and production deployment.

Break the mental model, break with the past, break down the roles (developers, testers, business analysts, project managers) to be skilled-based, problem solvers who can diagnose, analyze, prescribe solutions, and renew their customers’ well-being, just like doctors!

What Got Sue and Jeff Jazzed about LeSS?

By Susan and Jeff

We know we’re not there yet.  Where is it that our companies want to go?  What’s our vision?  What is the angst we experience trying to get there?

Organizationally we think we understand what our objectives are for success.  But, if you ask anyone, would they have a familiar description of shared purpose?  We say no!  We say that the vision by which we operate and build products and services is degraded as you traverse down the organization.  Let’s take a look at the root cause…ask the 5 why’s.

1)     Why is the vision degraded?  Answer: Layers and layers of organization and distortion

2)     Why are is the organization layered?  Answer: We use the command and control business model as the historical model for success

3)     Why command and control?  Answer:  We believe that workers need direction and oversight

4)     Why do the workers need direction and oversight?  Answer:  Because we value the process over the people.  People simply execute the process as optimized.

5)     Why is the process more important than the people?  Answer:  Because classic business operation is based on repeatable, low knowledge activities that drive high throughput and the most efficient utilization of resources.

So how do we change our direction to value the people and ensure that our shared purpose guides each employees’ actions?

LeSS is a framework that incorporates core principles that focus on transforming the organization with bringing purpose to the forefront.  Using LeSS, shared purpose is constantly reinforced when product owners have rich dialogues with product development teams to ensure they share a mental model of the product.  Focus is on the product, not the process.  During sprint planning, sprint retrospectives, and product backlog prioritization and refinement activities, the product team engages to hear and clarify the product purpose.  It’s not a “once and done” message.

Picture this…

A future were senior level leaders spend entire days with the product development teams interacting in real time to generate excitement about building the next great feature!   And, at the end of the day, everyone sees the real product delivered to delight the real customer.  Now that’s real progress!  That’s got us jazzed!

Turn failures o success in a volatile business environment Transition - LeSS

By Raj and Ranju

Developing software is a game of decision making under conditions of uncertainty. As part of an organization developing products to increase market share, every day we are forced to make decisions in situations with insufficient information. The team cannot finish their sprints and the velocity will go down. Understanding customer needs and delivering them a quality product in a short lead time is a key driver to be successful in today’s competitive market. We can accomplish this in multiple ways but choosing the right process and framework is fundamental. We found LeSS principle to be an effective and efficient way to scale a one team scrum process to multiple teams. This process enables us to build scalable models and continuously improve the end products based on customers’ feedback. Meetings are more effective and efficient, team participation is more active and start functioning more independently to deliver the tasks associated with the sprint. Planning does tend to become shorter and retrospectives are more focused.  LeSS suggests having an overall retrospective together with the client and the team to talk about improvements concerning coordination issues. The agility comes from short Sprints and continuous customer feedback loop. The LeSS creates openness within the team and enables them to self-organize.  LeSS also drives lean thinking throughout the lifecycle of the process and helps reducing the lead time, build a high quality product and become creative. This framework uses systems thinking to build a resilient organizational design to deliver the highest business value.

It is very difficult to describe everything that was discussed during the first day of the LeSS session but will sure help us apply the principles to become a better agilest and team manager

Scaling Your Success

By Nathan Leinard, Sunita Dhungana, Jacquelyn Talpalar

You just built a killer new product. Now you have $40 million from investors, and it’s your job to grow the team and the product. Now what? Start with what’s working. The team trusts each other; they are intrinsically driven; they have clear purpose; they are self-empowered; and they are experts in their field. Now comes the hard part—scale this model.

First, think about the principles you want to scale. Transparency in where the work is builds trust with your customer. Accomplish more with less, scaling the simplest framework. Ensure your customer is at the center as you continuously improve your product and your people, through empirical process control. In keeping to these basic principles, you can tailor a scaling framework to your company’s needs.

So what does the LeSS framework look like? It’s simple, really. Take the scrum model that is near and dear to your heart from your first product launch, and keep doing it. As your organization and your product continue to grow, there are two key differences to the scaled model of scrum. First, you’ll need to empower one Product Owner to maintain and prioritize one product backlog, divvying up the work to the various feature teams that will refine and deliver. Second, you’ll need an overall retrospective so that you can continuously adapt to the needs of the organization. It’s critical that you have one definition of done for all of your teams.

How do you measure the success of your scaling efforts? Don’t let others set targets for your teams; don’t measure for control or for comparing teams/people. Your metrics should have a purpose and not create waste. Consider customer satisfaction and team satisfaction after every release. Consider the number of production defects after every release. Consider the cycle time to production and the percent of effort towards product improvements. Your metrics matter. Make sure they are helping to measure the right kind of success.

At scale, communication channels are critical. There is no “one size fits all” solution. So consider the unique complexities within your organization. Communities of Practice around automation can help drive initiatives forward. Component Mentors around things micro-services can help empower leaders while also spreading knowledge and eliminating technical debt. For unique skill sets, the role of the Traveller enables spreading a wealth of knowledge across the entire ecosystem, while giving the Traveller a new challenge each step of the way.

Let the LeSS framework be your guide and continue to experiment with the minutia that will help you find your sweet spot. Through a strong product team and a focus on the principles discussed, you can help minimize lead-time to your customers and maximize your return on the $40 million investment.

LeSS in a Nutshell 

By Randy & Susan

LeSS is akin to the Analects, for Scrum. It is philosophy, theory, guidance and suggestions on Scrum and scale.. 

Part 6 140.6-251 Training

After completing Ironman Austria, the next race on my bucket List was the Marathon De Sable. I found the MDS via a google search of the world's most epic races with the following description on Wikipedia:

Known simply as the MdS, the race is a grueling multi-stage adventure through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates - the Sahara desert. The rules require you to be self-sufficient, to carry with you on your back everything except water that you need to survive. You are given a place in a tent to sleep at night, but any other equipment and food must be carried. As an example of what lies beyond the starting line, the longest single stage in 2012 was 51 miles (81.5km). Typical distances are 156 miles (251 km) broken down as follows:
Day 1 - 33.8 km
Day 2 - 38.5 km
Day 3 - 35 km
Day 4 - 81.5 km
Day 5 - 42.2 km
Day 6 - 15.5 km

A quick search resulted in a phone number. I immediately called and spoke to Jay Batchen. He told me that I was lucky and there was a spot left. He had completed the race and his wife had actually won the women's division.

“Awesome!” I said.

“Just send through the deposit, and we will take it from there.”

I had a quick chat with Areeg and agreed that this would be my next race. By quick chat, that meant me planting the seed and then moping around the house until she said yes, which she eventually did.

That night I sent through the deposit and he sent me a slew of documents I had to fill out. These included documents that stated that I might die in this event and they have no liability, etc.

I don’t usually read this stuff, but Areeg does. She started looking more into the race and she found a deluge of crazy tales on the web.

“Do you know that a police officer got lost one year and tried to commit suicide by slitting his wrists, but was so dehydrated that his blood didn’t flow out enough to kill him. The Bedouins found him and sewed him up and brought him back to the MDS camp.” She told me, reading from the web.

“Wow, what happened to him?” I responded.

“It seems that he came back the following year and finished it”, she continued reading.

“What a legend.” I smiled.

“I’m going to tell your mother about this.” She threatened. As funny as that might sound, the threat can end the race for me. My mother is a "worst case scenario" type person. Her imagination of what "could" happen would put Stephen King to shame. 

The more Areeg read the more nervous she became. The truth was, I became nervous hearing the stories. One of the key ingredients to my success is that I don't really do a lot of research into my races. I fire and forget. Whereas other competitors pour over course maps and descriptions, I choose not too. Partly because I'm lazy but mostly because I don't want to give the negative part of my brain any more ammo. 

The next thing I found out was just how expensive this whole thing was. Whereas an ironman costs about 800 dollars, the MDS would cost over 5,000.  I was incredulous. I measure the financial cost of things by equating them with other things. For example, if I take out the family to a nice dinner, as I'm paying the bill, I'd be thinking we just ate half an iPhone. In this case, I was spending a used Volkswagen golf. This didn't sit well with me.

Embarrassed at how much money I was spending for an entirely self-centered pursuit, I decided to raise money for a worthy cause, the Wafa house. Doing so would alleviate my guilt at spending so much money but also make my mother a cheerleader rather than a blocker. The Wafa house helps the victims of domestic violence in the Northern New Jersey area. It’s a thankless task that was started by a couple of amazing grandmothers.

For the first time, one of my physical pursuits become public. It made me deeply uncomfortable but in the end, it raised 25,000 for a very important organization. Some tried to frame the narrative that I ran for the Wafa house and I did some sort of heroic thing. The truth was I was running for myself but happy to help out a good cause along the way. 

During this time, I read a book that would have a deep impact on me and almost cost me the race: Born to Run by Scott McDougal.

Born to Run tells the tale of the seemingly mythical Tara Humara Indians. They would run 100’s of miles wearing sandals made out of discarded tires and eating a paste of Chia seeds. McDougal's story telling combined with his assault on the sneaker industry convinced me and a whole host of runners to throw out our beloved sneakers and going barefoot. No one actually ran barefoot, what we did was buy barefoot running sneakers, like Vibram 5 fingers, Vivo barefoot and even the sandals made by one of the characters in the book. Perhaps we are not only born to run but born to spend as well. 

I decided to go all in on barefoot running and my logic was : My parents are Egyptian -> Egypt is in Africa -> Africans are known distance runners -> Ergo, I too was born to run and I would do it barefoot. 

I did away with my Brooks and replaced them with Vibram 5 fingers.

With 8 months to prepare for the race, I decided to self-coach as I did with Ironman Austria. I don’t think I’ve ever been so meticulous in my life. I had spreadsheets that tracked my training, the marathon food, the gear. All with weights and calories. 

I found a couple of Serpie members that had completed the Marathon de Sable. The all told me two things: do the Druid and Pilgrim challenges in the U.K. and practice walking fast with poles.

I took the first advice and ignored the second. I’m not a 70-year-old pensioner in Richmond park. Why would I ever walk with poles? I’m born to RUN, not walk.

I started ramping up my running very quickly. This was done deliberately due to my love of running slow and the fact that I had many marathons under my belt.

I followed a similar plan to my marathon training plan with one major exception. I started including back to back runs on the weekend. Rather than a long run on Saturday I would do the same distance both Saturday and Sunday. The theory being that my body needs to get used to the recovering quickly.

Being naturally flat footed, my soleus and Achilles tendons were extremely sore after the run. I took this as positive signs. 

I didn’t have the good sense to slowly transition to barefoot running. I later learned that thousands of runners made the same mistake.

My tendons would ache constantly. I just ignored it and dismissed it as muscle soreness.

My training plan was anchored around the Druids and Pilgrim challenge. The Druids challenge is a 3-day event where you run an ultra marathon each day.

To prepare for the Druids challenge, I decided to run back to back marathons in Richmond park. Having not purchased any of the gear yet, I put a large bag of basmati rice and bags of beans into a book bag and went for a run.

During this time, I discovered the hardest part of the Marathon De Sable; the "kit". For me, buying stuff is painful. Buying MDS kit is far worse than shopping for your first baby's "stuff." Choosing the rug sack (a.k.a. book bag) alone was harder than deciding if I should get married. Everyone has an opinion. The list of stuff you have to buy is endless including things like poison suction kit. There is one unifying principle; it's all expensive. They say the two most expensive events in your life are marriage and your first child. "They" obviously didn't attempt the MDS.

After the kit, the food becomes the next obsession. You basically want the maximum amount of calories with the least amount of weight.

I knew the weight of everything down to grams. I went to the extreme of driving to some random guy's house an hour from my house to buy a particular flavor or freeze dried food because it was sold out everywhere else. Being that you have to carry everything you need for the 250km, you obsess over weight. You know the weight to calorie ratio of every food. After spending hours researching and shopping and hundreds of pounds I was ready to try all this kit. 

The day of the druid’s challenge came.

Having never bothered getting my license in London, Areeg agreed to drive me to the start line. 

On our way, Google maps failed us and we got lost and missed my wave. After we arrived, the race organizer told me that I would have to start with the elite runners who would start an hour later.

“No problem, it will force me run faster,” I replied.

The druids challenge is a multistage race along the oldest roadway in the UK, dating back to 3000 BC and follows the ancient ridgeway trail. It covers nearly 90 miles in three days, What makes it challenging is not the distance but how miserable the conditions are. The English countryside in the fall is cold and wet. The closest thing I can compare it too is one of those cold, wet, and miserable battle scenes from the movie Braveheart.

Just 2 miles into the start of day 1, I found myself completely alone. They are elite for a reason. The druids challenge follows a marked path called the ridgeway. All you have to do is follow the acorns. It sounds so simple. It’s not.

I was used to years of well-marked marathon and Ironman courses where I could get lost in my own thoughts and music. I never really needed to be “present.”

Ultra Courses are usually off road, not well sign posted, and with infrequent aid stations. Whereas you can have a full course meal in a traditional “road” race, you need to carry much of your own provisions in an ultra.

Within 30 minutes I was lost.

“Do you know where I can find the Ridgeway?”, I would ask. "It’s back that way." would always be the response. 

I was alone and lost most of day 1. I'd run over 30 miles and was still miles away from the finish. I eventually came to a large field and pointed my head torch up. I saw fluorescent eyes staring back at me. They were cows, hundred of cows. They started to crowd around me as they saw the light.

I stopped in my tracks, terrified, cold, and tired. I didn't know what to do, so I did the first thing that came to mind. Call Areeg.

“Hey, I’m in the middle of a field of cows, and I’m scared,” I whispered.

“Turn right and run around then.” she said matter of factly

“Ok, that’ a great idea. that’s exactly what I will do.”

I assume that my stupidity had something to do with not enough sugar to my brain and exhaustion.

I made my way back to the path and to the final checkpoint. I was cold and miserable. I hated all the extra miles I had done.

“I’m done", I told the checkpoint marshal. "I’m done for the day,” I said.

“Ok. you will have to wait here until the van sweeps up the other people on the course that quit.” He said.

This whole thing was an epic fail.

The druids challenge has overnight accommodations between the three stages. That night I met some awe-inspiring people.  I met a man, James Adams who ran across America fueling himself on McDonald’s.

Going from the Ironman world to the "Ultra" world is a culture shock. Ironman is dominated by alpha people: Lots of lycra, compression gear, 4000 dollars wheels, etc. It’s very individualistic.

The ultra world, on the other hand, has a very different spirit. It's not as clean and tidy as Ironman; it’s full of mud, actual food, chips, sandwiches, cookies, candy, and above all community. Once I got a taste of this community, I was hooked. Don't get me wrong, gear is still a factor, even in the Ultra community. One year it was: "Are those the Vibrams? Yeah, they are great. Got them after I read Born to Run. I could never go back." could be heard on a race course. The following year, it was: "Hey are those the Hokas? What do you think of them? Yeah, they are great, it's like running on a cloud. I could never go back." 

The learned a lot about ultra-running that night:

  • Ultra running is an eating competition with some running in the middle
  • Nutrition is the key to a successful race
  • Walk the hills
  • When you start the race, start with you slower pace and run slower still
  • Pain medication is your friend
  • If you have a problem, stop and fix it
  • Don’t be an a-hole
  • Help others

Having done over 30 miles in Vibram 5 fingers, my tendons were on fire. I was in a lot of pain. I used my newly acquired knowledge and asked for pain medication. Seems everyone had some.

I was finally able to sleep.

The next morning, I took more pain medication and started the race with my pace group. The pain medication was not wise in the end.

I finished the 28 miles with my pace group. Although the weather was miserable, running in the company of many people who had done the MDS in the past made the day go by much quicker. I finished the day but I knew that something was seriously wrong with my left Achilles and right soleus tendon. The smart thing was to stop at that point.

I chose not to do the smart thing. 

I didn’t make it past 5 miles of day 3 before I called for the rescue van. I sat on a dirt path unable to walk.

I had done some serious damage and I would be in the Sahara in less that 5 months.

I was working for Merrill Lynch at the time in Canary Wharf and was lucky enough to have a Physiotherapist in the building. I made an appointment with him that following Monday morning.

“I have good news and bad news.”

“Your tendons are severely inflamed and there may be a slight tear in one, and you have two other tendons with similar issues.”, he said

“That is the bad news, the good news is that they are not torn. You are incredibly lucky”

“I have the Marathon de Sable in 4 months,” I told him

“You will not be able to run for at least a month, if not more.” He said.

“That’s not possible," I said, "this is the key part of my training.” 

“You will need to find another way or drop the race”

“How did this happen exactly?” he asked.

“Well, I read this book called Born to Run....” I started.

I am a classic neophile:

"Neophile or Neophiliac is a term used by counterculture cult writer Robert Anton Wilson to describe a particular type of personality. A neophile or neophiliac can be defined as a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for novelty.

“Say no more,” he said

“There are two things physiotherapists love more than anything, CrossFit and barefoot running.” He said laughing.

I did not find it funny.

Over the next couple of weeks, he nursed my tendons with a combination of ultrasound, stretching, deep tissue massage and muscle strengthening. During this time, I learned about tendons, which of my muscles had been over developed which were under developed. I learned about flexibility. I even learned why I had chronic back pain.

As it turns out, I have these things called hip flexors, and sitting down all day made them short.

I did two things, I started using a standing desk and started yoga.

Yoga was not something I thought I would ever do. Yoga, as it turns out, is very hard, will make you look like an idiot, and is vital for the longevity of an endurance athlete. I was finally starting to understand why everyone kept telling me to do Bikram yoga.

I started practicing yoga at home every night, by watching youtube clips. Sulafa loved seeing me in contorted positions. By the second night, everyone was doing yoga.

Having spent a lot of money and raising money for the Wafa house, I decided to experiment with nordic walking. The very thing I had chosen to ignore.

I bought the lightest carbon walking poles I could find and started to walk as fast as I could in the trails of Richmond park.

To my surprise, my bad genetics came in handy. I have unnaturally long legs and a short torso. Once I learned the technique I could go quite fast. I was averaging 8km per hour walking.

The ultimate test was an 80 km walk from London to Oxford. I needed to do this walk in the full MDS gear.

I chose a cold rainy day to maximize the suffering.

We chose to make the weekend of it and explore Blenheim palace. The Birthplace of Winston Churchill.

The winters have very short days in London, so I planned to start the walk at 5am to maximize the sunlight. I ended up leaving at 9am after my standard routine of:

  • Coffee
  • Procrastination
  • “Areeeg where is my wallet”
  • More coffee
  • “Areeeeeg where is my iPod”
  • Still more coffee
  • “Areeeeeeeeg where is my wallet?” “It’s in your pocket” “Oh yeah. Sorry” “Just leave” “ok ok”

I had selected the story of Ernest Shackleton as my Audio book. Google walking directions would direct me in my ear. The food plan was dialed in.

I set off from Ealing and was a curious sight to see. I looked like a tall Oompa Loompa.

I made it out of the populated areas and was doing well. I was enthralled by the heroics of Ernest Shackleton. Ernest  Shackleton was the great British explorer who leads a crew to Antarctica only to get stranded. He led his group of men back to safety in one the greatest acts of leadership every recorded by man.

Having nearly frozen in the Pilgrims challenge, I was ready for the cold. I was becoming a true Brit and learning how to layer. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” I was ready for everything, I thought. What I was not ready for, it turns out, was google walking directions.

The walking direction algorithm was not yet perfected for the English countryside in 2012. I found myself in dark trails or even scarier roads with cars flying by and me walking on the shoulder with no street lamps.

Similar to my cycling on the motor way, walking on an "A" road can be just as terrifying.

I would not stop, however. If Ernest and his crew can survive on seal blubber and a conviction that they will make it, I could make it to Oxford.

The rain was coming down hard, it was dark, the cars were flying by, but I was happy. I was moving fast, eating well, and now I believed I could do the longest stage of the MDS. I was walking so well. It seems that after all, I was NOT born to run. I was born to an Egyptian.

I got a call from Areeg. They had already been at the bed and breakfast for hours waiting for me. It was nearly 10 pm and she was worried. She asked me to send her my GPS coordinates on Whatsapp.

“You are walking on the main road while it's raining in the dark! I drove that way it’s impossible to see anyone on the side of the road!” she yelled.

“I’m coming now, go to the nearest place you can get in and I’m coming.”

“No way!", I yelled, "I’m almost there!”

“Go to the nearest rest stop and wait for me.” she said in her don’t mess with me voice.

“Ok”. I sighed. I had let Ernest down.

As the weeks progressed, I continued to obsess about gear, while working with my physio on recovery. I found the entire physio experience enthralling. I had never learned about tendons and muscles until then. 

Eventually, he allowed me to start running again. But before he did that, he studied my gate.  Broadly speaking there are three types of pronation: Over pronator, Neutral, & Under pronator

I was an extreme over-pronator. He recorded me running in my Vibram 5 fingers, along with many other sneakers and was surprised that I had not snapped a tendon.

After trying many sneakers together we found that brooks were the sneaker for me.

At this point, I was cleared to run.

My protocol became:

Run 40 minutes & Nordic walk 20 minutes.

My training week consisted of:

  • Recovery swims
  • Bike rides
  • Yoga
  • Strength training
  • 2 long run/walk

The weekend of the pilgrim's challenge came and I felt like a different person. I had failed a lot and learned a lot. I showed up with my full gear, nutrition plan and on time.

The pilgrim's challenge is a 2 day ultra in Surrey. It's incredibly challenging taking in some of the most challenging terrain and hills that the UK has to offer.

My protocol worked brilliantly. When my legs would slow down my arms would power on using the nordic polls.

That night, the snow fell very hard. I and a number of  runners that were doing the MDS decided not to do the 2nd day so that we don't risk injury. As far as I was concerned the risk wasn't acceptable.

Once one of the MDS athletes said they were dropping out, the rest dropped like flies. I believe had that first decided to say, the peer pressure would have forced us all to stay.

We arrived at the train station relatively early and had an hour to spare. It was very cold and I had a bright idea.

“Does anyone want a cup of Starbucks?” I asked

“That would be great, but we are in the middle of nowhere.” my friend Sam replied.

“We have our stoves and Nesbit tablets. We haven't tried our stoves yet. Let's practice", I said

As I later learned, you only need 2 Nesbit tablets to heat water, I used 8. This caused quite the fireworks. It didn't occur to me that an Arab man with a beard lighting a fire outside a train station probably wasn't the wisest thing to do.

It wasn't really a good cup of coffee, but I was very proud of it. Man make fire, fire good.

I was ready for this race. At least I thought so.


It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Part 5: 70.3-140.6

I replaced my drive at work with endurance athletics. The interesting thing as my career took a back seat, I did better at work. My confidence was increased and my stress decreased. I became a director

during this period. But my family took a back seat.

“I have to go train," I would say to Areeg and kids. As if I was was training for the olympics.

“Come on Baba, please don't go train” they would plead. Sometimes they would win, but most of the times I would win.

I had started carrying around a little black Moleskine notebook where I would write my thoughts every morning. My concerns seemed less concerning when I would get them out of my mind. The day before the race, I would right down my entire race script and plan. I wanted to remove all thoughts and just trust in the list.

Challenge Roth

My first Ironman would see me back in Germany. Challenge Roth is the world’s biggest long-distance triathlon event. The competition starts with a 3.8 kilometers swim in the Main-Donau-Canal, followed by a 180 kilometers bike race and a marathon run of 42 kilometers.

Ironman has a 2 hour and 15-minute time limit for the swim. Challenge has a 2-hour limit for the swim. Having never studied the course or read anything about the swim, I didn’t know that if you swim in the middle of the river you are swimming against the hardest part of the current. If you swim near the banks the current is far less strong. Not surprisingly, smart triathletes swim near the banks.  

I just saw an opening without many swimmers and swam. Unfortunately, this was near the center of the river. I felt like I was going backwards. Challenge Roth has a wave start, wave after wave passed me. I was working incredibly hard and going nowhere. My frustration made me work harder and slowed me down. This was not a good start to the race.

I emerged out of the water with only 4 minutes to the cut off both annoyed and relieved. I had watched many videos of ironman Hawaii where people would be heartbroken when they missed the swim cut off. Those videos played in my mind

“Transition is the 4th discipline of triathlon” Mike would tell me. "Keep it simple and don’t waste time.”

Where other triathletes would spend 6 minutes transitioning from the swim to the bike, I would spend less than three.

The bike course of Challenge Roth was legendary. The highlight of the race is solar hill. It is the closest ‘the rest of us’ can get to feeling like riding in the tour de France. Thousands of spectators crowd solar hill and urge the riders up the hill.

It was a bittersweet experience. It was my first ironman but I went alone. Crossing the finish line in roughly 13 hours all I could think of was I wish my family was there. I crossed the finish line in what was one of the biggest achievements of my life and then felt nothing.

A group of Irish athletes who were staying in my hotel spotted me looking pathetic and yelled at me, “hey fella, you’re with us!”

We binged on pizza. This group of jolly Irish people taught me how to enjoy finishing a race.

The next morning I hobbled around the ancient city of Nuremberg and recorded my thoughts.  

Ironman Austria

The following year, I made to three major adjustments that made ironman Austria a much more enjoyable and faster experience. I shaved off 75 minutes off my time.

I decided never to feel like that again in the water. I had learned how to swim; I was determined to learn how to swim faster.

I asked google: “best swim coach in London”

One of the top results, was swim for tri and Dan Bullock. Lucky for me he had a one-day swim camp coming up in east London. I immediately signed up. The day was a combination of drills and speed work.

Dan was not actually coaching that day; he just says in the stands watching while another swim for tri coach walked us through the day.

I struggled in the slow lane. I was the slowest person there. I was lean and in the best shape of my life, yet little old ladies would glide past me as I pushed as hard as I can do.

After the class, I walked over to Dan.

“he Dan the man. did you watch me swim?” I told him.

“Yup” he said

“What am I doing wrong?” I asked

“Everything” He didn't flinch.

“Can you help me?” I pleaded.

“I am not taking on any more clients at the moment” but I can suggest someone.

“No, it has to be you or no one else.”

He didn’t agree.

A few days later I called the swim for tri number and spoke to his sister Keeley.

“Tell Dan that we belong together” I said jokingly.

“Is that the American guy, if so, tell him I will coach him” I heard him tell her. Dan had relented.

I would meet Dan twice a week and we would do different drills designed to increase my efficiency in the water. He tried a number of different drills. He tied my legs together, made me swim with golf balls in my hand, one arm drills.

He also taught me something that I would always use before any triathlon, a short routine to warm up my shoulders before getting into the water. This routine was priceless.

One day while at tooting bec Lido in London, an outdoor 100-meter pool, it all clicked, I started to glide. All the hours in the pool alone, with Stephani and now with Dan had paid off in a moment. I was flying in the water.

“This is what I live for, these moments”

Dan helped me shave 40 minutes off of my swim in Ironman Austria. Dan IS the man.

During this time, I read Chris “macca” McCormack book. I didn’t remember much from the book, but I did take away one thing: coke and water on the run. I hated gels, but everyone used them. I tried them all: powerade, Gu, shot. They all made me want to gag. Coke and water on the run was magic.

The last major change I made was bring Yusuf with me. Having him was a game changer, we hung out, we ate ice cream, we rode segways & he crossed the finish line with me.

Despite two punctures, I crossed the finish line an hour and 15 minutes faster than Challenge Roth.

"Ironman Austria was the perfect way for me and baba to bond.  My parents decided to send me to Austria and man were we in for a surprise! We landed in Austria and I was alive with excitement. “Baba can we do this?!” Can we do that?! I would ask. I had eaten jelly snakes on the plane. I was so hyper when we reached the Hotel that I nearly fainted! The trip was amazing! There were activities like canoeing, swimming, and ping pong.When we reached the hotel room I took a nap and when I woke up, I was energized so my dad said let's go to the docks so when we arrived we ate ice cream and went segwaying and we also rented a boat and I drove it through the bay while my dad took a nap it was really fun. Toward the end of the trip a serial killer broke loose and when I woke up one morning my pillow and blankets were covered in blood I woke up my dad and he said go wash your face because it turned out I had a nosebleed so my dad put all the blankets in the closet and we left. That is my version of the Ironman with no Ironman." Yusuf
It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Part 4: 26.2 - 70.3

Training for a 70.3 or half IronMan was similar to training for my half marathon and Marathon. My first step was to register for a race to create the pressure I needed to train.

This race was Ironman Wiesbaden 70.3. As it had become my habit, I didn't check the course. The choice of event always came down to two things: a date that fit into my calendar and gave me sufficient time to train and a place that was interesting enough to entice my wife to agree.

Buying your first bike in triathlon is not straightforward. You think back to the last bike you bought and add 200 dollars. Wrong.

When you buy your first bike in triathlon prepare yourself for information overload. I can only liken it to shopping for our first baby; the fear is what gets you. You have to buy the best or else you are putting your baby (or triathlon) at risk.

Carbon bikes, frame size, fittings, wheels, power meters, manufacture, fittings. The list goes on and on. I learned very quickly that triathletes love gear and have a lot of disposable income.  Frankly, it's overwhelming.

You always find that one person that helps you cut through the nonsense. They are usually older and more experienced. For me, it was an experienced Serpie. He told me about a UK company called Planet-X. You can get a great full carbon bike for 999 pounds. With the U.K. cycle to work scheme, I would end up paying less than 700 pounds for a full carbon bike. “That’s exactly what I will do," I responded.

A couple of weeks later, my bike arrived. She was beautiful and I named her Winona. I discovered that I needed to buy bike shoes that clipped into the pedals. This sounds easy in concept; you connect your shoes to the pedals so you can get more power from each pedal stroke. The problem is remembering that you need to “clip-out”.

“Accept that you will fall a couple of times. You will get the hang of it," a person from my club told me.

It just so happens that the first time I forgot how to clip out was while I was on the pedestrian crossing of the George Washington Bridge.  If you ever need a heart-stopping adrenaline pounding experience, try riding over the George Washington Bridge clipped into your bike for the first time. I was riding fast, smoothing along, trying to get over the bridge as quickly as possible with the traffic to my left and the Hudson River to my right. The only thing protecting you on either side are barrier bars that don’t seem quite so high or protective when you’re up high on a bike.  I don’t even like to be on bridges in a car, but on a bike, you feel much more vulnerable. Suddenly, I came upon a group of pedestrians that were mostly blocking the path. I slowed down to bypass them but couldn’t and ended up stopping. Instinctively, I made to drop my foot to the ground to hold me up. But both my feet were stuck in place. Immediately, I lost my balance and teetered to the right, bike and all. I was able to grab the barrier bar and steady myself but not before seeing my life flash before my eyes.  

When I moved back to London, my real Ironman training began. I had no idea how to actually get ready for an ironman 70.3. I did what anyone else would do, I googled it. Navigating the training plans, books and sites made me anxious and confused. I then googled, “best triathlon coach London”

I emailed a number of them and one responded immediately with his terms and conditions. Something to the effect of:

“Here's how I work, I will send you an assessment. Once I understand a bit more about you, I will send you a training plan. You send me the results and we take it from there. email communication is part of the deal and if can call me once a week”

“When do we ride and train together?” I asked.

“We don't unless you attend one of my training camps which is additional”

This is not what I expected at all. He sent me a sample training week that contained words like “turbo, tempo, lactate threshold.”

This was not going to work out. I wanted the equivalent of “go run a mile.”

Luckily for me, the serpentine running club also had a triathlon club. I went to their website and they listed triathlon related sessions as well as beginner swimming sessions.

I decided they were great places to start.

The serpentine running club would leave from Roehampton gate every Sunday at 9am. I had no idea how to cycle from my new flat in Ealing to the start. Not wanting to risk it, I took a black cab with my bicycle to Roehampton gate. I later learned it is a short 20-minute bike ride from Ealing to Richmond park.

Roehampton cafe has dozens of cyclists on Sunday. the Serpies were gathered outside of the cafe waiting to leave.

“I’m Ahmad, I am here for the the “long ride” I said to one of the lycra clad riders.

I, on the other hand was wearing cargo shorts and a t-shirt. I couldn't bring myself to wear full body stockings. It looked ridiculous to me at the time.

The route that was being taking the day way the Surrey Three Hills. We immediately set of and were met with a hill in richmond park.

“Is this the first hill” I said to the rider next to me?

“hahaha” they responded thinking I was joking. I, of course, was not joking.

I found the hills torturous. I would sometimes grind to a halt on some parts. 

“You guys just go on” I said towards the middle of the ride probably being a bit over dramatic.

“That's not the way it works” one of the Serpies replied,

“We will get you home” Another member yelled

I eventually got home and collapsed. I have been told that I should take an ice cold bath to speed up the recovery period. I opted for a hot bath and latte option.

These Sunday rides became a staple in my training. The hills became easier with time. One of the Serpies that led the riding was named Iron Mike. He had completed 10 Ironman and coached some of the Serpies.

He later became my coach. His simple, down to earth style suited me perfectly. I also was to ride and run with him.

One day after a ride, we started talking about gear.

“It's time we visit Sigma sports”, he said.

Sigma sports is the mecca for triathletes. It’s an expansive store that has everything triathlon and cycling. It is an adult male toy store for males with a lot of disposable income.

The store is overwhelming to the uninitiated. One look at the prices and I knew that it would not be a cheap visit.

“What do I need?” I asked mike

“Let's start with the basics, you need a Tri suit & a wet suit

A bento box is a little box that sits just on your top tube that allows you to keep food and jells for your races. This is important as you race in a tri suit and not a cycle jersey which has large pockets in the back that can hold a laptop.

For the Tri suit, I went for 2XU. It was all black and I thought it would draw less attention to me. I tried them on and could not believe that I would be seen in public like this. The wet suits were a different story. They ranged from 100-800 pounds.

“What's the difference?” I would ask Mike.

"This one will make you 1 minutes faster over an ironman” he would respond.

“Is that all. it's ok, I don't mind being 1 minute slower.”

I bought the middle of the road everything thinking that I was not fast enough to justify any of the “elite gear”

In the future, whenever I veered away from this, I wasted time and money as I would learn years later in the lead up to my first Ultraman.

My training plan was incredibly simple and loosely based on Joe Friel's Periodization theory. (note: need to define this)

I did the majority of the runs and rides with the Serpies.

One day during the ride, a guy with a red beard and a big grin riding pink bike cycled next to me.

“Holy crap dude, you have huge triceps” he yelled at me.

“Thanks” I said, wondering if it was a come-on. We spoke for bit and then he cycled to the front of the group.

Later I mentioned him to mike.

“he isn't gay if that's what you are thinking. He is Danny and he is a great athlete” he said

I have since become friends with Danny Bent. He is one of the most “awesome” people I have ever encountered. He quit his job, rode his bicycle from London to the south of India by himself. Years later, he started an organization called Project “Awesome.” Three times a week hundreds of people descend on different parts of London to exercise, hug, dance and have fun at 6:30 in the morning. No matter how cold it is, he is wearing his short shorts and long red beard. He has tapped into a nerve. He has successfully made British people act more american and than americans. There seems to be a need for genuine community that is missing from people's lives and he has found a way to meet part of that need. He is making this world a better place.

During this time, I had to learn how to swim. When I say I didn't know how to to swim, I didn't know how to swim a single lap in a pool.

The Serpie website listed a beginner class on Tuesday and Thursday morning in the queen mother pool near Victoria station.

I showed up to the first class. I always hated pools. they whole experience intimidates me.

I was running late and quickly got ready and jumped into the pool with the other beginners.

“Who are you?” the instructor. She was an older woman with short grey hair.

“I’m Ahmad” I replied.

“Are you chewing gum in my pool” She snapped

“Yes, I’m sorry”

“Well get out of my pool”

I ran jumped out of the pool and ran back to the changing area. Only to realize it was the women's changing area.

This was not starting off well.

My instructor, Stephanie Ellis, subscribed to the total immersion school of swim teaching pioneered by Terry Laughlin. The fact that I didn't know how to swim turned out to be a good thing. I didn't have to unlearn bad habits, I just had to learn new habits.

Total immersion centers around three principles: balance, propulsion  & streamlining. When watching an experienced practitioner; it seems like they are floating effortlessly in the water. It's almost magical. I, however looked like a wet dog struggling to make it back to land.

Rather than endless laps of front crawl, total immersion classes are drills based mean to teach the principles of balance propulsion & streamlining. For someone who fears the distance, these drill are frustrating but ultimately vital. The whole thing is very wax-on/wax-off

Stephanie started with the basics; learn how to find your balance in the water. This involves learning to relax in the water. For someone who hates pools and was just thrown out of the pool only to find himself in the women's changing area, finding balance wasn't easy. I had an irrational fear of these types of swimming pools. When I was younger my father, who didn’t know how to swim, believed that the best way for me to learn how to swim was to throw me into the deep end. His logic did not pan out and I didn't step into a swimming pool for many years.

After an hour of drills, I couldn't balance. I was terrible and I could sense that Stephanie was getting frustrated.

Every class would consist of drills and then a main set. I would stay on after the class to practice the drills. My commitment caught Stephanie’s notice. She would peer over to the lane I was in and make a comment here and there.

The hardest lesson I had to learn was to let go and relax in the water.

After weeks of practice and finding my balance in the water we started working on forward propulsion. Total immersion teaches you to swim without the use of your legs. There is barely any kicking. You glide from side to side. When done right a person looks like poetry in motion. I was not very poetic. 

Week after week I would practice until I could swim multiple laps without tiring;albeit at a glacial pace. 

Eventually the day came when I would have to do what I was terrified of doing, swim in a lake.

Stephanie ran an open water swim session in a lake near Heathrow airport. We finally showed up and I put on my 2xu wetsuit for the first time. Putting on a wet suit for the first time is a ridiculous site and required practice. Taking it off is even more challenging. I learned from local triathletes that Bodyglide is your friend and long nails are your enemy.  

After finally getting it on, I walked up to the dock where Stephanie was waiting.

“Wait, you are not going to go in the water?”

“Of course not” She said.

“What if I drown?” I said

“It's ok, I already have your money. Jump in” she said

I did just that. I jumped in and saw nothing but green water and plants. England is not known for its crystal clear water. Surprisingly, I floated straight to the top and just floated there with little energy. The wetsuit was magic. I wasn't going to die after all.

“Just swim from this buoy and come back.” She yelled.

“Ok” I responded.

The green murky water also had scuba divers. As I swam to the buoy and man looked up at me and waved. It was a scene out of a horror movie.

“Congratulations, you swam in a lake” She said sarcastically.

“Now swim around the lake twice” She said.

Eventually, I swam around the lake twice and was very pleased with myself. I was the slowest person there but as far as I was concerned I was Michael Phelps.

One triathlon rule of thumb is: If you have completed the distance for the swim, bike & run independently, you will be able to finish the triathlon. I had now completed all three disciplines for an olympic distance triathlon: 1.5km swim 40km run & 10 km run. 

I agreed with Mike that I would do the Steelman triathlon in Dorney lake near windsor castle. It was a popular race with the local triathletes and the perfect place get my feet wet. It was an hours drive from my house so not too taxing on the family.

Steelman Triathlon (Dorney Lake)

The Steelman Triathlon is set in a 2012 Olympic rowing venue. Dorney lake is an intimidating site as you drive down a the seemingly endless length of the man-made lake.

My anxiety and nerves cause me to empty my system before any race. Once this happens I feel instantly better. The only issue is that most athletes have the same routine.

Tip: always bring a wet wipe with you. It’s a curious thing, many baby “things” work well for endurance athletes: Diaper rash cream for saddle sores, baby food, and wet wipes.

I decided to hang back and let all the fast swimmers go first. The fast swimmers had waded too far forward and were called back. All of a sudden I was in the front. Rather than make my way to the back, I thought, “hey, this might force me to swim faster” and I remained where I was.

This proved to be a dumb idea. They don’t call this the human blender for nothing.

The horn sounded and I was crushed in the onslaught of strong swimmers. I was pushed down into the cold, murky water. People were literally swimming right over me. It was impossible to come up for breath, I just kept snorting water. I don’t even know how many times I was kicked in the face.  

When I finally caught my breath, I was wading alone with the herd of swimmers ahead of me.

A paddler came to me as I floated there dazed and asked me if I wanted to quit.

“No, I will go on”

After that I put my head down and started swimming.

“hey, what are you doing!!” Screamed the paddler

Sighting, or learning how to look ahead while swimming is a vital skill you learn when you swim in the open water. It was a skill I had not learned.

It won’t come as a surprise that I was last out of the water that day. After dragging myself out of the water, I was wobbly, confused, and light headed. My body needs time to adjust from being horizontal to vertical. I get light headed during this time.

I never have trouble finding my bike at these events. It's usually either the last one or one of the remaining few. I found my bike and heard my family scream. They had been waiting for me at the bike transition area.

“hurry, hurry, baba. you are in last place!” Yusuf yelled

After transition, I started the bike ride. Once on the bike, the race was over as far I was concerned. No matter how long the rest would take it would be ok, the hardest part was over.

Other than finding my bike easily, being last out of the water has other benefits. I spent the next two and a half hours over taking people. It was actually fun. Overtaking people became a staple in my future races. I would focus on nothing else other than the person in front of me until I overtook them.

I had survived my first triathlon. More importantly, I had learned a lot. I would take this learning into my main race for the year, Ironman Wiesbaden.

Ironman wiesbaden

Ironman Wiesbaden 70.3 was set in Wiesbaden Germany. It was my first Ironman branded event. Ironman is owned by the world triathlon organization. The M-Dot is one of the few company logos that people permanently tattoo on their bodies.

“are you going to get a an m-dot tattoo” after you complete the race is something you regularly hear.

“Well, after I finish a full, I might get one.” some say

“If I finish Kona, I will get an m-dot tattoo.” other's reply

It’s a badge of honor that people want to permanently wear on their bodies. Such is the following that Ironman enjoys. People who are into ironman, have the m-dot everywhere. Once you complete a race you are part of a tribe.  Being part of the tribe allows you to go up to anyone else with an m-dot tattoo or t-shirt and strike up a conversation.

The setup was unlike anything I had seen. Wiesbaden was transformed. It was no longer a small town in Germany, it was a town owned by Ironman and its citizens were tattooed people who walked around in compression tights, drinking weird colored liquids and wearing very loud sunglasses. There were Ironman 70.3 posters hung up everywhere. One still hangs in my living room today.

Walking around the ironman expo, I had neither cool sun glasses, compression tights or brightly colored liquids. The expo has a strange power to separate you from your money.

Two hours later, I had Skinz compression tights, project rudy sunglasses and Gu Bru in a Gu bottle. Through the power of consumerism, I was now part of the tribe.

Yusuf and I went to the pre-race pasta party. Having him with me was brilliant. I didn't have to the awkward i’m alone puppy routine but also Yusuf has no problem talking to anyone. Being homeschooled he doesn't have the “be quiet and sit down” drilled into him and he is not intimidated by adults.

“That is Faris Al-Sultan, he won Kona” I told Yusuf. Faris Al Sultan was famous for being a strong rider, but also for racing in what looks like a bikini bottom and sports bra.

“No way baba, that so cool” he said excitedly

Before I knew it, Yusuf was hanging out with Faris and the other pros. It was a fun night and Yusuf made it fun.

After a sleepless night, I woke up and took the bus ride to the race check in.

I had learned a lot from the Steelman debacle and would apply it here:

  1. Stand at the back of the swim
  2. I learned an easy technique for siting called turtle head
  3. I created a counting routine. Count from 1-8 then sight

I emerged from the lake in much better shape than Steelman but still at the back of the bunch.

Having not studied the course, I did not know how hilly Wiesbaden was. It had steep climbs and steep descents. Training in the surrey hills had prepared me for the hills. What I was not prepared for were the german roads. They were pristine. People would descend at spends over 70km per hour. I had my hands firmly on the brakes slowing me down.

“Get out of the way!” shouted a lady flying down in her aero bars.

I needed to learn to descend like that German lady. But for now I was still scared.

It was a very hot day and the run was 4 loops. I love loops because I get to see my family 4 times. As a tired athlete, seeing your family is better than any gel.

I finished my goal for the year and would be able to finally enjoy Germany which is an incredibly beautiful scenic country. I recovered in the hot salt baths of Wiesbaden. Later, we headed to the Black Forest and Lake Constance.

It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Team based conference. A field experiment


The first LeSS conference started with assumptions, questions and unknowns. 

One assumption was that most people come to conferences wanting to be entertained through interesting and inspiring speeches with other interesting people. As fun as that may be, the actual benefit to the conference attendee seems minimal. At best, they walk away inspired, a couple of new thoughts & contacts. What we wanted, was a deeper learning experience through interactions over traditional speeches. The idea of teams became a central theme of the conference. This raised a number questions.

Can a team of five full-time consultants who have never organized a conference before...organize a conference using Slack? Can we create a conference optimized for learning rather than simply entertainment? Would conference attendees be willing to participate in tactile exercises rather than simply listening to interesting speeches? Would (given the opportunity to opt-out) attendees create teams designed to encourage learning through dialogue? How do you even form teams of 170 people that have never met each other?

The only way to answer these questions was through experimentation; specifically a field experiment: 

Field experiments are so named to distinguish them from laboratory experiments, which enforce scientific control by testing a hypothesis in the artificial and highly controlled setting of a laboratory. Often used in the social sciences, and especially in economic analyses of education and health interventions, field experiments have the advantage that outcomes are observed in a natural setting rather than in a contrived laboratory environment. For this reason, field experiments are sometimes seen as having higher external validity than laboratory experiments. However, like natural experiments, field experiments suffer from the possibility of contamination: experimental conditions can be controlled with more precision and certainty in the lab. Yet some phenomena (e.g., voter turnout in an election) cannot be easily studied in a laboratory -Wikipediea

The experiment  

The hypothesis

Having conference attendees self-organize into teams will:

  • Increases the chances that you will try team self-design in their own company
  • Accelerate learning through dialogue and creating a product
  • Longer lasting relationships after the conference
  • More fun

The procedure

1] Bejewl each attendee
As part of the registration process, each attendee was asked 4 questions. Based on the answers, each attendee received a jewel to affix to their badges.

  1. Are you a certified LeSS practitioner
  2. Are you a developer
  3. Have you ever tried implementing large scale scrum
  4. Do you have any visual artistic abilities

2] Form the teams

I had originally budgeted for 75 minutes. The whole process took roughly 60 minutes.  What I covered:

  1. Explain the purpose and the background of the team formation exercise (see article)
  2. Team formation guide(see deck to the right)
  3. Form, storm, norm, perform in 5 minutes. After forming, I asked each team to get to know each other through a name association game and one interesting fact about themselves. 
  4. Brand the team. Each team selected a name and some even created a logo.
  5. Tweet a picture of the team(see below). My idea here was that there is something about taking a picture and tweeting it to the world that would make the teams more "real".
  6. Explain next steps: 
    1. Meet regularly for 30 over the next two days
    2. Create potentially publishable content for the scaling community
    3. Sprint bazaar at the end of the conference

3] Re-calibrate the teams, create a product & Review

  • Re-calibrate the teams (20 minutes). On the second day, Bas facilitated a re-calibration of the teams where teams could disband or choose to join another team.
  • 60 minutes to create a product. Many teams had been reflecting by creating visualizations of the conference. These final 60 minutes were to allow the teams to focus on the creation of an artifact that would be demonstrated at the sprint bazaar.
  • Sprint Bazaar and choose a winning team.
    1. Each conference attendee was given 30,000 in LeSS money. (We are a very wealthy conference :)
    2. Craig reviewed the concepts behind a sprint review
    3. Although, competition is not part of an actual sprint review, we decided that teams competing using the LeSS money would be fun.
    4. Conference attendees were given 6 cycles of 5 minutes to review the team output.
    5. A single team won by creating a very clever game.

Observations & Initial data

  • ~170 attendees
  • 5 opted out of the exercise 
  • ~18 teams were formed
  • ~11 products were created
  • 1 potentially publishable content
  • ~5 teams disbanded on the first and second day
  • Teams formed in less than 10 minutes
  • Attendees reported that the creation potentially shippable content was too aggressive a target for teams

Survey feedback

(Raw Data)

Did the teams makes the conference more fun

Did the teams increase learning

Should we do this expirement next year?

Did forming the teams increase the likelyhood that you would attempt this expirement

Did the teams increase the chances of longer lasting relationships than usual conferences

Improvement suggestions

Make process and idea clearer from the start.. Make upper limit smaller Make purpose & goal clearer Introduce a "PO"? Written instructions could probably help? -Magnus Vestin
I think when we started the team, the message wasn't clear i.e. what are we supposed to do. So clarifying that message up up-front would have helped. E.g. Creating a LeSS product based on learning from Conference and your team member knowledge could be a good description. I think we should introduce the concept of 'traveler' as well in this experiment. That way if a team is struggling with anything can call out to the traveler for any immediate help if required. -Dinesh Sharma
Give people more time to reflect, get coffee, do a toilet break etc. the team sessions where the moment where we could reflect, but most where getting coffee, visiting the toilet. i much liked the team idea.the different views on the subjects give me a broader understanding of the sessions.  -Just Meddens
  • Potentially publishable goal was too confusing (x4)
  • Provide more information about how teams form, storm, norm & perform.
  • Create teams around common interests 

Some tweets

The teams (not complete)

Part 3: 13.1 - 26.2

Edinburgh Marathon

I went to my desk and searched for a marathon for later in the year and I found the Edinburgh marathon. It was poetic as Graeme was Scottish. We had never been to Scotland and Edinburgh was on our list of cities to visit. It was another win-win. We made a trip out of it and explored the city.

I repeated the same training recipe of adding another mile every week around Regent’s Park. But with only three months to train, I was feeling the pressure. Time was certainly not something I had a lot of. Less than a month after I finished the half marathon, my wife gave birth to our second child, a beautiful  baby girl. I was now needed more than ever at home. Work was relentless with it’s long hours and stress. And the ticking countdown to when I would have to run 26.2 miles was not helping. But I was not going to quiet, sleepless nights and all.

The night before the Edinburgh marathon I had a moment of panic. I wasn’t ready to run 26.2 miles. What was I thinking? I’d taken too much on. I hadn’t trained enough! But in the morning, my family shoved me out the door. There would be no excuses. We were already here, after all.

Edinburgh is referred to as a "fast course." Which is to say it’s flat. Every time I would run up a slight incline I would complain to myself.

I finished the race in just over 4 hours. I spent the rest of the day kicking myself for not running a little bit faster and finishing under four hours. This was a mistake that I would make for many future races. After completing a goal I would immediately look back and think what I could have done better. I would never celebrate a success.

Things were really getting hectic at this point. Work needed me in NYC. We came home from Edinburgh and moved out of our apartment. We spent the next 8 months in Manhattan. Running went on hold for a little while. I would still squeeze in runs whenever I could, but it was tough.

Vienna Marathon

In February of 2009, we moved back to London. I was ready to take running seriously again. To do so I had to give myself motivation. I registered for the Vienna marathon which was only two months away. This time, I joined the Serpentine Running Club to help. They are a hard group to miss. They have the unfortunate colors of bright red and yellow.

Running with runners is far different than running by yourself; you learn to run faster in a group. 

I showed up at the Seymour Leisure Centre in central London. There were so many runners chatting and milling about, waiting for the runs to begin. I felt really lonely and nervous. Almost like the new kid on the first day of school.

An elderly man named Sid Wills spotted me looking pathetic and came to me. He was lean with very short hair and a kind fatherly smile. He volunteered with the Serpentine Running Club and took me under his wings. He explained how the club worked and made me feel welcome.

Prior to joining the club, I had run at only one pace (10 minutes/mile).

Now I would learn to run faster.

I ran with the Serpies that Wednesday night and would continue to do so every week.

Running with people faster than you was not something I was used to. I threw up on one occasion trying to keep up with people faster than me. I learned that alfredo pasta an hour before a fast run was not entirely wise.

I loved running with people, it made the time pass by faster, and you will met some amazing people.

“You need a heart rate monitor," one Serpie told me.

So I bought my first one. A Polar with a pedometer. I spent many many hours picking the right one. Although running sounds simple enough, beginner runners obsess about gear. There are many resources to fast track the research process:

Going into the Vienna marathon, my goal was very simple. Shave 15 minutes off of my 4 hour marathon time. To do this, I set my fancy new watch to ensure I stayed on pace for a 3 hour and 45 minute marathon.

We were joined in Vienna by friends with kids of similar ages as our own. The Vienna marathon was also very family friendly, with lots of organized activities at the finish to keep the waiting families busy. Knowing that Areeg and the kids wouldn’t be waiting for me for hours at the finish restless and bored was a huge relief.

The Vienna marathon is fairly flat and is surrounded by beautiful landmarks. I followed my standard routine for the marathon: Couldn't sleep the night before, was so nervous that I couldn't really play with the kids, set straight by my wife.

As I ran, keeping with the new pace was very difficult. My brain wouldn’t shut up. So I started counting 1-100 over and over again to make my brain shut up. It worked for a while. It was the first of many techniques I have learned over the years to quiet the mind.

I also found another runner that was running at my pace. I asked him if I could run with him. He just grunted and I took that as a yes.

As I rounded the corner to the finish I saw the marathon time clock and thought something must not be right. It said 3:33.

"It can’t be," I thought.

My watch was set to only show me the pace and not the "elapsed time"

As it turned out, my watch, which was not equipped with GPS, was not calibrated correctly. I was running faster than my watch was telling me. I crossed the finish line almost 13 minutes faster than planned and was met by hugs and applause from my family and our friends.

I learned a profound lesson that day; endurance athletics is a mind game.

After the race, I took a shower and we explored the city. As much as I'm in my own head before the race, I become alive afterwards. We café hopped trying different Viennese cakes and comparing sachre-tortes for the next few days. It was glutinous and relaxing; just what I needed after that hard run.

It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Part 2: 0 - 13.1

Brian Fantana: So the team pancake breakfast is tomorrow morning at nine, instead of eight. Ron Burgundy: Oop... I almost forgot. I won't be able to make it fellas. Veronica and I trying this new fad called uh, jogging. I believe it's jogging or yogging. it might be a soft j. I'm not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It's supposed to be wild.  -Anchorman (Link)


I was introduced to Ironman by my then boss, Graeme. I don't remember hearing about Ironman before that. I may have heard it on TV, but I never really paid attention to it.  An Ironman is a multi-sport race consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run, raced in that order,without a break, and a 17 hour time limit.  I thought this was ridiculous and pointless.

Graeme mentioned, in passing, that he hadn't actually completed a full Ironman but just a half IronMan (or the Ironman 70.3). Jokingly and annoyingly, I started calling my new boss an "Iron Boy."

One day, Graeme finally had enough. He challenged me and said, "I have a deal for you, I will register for a full Ironman if you register for a half marathon or you can shut up about the Iron Boy stuff."

A half marathon? 13.1 miles?! I don't know what possessed me, but I said "Ok." He didn't accept that as an answer. He took it further and said, "Go find a half marathon and send me the confirmation email." I walked over to my desk, searched for a half marathon and found the 'Dover half marathon'. Dover sounded pretty and it was six months away. I'd never been to Dover, England before. Areeg likes traveling to new places, so I knew this would be a win-win. Being an American living in London, I had no idea that Dover, England was very, very hilly. With my registration complete, I then asked him, "What's the first step?" His response was "go run a slow mile."


That weekend we went over to Regent’s Park and I ran a slow mile. It was easy, almost too easy. I went back to Graeme and asked, "What now?" Unsurprisingly, he responded with "Now run 2 miles…." Basically, all I did from then on was add one mile every Sunday to the long runs and ran a "hard run" during the week.

Whether he realized it or not, this two simple steps became the bedrock of much of my athletic success:

  1. Register for the event right away. This created a sense of urgency and social pressure.  
  2. Don't overload myself with too many changes. Eg. Just add one slow run. This set me up for success rather than failure.

After the first few runs, all my stress, fogginess, and confusion seemed to disappear. Things became clear. My mind is a cross between a Stephen King novel and a Bourne Movie. Something about running seemed to quiet my mind. I was hooked on the post-run feeling. Looking back, I think the key to why I enjoyed running so much was that I didn't run very hard. It wasn't painful or unpleasant.

I followed this routine for 13 weeks adding a mile every week, running the outer circles around Regent's Park in London. A heavily pregnant Areeg and Yusuf would come and play inside the park and would meet me every half an hour at the same spot and give me water and a high five. This was Yusuf’s favorite part of the park visit and mine.

The night before the Dover half marathon arrived. As I got into bed, Areeg was setting the alarm for the next morning.  I looked at her with a feeling of dread and said, "I can't do this, I don't feel well. I will do another half marathon when I feel better." She said, "You are doing this, whether you like it or not!" I could feel the anxiety brewing in my stomach to the point that it was painful.

I ran the 2008 Dover half marathon (10 Feb 2008) in just over two hours in my long baggy shorts and a gray thermal and a backward Yankees cap. It was very painful. I was not ready for the hills. I limped for days. But I hadn't felt that fulfilled in a long time. I began understanding why people would say that endurance athletics was more mental than physical. 

10 mental phases of a race

  1. Registering for the race "It could be fun"
  2. Preparing for the race "I am not training enough"
  3. The night before the race "I'm not ready and I might be coming down with something"
  4. The morning before the race "Why am I doing this to myself"
  5. The first couple of minutes "I need to pee, I should have peed!"
  6. The half way point "I can't believe it's only half way!"
  7. The the 3/4 of the way through "Everything hurts; this is stupid"
  8. The finish line is in sight "I'm an Olympic athlete"
  9. Immediately after the finish line "Never again"
  10. 5 hours later "When is my next race?"

What I spent 

  • Asics Kayano Running Shoes(They looked cool)
  • Entry to the Dover half marathon
  • Travel and hotel in Dover

Training schedule

WeekShort WorkoutLong Workout
11 mile slow run(yog) and 1 mile fast walk. Slow enough that I could talk to somone on the phone
22 mile yog and 1 mile fast walk
33 mile yog 1 and 1 fast walk
45k tempo run. I tried to run the 5km as fast as I could & get a little bit faster every week.4 + 1
55k tempo5 + 1
65k tempo6 + 1
75k tempo7 + 1
85k tempo8 + 1
95k tempo9 + 1
105k tempo10 + 1
115k tempo11 + 1
135k tempo12 + 1
145k tempo13 + 1
155k tempoRest
It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Part 1: Why I started running...

“Everything is great, nobody is happy” Louis C.K.(Link)

Do you know that guy in your family that you called when your printer didn’t work or you didn't know which computer to buy? I was that guy. I wasn’t a track star, a great swimmer, or soccer player. I was most comfortable staring at a computer screen. I didn’t like group athletics at all, even though I played soccer to please my father who was a soccer star in his youth. I just didn’t like the pressure that group sports entailed. 

My love of computers paid off, literally. When I was a sophomore in college, I managed to get a full -time job in a large investment bank as a coder. Back then, if you knew how to spell HTML, you could land a well paying job.

There was such a demand for anyone that could “code” that you could work unlimited hours at a crazy hourly rate. I went from begging my friends to buy me a junior Cheeseburger Deluxe and Frosty at the Wendy’s in the student center to being able to buy a Cheese Burger Deluxe whenever I wanted.

Looking back, making so much money at such a young age and doing really cool work had its positives and negatives. I went from a being a good student to being a very poor  student. I could not cope with the pressures of engineering school and the pressures of a job that I was learning on the fly. This broke my mother’s heart.

So much so that she would yell “I don’t care how much you make and where you work, if you don’t have a degree, you might as well own an ice cream truck!” My parents  were immigrants to the U.S. and my father had multiple degrees. To them, education was the difference between a good and bad life. It was binary.

Yet, my mother would insist, “if you don’t finish your degree, I will go to my grave unhappy with you.” This line would be repeated by her for years to come . As with most things, she eventually  got her way and I finished my degree years later.

My new career afforded me the ability to get married to my wife, Areeg, when I was 20. I was raised in a religious family and as such, I never dated before getting married. She was the first everything.

In our first counterculture experience as a couple, we didn’t go on a honeymoon. We stayed home and hung out. More than anything, we ate. Actually, we ate. A lot.

We both grew up in New Jersey, the diner and shopping mall capital of the world. We had access to cheese burgers and  pancakes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We also discovered what became our two favorite words: Ben & Jerry.

In less than a year, I  gained 70 pounds. I was  never "a heavy person. I gained so much weight in such a short period of time that until today, I have stretch marks all over my body as a tattooed reminder of the “diner days”.

I was not really a career minded guy. My idea of business attire would be wearing a baseball cap to work, which when you work for a large corporation just doesn’t fit in. I always fashioned myself as the fictitious  character Peter Gibbons  from the movie Office Space; basically, I was someone who didn’t care about “the man.” This attitude didn’t help me  much as my boss John would tell me “you can’t wear a baseball cap to work; it’s unprofessional.”

I would find myself replying  I won’t do it again,” only to find myself wearing the same cap the next day.

My wife and I did what was expected of us; have a baby, mortgage a new house, lease one car, finance the other, and start paying down our student loans. We even had a fish tank and  two cats which we affectionately named Oprah and Frodo.

One fateful night, I went to our local Blockbuster (this was before Netflix and internet streaming) and saw a movie called The Motorcycle Diaries. It was the story of a young Che who travelled across South America helping the poor while discovering himself. All I knew at the time of Che was that he was the guy on the t-shirts that cool people wore while sipping five dollar frappacinos in the mall.

After the movie, we were silent. It was the kind of silence experienced after one watches Silence of the Lambs for the first time.

“Is that it?” I asked Areeg.

“Are we done? Do we just grow old and die?” I concluded.

That night, we made a list of all our possessions and debt. It would take us two years to pay everything off, sell our cars, and house. During this time I applied to jobs everywhere. I eventually got two offers, one in Saudi Arabia and one in London. Although the job in Saudi Arabia was far more lucrative, the job in London was aligned to what we were trying to do as a couple. The agent for the company in Saudi Arabia was incredulous when I turned him down, but the expat life in walled compounds throwing dinner parties was not what we were after. My wife wanted to see and visit museums, not attend  tea parties. Plus, it didn’t help Saudi Arabia’s chances that my wife was a hardcore Anglophile.

We moved to London and it was terrifying.

Something started that I never experienced  before. I started to get this anxiety that would sit right under my chest area and above my stomach. That anxiety was always there, so much so that I named him, “Mahroos,” which meant “trapped” or “guarded” in Arabic.

I felt like the dumb American in the office. My peer ratings, which historically were very high, hit rock bottom during my first year in London. I started feeling miserable and act miserable.

I even started working harder longer hours and sleeping less.

“You need to stop dressing like an American” my boss and later friend Gully once told me. He gave me a list of stores to visit. Stores that sold expensive clothes that were also form fitting.  My younger brother could not stop laughing the first time he saw me.

I starting taking on more and more responsibility at work, sleeping less, stressing more. I was not pleasing to be around during that time. It was a vicious cycle.

I was making more money, getting promoted, and yet, was more miserable.

I would get so nervous before routine presentations that I would take beta blockers to keep my heart from racing uncontrollably. No one but Areeg knew of all this suffering. To my friends, colleagues and family, I was living an amazing and adventurous life. I was an embodiment of the quote byThoreau:

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

It was during this time that I discovered what would restore balance to my force; endurance athletics. 

It would mean a lot to me if you leave a comment with any comments, corrections or areas I should expand.

Choosing to be miserable

Caution: uNeDiTed

Example 1 -- Food

Scenario 1

“kids, what would you like to eat” Parent
“I want pizza!” Child 1
“I want burgers!” Child 2
“You have to decide for yourselves.” Parent
“It's not fair.” “you got to pick you last time.” “I hate this.” Children
“Forget it! I will pick. we are having Thai food.” Parent
“I don't want Thai” “I hate Thai” “you always have Thai” children
“These kids are so spoiled and don't deserve going out” angry parent

Conclusion: Parents and children are miserable.

Alternate scenario 

“Hey kids gets get dressed, we are taking you out for Thai food”
“Oh cool. thanks” 

Example 2 -- Movies

Scenario 1

“Kids, what movie do you want to watch”
“Frozen!” child 1
“Frozen sucks, I want the Lego Movie!” Child 2
“I hate the lego movie, it's so boring.” Child 1
“It's not fair.” “You got to pick you last time.” “I hate this” “Waaaaaa!” Children
“Forget it! I will pick. We are watching Starwars.” Parent
“No! we always watch star wars!”
“These kids are so spoiled and don't deserve watching  movies” Angry parent

Conclusion: Parents and children are miserable.

Alternate Scenario 

“Hey kids, do you want to watch Starwars with me? I'm making popcorn!”
“Oh cool. thanks” 


When did I surrender decision making to the kids? Am I being intellectually lazy? I’m going to stop giving my kids choices. 

The mango revolution. A parable

Somewhere, in a warmer part of the world, there was an unhappy mango farmer named Becu. Becu dreamed of a living in a non-tyrannical regime. Life, in other parts of the world, seemed so much better. People had freedom, self-determination...not to mention nicer things. 

One day he had enough. Becu gathered the other local mango farmers and gave an impassioned speech about being free.

The mango farmers descended on the local square and would not be silenced. Soon the square was overflowing with people who also dreamed of being free from the tyranny of the oppressive regime. 

The mango farmers inspired a nation. Millions of people descended on local squares.

Eventually, the tyrannical government was replaced with a freely elected government resembling the ones on T.V.

The hope was palpable. The mango revolution was decalared a success. 

The mango farmers went home to their mango farms and went back to work farming mangos.

The mango farmers did what they always did, dropped off their produce in the same collection point they always did, except, there was no one there to pick them up as the central planning function had also collapsed. Millions of mangos went bad. 

Week after week the mangos would spoil. The mango farmers began to grow unhappy and blame the new government. 

Months later, with millions of spoiled mangos, the mango farmers once again descended into the streets, calling for the removal of the new government and a restoration to the way things were. 

The former system was restored.

Everything went back to normal with three notable exceptions; the original mango farmer was exiled, the restored regime became far more tyrannical and mangos were outlawed as a subversive fruit. And so ended the mango revolution...

Personal reflections

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things
— Niccolo Machiavelli

This story should be familiar to anyone who has attempted to change a large organization. I have personally seen this story play out a number of times in large organizational systems.

"They did too much too fast." "We needed evolution not revolution." "They didn't understand our culture" Are statements I have heard numerous times. 

Perhaps that is correct. 

What is undeniable is that the system has changed. Given enough time the system usually benefits from that change although, those who originated it are rarely ever given credit.

  • Introducing a large change into a stable system is insanely difficult. If its not hard, you are probably not changing much.
  • It will take twice as long as you think and you will be given half the time to do it. "Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space." -The fifth discipline. 
  • You will most likely be blamed. Think Michael Burry.
  • Given enough time the change will succeed and you probably not be given credit unless you managed to ride it out. Think Michael Burry again.
  • Do not attempt a large scale organizational change if you do not have the time and power to change it. Think Steve Jobs return to Apple. 
  • Personally, there is no greater calling than trying to change things for the better however difficult. 

Agile is dead. Long live waterfall.

Update: This was a poor attempt at an April fools joke :)

The Agile cult has been maligning waterfall for nearly a decade and a half. They would want you to believe that no software project was successful before 17 middle-aged white guys met in a ski lodge in 2001. Alas, that is not the case. We went to the moon, designed air traffic control systems and created the world wide web. It’s time to remove the wool from over your eyes and realize, that perhaps, waterfall, is the good guy. 

Flow is the talk of the town these days. Waterfalls LITERALLY flow. Yes, they literally flow. A big boulder, no problem, it flows around it. Elegant…Seamless..

Waterfall is far less stressful than agile. First of all, it’s very name is soothing. Say it with me, “Waaaterfall" My heart rate dipped by 5bpm as I said it. Just saying 'agile' or 'scrum' gives me anxiety. So abrupt…

Waterfall is magic. No matter how big the project is, it can be completed in 3 years. Year 1 is the requirements and architectural framework phase. Year 2 is 'Phase 1a'. Year 3 (where the magic happens) is when everything else gets done.

Waterfall is far less stressful. Whereas Agile projects tell you that you are screwed from the start, waterfall gives you two years of “green” RAG status. When the project eventually goes “red” all you have to do is replace the project managers who were out of their depth.

Waterfall is eco-friendly. All you need is Microsoft project and powerpoint to run any size project. Agile, on the other hand, is littering the world with post-it notes and magic whiteboard. How many trees have to die for Agile?

What’s wrong with big bang releases? If it was good enough for the world’s first large-scale project, the universe itself, why isn’t it good enough for building an accounting system?

I’m sorry waterfall. I was wrong about you.

Happy April 1


The story of the flying turtle

 a version drawn by one of my clients

a version drawn by one of my clients

When I was running in the 2012 Marathon de Sables, I had to adopt a run/walk protocol due to an injury I had sustained during training. What this allowed me to do was maintain a constant pace throughout the race. I had no reason to stop and rest, I ate while I walked. I was not fast, but I was consistent. During one of stages, I happened by an Italian competitor who had a giant turtle tattooed onto his calf. A perfect metaphor for what I was doing. It was my own “follow the white rabbit moment.”

Every day would be the same: most of the competitors would pass me in the morning and would fade during the remainder of the day. I, on the other hand, would get stronger during the day.  

Later I found out I was the third place american. 

The flying turtle became the logo of my consultancy practice and the lessons I learned a corner stone principle.