Hibri Marzook Musings on technology and systems thinking

Coney Island – Dead and Alive

View of Coney Island

It was my first trip across the Atlantic to the States and it was exciting to be in New York. The storms had passed, and the autumnal sunshine was in it’s peak. I wanted to capture the palette of New York, just as Saul Leiter would have. Yet, 3 days later on a quiet Halloween morning, I find myself on Coney Island. I see a different palette of colours. Bright yellows, and eye catching reds. Not the fast fleeting yellows of the NYC taxi cabs, but a more sauntering yellow, of a slow pace of life.


Coney Island is an anachronism. It seems to want to go back to the post World War II era, of it’s first decline, resisting any attempts to bring it into the modern age. These tensions between dying and living again, are seen, whilst sauntering along the boardwalk.


The old folks, from the neighbouring senior homes, greeting each other during their morning walks and the old man showing off on his classic Schwinn bike. Coney Island felt like a place that resisted youth, even when a gang of 6 year olds, dressed in Halloween outfits stormed Nathan’s Hotdogs.




All photos taken with a Fuji X100T

On Donuts

Donuts. The Krispy Kreme assorted box of donuts. They’ve been a recurring theme during the last decade of my career. Once or twice a month I’ll bring two or more boxes to the office on a Friday  morning. I’ll put them close to the area where my team sits. I’ll go to my desk and compose an email to the staff mailing list, with one word on the subject line.


Many would ask, while munching on a vanilla cream donut, if it was my birthday, and I’d say no. My reason for bringing in donuts, I said “Just because I wanted to”.

However, there is a reason. The tyre shaped treats were another way of building my people skills, and getting to collaborate with others outside of my team. Mostly the rest of the company.  There is an official name for  this pattern of providing donuts. Coined by Linda Rising in her book, Fearless Change It’s the Do Food pattern.

Sharing food, made it easier for me to discuss difficult topics, and approach people to get things done. I didn’t have to appeal to their rational mind. I didn’t have to make convincing arguments. Didn’t have to use data. Minds are already made up.

” I’ll listen to him, He’s the guy who brings me donuts”.

This post is inspired by a former colleague’s post on Emotional Intelligence for teams. It made me think of my own path to improving my people skills. I’m the archetypical techie. People don’t compute. Humans aren’t programmable. Yet, this thing called “Collaboration” is pretty damn important if you want to build the right thing, and change people into adopting ways of working that makes us happier.

It’s pretty damn important if you want to enjoy building software. I’ve seen it too many times. Frustrated developers, unsatisfied customers, stressed managers and flaky software. I had to learn more tricks to make changes. Here are a few.

Have a bag of tasty treats on your desk.

Like the donuts, I normally have a box of chocolates or some other candy on my desk (I also have healthier options like cashew nuts and fruit).

Why ? It’s easier to have a conversation whilst eating something nice. People see the treats and come over to ask what  you are working on. You can then pitch your idea and start evangelising your vision. People listen while munching.

Even more, take said bag of treats over when you need to get something done, especially when working with sysadmins/ops folk.

No candy ? “Did you raise a ticket for that?” .

With candy, “Let me get that done for you after this”.

Most likely to do with the brain experiencing pleasure making difficult decisions more enjoyable. There is some science to this, but let someone else figure it out. It works.

Lead your own retrospectives.

Officially, a retrospective is supposed to be lead by a neutral facilitator. I get quizzical looks when I say I’m leading the retrospective for my own team, because that is not the format.  Why do I do it ?

It’s a good way to observe your team, in a relaxed setting. In the early stages of forming a team, badly run retrospectives can have a negative impact and It’s important to have effective retrospectives early on. When introducing a collaborative culture and it’s not always easy to find good retrospective facilitators. This is sometimes where agile adoption fails, because of ineffective retrospectives.

Leading a retrospective, as a team/tech lead allows you to show leadership in non-technical areas. The team will feel like they can talk to you about the issues they are facing, instead of an external facilitator.  You can also try innovative retrospective ideas that are tuned to your team’s current situation.

Read Maverick by Ricardo Semler.

This is the book that convinced me that there is a better way of working than what is experienced in most places. Trust, transparency, diversity and giving the space to do what they want, brings out the best in everyone.  The book is full of ideas on how to improve working practices, and to deal with the complex issues that arise with a work place democracy.

Observe first, reflect and then talk.

Take all the time you need to observe and reflect. I’ve learned to let the conversation continue without having to say anything.  To be a catalyst,  you’ll have to observe the whole system and figure out there to start nudging people towards the change you want to see.

Observation enables you to develop empathy, since you are not reacting to what they say immediately.  Have them explain, till you understand. Cluelessness is ok. Ask questions till you understand. Harness your inner introvert.

It’s hard to avoid office politics.

At its core, an organisation is a complex system, which behaves the way it does because of the emergent behaviour of all the chaotic interactions with the people (influenced by what they had for breakfast/what side of the bed they woke up on) inside it and the entities outside of it. The goal of making money somehow guides this katamari-damacy-esque blob along.

Everyone around you has their own agendas, goals and what they want as rewards. To achieve your goal, you’ll have to channel your inner “Henry Kissinger”.  People will be amenable to changes as long as they get what they need out of it. Be it a position of power, a sympathetic ear or a reward.    

Next ?

All of this is pretty new to me and extremely interesting. I love reading about how techies move out of their “cubicles” and and the tools they use to address human problems.

Thoughts ?

My NodeJS development workflow

I’m building a NodeJS + Angular application and there are a few things I want a smooth dev workflow and improve developer happiness. Yay !!

  1. Run the node server process and restart automatically when I make changes
  2. Concatenate my client side JS code, and merge libraries such as angular, jquery and bootstrap.
  3. I don’t want to check in concatenated files.
  4. I don’t want to check in modules or libraries, even for client side scripts
  5. I want to catch typos and style violations.
  6. I want tests to run in the background.

Grunt is the task runner I’m using to automate the tasks. Let’s look at each of these tasks.

Automate the NodeJS server process with nodemon.

npm install --save-dev nodemon

Now, run


Eventually, you’ll want to trigger nodemon through grunt. Get the grunt-nodemon plugin. The plugin registration and the Grunt config is below.


nodemon: {
    dev: {
        script: 'bin/www',
        ignore:  ['node_modules/**','bower_components/**','public/**']

I’ve configured nodemon to ignore javascript that is not my code, and ignore changes to client side javascript. The path to the node server script is set in the script property. Since I’ve used express to create an app, this is ‘bin/www’.

Great, now executing grunt nodemon  will watch for changes and restart the server.

Next, I want to avoid all those pesky typos, misplaced semi-colons and get into the habit of writing good Javascript. I’ll use JSHint.

npm install --save-dev grunt-contrib-jshint

Configure JSHint as below,


jshint: {
    all: ['Gruntfile.js', 'lib/**/*.js', 'test/**/*.js','public/javascripts/app/**/*.js']

This configures JSHint to run on my tests, client side javascript and server code.

As with nodemon, I want JSHint running in the background and checking my code as I type and save files. This gives me quick feedback. Because JSHint doesn’t do this, I’ll introduce another plugin to the Gruntfile.

This is the grunt watch plugin, which will watch for changes in my source directory and run other Grunt tasks.

npm install --save-dev grunt-contrib-watch

Configure grunt-watch as below,

watch: {
 scripts: {
 files: ['**/*.js','!node_modules/**','!bower_components/**','!public/javascripts/dist/**'],
 tasks: ['jshint']

This sets up grunt-watch to watch over all of my code. Ignore directories by placing an exclamation mark before the path spec.

Great, now if I execute grunt watch on the command line, it will start watching for changes and run jshint when a change is detected. Sweet.

There is a catch though. I want to run nodemon and watch at the same time. I could run both in separate shells, but that would mean switching back and forth.

Let’s introduce grunt-concurrent. This executes grunt tasks concurrently. Now I can run nodemon and watch at the same time.

npm install --save-dev grunt-concurrent

Configure as below;


concurrent: {
    dev: {
        tasks: ['nodemon', 'watch'],
        options: {
            logConcurrentOutput: true

The config above, tells grunt-concurrent to run nodemon and watch. Both tasks are grouped logically under a “dev” subtask.

If I execute grunt concurrent on the command line, I’ll have my server restarting automatically and JSHint watching my code. To reduce what I need to type even more, I’ll set up grunt to run this task as default

grunt.registerTask('default', ['concurrent']);

All I need to do is type “grunt” and have it do all the work done for me.

This gives me a  basic framework to add other tasks. Grunt allows me to group tasks. For example, I want to group all of my build time tasks as one. My build time tasks are to run jshint, run tests, merge libraries like angular and concatenate client side javascript.

grunt.registerTask('build', ['jshint','karma','concat','bower_concat']);

Instead of watch running JSHint only, let’s change it to run the build task.

watch: {
 scripts: {
 files: ['**/*.js','!node_modules/**','!bower_components/**','!public/javascripts/dist/**'],
 tasks: ['build']

Here is the complete Gruntfile https://gist.github.com/hibri/6ccd0aef805353dc8260

In addition to the tasks described above, I’ve also used the plugins listed below

  • grunt-bower-concat : merges all the dependencies installed via bower
  • grunt-contrib-concat : merges all the client side javascript I’ve written. This includes all my angularjs code.
  • grunt-karma : To run tests
  • grunt-bower-task : To run bower install through grunt.

You’ll also notice I’ve got the following task configured.

grunt.registerTask('heroku:production', ['bower:install','concat', 'bower_concat']);

The deployment to Heroku uses the task. I want the concatenation to run when I push to production, so I don’t have to check in any build artefacts to source control.

Heroku doesn’t run Grunt natively during a deploy, but they do support build packs. I’ve configured Heroku to use a nodejs buildpack with grunt support.

See https://github.com/mbuchetics/heroku-buildpack-nodejs-grunt for more.

This is the build framework I’m starting with, and most certainly will grow with the project. A way of sharing ignored files between tasks would be nice. There is some duplication already.

What’s your workflow ?

The Fuji X100T – First Impressions

I love gadgets. Cameras even more. Over the past decade, I’ve gone through quite a collection of photography devices. Starting with a Canon EOS 350 film camera, which I still have and up to a 5D, and even an old Polaroid SX-70.

However, none of these cameras created an emotional bond, or felt like that they were made for me. Heck, I think the 5D is a brute who can make great picture of anything I throw at it.

That changed when I got the Fuji X100. I bought it as a lightweight travel camera. It changed how I approached photography. I wasn’t worried about the perfect settings anymore. The tactile controls of the X100 gave a physical element to creating photographs.

The X100 was a difficult camera though. It was moody and needed coaxing to make the best of the available light. The auto focus was slow, and the manual focus was, unusable. The camera did deliver when I’ve had the patience.

In Arles, France, earlier this summer, I learned the art of shooting from the hip. Inspired by the excellent book, with the same name by Johnny Stilletto. I needed a camera that is responsive as a natural reflex, to capture the scene. A camera that encourages a minimalistic style of shooting.

The Fuji X100T shows maturity of the X100 line. The X100 and the X100s were brave steps towards making cameras beautiful again. Naturally, I placed a pre-order for the X100T and when it arrived took it out for a little spin this weekend.

The auto focus is fast. The start up is fast. The camera is ready by the time I lift it up to my eye. The optical view finder (OVF) has wider coverage compared to the X100. The electronic view finder (EVF) is responsive with a crisper view. It doesn’t lag. Previously the tiny bit of lag was enough to mess my composition. The view finder has a tidy layout, with all the indicators outside of the frame. There is not much that gets in the way of composing a scene. In addition I’ve been turning off all but the essential indicators.

The manual focus is usable. The focus ring turns smoothly but still as not as smooth as on a EF lens. It still has little bit of a tactile disconnect between what I do and what I see. The 1/3 aperture step change on the control ring is a welcome change. Previously,I didn’t like using the command dial to change to f3.5. The buttons on the back give the same solid feedback as the rest of the control dials. Control consistency is great. On the X100, the dial was a tad hypersensitive and I’ve switched to the wrong shooting mode accidentally, on many occasions.

I love the Wifi connectivity and remote shooting capabilities. I’m using an iPad for my editing workflow, and this will be excellent while travelling. I can make do with fewer SD cards now.

I’m not entirely sold on the film simulations, and have rarely used it. I’m impressed with how little post processing I’ve had to do with what I’ve shot on the X100, even in RAW mode. The X100T can shoot in a square aspect ratio, in camera. This is great for photos that are posted to Instagram later.

I doubt the reliability of the battery level indicator on the X100T. It showed that the battery was almost empty, but after turning it off and on again it went back to showing that it’s 75% full. I expect the battery to last at-least for a whole day’s worth of shooting. I have to question why Fuji doesn’t include an adaptor ring and a lens hood with the camera, considering it’s a premium compact.

Overall, I love how the X100T responds to my instinct and doesn’t stand in the way of snapping up what’s happening around me. I’ve never been this excited to use a camera. Well, at least till the next one comes out.



Accepting Uncertainty

This is one of those things that should be filed under continuous delivery anti-patterns. One of the anti-patterns I see in continuous deployment, is the need to make sure that the software is flawless before it’s released. This anti-pattern manifests itself, in the need to have several stakeholders test and approve a release. The release dance takes days, when something is good enough to be on a production system.

There is a large suite of long running tests that must be run, before a release is approved. There is a release management dance that must be done before a release. Cue the constant conversations around the office about the impending release.

Instead, let’s accept the inherent uncertainty in building software. Any non-trivial system is complex. We can’t predict it’s behaviour to any accuracy. We can only observe and react to any unexpected behaviour.

This is the key tenet in building a continuous deployment pipeline. The ability to react to uncertainty.

Chasing certainty with more automated tests will only give diminishing returns. There should be enough tests to increase the confidence level. That’s it. Nothing more.

The rest comes from observing how the software behaves. By monitoring and gathering data. Use that,  to react. Add a few more tests. Rinse, repeat. Iterate.

The ability to iterate and react will give better quality software in the long term, than a stranglehold with tests and testers.