Rails Gems: Ahoy

Sometimes you want more analytical detail than Google Analytics or Heap or other analytics offerings allow.  If you have an internal datastore that you want to match visits up with, you can either pull the tracking data from the web analytics tool, push your data up to the tool, or find some other way to get the web analytics data into your internal datastore.

If you choose the third option, ahoy is the rails gem for you.  It’s a simple install and will track visits and visitors (both signed in and anonymous), user agents, time of visit, and more.  You can then use it to correlate with internal goals.  For instance, if you have a funnel: ‘adwords -> visit -> signup -> create profile -> join group -> participate in group’, you may want to track each step of the funnel.  You may want to know how many groups each adwords click joining user joins.  There may be aspects of your application that are not accessible via the web that you want to correlate with external indicators (‘how often does billing fail with people who use safari’ is a (fartfetched) example). Answering these questions may be easier to do with SQL than it would be with leveraging an external tool.

However, cohort analysis and other sophisticated statistical analysis may be harder with this data, and if you are looking at doing that you may want to make the investment in pushing data up to one of the other tools, or tagging your application such that all relevant goals are measured by the web tool.

Regardless, ahoy is simple to set up and if you’re looking to pull in web tracking data into your datastore for additional insights, I highly recommend it.


The wonders of outsourcing devops

I have maintained a Jenkins server (actually, it was Hudson, the precursor). I’ve run my own database server.  I’ve installed a bug tracking system, and even extended it. I’ve set up web servers (apache and nginx).

And I’ll tell you what, if I never have to do any of these again, I’ll be happy as a clam. There are so many tools out there that let you outsource your infrastructure.  Often they start out free and end up charging when you reach a certain point.

By outsourcing the infrastructure to a service privder, you you let specialists focus on maintaining that infrastructure. They achieve scale that you’d be hard pressed to. They hire experts that you won’t be able to hire. They respond to vulnerabilities like it is their job (which it is).

Using one of these services also lets you punch above your weight. If you want, with AWS or GCP you can run your application in multiple data centers around the globe. With heroku, you can scale out during busy times, and you can scale in during slow times. With circleci or github or many of the other devtool offerings, you can have your ci/cd/source repository environment continually improved, without any effort on your part (besides paying the credit card bill).  Specialization wins.

What is the downside? You lose control–the ability to fine tune your infrastructure in ways that the service provider may not have thought of.  You have to conform to their view of the world.  You also may, depending on the service provider, have performance impacted.

At a certain scale, you may need that control and that performance.  But, you may or may not reach that scale.

It can be frustrating to have to workaround issues that, if you just had the appropriate level of access, you would be able to fix quickly.  It’s also frustrating having to come up to speed on the docs and environment that the service provider makes available.

That said, I try to remember all the other tasks that these services are taking off my plate, and the focus allowed on the unique business differentiators.


Customer support best practice: Shared inbox

So, both at The Food Corridor and at 8z, I saw the power of a shared inbox for support.  Sure, there are tools like Zendesk out there, but when you are just getting started, having a common inbox (typically in gmail) is a great idea.  It’s free, everyone knows how to handle it, it has a great mobile client, and it is very flexible.  It’s worth noting that both of these companies had relatively small support teams (less than 10)–once you get to a larger team, more specialized tools will be helpful.

What should you call it?  You could call it ‘support@example.com’ or ‘help@example.com’, but I’ve seen a lot of folks go with ‘hello@example.com’, which can be used for all kinds of communication.

You can also use this as the master account for other subscriptions you have, whether of business specific newsletters or SaaS tools.  If someone is signing up for something that other employees may need to use, use this as the email address.  (You may want to set up a second inbox or alias for technical tools.)  You can also augment the inbox with plugins.  Rapportive was one that I’ve tried in the past, and I love Streak for easy CRM and email scheduling.

When you are responding to customer requests from this inbox, should you sign with your name or not?  It used to drive me crazy when folks wouldn’t sign emails at 8z, because I liked to know who I was corresponding with.  Now that I’m doing customer support, I see the benefit of being anonymous.  When you have different folks signing emails, it can confuse the customer (“who am I dealing with again”).  So I’d recommend signing or not signing depending on the context.  If this is a person who you haven’t dealt with before and they have no context for who you are, leave it unsigned (or, as we do at The Food Corridor, sign with something generic–“The Food Corridor Gnomes”).  If they are an existing client, then sign it.

Finally, keep this inbox clean, otherwise the value will decrease dramatically.  Make sure you archive anything that is taken care of.  Take shifts of who ‘owns’ checking the inbox.  I’ve definitely seen folks re-forward an email so it goes to the top of the inbox, or using slack to coordinate responses.  Forward questions or information for specific individuals or teams off to their email accounts, then archive.


Rails Gems: paper_trail

Rails has an amazing number of quality libraries (called ‘gems’) and while building The Food Corridor application, I was lucky enough to be able to use some of them.

If you want to easily track changes in your rails models over time, the paper_trail gem has you covered.  Simple to install, compatible with many databases, and very easy to use.  I’d point you to the docs for installation, but for usage, all you have to do is drop has_paper_trail into your model class.

After that’s deployed, every change to those models is tracked, including the entire model state.  From an operational perspective, I’m a bit worried about the size of the audit table (called versions), but thus far it hasn’t grown too fast.  It wouldn’t be hard to prune either.

I use the data this gem records for two reasons.  The primary purpose is to debug the system.  When there’s an issue because the system doesn’t act as expected, or a question on when a model changed, I can go back and see how the model has changed over time.  I can do this either by directly inspecting the versions table or via the rails console.  If I use the latter, then I can actually pull back the model object as it existed in the past.  This has been tremendously helpful in tracking down bugs.

The secondary use of this data is to allow the system to see changes over time, and execute code based on those changes.  This doesn’t happen often, and I’d prefer for such changes to be captured more explicitly, but in at least one case this gem has allowed me to fix an issue in a time efficient manner.

If you’re building a complicated system that changes over time, as most real world applications do, having some kind of audit trail can be extremely helpful.  paper_trail makes it trivial to get an audit trail set up in your rails app.


Useful Tool: Delighted for NPS reports

So, I was looking to add a simple widget to collect net promoter scores (often called NPS).  I was astonished at the dearth of options for standalone NPS tracking.  I assume that most customer relationship software has an NPS tracker embedded in it, but we didn’t want to use anything other than a simple standalone widget.

Two options that popped up: Delighted and Murm.  I did a quick spike to evaluate each of these tools.  At the time I reviewed it, I couldn’t get Murm to work, and they didn’t respond to my customer support request.  Delighted, on the other hand, did so.  They let me have access to web display, which was a beta feature at the time and worked with us on price.  It was trivial to install, though I’m still a bit unclear how the form determines when to display.  Highly recommended.

The nice thing about having a NPS tracker on your website is you can get direct feedback from your users.  This has led to numerous useful conversations and feature requests, as someone who is using our software for the first time brings new clarity to confusing features or user interface.  Plus, it is a great number to track.


Things I wish I knew about Stripe

Caterpillar

Striped, but not charging your credit card

So, at The Food Corridor, we’ve been using Stripe happily since we launched in June of 2016.  As a developer, I’d used Stripe before in a couple of different ways, but this has definitely been my most sustained use of the payment service.  (If you don’t know what Stripe is, it is an API that makes charging customers as easy as an API call.  More here.)

I wanted to outline some of the things I’ve learned from months of using Stripe.

  • Stripe supports pulling money directly from bank accounts, via ACH, but it really isn’t the same ACH as your bank lets you do.  This is because Stripe isn’t a bank.  The biggest thing to be aware of here is that Stripe ACH takes 7 days to arrive in your bank account.  Another issue is that you have to do verification.  They have two ways of doing verification–micro deposits and Plaid.  Plaid is instant, but only supports major banks, which was a non starter for us (updated 9/8: Plaid supports around 1000 banks now).  The code for micro deposits is straightforward, but be prepared for some customer support issues.  Stripe deposits two amounts and withdraws just one amount, which was confusing for some of our users.  It also takes a couple of days, so if your users are hot to spend money, Stripe ACH may not be a fit.  The win?  Definitely cheaper.  (And I didn’t find any other service that would support both credit card and ACH transactions that was developer friendly.)
  • Don’t forget to set up your webhooks out of the gate.  Stripe mentions this, but I glossed over it in the early days, and missed some events that were important.  (The most relevant is that ACH is asynchronous, so when an ACH transfer fails, it is reported via webhook.  If bank account verification doesn’t work, you’ll get a different kind of webhook.  Review the docs and set up webhooks for all the ACH events.)  If you don’t have time for a full featured webhook processing implementation, Zapier can just send the webhook data to your email. This can be a great stopgap solution.  Or you can use stripe_event.
  • Per support, if a webhook post fails (because your app is down, for example), they are retried once an hour for 72 hours.
  • Speaking of stopgap solutions, the Stripe Dashboard is fantastic for manual processes.  Just because you can automate everything via an API, doesn’t mean you should.  There can be some complicated edge cases with payment processing, especially around refunds, but they can easily be handled with a google doc of instructions and the Stripe Dashboard.  I have found only one use case that the API can handle that the dashboard cannot (a partial refund of an ACH transaction).
  • I have found Stripe support to be excellent, quick and knowledgeable.
  • Occasionally customer charges will be declined because of bank fraud triggers.  Expect to occasionally ask your customers to call their bank.  (I think this has happend about once every third month).
  • Disputes are a total pain, because the process is opaque and slow (expect a resolution in about two months and know you are not in possession of the payment during that time).
  • Make sure to capture the payment id anytime you charge a card or run ACH.  It will make future automation a lot easier.
  • Monthly plans are complicated, so if you can lean on Stripe for management, even if you are doing manual plan management (applying coupons, adding, or removing users from plans via the dashboard), do that.
  • The first payment you charge takes 7 days to move from stripe to your​ bank account.  This is for fraud protection.  Payments thereafter typically take 2 days (but it depends on your country and industry).

And here are some special tips if you are using Stripe Connect (their marketplace product).

  • Read the docs!
  • Remember that first payment timeline?  It applies to every one of the connected accounts.  Think about charging your own credit card as soon as you connect an account to help with customer cash flow.
  • Consider whether you want to use managed vs standalone accounts.  Managed accounts are a lot more work but allow you to have a seamless UX that you control.  Standalone accounts, which we use, are far quicker to setup.  I think this depends on the number of sellers you have in your marketplace.
  • You also want to think about whether to place the charges on the platform account or on the connected accounts.  A major factor there is who bears the Stripe fees, the platform or the sellers.  We charged on the platform account because we wanted all our data in one place.  If you are selling plans, you can’t charge on the platform and use Stripe plans.
  • If you are charging on the platform account, and are using standalone accounts (where the sellers have to set up a stripe account) your sellers won’t see charge descriptions unless you manually copy the description over.  The code looks like:

# this will let the sellers know what invoice the charge was for
transfer_id = charge.transfer
transfer = Stripe::Transfer.retrieve(transfer_id, expand: ['destination_
payment'])
payment_id = transfer.destination_payment
payment = Stripe::Charge.retrieve(payment_id, {stripe_account: destinati
on_account_id})
payment.description = description
payment.save

Happy charging!


The Four Types of Slacks

I have been using slack for a few years now, but have really noticed an uptick in the last year or so.  (If you aren’t familiar with slack, here’s an intro to slack usage, and if you are, here’s a great code of conduct for public slacks.)
It seems to me that there are four main types of slack groups.

The first is the company/department slack.  This slack is long lived, contains many channels, and is multi purpose.  There are channels for ops, marketing, etc.  This slack is typically limited to the employees of a company, though contractors are also given access.  The main purposes of this slack are an ad-hoc knowledge base and to reduce email.  Depending on IT, this slack may be under the radar and compete with other solutions like hipchat, wikis or internal mailing lists.

The next type is a project slack. This is related to the company slack, but is less long lived, and has fewer members and channels.  It is used for coordination amongst disparate people, often a set of contractors.  May be maintained by the client or prime contractor, also serves as an ad-hoc knowledge base, but is primarily a means for coordination of effort.

Both of the above slacks may have other integrations with systems (CI/CD, monitoring, etc).  These integrations with external systems can make the slack a one stop shop for corporate knowledge and memory, especially if the members are on paid accounts.

The above types are obviously limited in membership.  The next two types of slacks are more public.

Another type of slack is the event slack.  This slack replaces or augments Twitter as a way for people at a conference to communicate.  May exist between events, but is quiescent while events are not happening.  Here channels may be related to aspects of the event or tracks, and the slack is typically owned by the event coordinator and provided as a service to the conference attendees.

Slack can also be an email list replacement.  I have been a member of several email lists for user groups/meetups in the front range, and it serms much of the activity on some of them have been driven to slack (the BDNT meetup is a good example). In addition, I see a lot of new slacks being created that would, a decade ago been email groups.  (Facebook groups are also a replacement for email groups, depending on your audience, but I have found slack to be far superior in searchability.). The number of channels is typically related to member list size and length of existence.  I have found these slacks be on the free slack plan, with its limits. I have also heard of slacks of this type charging for membership.

What has been your slack experience?  What did I miss?



Using Amazon Mechanical Turk

chess-1215079_640So, after over a decade, I finally found a use case where I had the clout and the need to use mechanical turk. I wanted to write about my experiences.

What I used it for: We were looking for some data on businesses.  We had business name, city and state, and wanted full contact information.  We paid a dime for each listing, and asked for email address and physical address.  We asked about each listing twice so that we’d have some kind of double check.

How effective was it? This varied.  If you were using the master workers, it was very effective, but slower.  If you open it up to all workers, you have to review their work more closely.  The few times I rejected someone’s task, they wrote back and asked why and tried to make it right, which was a testament to the power of the system (it records rejections).  Make sure you break the work into a couple of smaller groups so you can iterate on your instruction set (when workers asked questions on the first set, the answers went into the instructions for the second set).  We still had to review all the listings and double check any that didn’t match between both task answers, but that was a lot quicker than googling for each business and doing the research ourselves.

How much did it cost? On the order of a couple hundred bucks to process around fifteen hundred listings.

What kind of time savings did we see? Assume we had 1500 business names, and it took us 90 seconds to google the business name and find the information.  That is 1500 listings * 1.5 minutes == 37.5 hours, and this is on the low end.  Instead, it took about 2-3 hours of setup, and then 36 hours of calendar time (when I was able to do other things like sleep and work on other problems), and we were done.  Then I would say it was about 7-10 hours of review. So you are trading a couple hundred bucks for at least 20 hours of saved time.

Would I do it again? I think mturk is perfect if your problem has the following three attributes: more money than time, a task that is extremely simple, and time to review the finished product.

Other tips? You have to build it some kind of sampling for correctness. I have no idea what the quality is if you pay more than a dime per task.  Make sure you think about edge cases.  Provide tips to your workers (“check whois records as well as google”).


Can I customize Sharetribe?

I’ve been talking to some people about customizing Sharetribe.  It’s a big piece of software and there are a lot of moving parts, but many of the people I’m talking to are business folks.  They chose Sharetribe because they have a marketplace in mind, and the software is just a tool.  However, all tools have their limits.

So, I thought it’d be fun to organize it as a ‘choose your own adventure’. Click the link to learn how to customize Sharetribe’s awesome marketplace software.



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