Friday Updates: Editor Redesign, Product Analytics, Waking Up Early, Delta 8, Catch Up Calls

What I’m working on at Preceden

Editor redesign

With help from Milan, Preceden’s front-end developer, we launched a big update to Preceden’s editor.

Here’s what it looked like before:

And here’s what it looks like now:

Beside the aesthetic improvements to the buttons, we moved some of the functionality into other areas of the UI eliminating the need for some of the buttons:

  • Reordering layers is now possible when editing a layer
  • Editing the legend is now under settings
  • CSV Import is now under settings (it’s not really a setting, but doesn’t fit well anywhere)

We also moved all of the export and sharing buttons that were below the timeline into a new menu:

Overall this takes the editor down from 16 buttons to 5, simplifying the UI a ton.

Multilayer axes

In the past Preceden tried to put all of the axis labels on a single line like this:

Notice how for January it just displays the year. This is because including the month and year won’t fit in that space.

Introducing a secondary row for the axis labels helps clean this up:

Also spent some more time on performance and bug fixes. Really happy with how the product is coming along.

What I’m working on at Help Scout

I’ve been working a lot with Help Scout’s PMs on product analytics, an area of our BI reporting that historically hasn’t gotten as much attention as finance, marketing, and sales. Over the last 18 months Help Scout has hired a lot of talented PMs and with that has brought lots of questions about how users are interacting with different areas of the product. We recently signed a contract with Heap which has helped PMs self serve a lot more than in the past, but a lot of the analysis still involves wrangling backend data which has me working with dbt and LookML most days.

Some examples of analyses I’ve worked on recently:

  • What % of users have sent a response in the last 1/7/30 days?
  • How does activity change with role (Account Owner, Admin, User) and number of users at a company?
  • What does weekly retention look like for our live chat tool? How does user count and industry impact it?

What I’m listening to

Balaji Srinivasan on the Tim Ferriss postcast as well as him on the on the My First Million podcast. Love his outside-the-box thinking on so many topics.

What I’m experimenting with

Four things:

Wake up early – for the last few years I typically wake up when my kids get up around 7am. Recently it’s been my 2-year old banging on his door and shouting “daddy daddy!”. For the past month I’ve been setting an alarm at 6am (using my Apple Watch so it doesn’t wake up my wife) and trying to establish a better morning routine. At the moment, it usually consists of making breakfast for myself then either doing a 30-minute HIIT workout or yoga. During breakfast and yoga I’m usually listening to podcasts. If I finish before the kids get up, I just chill on the couch and keep listening to podcasts. I’m only doing this on weekdays. It’s got me feeling a lot more energetic during the days.

Delta 8 – I’ve struggled with sleeping well for the last few years, so decided to try edibles. I take half of one of these Delta 8 gummies about an hour before I want to sleep and then when I lie down I fall asleep almost instantly. I’m not doing this every night, just when my mind is overly active from whatever was going on that day. It’s made getting up earlier easier since I’ve gotten enough sleep most nights.

Weekly catchup calls – A friend of mine reaches out to me once a year to jump on a Zoom call and catch up. I recently asked him about his process for this and he mentioned he keeps a spreadsheet of old friends and acquaintances with when they last chatted and some notes about them. He makes it part of his routine to do these calls often, allowing him to stay in touch with a lot of folks. I really liked the idea so have been making an effort to do something similar. My goal right now is to either reconnect with an old friend or meet with someone new once a week. I’m not a huge fan of meetings in general, but am enjoying these 1:1 conversations with people I normally don’t interact with day to day.

Savvycal is making it easy to coordinate these calls:

Hope all is well with you all .

Friday Updates: Jest, Puppeteer, Data Lead, Tabata, Wahl Street, Vacation

Photo by Elizeu Dias

What I’m working on at Preceden

There’s a scene from Malcom in the Middle that I think of often where Hal sets out to fix a light bulb and gets sucked into fixing a bunch of other things in the process:

That’s largely the story of what I’ve been doing with Preceden.

Preceden lets you drag an event around on your timeline to change its dates. When you move it to a new position, Preceden updates the event’s dates to reflect the new location. Figuring out the format for the new date is tricky and something Preceden doesn’t do well currently. For example, if you originally specified the event ended on “23 Apr 2021” and you move it to the end of April, ideally Preceden would give it a format of “30 Apr 2021” but currently it would set it to “April 30, 2021”.

Preceden has a boatload of backend unit tests, but zero frontend unit tests which would help me better test things like this. I said alright, time to figure out how to do that:

My buddy Hrishi (hey friend!) recommended Jest which proved to be a great suggestion. Within a few hours I had some basic unit tests set up and things were looking promising. But then I realized that integrating Jest made Preceden’s PDF and PNG export features break, ugh.

Behind the scenes Preceden has used wkhtmltopdf to convert HTML to PDF/PNG, but wkhtmltopdf uses an old version of the QT web browser to do the conversion and QT wasn’t working with the modern JavaScript that Jest was introducing into the codebase. Working with wkhtmltopdf has been a major hassle over the years and I’ve spent countless hours getting it to work well for Preceden. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back though and I decided to research other solutions.

That eventually led me to Puppeteer a tool that basically lets you use Chrome to generate PDFs/PNGs. There’s a Ruby gem called Grover which makes it possible to integrate Puppeteer into a Ruby on Rails app. And thankfully it wasn’t too hard to make the switch… locally.

But then I pushed to staging and got a bunch of cryptic errors. That led me down a 10 hour path of updating webpacker and a myriad of other Node modules that Preceden uses and trying to figure out how to make it all play nicely together on Heroku.

Introducing Puppeteer and these other updates also caused Preceden to blow past Heroku’s 500mb slug limit (I think it came in at like 700mb?), so I had to spend a few hours figuring out how to reduce the size.

In the end, I got Puppeteer working on staging and then pushed it to production. All was well. But then a few days later Milan, the front-end developer I work with, reported that Preceden’s responsive navigation wasn’t working in production. Turns out that the various updates made it so Alpine.js wasn’t getting loaded properly. That led to more debugging.

Eventually we got that fixed too and for the moment everything is working AFAIK.

Next week I can finally circle back and add some unit tests and improve the original drag and drop date formatting issue. Hopefully.

What I’m working on at Help Scout

Our hiring funnel for the Data Lead position went like this:

  • 15 applications
  • 7 interviews
  • 3 trial projects

Last week we made an offer to one of the folks who completed the trial project and he accepted! He’ll take over the Data Lead role from me in mid-May and help take Help Scout’s data operations to the next level.

What I’m experimenting with

I had been doing a lot of YouTube HIIT workouts, but my knees were killing me so I stopped and just focused on rowing and yoga for a few months. But I miss the intensity of the HIIT workouts so started trying to figure out other ways I could get that intensity without killing my knees. I wound up finding an app called Tabata Trainer which lets you create custom HIIT-style workouts. I’ve been experimenting with different exercises to gauge how they impact my knees and seem to have found a combination that both gives me a good workout and isn’t bad on my knees:

  • Jumping Jacks
  • Push Ups
  • Russian Twists
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Plank
  • Crunches
  • Dip

Tabata involves working through these exercises 20 seconds on then 10 seconds off, then repeating the whole thing 8 times. For these 7 exercises, it works out to 28 minutes. I’ve been alternating each day between this and yoga and not surprisingly am feeling pretty healthy as a result.

What I’m watching

Juggling Preceden, Help Scout, etc has had me feeling spread pretty thin recently. It’s nothing compared to Mark Wahlberg’s life though:

I really enjoyed this series and it got me thinking a lot about what is enough, what are my priorities, etc.

Vacation

I haven’t been good about taking vacation over the last few years but I’ve been feeling pretty wiped recently so took this mostly week off. Every time I take a few days off I’m like “Man, I really need to do this more often” and this week was no exception. Now I just need to do it more often.

Hope all is well with you all – thanks for reading.

Friday Updates: Moving Fast and Breaking Preceden, Interviewing, Story of Your Life, the Last Cruise

What I’m working on at Preceden

Upgrading Postgres

I received an automated email from Heroku informing me that Preceden was running Postgres 9.6 which would be deprecated later this year. I read through the documentation detailing the upgrade steps which mentioned there would be some downtime but optimistically imagined it would be in the order of ~10 minutes, but it would up being 45 minutes. I performed the upgrade on a Tuesday morning around 10am EST which meant it impacted a lot of users.

Improving zooming

Preceden lets you zoom into sections of your timeline, but until recently you couldn’t share a link to that zoomed-in section of your timeline. Instead, viewers would always see the full zoomed-out timeline. Similarly, if you were viewing a zoomed-in portion of the timeline in your browser but then exported it to PDF or PNG, those exports were entirely zoomed out.

I worked on a project to improve this behavior, but rolled it out too quickly and wound up introducing a bunch of bugs. Fortunately Michael (a contractor who helps me with support and QA) wound up catching a lot of them.

Optimizing performance

Every few years I take a few days and try to optimize Preceden’s performance. For small timelines, Preceden and nice and speedy but for larger ones (with like 50+ events) it can take 5-10 seconds or more to render the timeline. Every time you make a change to the timeline it has to re-render so this can lead to a lot of wait time for users with large timelines.

I had never used Chrome’s Performance tools before, but watched some videos and tested it out on Preceden. The flamegraph showing the execution time of JavaScript functions wound up being super useful for identifying why large timelines were taking so long to render.

One of the big issues is that behind the scenes Preceden has to figure out how many pixels wide each event name is when it’s displayed on the timeline. The same text with the same font name and size can have different widths on different computers, so it’s not something I can just save with the event and re-use. It turns out though, measuring the width (by creating a hidden DOM element with the text and grabbing its width) takes some time, and when your timeline has hundreds of events it can really add up.

My solution was to save the name widths in Local Storage after they’ve been calculated that way Preceden can try grabbing the saved width from there before creating the hidden DOM element. The text is hashed to minimize storage and also for privacy reasons:

I wound up optimizing a ton of things like this. During the course of fixing this I realized that some previously-built front-end caching functionality had been broken for years. A few days later I realized that Preceden’s backend caching had also been broken for years. So basically Preceden has had zero caching for a long time and I never realized it.

Needless to say, fixing the caching and optimizing the front-end performance has had a big impact on performance. Timelines that previously took 10+ seconds to load are often now taking less than a second which translates to much less wait time for users.

But once again, I didn’t test these changes throughly enough before pushing them to production. Not only that, I pushed them and then took a break for lunch without verifying everything went smoothly. I returned to an overflowing support inbox stemming from various issues:

In the end there wound up being 4 separate bugs. Two I wound have caught with more testing locally, and two I wound have found if I had tested the changes on my staging server.

Moving fast and breaking things

A recurring theme in these mishaps is an an unfounded sense of urgency I have around shipping things. I lean heavily towards the move fast and break things style of entrepreneurship, but lately I think I’m trying to move too fast and it’s bordering on sloppy.

  • I should have given notice and performed the Postgres upgrade early on a Sunday morning to minimize the impact.
  • I shouldn’t have launched an incomplete iteration on the zooming features
  • I should have testing the caching changes on the staging server before shipping to production

Some extra testing and QA could go a long way without slowing things down much.

What I’m working on at Help Scout

Last week I led the first round of interviews to hire a new Data Lead. A coworker (KJ) and I interviewed 7 people, several of whom have moved onto additional interviews and a trial project. In the coming weeks we should wind up hiring one of them to take ownership of the data function at Help Scout.

I don’t have a ton of experience interviewing, but thankfully Help Scout provided some helpful interview training beforehand. One thing they didn’t talk about but which I learned over the course of the week is that interviewing is exhausting, at least to me. Probably part of why I lean towards individual contributor/solo entrepreneur roles.

What I’m reading

I finished Ted Chiang’s collection of stories released as Exhalation. I really enjoyed these stories and have moved onto Story of Your Life and Others, another collection of short stories by him.

What I’m watching

The Last Cruise, a HBO documentary about the Diamond Princess:

Adios for now 👋

Friday Updates: Logo Support, Pricing Updates, Complexity Book, Coming 2 America

Photo by Rohan

What I’m working on at Preceden

Upload your own logo

A frequent customer support request is adding a way for users to upload their own logo so it can be included when they share their timeline with others. With some work this week, that’s now possible.

It had been a long time since I did any feature work in Preceden so it felt really good to dive back into it this week.

Updated pricing

What’s a Friday Update without something about me updating Preceden’s pricing?

In February I switched the pricing from a $29/$69/$129 per year plans to $29/$99/$199 per year. It’s hard to draw conclusive results from the outcome (I didn’t A/B test it, and even if I did there’s not enough conversions to get significance in a reasonable amount of time), but my impression was that the newer prices were too high and overall it was hurting sales. And so I launched a new set of plans with prices in between the prior ones at $29/$79/$149 per year.

The new upload-your-own-logo feature is limited to the Professional plan as a way to make that plan more appealing (and people using Preceden for school or personal use probably don’t need it anyway).

Pricing is hard.

What I’m reading

Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell:

I’ve been interested in emergence for a long time so this book is right up my alley. It makes me want to resume Emergent Mind projects… but we will see. Not enough time in the day for everything.

What I’m watching

Coming 2 America on Amazon Prime:

Be well my friends.