I’m speaking at JOIN next week!

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Next week I’m excited to be speaking at JOIN, Looker’s annual user conference in San Francisco.

My talk (at 11:15am on Wednesday the 10th) is about how we use Fivetran, Looker, and email to get more people at Help Scout interested in and engaged with our metrics, a topic which I’ve written about previously on this blog. Huge thanks to Fivetran for sponsoring this session.

I’ll also be at the dbt meetup on Tuesday the 9th.

If you happen to be attending either the meetup or the conference, drop me a note – I’d love to say hey¬†ūüĎč.

A New Adventure: I’m Taking the Leap to Focus on Preceden and Analytics Consulting

As many of you know, I’ve had a long-running side project called Preceden, a tool that helps people create professional-looking timelines:

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I launched Preceden back in early 2010 while I was a still lieutenant in the Air Force and kept it running as a nights-and-weekends side project throughout my time at Automattic and Help Scout.

Over the years its revenue has slowly grown to the point where it’s a healthy little business these days. As its revenue has grown, the amount of time I have to put into it has dwindled to an hour or two each week. Between my work at Help Scout and my family (three kids under four now!), I basically have had time to do support and not much else, despite there being so much more I want to do.

There was never going to be a perfect time to take the leap to focus on growing Preceden, but with its revenue and growth being what it is, my wife and I have decided now’s the time to do it.

For the foreseeable future I’ll be focused on growing Preceden, but also doing some analytics consulting on the side. Going all-in on Preceden was an option, but I really enjoy analytics and business intelligence work and want to continue leveling up there. I’m thrilled to have both Help Scout and Automattic as my first consulting clients.

With my hours now reduced at Help Scout, we’re looking to hire a new analytics lead. Help Scout is an incredible company and you’ll get to work with an amazing group of people who care deeply about building a business and a product that people love. As the lead analyst, your work will have a huge impact on the direction of the business. If you’re interested in this role, check out the job description here: Data Analyst at Help Scout¬†and feel free to shoot me an email with any questions.

I have no idea how this will all play out long term, but I’m really excited to see how it goes.

Building a Looker-Powered Daily Metrics Email Report

One of the main ways we evangelize metrics at Help Scout is with a daily metrics report that is automatically emailed to the entire company every morning.

In the email we highlight the performance of our key business metrics (New Trials, New Customers, etc) for the day prior and for the month to date. We also include our projection and target for the month to help us understand how we’re doing for the month.

Here’s what it looks like (with a shortened list of metrics and no actual numbers):

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Because the report is delivered over email and doesn’t require logging into a separate tool, it makes it easy for everyone to keep up to date about how the business is doing. It’s also a frequent cause for celebration in Slack:

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In years past a prior version of this report was generated with a lot of PHP code that was responsible for calculating all of the metrics and delivering the email.

When we adopted Looker as our Business Intelligence tool last year we ran into a problem though because we had refined how a lot of our metrics were calculated as we implemented them in Looker. As a result, Looker would sometimes report different values than daily metrics report. This obviously wasn’t ideal because it caused people to mistrust the numbers: if Looker said we made $1,234 yesterday but the metrics email said we made $1,185, which was correct?

Our solution was to rebuild the daily metrics email to use Looker as the single source of truth for our metrics. Rather than calculate the metrics one way in Looker and painstakingly try to keep the PHP logic in sync, we rebuilt the metrics email from scratch in Ruby and used Looker’s API to pull in the values for each of the metrics. This ensured that the numbers in Looker and the daily metrics email always matched since the daily metrics email was actually using the metrics calculated by Looker.

Building a Daily Metrics Report for your business

If you use Looker and want to build something similar for your organization (which I highly recommend!), I open sourced a super-simple version of ours to help you get started:

https://github.com/mattm/looker-daily-metrics-email

For this demo, it assumes you have a Look with a single value representing the number of new customers your business had yesterday:

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When you run the script, it will query Looker for this value, throw it into a basic HTML-formatted email, and deliver it:

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You will of course want to customize this for your business, make the code more robust, style the email, etc – but this should save you some time getting it off the ground.

If you run into any issues feel free to reach out. Good luck!

Edit: Here’s a recording of a talk from JOIN 2018 I gave on this topic.

A Frequent Communication Mistake I’ve Made as a Data Analyst

Looking back at my time so far as a data analyst, some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made were not technical in nature but around how I communicated within the organization.

Two real-world examples to illustrate:

A few years ago at Automattic our ad revenue was way down from what our marketing team expected it to be. For example (and I’m making up numbers here), for every $100 we were spending on ads, we had been making $150 historically, but in recent months we were making $25. Either the performance had gone way down or there was some issue with the tracking and reporting.

I was on the data team at the time and volunteered to work with the marketing team to investigate. As it turned out, there was indeed an issue: there was a problem with the way AdWords was appending UTM parameters to our URLs which was breaking our tracking. For example, a visitor would click an ad and land on wordpress.com/business&utm_source=adwords – note that there’s an amperstand after the URL path instead of a question mark, so the correct UTM source wouldn’t get tracked and the customer wouldn’t get attributed to AdWords.

Fortunately, we had some event tracking set up on these pages (Tracks for the win) that recorded the full URL, so I was able to go back and determine which customers came from ads and calculate what our actual return on ad spend was. After figuring out the issue and determining how much unattributed revenue we had, I wrote up a lengthy post about what happened and published it on our internal marketing blog without informing the marketing team about it first.

Second example: a few months ago at Help Scout, we had an ambitious revenue target for Q1. With a few days left in the quarter, we were still projecting to come in short of the target and no one realistically expected us to reach it. Something about the projection seemed off to me so I dove in and realized there was a mistake in one of the calculations (it was my fault – in the projection we weren’t counting revenue that we earned that month from customers that were delinquent who then became paying again). As a result, our projection was too low and we likely were going to hit our target (and eventually did!).¬†I wrote up a lengthy message about what happened and published it in one of our company Slack channels without informing any of the leadership about it first.

To understand the problem, it’s important to note that as a data analyst, I haven’t typically been responsible for the performance of our metrics. I help set up tracking and reporting and¬†help ensure accuracy, but someone else in the organization is responsible for how well those metrics were doing.

In both of the cases above, I wasn’t intentionally bypassing people. At the time, it was more like “oh, hey, there’s a bug, now it’s fixed, better let everyone know about it” – and probably an element of wanting credit for figuring out the issue too.

However, not consulting with those responsible for the metrics before reporting it was a mistake for several reasons:

  • They didn’t have an opportunity to help me improve how the issue and impact were communicated with the rest of the company and its leadership.
  • I missed an opportunity to have them doublecheck the revised calculations, which could have been wrong.
  • Even though we were doing better than we had been reporting in both cases, it may have indirectly made people look bad because they had been reporting performance based on inaccurate data. They should not be finding out about the issue at the same time as the rest of the company.

In neither case was there any big drama about how I went about it, but it was a mistake on my part nonetheless.

Here’s what I’d recommend for anyone in a similar role: if someone else in your organization is responsible for the performance of a metric and you as a data analyst discover some issue with the accuracy of that metric, always discuss it with them first and collaborate with them on how it is communicated to the rest of the company.

It sounds obvious in retrospect, but it’s bitten me a few times so I wanted to share it with the hope that it helps other analysts out there avoid similar issues. Soft skills like this are incredibly important and worth developing in parallel with your technical skills.

If you’ve made any similar mistakes or have any related lessons learned, I’d love to hear about them in the comments or by email. Cheers!