Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Project Nostalgia: Warehouse Management

All Work and No Play

Early in my development career, I got a job at an entertainment company that rented party supplies like inflatable bounce houses, inflatable slides, human gyroscopes, etc. On my first day, I was introduced to my new boss, the owner of the company, on his way out the door headed to China for 2 weeks.

I introduced myself, thanked him for the opportunity, and asked what he wanted me to work on while he was gone. "You'll figure it out," he said, "make us some money." And out the door he headed.

Once I found my office and tracked down a computer, I sat down and thought, "what the heck am I going to do here?" Having just gotten my MBA, I decided I'd take a page from my business consulting class and just "see what my lantern shows me." I walked around asking my new coworkers what the company does, what they do, and what could make their lives easier.

There were the usual gripes, manual processes, duplicate paperwork, etc. One problem in particular, however, I found particularly intriguing. It turns out that the company had an uncomfortably high refund rate because they'd show up at parties and equipment would be missing. They also would only schedule a few parties a day, despite having plenty of equipment to spare, because it took so long to prepare for an event. Similarly, they required reservations be made a week in advance.

Shopping in Your Own Warehouse

If you're like me, when you make a grocery list, you write items down in the order you think of them. Then, when you go to the store, you walk up and down the items, grabbing things from the list and crossing them off as you go. Also, if you're like me, sometimes you pass an item and you have to go back. Or, you don't notice an item that you missed and you go home without it.

If you want to try an experiment (actual or thought), commit to going to the grocery store and getting everything on your list in the order it appears on your list. You'll probably find you forget less stuff, but you do a lot more walking around the store. It's not a particularly efficient way to organize a shopping trip. If you implement this in, say, a warehouse you may issue fewer refunds but you can't increase the number of events you can service in a day.

I'm sure by now, you're imagining myriad ways to organize a list of grocery items so that, if nothing else, at least you have some consistency. You could organize them alphabetically. That way, your items on your list will follow more or less the same pattern visit to visit. That may or may not be better than in the order you thought of them (assuming you remember grocery needs that are grouped together).

Imagine, however, that you can't sort your grocery list in the order you think of it. Imagine you can't even sort the list alphabetically. In fact, your only option is to sort the items on the list in the order the item first appeared in your grocer's inventory. Imagine how nonsensical it would be trying to track down where all of your groceries were. How much you'd forget (or perhaps even leave deliberately). That's what we had.

A Guided Tour

I printed our inventory list and I walked around the warehouse writing down the exact coordinates of every product and every component we had. I also estimated the volume, weight, and stack-ability (if you will) of the item.

Hoping to get a cheap win and to prove that it could make a difference (some of the guys in the warehouse weren't interested in their inventory lists being optimized), I got a few of the guys to agree to try it out for 1 day. I entered my data into the inventory table and sorted the inventory list by aisle, bin, then level. That was it. Only took a few minutes, was easy to revert if it failed, and I could switch it based on the user.

When I got back from lunch, one of my coworkers who sat outside my office said, "hey, warehouse really wants to talk to you … they've been in and out of here constantly since you left." I thought, "oh no . . . I probably broke something and they can't print inventory lists at all now."

I headed out to the warehouse preparing my apology. I had barely walked through the door when someone said, "hey Patrick, check this out?" There were several palates stacked with boxes and party equipment distributed along the loading dock. "What's up?" I asked.

Turns out my first sorted list was such a hit that they decided to start racing each other to see who could fulfill the inventory list faster. They had not only prepared the next days events, but several days after. I know it doesn't sound like it should take that long, but this warehouse typically had 4 or 5 people preparing 10 or 15 parties a day give or take.

A Deliberate Solution

Feeling I'd created some real value, I went back to my sorting. I updated the logic so that bins were in reverse order on odd number aisles (they started at the end of aisle 1, went to 2, the back up 3, and so forth). I sorted the items so that, given close proximity, the larger or heavier items would appear in the list first so they'd be on the bottom of the cart.

In the display, I grouped the items by aisle. Once I did this, I realized I should start at the end of the first aisle that had equipment on the list, then continue on the beginning of the next aisle with equipment (rather than just naively going up and down each aisle). With the help of the warehouse team and some statistics I pulled from the historical invoice data, we also started physically grouping items based on how frequently they were pulled on the same list.

Some of them were obvious. If you ordered an inflatable, you'd likely also get a blower. People who rent tents also rent chairs. Some were less obvious. People who rented dance floors typically didn't rent inflatables but did rent a bar and concessions. Once we established that not only could we control our own inventory but that we can control our own reports, it became a game to optimize the process.

In the end, it only really took 1 person to run the entire warehouse, though we staffed 2 because people liked working together. The rest of the warehouse team got promoted. It was actually something of a coveted job to get to deliver the equipment, spend some time outside, visit with the people having the party (partying people are usually pretty happy people).

We also started booking more parties. We even booked parties same day if we had the equipment and the people available. I'm sure there are COTS products that are really good at solving this very problem, but solving a real business problem with feedback from the people who were most impacted by it and seeing measurable gains in revenue was well worth the effort. It also help build some relationships and establish a collaboration they'd never had before (I was the first developer who worked onsite).

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Remote Interview Pairing Challenge with Cloud9

Cloud9 IDE

My interview process typically involves just trying to get to know someone to see if we're a good match culturally. After all, if you have a good mind for development, I know you'll be great if we can put you in the right environment with the right culture. As a result, I tend to spend a lot more time talking about what kinds of problems a developer finds interesting, what sorts of roadblocks she finds frustrating, and what technologies we have in common.

There is, however, still the necessary evil of seeing how far along the candidate is on the programming journey. To that end, I usually try to do a very basic code challenge. Normally it's something simple enough that we can still have a healthy conversation while we solve it together as a pair, and it's not so academic as to be useless in real life. Mostly, I just want to pair together to solve a problem.

I give the candidate the opportunity to select the language of her choosing and typically I'll know it well enough that we can pair to solve the problem. I explain the challenge, we set up unit tests, write a failing test, and make it pass. Sometimes, if I don't feel like I know enough, I'll change it a little and we'll try to adapt to the changes together.

This has been such a positive experience for me (and for the candidates I've talked with after their interviews), that I've spent a fair amount of time practicing the process. As I recently discovered, it's such a fundamental part of my interview, that I was completely unprepared when a client asked me, at the last minute, to step into an interview to do a pairing challenge with a candidate . . . who was remote!

Remote Pairing Interview

We tried to come up with a few options for doing the code challenge. After all, our shop pairs pretty much all the time and we try to be supportive of remote work. I mean, we've solved this problem before; however, it's seldom without hiccups. I know that candidates are usually nervous in an interview and I feel a lot of responsibility to help set their minds at ease. To that end, I like to appear calm, collected, and organized.

We considered using tmate and vim. We talked about screen sharing with TeamViewer. We also thought about just letting this candidate work on a harder challenge, maybe something from Hacker Rank or Project Euler, and email us the solution.


Each of these had a downside. Tmate would give the dev access to my machine and I wanted to let them do whatever they wanted without putting my machine in his hands. Alternatively, his machine could host but I wanted to be able to get to the solution later. Screen sharing with TeamViewer isn't as responsive as I like when pairing, especially if I want to be able to help out rapidly. Also, I type in Dvorak and sometimes that's an issue (turns out he does too . . . by the way). The async challenges, while good, don't let us know if we'll enjoy pairing together.

Enter Cloud9

I remembered, a while back, running across Cloud9 and playing with it a little bit. I thought, "hey, what if we just try this?" Cloud9 would give us a sandbox that we can work in with a full ubuntu virtual machine. The candidate can do whatever he wants to it, we can code, install tools, whatever. I said, "hey, give me a second . . . I'm going to try this Cloud9 thing . . . go ahead and get your account set up and I'll invite you to a project."

In about 5 minutes, the candidate, my co-worker, and I were pairing and running tests on our Cloud9 workspace. There were no security concerns, communication was simple, we still installed and used tmux and vim, we had a sandbox, I was able to save the code. It was a really great experience. Not only did we offer a position to the candidate, but the candidate has been happy on our team ever since. I consider it a sign of a good interview when a candidate takes a position and I think that Cloud9 had a lot to do with this one.

Next Steps

I've not used Cloud9 (or any web based IDEs for that matter) on day to day work. Unfortunately, I'm not really in a position to try it out on the free tier. At some point, I want to go ahead and get a subscription and see how well it works out for me. I certainly see the value of cloud based IDE services and I like the idea that the most expensive development hardware you need is a Chromebook.

Okay, so maybe that's a little hyperbolic, but not for long. We have pairing stations that we treat like cattle rather than pets. We can wipe it completely clean and have it up and running again ready to go in just a few minutes. The hardware isn't commodity, but it could be. In fact, it could just be a web interface to a virtualized instance and why couldn't that be accessed from a Chromebook, pairing station, laptop, tablet, or . . . maybe in a pinch . . . a phone? Personally, I like it and hopefully I'll get a chance to push Cloud9 beyond "hello world."

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our 2014 Charity Picks

Charitable Giving

We feel lucky every day. Our community has provided us with a great place to live and work. Our kids can grow and learn in safety and comfort. We're surrounded by opportunities personally and professionally.

For that, we are eternally grateful, and we like to give a little bit back to our community. We work hard to research the charities we choose to support and to make sure they're doing the greatest good with their contributions.

Here are the charities we selected for 2014

Episcopal Relief and Development

Episcopal Relief & Development works to save lives and transform communities worldwide. They rebuild after disasters and empower people to create lasting solutions that fight poverty, hunger, and disease. They working in 40 countries impacting the lives of nearly 3 million people around the world.

ERD has a high rating on Charity Navigator. While we typically seek a higher rating, it's very close to the highest it can be and we have close personal ties with the organization.

One thing we love about this program is you get to donate specific needs to the communities you're supporting. This is certainly the first time we've donated a cow and chickens. We also funded farming tools and community gardens, prenatal and postnatal maternity care, and 1 year of education for 5 girls.

Tiger Flight Foundation

A little closer to home, the Tiger Flight Foundation, base in Rome, Georgia inspires kids to be "Pilot in Command" of their own lives. All donations go toward the motivational and character development programs.

My relationship began with Tiger Flight as a volunteer pilot. I had a young man in my plane and as we taxied out, he said, "I've never been in a plane before." I asked him what was his favorite place to visit. He told me he'd never been out of Rome, GA. He was nervously excited as we started rolling down the runway.

We had barely left the ground when he could no longer contain his excitement and he looked at me almost teary-eyed and said, "I feel like I can see the whole world from here!" I thought, "from here kid, the whole world is in front of you . . . and I think you'll see it."

Friday, December 5, 2014

Secure Foscam IP Cameras with SSL on Raspberry PI and NGINX

Foscam + Raspberry Pi = SSL

When my first kid was born, my wife and I wanted a convenient, cheap, but externally accessible way to monitor our daughter. Thus, the usual baby monitors wouldn't do the trick. We ended up getting a really handy and super cheap Foscam FI8910W IP Camera.

Everything about it is pretty great … except security. For that reason, I never poked a hole through my firewall so that friends and family could peek in on Piper from time to time. I could always access the camera over VPN, but nobody else could ('cause I'm stingy with my network access).

When I found out I had another one on the way, I decided that not only did I need another camera, but I needed a more convenient way to securely access my cameras from outside my house. I decided I to pick up a Raspberry Pi and expose an https endpoint that could reverse proxy requests to my ip camera. This way, I have a secure connection into my house. It's still plain text between the camera and the pi, but that's inside my network and I'm less concerned about it there.

In any case, I picked up a Raspberry Pi Starter Kit which I recommend for your first pi. It'll come with the components you'll need to get set up. The second time I did this (for the sake of recording the steps to write this blog, I just formatted my own noobs card and I used the wifi dongle from the previous pi kit.

I tried to install noobs lite on an 8gb microsd card I got from the Raspberry Pi Downloads page, but noobs lite didn't work with the wifi dongle so I recommend plain old noobs. For the second time around, I just downloaded Raspbian and used dd to image the microsd. Again, I recommend noobs (and I recommend the starter kit) unless you feel pretty comfortable with command line utilities. If you are, use the instructions for installing operating system images from the raspberry pi site.


That being said, with noobs, you just format your micro SD card with FAT and copy the contents of the noobs zip to the sd card root. Put the SD card in the pi, connect the mouse and keyboard, connect ethernet or the wifi dongle, connect some video output, etc. Then, plug in the device.

The first thing to do is get connected to wifi. It's easier to do in the GUI so run startx, configure your wifi network, and log out.

Enable SSH in sudo raspi-config.

Using SSH to administer a box is kind of a pain without tmux so get that. Also, vim is awesome so get that too. Finally, we're going to be using nginx as our reverse proxy so install that as well.

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install tmux vim nginx
To make SSH even easier, scp your public key to your pi's ~/.ssh folder and cat it into authorized_keys.

If you are using wifi, you'll find that wifi is disable after rebooting until the dongle is removed and re-inserted. You can change this behavior by executing

sudo vim /etc/network/interfaces
and changing
iface wlan0 inet manual
wpa-roam /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf
auto wlan0
iface wlan0 inet dhcp
wpa-conf /etc/wpa_supplicant/wpa_supplicant.conf

You'll want nginx to start automatically on reboot too probably so execute

sudo update-rc.d nginx defaults


Give your pi a static ip address. My router lets me map static ips to mac addresses. DD-WRT lets you do that too. If you can't with your router, configure a static ip address following the Debian Network Configuration Instructions.

Give your router a static ip as well.

Forward port 443 (the default SSL port) to 443 on the pi's IP address

Get a dynamic DNS account that's supported by your router. If your router doesn't do dynamic DNS (and you can't install a decent firmware that does, you can use ddclient on your pi instead.


You'll need a domain name that you own to get an SSL certificate. Register one.

In your domain's DNS configuration, create a subdomain with a CNAME record pointing to your dynamic DNS domain.


Get your SSL certificate from Start SSL (the free certificate will be fine). You'll have to validate your domain. The process is pretty straightforward.

Download your certificate, key, and the intermediate certificates and make a unified certificate:

cat ssl.crt ca.pem > ssl-unified.crt

SCP the key and the unified certificate to the pi's /etc/nginx folder (I like putting my certs in a subfolder)

Configure nginx

Create a configuration file called /etc/nginx/sites-available/ipcams

server {
  listen 80;

  server_name your.pi.ip.address;

  return 301 https://$host$request_uri;

server {
  listen 443 ssl;

  ssl_certificate /etc/nginx/certs/ssl-unified.crt;
  ssl_certificate_key /etc/nginx/certs/ssl.key;

  server_name your.pi.ip.address;

  location /front_porch/ {
    proxy_pass http://your.porch_cam.ip.address:80/;

  location /baby_room/ {
    proxy_pass http://your.baby_cam.ip.address:80/;

Remove the default symlink from /etc/nginx/sites-enabled and add new symlink

cd /etc/nginx/sites-enabled
sudo ln -s ../sites-available/ipcams ./ipcams

Restart nginx:

sudo service nginx restart


So, now https requests to your subdomain are resolved by your dynamic DNS to point to your IP where your Pi is. Your Pi gets an https request and forwards it inside your well protected network (in plain text) to your camera. I keep my Pi wired to cut back on the wireless traffic that happens in plain text. In any case, this way you can get from outside your house to inside your house over an encrypted ssl connection.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Refresh/Update jQuery Selector after Ajax or other DOM Manipulation

jQuery Logo

I'm working on a more or less single page app right now. As such, there's a lot of dynamic DOM manipulation. Sometimes, we need to re-evaluate a jQuery selector to get the new set of objects after the DOM has changed.

Typically we've solved this problem by always using the selector to find the children. This became really frustrating in my Jasmine tests where I found myself doing this a lot!

    it("toggles the display of an element", function() {
        var $togglableItem = $('.togglable');
        var $togglableItem = $('.togglable');
        var $togglableItem = $('.togglable');

Even in production code (outside of tests) that can be kind of a pain. I wanted to be able to do something more like this:

    it("toggles the display of an element", function() {
        var $togglableItem = $('.togglable');

A Common Solution

I've seen some implementations of a jQuery refresh plugin that look like this:

(function($) {
        refresh: function() { return $(this.selector); }

I have two problems with this approach. First, I don't always have my elements attached to the DOM when I want to do a refresh. In fact, typically in testing, I don't add my test elements to the DOM so I can't just reuse the selector. The selection depends on the parent jQuery object.

Second, I also really enjoy the fluency of jQuery and often make use of .end() method when it makes sense. The approach above flattens the selector stack and .end() returns the default jQuery object.

Preferred Approach

To maintain the fluency of jQuery and allow the refresh, here's what I'm proposing:

(function($) {
        refresh: function() { 
            var $parent = this.end();
            var selector = this.selector.substring($parent.selector.length).trim();
            return $parent.find(selector); 


I haven't used this in the wild yet. I know .selector is deprecated, but it's the best I could find for now. It does, however, work pretty darned well in my Jasmine tests. :)

Monday, May 12, 2014

How to Market a Mobile App: Professional Design

The New This to That

The next phase in the How to Market a Mobile App series was to try a whole new look and feel. While I feel like the design of This to That was actually pretty good, it's obvious design is not really my strong suit. I hired a professional design company that reworked my icon for about $150.

I dropped the new icon into the game and had my wife play with the This to That theme generator for a while. She came up with what is now the current This to That default theme. We are pretty pleased with the way it turned out and it appears users are too.

Promotional Images

Another thing we changed were the promotional images that show up with the app on the app store. I had reviewed dozens of my favorite apps to see which ones I thought had the most compelling promo images. I noticed I was most enticed by promotional images that featured interesting design with the application screenshot embedded in the image (rather than the whole image itself).

I had tried my hand at this kind of design and these are what I had before:

Game Center Integration Intuitive Play Social Features Custom Themes

In an effort to try something new (and to get a new release out faster), I decided to replace these with simple screenshots. You can see them on the This to That on iTunes page. I may have my designers throw together some new promotional images if I start to get enough data about new downloads that I'll be able to share any significant observations about their effectiveness.


Before/After Pro Design

The new graphics don't appear to have had a huge impact on new users. It looks like about 10% - 20% more downloads than before. None of the current users have complained in comments or ratings so that's probably a good sign really. I think the most interesting statistic I've observed this time around is in session duration.

It appears whatever I added between 3.5 and 4.1 was displeasing to users. We went from an average of 4 minutes per session to about 2 minutes per session. 4.2 brought us back up and 5.0 and 5.1 have leveled us off at about 3 minutes per session, but almost all of our players now play every day.

A few other observations

  • Very few people attempt to play multiplayer
  • Many players open the drawer; very few swipe it
  • Since we moved the help button, more people click help
  • There are very few social sharing events
  • Most common incorrect words: TOOS, BEAS, SEAP, BONS, BAIN

Next Steps

I have a release ready to go in hopes that we get more reviews on the app store (hopefully positive too). We have always had a feedback button in the app, but at some point the link broke so presently it takes you to the app store but not to the app's page. To fix this, we started using appirater. On a related note, I recommend using cocoapods for iOS app dependencies.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to Market a Mobile App: Professional Review Sites

Mobi Apps Review

I've been working on the revealing (and humbling) How to Market a Mobile App series so I've found myself more open to some ideas that I usually am. A few months ago, I got an email from the owner of Mobi Apps Review. I've heard about sites like this before that establish a viewership on their website and on social networks. Some friends tried it out paying as much as $5,000 for one review.

Mobi purported to have 25,000 followers on twitter and the same on facebook. The offer was to write a review and publish it on all of their social networks for $25. I figured, it's worth 25 bucks just to know what a little exposure could do for me. Besides, it'll give me something to post about on the Mobile Magic Developers facebook page.

The Mobi Apps Review of This to That came out March 6th, 2014. It was nice to see that the review was generally positive. Not all of the reviews on Mobi are positive so I feel like the reviewer really did enjoy the game.


I reviewed the Google Analytics for the 3 weeks before and the 3 weeks after the Mobi review was posted. I saw no discernible effect on new users.


I don't think the lack of results necessarily indicates that the review had no impact. To be sure, I could've spent more effort promoting the review. I also, unfortunately, have no insight into how many viewers actually saw the review. Of those viewers, I have no idea how many visited the This to That for iOS app store page. Even if I did, I have no way of knowing how many people who view the app store page actually download the application and whether or not the review had an impact on that.

All in all, I think it was worth 25 dollars, and I expect to get value out of it at some point. Now, I can mention the 5 star review in the profile description which needs to be revamped anyhow. I can also reference it in posts on our facebook page. The gestalt effect of having an additional third-party link out there is likely to help support my efforts in marketing This to That.