Saturday, August 15, 2015

More on Lil Brother

Last time, I talked a bit about the lovely library Lil Brother that was open sourced by Shutterstock.  We're rolling it out a trial basis this weekend. Keep your fingers crossed!

I did run into an issue though. By default, events handled by Lil Brother don't bubble up. The documentation doesn't mention that the bubble keyword needs to be set to true for the event to bubble up. Otherwise, the bubble argument is undefined which causes the event propagation to stop.

I couldn't figure out how to upload new documentation to github, so I forked the project and updated the documentation. Hopefully this will save someone else a couple of hours debugging. :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Building a Click-Tracking System, Part the First

In my position as Special Projects Lead for, I have several interesting projects on my plate. They mostly fall under the analytics umbrella: onboarding of users, dynamic pricing, that sort of thing. The first one we decided to build is a custom click-tracking system.

In this series, I want to document the process of building said click-tracking system: what software was used, what I learned by using said software, problems I came up against, etc. Hopefully others can learn from my experience (and mistakes). So let's go...

Why a custom click-tracking system? 

Doesn't Google Analytics do that for you? There's plenty of other free web analytics available. Why go through the hassle? Yes, Google Analytics is very good at what it does, but it's not granular enough for our tastes. We want to do things such as determine how the system is being used ("Why do users take ten clicks to get through this process instead of four?"), how people move through the system ("Why did they go from the payment page, then to the about page, then never returned?") or through a page. Also we want to aggregate the raw data in ways that we're not aware of yet. Finally, playing with lots of data is fun! :-)

Lil Brother

When I develop solutions, I'm of the "Don't reinvent the wheel" school of philosophy, so naturally I went looking for software that already did what I wanted.  Most click-tracking software out there does what Google Analytics does, which is a fine thing but as discussed in the previous paragraph, they're not for us. Fortunately, I came across Lil Brother from the fine people at ShutterstockLil Brother "tracks clicks and other events in the browser and reports back in real time". Perfect!

While the documentation is sufficient I think there are some things that should be spelled out better and one or two things that are just plain typos, hence this document. So let's get technical!

First off, grab the code from their repo. There are two aspects to the code, the client-side and the server-side. Let's start with the client-side code.

Client-Side Code

The first thing you need to be aware of is which lilbro.js library to load. If you read their documentation, it says to include the following line in your client-side code:

<script src="http://server:8000/lilbro.js"></script>

This is just plain wrong. The lib/lilbro.js file you find in the repo is for the server-side code, not the client-side. The client-side actually uses the three files located in the client/src directory: LilBro.BrowserDetect.js, LilBro.Schema.js, and LilBro.js. Include those in your client-side code and you're almost ready to rock. 

In the usual Javascript fashion, you need to create a LilBro object. preferably on the body of the DOM. That's all you really need to do; Lil Brother will track every click on the page.  It will also track focus and blur events if you add the watch_focus: true attribute. Be careful here! The example wrongly says track_focus; the attribute is actually called watch_focus.

At this point, I'm going to tell you to RTFM as the examples given are pretty good. I will, of course, make a few comments. :-)
  • LilBro essentially passes just an array of numbers as key-value pairs back to the server. It uses the LilBro.Schema.js to determine what the keys mean. So be sure both the front-end and back-end are using the same schema file(s). If they don't, you will see odd things, e.g. the fields will be in your object in Firebug but won't see the fields in the back-end and you'll be all, like, 0_o
  • You can add extra attributes to the LilBro object you create by assigning the key-value pairs as a JSON object to event_base but remember to update the schema (see above bullet)
  • You're going to need some type of taxonomy (structure) to your html ids and classes. If an element doesn't have an id or class, LilBro will climb the DOM looking for one. This is a Good Thing. However, we came across the problem where two calendar widgets on our page both have a class="day" on the date elements for styling, but we don't know which widget it is from.

Server-side Code

On the backend, LilBro comes with a node.js based server called, confusingly enough, lilbro.js. It works pretty well and easily.  You will probably have to install some dependencies, mainly nomnom.js. To do that run 

$ cd lil-brother
$ npm install

When I did that, I got an error that npm wanted to install nomnom version > 2.0.0 but the highest available was 1.8.2. If you get the same error, just edit the packages.json and set the version number to > 1.8.1. Worked for me!

The server can write to files or to a ZeroMQ queue.  We're writing to files for the moment. When I get back into the office later this week, I'm going to write a Python script to tail -f the file to dump the data into a MySQL database.

That's All For Now

This should get you up and running with Lil Brother so you can start playing around with it. I'll keep you posted about my progress. Let me know about yours.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

SugarCRM/SuiteCRM Programming Examples

This is a long post about programming against he SugarCRM/SuiteCRM SOAP server. It's all technical so if you came by for some light, witty banter I'm sorry to disappoint you.

The Problem

So a buddy of mine approached me with a problem. He's migrating data from a custom CRM to SuiteCRM. The old CRM has ten years worth of data, mostly consisting of 147,000+ files. My buddy can handle the custom modules, importing the data and all that but he's a point-and-click kinda' guy and he's not going to point-and-click his way through 147,000+ uploads. That's where I came into the picture; I fix technical problems for businesses (I do more than that, but that's a post for a later time).

So I start digging through the SugarCRM/SuiteCRM docs. They've got quite a bit of documentation but it's not very useful. Much like Javadocs or man pages; they're reference documentation, which is great if you already know the topic and want to look something up, but lousy if you need to learn the topic. Examples of programming this CRM I found around the net helped some but left out some important points that tripped me up for awhile, hence this blog post.

So here's the setup: one SuiteCRM server running in a VM; two external drives, one holding 147,000+ files (about 3/4 of a terabyte), the other holding the files for the SuiteCRM installation, a custom module called Assignments, and an SQLite database holding information about which file(s) goes with which Assignment.

My job was to write a program which will do the following:
  • read the database to determine which Assignment a file belongs to
  • create a Document (set_entry()
  • upload the document (set_document_revision())
  • get the assignment id (get_entry_list())
  • set a relationship between the Assignment and the new uploaded Document (set_relationship())
  • update the database with a status
I have some illustrative code up on GitHub. It's not runnable code. It's just two files: the main program and the SuiteCRM code. I left out things like the logging code and the database code. Those are unique to my situation and would just muddy the message I'm trying to get across.

So, let's walk through this:

Initialize SuiteCRM SOAP Object

Our constructor looks like this:

class SugarCrmSoap{
      var $sess;
      var $sess_id;
      var $soapclient;
      var $log;
      var $soap_url;
      var $login_params;

      function SugarCrmSoap(){
        $this->soap_url = '';
        $this->login_params = array(
            'user_name' => 'admin',
            'password'  => md5('admin'),
            'version'   => '.01'
        // the trace option allows for better debugging
        $this->soapclient = new SoapClient($this->soap_url, array('trace' => 1));
        return $this->soapclient;

(Yeah, I'm not too keen on how Blogger formats code. If anyone knows how to do better, let me know)

The soap_url is really important; it determines which version of the interface you use. While that may be obvious, most of the examples I saw didn't include which version of the SOAP interface they were using. This meant when I copypasta their code, I ended passing the wrong parameters in the wrong positions. :-/

The trace option is very useful. We'll see what that does at the end.


We need to create a Session and get its ID to pass around for authenticating. That's easy enough to do:
function login(){
  $result = $this->soapclient->login($this->login_params);
  $this->sess_id= $result->id ;
  return $this->sess;

Main Loop

Now we're ready to do the work. We create a new document by passing in the name of the file to set_entry() like this:

 function processFile($filename) {
  try {
  //Creating new Document '$filename'
  $result = $this->soapclient
                 ->set_entry( $this->sess_id,
                                        array ( 'name'  => 'new_with_id',
                                                'value' => true
                                        array ( 'name'  => 'document_name',
                                                'value' => $filename
          return $result->id;
    } catch (Exception $e) {
      $this->catchError("processFile", $e);

Then we upload the file by setting a new Document Revision. The $docID is from the previous function and $rec is just an array of information about the file.

function uploadFile($docID, $revision=1, $rec) {
  try {
    // file_get_content spits out a warning about there being no file
    // then successfully gets the content. :-? Hence the
    // warning suppression
    $file_contents = @file_get_contents($rec['full_path']);

    $docArray = array( 'id'       => $docID,
                       'file'     => base64_encode($file_contents),
                       'document_name' => basename($rec['file_title']),
                       'filename' => $rec['file_title'],
                       'revision' => $revision,
                       'assignment_no' => $rec['assignment_no']

    $result = $this->soapclient->set_document_revision ( $this->sess_id, $docArray);

    //New document_revision_id is $result->id"
    return $result->id;

  } catch (Exception $e) {
    $this->catchError("uploadFile", $e);
    return (-1);


When you upload a document, say example.jpg, SuiteCRM does not store a jpeg file called example.jpg. It stores a base 64 encoded file with a filename that looks like a UUID. I assume this lets them track revisions better.

Setting the Relationship

We finally get to the most important part of this program: setting a relationship between a (custom module) Assignment and the Document we just uploaded. As you might guess that means getting the assignment_id:

function getAssignments($query='', $offset=0, $maxnum=0, $orderby=''){
  try {
  $result = $this->soapclient->get_entry_list(
  return $result;
  } catch (Exception $e) {
    $this->catchError("getAssignments", $e);

This essentially does an SQL query on the back end. The $query parameter is the WHEN clause of that query minus the 'WHEN'. 

This function returns the entire Assignment entry. The id is found thusly:

$assignment = $sugar->getAssignments($assignStr, 0, 1, '');

$assignId = $assignment->entry_list[0]->id;

And finally, we are ready for the final step: setting the relationship! SuiteCRM does some weird internal stuff to set relationships; it's not as simple as a 1-to-many database relationship. Oh no, that would be too easy!  This is the whole reason we have to go through their SOAP server.
Our function for that is fairly straight forward:

function setAssignmentDocumentRelationship($assignId, $docId) {
try {
  //setting relationship for assignment id $assignId and document id $docId
  $result = $this->soapclient->set_relationship(
  return $result;
} catch (Exception $e) {
      $this->catchError("setAssignmentDocumentRelationship", $e);

Since an Assignment can have several Documents associated with it, I could have passed in several $docIds in the fifth parameter but that would have added complexity to the main program that I didn't feel was justified. 

Capturing errors

Remember up above when we initialized our SOAP object and we set 'trace' => 1? With that set, we can capture the headers of the last request which lets us write error functions like this one:

function catchError($function, $e) {

 $this->log->error( "====== REQUEST HEADERS =====");

 if ($function != 'uploadFile') {
   $this->log->error( "========= REQUEST ==========");
 $this->log->error( "====== RESPONSE HEADERS =====");

 $this->log->error( "========= RESPONSE ==========");

 $this->log->error("$function error: $e()");
 // continue on
 throw new Exception($e);


The reason for the if ($function != 'uploadFile') is if an error occurs while we're uploading, the entire contents of the base-64 encoded file will appear in the log and you don't want that, believe me!


That's it; how to upload files and set relationships via SuiteCRM's SOAP server. Easy once someone shows you how, eh? ;-)

In my opinion the SuiteCRM documentation is not very helpful, the other examples I've seen were either out of date or missing some important information (I hope I'm not!) and I've heard grumblings that getting information about programming this stuff is very hard to come by. I hope this helps someone. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Technically I am also a long-time Facebook user, joining the service back in April 2007. But I don’t think of myself in those terms — and certainly wouldn’t identify as one. I’m still on Facebook, largely for work purposes or to use Facebook as an identity layer for other apps and services, but I am not actively engaged with Facebook. I rarely post anything, log in only sporadically, and — despite Facebook’s position as the undisputed leader of social media services with more than 1 billion active monthly users — feel zero personal attachment to it.
If Facebook disappeared tomorrow I would barely notice its absence (except perhaps in a welcome sense via the sudden lack of spam emails)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Vignette: Paris Metro

I get off the train and start making my way through the labyrinth to the next train.

I enter a long hallway. The only people in it are me and four people near the turn at the far end. They're all wearing the same type of vest: oversized, non-descript, grey. They are conversing with one another and taking up the entire space of the hallway. If you want to pass you must go through them.

I don't find this threatening. I've seen this type of behavior before in the Metro as well as in the Tube and the New York Subway. You've seen it too; a group of younguns hanging out and conversing, oblivious to the fact they're impeding traffic. The only difference here was they were white, older, and included a woman in the group.

As I passed through the group, the eldest male held out a card reader and said something in French. My initial thought was He wants my credit card to donate to his charity. Well that ain't gonna happen so I fell back to my default phrase when someone hits me up for money in this town.

"Pardon, je ne comprende Francaise. Je suis..." (Yes, I used the Spanish word "comprende" and not the French word "comprend".)

"Tickets!" said the woman, a little _too_ loudly.

"Sure, no problem." I reached into my jacket pocket, pulled out my ticket and handed it to the gang leader with the card reader. He swiped it and said what I imagined was "Thank you, citizen. Enjoy your evening."

The woman said, again, a little too loudly, "Thank you. Enjoy your time here."


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Startup Weekend New Jersey

Last weekend I attended Startup Weekend New Jersey. For those of you who don't know, which is most of you, Startup Weekend is a worldwide organization which brings people together to work on startup ideas.

Here's how it works: developers, designers, marketers, idea people, etcetera, get together at a venue (ours was Juicetank, a coworking space in Somerset, New Jersey). People who have an idea for startup have five minutes to pitch their ideas to the group. When all the pitches have been pitched, the group votes on the ideas they liked most. Depending on the size of the group, the top n voted ideas are chosen to be worked on. We had about 110 people in attendance, so that meant we had about 15 or so projects selected. Then, depending on your interests and capabilities, you break into teams and work on these ideas. At the end of the weekend, presentations are voted on by a panel of judges with the criteria being how well you did, how well you followed the lean startup techniques, etc.

Now, keep in mind the idea here is not to build a software project. It's to validate a business idea using Lean Startup techniques and maybe build a demo for a startup business. The business may have to do with anything, such as transferring money between people in real-time, to wiping out unemployment, to creating a dating site for cats. By the way, all three of those examples where actual projects that were pitched and worked on during the weekend.

The most-voted project, and the one I joined, was called Waddle The idea behind Waddle is to aggregate a traveler's posts from various social media and present the data on a map. The founders, Suma  and Vishnal, had done a lot of upfront work and had a very well thought out business idea, hence why it was the most upvoted project.

The Waddle team was made up of a bunch of pretty cool people who knew their stuff. We put together a cool demo and presentation; unfortunately I wasn't able to be there for the presentation on the last day. Apparently, it was such a good presentation that we won along with another team. The winners of the competition won acceptance into a startup accelerator called Techlaunch and a purse of $25,000 to further the idea. The team and I are meeting later today to discuss where we go from here. :-)

The thing that impressed me the most was the power of the lean startup techniques, specifically be customer value proposition. Although Suma and Vishnal had done a lot of research, we still got a lot of value out of applying the  techniques. Not only did applying the customer value proposition validate the business idea, it also showed us several new markets that no one had ever thought of! These techniques actually work!

So, if you are entrepreneurial, or just like to work on new business ideas, check out a local Startup Weekend. Its a lot of fun and you will learn quite a bit.

Thursday, April 3, 2014


I can not believe the changes in my life this past month. I still can't believe it's been a little more than a month since I quit my day job.

I'm sitting in a stylish little flat in Limassol, Cyprus watching a cruise ship move slowly into port. It's 5:00 AM.  Last weekend my team won the Startup New Jersey competition. Before that, I spent two weeks working in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country. I made a fool of myself on the dance floor Sunday night and I didn't care.  In a couple of weeks, I'm swinging through London, Paris and Amsterdam where I'm going to hang with some cyber-friends. Then...?

Thirty-odd days ago, I was living in a cubicle in corporate America as a code monkey: fixing other people's bugs, guessing what this ticket was referring to, and laughing along with my fellow co-worker's gallows humor.  It really was one of those positions you read about and can't quite believe true; the protagonist has a well-paying, easy, corporate job, a comfortable life with good friends, and yet is miserable. But true it was.

New management came in about two years ago and, as new management is wont to do, implemented many changes. I was going to continue going along for the ride (easy corporate job, comfortable life, yada yada yada) but then my manager announced he was quitting after 18 years with the company. Not to greener pastures, just leaving. That was the wake-up call I needed. While I liked my co-workers and being in the office, if things were bad enough for him to leave, it was bad enough for me as well.

Serendipity is a real thing. Just as I started to get my resume together, update my LinkedIn profile, and started networking, a colleague that I haven't talked to in years got a hold of me; he just happened to need my expertise on a contract he was working on and wanted to know if I was available. And here I am.

The sun is coming up. Time for a walk on the beach.