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About Noah

Noah Lorang is the data analyst for Basecamp. He writes about instrumentation, business intelligence, A/B testing, and more.

June was a great month

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The 37signals Report Card was launched a few months ago, and this month it brings good news across the board.

Our support team made customers happier faster than ever

With 22,000 emails and 7,000 tweets handled in June, the support team blazed a speedy path, with 93% of emails received during our extended business hours answered within an hour. The average email was replied to in just 6 minutes. Chase recently wrote about how we keep those response times down.
The support team also kept customers happy: 94% said they had a great experience in June.

Our applications got a little faster

A few months ago we decided to replace one of the core pieces of our infrastructure: the firewall and load balancer appliances that all of our applications pass through. As we’ve been working on expanding into a second datacenter, we had the opportunity to try out some new equipment that offers dramatic simplification and performance improvements, and we decided to pull the trigger on rolling them out everywhere.
In mid-May, we switched over to our new F5 BigIP appliances in our primary datacenter in Chicago, and customers started to see the performance benefits we’d seen in our testing. The exact impact varies depending on the application and where you are in the world, but most customers are seeing between a 5% to a 25% improvement in overall page load times (overall, we’re running at about a 12% improvement across all of our customers and applications in the six weeks since we rolled these out). This speedup is especially noticeable when downloading large files.
We’re working on a handful of other projects that we hope will bring further speed improvements to our applications in the coming months.

Basecamp got a load of new features

Basecamp continues to improve. Just this month, we saw:

  • A whole new approach to documents, including mobile support and visual tracking of changes.
  • A new and clean look to the emails that Basecamp sends out about your projects, todos, and events.
  • Improvements to the event history throughout Basecamp. There’s less noise and more useful information throughout comment threads, people pages, and the timeline.
  • A ton of bug fixes and upgrades. In all, we deployed Basecamp 207 different times this month.

We’ve got a ton of other great features lining up to launch in the next few months. Stay tuned for future announcements and keep an eye on our performance to see how we’re doing every month.

We answered your questions for an hour live on a Google Hangout. Missed it? You can watch the whole thing here, and stay tuned for more of these in the future.

Ask us anything Thursday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern

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Have a question about one of our products, our technology, how we work, or anything else? Here’s your opportunity to ask.

We’ll be answering your questions live on a Google+ Hangout on Air tomorrow (Thursday, June 27th) from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Eastern time.

Check out the event here, where you’ll find the video link tomorrow. You can submit questions via Google Moderator or leave them in the comments here.

We’ll have a range of people from 37signals participating to answer your questions, from designers to support and everyone in between. Almost anything is fair game to ask (we’re a private company, so won’t be divulging any financial information, nor will we spill the beans on future features).

We hope you’ll join us. If you can’t make it tomorrow, keep an eye out for future events!

What does mechanical engineering have to do with data science?

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Engineering school is about learning how to frame problems. So is data science.

I have a degree in mechanical engineering from a good school, but I’ve never worked a day in my life as an engineer. Instead, I’ve dedicated my career to “data science” — I help people solve business problems using data. Despite never working as a mechanical engineer, that education dramatically shapes how I do my job today.
Most baccalaureate mechanical engineering programs require you to take ten or fifteen core classes that are specific to the domain: statics, stress analysis, dynamics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, fluid dynamics, capstone design, etc. These cover a lot of content, but only a tiny fraction of what you actually face in practice, and so by necessity mechanical engineering programs are really about teaching you how to think about solving problems.
My thermodynamics professor taught us two key things about problem solving that shape how I solve data problems today.

“Work the process”

On the first day of class, rather than teach us anything about entropy or enthalpy, he taught us a twelve step problem solving process. He said that the way to solve any problem was to take a piece of paper and write in numbered sections the following:

  1. Your name
  2. The full problem statement
  3. The ‘given’ facts
  4. What you’ve been asked to find
  5. The thermodynamic system involved
  6. The physical system involved
  7. The fundamental equations you will use
  8. The assumptions you are making
  9. The type of process involved
  10. Your working equations
  11. Physical properties or constants
  12. The solution

The entire course was based on this process. Follow the process and get the wrong answer? You’ll still get a decent grade. Don’t follow the process but get the right answer anyway? Too bad.
Some of these steps are clearly specific to thermodynamic problems, but the general approach is not. If you start from a clear articulation of the problem, what you know, what you’re trying to solve for, and the steps you will take to solve it, you’ll get to the right answer most of the time, no matter how hard the problem looks at the start.

“There is no voodoo”

The other thing that this professor taught us right away was that there was no “voodoo” in anything we were going to study, and that everything can be explained if you take the time to understand it properly.
I’d argue that the fundamental reason why data science is a hot topic now is that businesses want to understand why things happen, not just what is happening — they want to peel back the voodoo. There’s always a fundamental reason: applications don’t suddenly get slow without an underlying cause, nor do people start or stop using a feature without something changing. We may not always be able to find the reasons as well as we’d like, but there is fundamentally an explanation, and the job of a diligent engineer or data scientist is to look for it.

It was totally worth it

People sometimes ask me if I feel like I wasted my time in college by not studying statistics or computer science since the career I’ve ended up in is more closely aligned to those. My answer is a categorical “no” — I can’t imagine a better education to prepare me for data science.

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, “So? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?”
That difference – asking good questions – made me become a scientist.

Isidor Isaac Rabi, Nobel laureate

Three charts are all I need

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The last few years have seen an explosion in new ways of visualizing data. There are new classes, consultants, startups, and competitions. Some of these new and more “daring” visualizations are great. Some are not so great – many “infographics” are more like infauxgraphics.
In everyday business intelligence (the “real world”), the focus isn’t on visualizing information, it’s on solving problems, and I’ve found that upwards of 95% of problems can be addressed using one of three visualizations:

  1. When you want to show how something has changed over time, use a line chart.
  2. When you want to show how something is distributed, use a histogram.
  3. When you want to display summary information, use a table.

These are all relatively “safe” displays of information, and some will criticize me as resistant to change and fearful of experimentation. It’s not fear that keeps me coming back to these charts time and time again: it’s for three very real and practical reasons.


Why I learned to make things

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Two years ago this week, I started working at 37signals. I couldn’t make a web app to find my way out of a paper bag.

When I started working here, my technical skills were in tools like Excel, R, and Matlab, and I could muddle my way through SQL queries. I had the basic technical skills that are needed to do analytics for a company like 37signals: just enough to acquire, clean, and analyze data from a variety of common sources.
At the time I started here, I knew what Ruby and Rails were, but had absolutely no experience with them – I couldn’t tell Ruby from Python or Fortran. I’d never heard of git, Capistrano, Redis, or Chef, and even once I figured out what they were I didn’t think I’d ever use them – those were the tools of “makers”, and I wasn’t a maker, I was an analyst.

I was wrong.


Behind the Scenes: Twitter, Part 3 - A win for simple

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This is the final part of a three part series on how we use Twitter as a support channel. In the first part, I described the tools we use to manage Twitter; in the second part, we built a model to separate tweets into those that need an immediate response or not.

In the arc of a three part series, the final part is supposed to be either a story of triumph or an object lesson.
The triumphant story would be about how we implemented the model we built previously in production, integrated it with our Rails-based Twitter client, and saw massive quantifiable improvements resulting from it. I would look smart, competent, and impactful.
The object lesson is that sometimes practical concerns win out over a neat technological solution, and that’s the story here.

Sometimes good isn’t good enough

The model we built had a false positive rate of about 7%. That’s fair, and in many applications, that would be just fine. In our case, we want to be very confident we’re not missing important tweets from people that need help. Practically, that means that someone would have to check the classification results occasionally to find the handful of tweets that do need an immediate response that slipped through.
After talking to the team, it became pretty clear that checking for mis-classified tweets would be more work than just handling the full, unclassified feed with the manual keyword filtering we have been using. This is a great example of a case where absolute numbers are more important than percentages: while the percentage impact in terms of filtering out less urgent tweets would be significant, the actual practical impact is much more muted because we’ve optimized the tool to handle tweets quickly.
Part of the reason why we’re able to get away with keyword filtering rather than something more sophisticated is because of just how accurate it is with essentially no false positives. There’s actually a surprising amount of duplication in tweets—excluding retweets, the last 10,000 tweets we’ve indexed have only 7,200 unique bodies among them. That means that when a person looks at the first tweet using a phrase they can instantly identify that there’s a keyword that’s going to reoccur (for example, as soon as I started this series, we added “Behind the Scenes: Twitter” to the keyword list) and add it to the keyword list.

Most of the benefit with little effort


Behind the Scenes: Twitter, Part 2 - Lessons from email

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This is the second in a three part series about how we use Twitter as a support channel. Yesterday I wrote about how we use Twitter as a support channel and the internal tool that we built to improve the way we handle tweets.

One of our criteria in finding or building a tool to manage Twitter was the ability to filter tweets based on content in order to find those that really need a support response. While we’re thrilled to see people sharing articles like this or quoting REWORK, from a support perspective our first goal is to find those people who are looking for immediate support so that we can get them answers as quickly as possible.
When we used for Twitter, we cut down on the noise somewhat by using negative search terms in the query that was sent to Twitter: rather than searching just for “37signals”, we told it to search for something like “37signals -REWORK”. This was pretty effective at helping us to prioritize tweets, and worked especially well when there were sudden topical spikes (e.g., when Jason was interviewed in Fast Company, more than 5,000 tweets turned up in a generic ‘37signals’ search in the 72-hour period after it was published), but had it’s limitations: it was laborious to update the exclusion list, and there was a limit placed on how long the search string could be, so we never had great accuracy.
When we went to our own tool, our initial implementation took roughly the same approach—we pulled all mentions of 37signals from Twitter, and then prioritized based on known keywords: links to SvN posts and Jobs Board postings are less likely to need an immediate response, so we filtered accordingly.
Using these keywords, we were able to correctly prioritize about 60% of tweets, but that still left a big chunk mixed in with those that did need an immediate reply: for every tweet that needed an immediate reply, there were still three other tweets mixed in to the stream to be handled.
I thought we could do better, so I spent a little while examining whether a simple machine learning algorithm could help.

Lessons from email

While extremely few tweets are truly spam, there are a lot of parallels between the sort of tweet prioritization we want to do and email spam identification:

  • Have some information about the sender and the content.
  • Have some mechanism to correct classification mistakes.
  • Would rather err on the side of false negatives: it’s generally better to let spam end up in your inbox than to send that email from your boss into the spam folder.

Spam detection is an extremely well studied problem, and there’s a large body of knowledge for us to draw on. While the state of the art in spam filtering has advanced, one of the earliest and simplest techniques generally performs well: Bayesian filtering.

Bayesian filtering: the theory


Behind the Scenes: Twitter, Part 1

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This is the first in a three part series looking at how we manage Twitter as a support channel. In the parts 2 and 3, I’ll discuss some of the finer points of how we sort through hundreds of tweets each day to get people answers quickly.

Since the launch of the new Basecamp back in March, we’ve been encouraging the use of Twitter as a support channel. On our help form we encourage people with simple questions to use Twitter rather than sending an email, and we monitor mentions of 37signals throughout the day. We’ve always gotten support requests via Twitter and answered them, but it’s only this year that we’ve actively encouraged and focused on it.
Our Twitter presence has grown substantially: in October of this year, 37signals was mentioned an average of 443 times every weekday, roughly double what it was in October 2011. Not all of these need an immediate reply from our support team – many are people sharing links or things that they found interesting. The 60 or so replies we do send a day in response to immediate support requests represent a little less than 10% of our total support “interactions”.
One of the things I spend part of my time working on is how to improve the speed and quality of the responses that we provide to customers, and part of that involves providing advice on the best tools and processes for the support team to do their job. As far as Twitter goes, the biggest pain point is the actual tool used to monitor and send tweets.

The search for a Twitter tool

Since we got serious about Twitter, we’ve mostly used the built in Twitter functionality that our support tool ( provides. When I asked the team how it was working for them a couple months ago, the general reaction was tepid. The consensus was that while it gets the job done, it was rather slow to use, and the large number of retweets and links to SvN posts mixed in makes it hard to get people with urgent questions answers promptly. Most of the team was using it, but no one was happy about it.
What did we want in a tool?


How I came to love big data (or at least acknowledge its existence)

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“Big data” is all the rage these days – there are conferences, journals, and a million consultants. Until a few weeks ago, I mocked the term mercilessly. I don’t mock it anymore.

Not a “big” data problem

Facebook has a big data problem. Google has a big data problem. Even MySpace probably has a big data problem. Most businesses, including 37signals, don’t.
I would guess that among our “peer group” (SaaS businesses), we probably handle more data than most, but our volume of data is still relatively small: we generate around a terabyte of assorted log data (Rails, Nginx, HAproxy, etc.) every day, and a few gigabytes of higher “density” usage and performance data. I’m strictly talking about non-application data here – not the core data that our apps use, but all of the tangential data that’s helpful to improve the performance and functionality of our products. We’ve only even attempted to use this data in the last couple of years, but it’s invaluable for informing design decisions, finding performance hot spots, and otherwise improving our applications.
The typical analytical workload with this data is a few gigabytes or tens of gigabytes – sometimes big enough to fit in RAM, sometimes not, but generally within the realm of possibility with tools like MySQL and R. There are some predictable workloads to optimize for (add indexes for data stored in MySQL, instrument in order to work with more condensed data, etc.), but the majority aren’t things that you ordinarily plan for particularly well. Querying this data can be slow, but it’s all offline, non-customer facing applications, so latency isn’t hugely important.
None of this is an insurmountable problem, and it’s all pretty typical of “medium” data – enough data you have to think about the best way to manage and analyze it, but not “big” data like Facebook or Google.

Technology changes everything