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How learning JavaScript helps me better understand OpenFn jobs

OpenFn automation happens via jobs which define specific steps ("operations") that OpenFn should perform. They're written in a scripting language that runs on top of (and has full access to) Javascript. A basic understanding of Javascript will take your job writing on OpenFn to the next level. To improve my limited knowledge of JavaScript, I have been taking Codecademy's Introduction to JavaScript Course.

In this post we'll discuss:

  1. Arrow functions
  2. Falsy values
  3. Other short-hand notation

Keep reading for all the important learnings I have taken from just the first four modules!

What is that little => arrow?

Javascript allows us to create functions which take arguments and do stuff with them. Most times, function declaration in Javascript looks like this:

function getAge(dateString) {
if (!dateString) return;

const today = new Date();
const birthDate = new Date(dateString);
var age = today.getFullYear() - birthDate.getFullYear();
var m = today.getMonth() - birthDate.getMonth();
if (m < 0 || (m === 0 && today.getDate() < birthDate.getDate())) {
age--;
}
return age;
}

This was simple enough for me to follow. We are declaring a function, getAge(), which has the steps to calculate a person's age and can be easily reused throughout the job.

But other times, function writing looks like this:

const getAge(dateString) => {
if (!dateString) return;
// and so on...
}

In OpenFn, you're often writing unnamed functions that take state as their only argument and you use them right away. See how concise writing and using a function can be with the arrow:

upsert('tbl_study', 'study_id', {
study_id: state => state.studyIDMap[state.formType],
});

These arrow functions confused me when reading through jobs. I've learned that, for the most part, they can be thought of as short-hand notation which removes the need to type out function for every function declaration.

tip

MDN has a great explanation here. Tl;dr: "An arrow function expression is a compact alternative to a traditional function expression, but is limited and can't be used in all situations."

Further, we can make the code even more concise by also removing the parenthesis, curly braces, and the return keyword when certain criteria are met. In the code above, the parenthesis are omitted because there are no parameters, and the curly braces and return keyword are omitted because the function body is composed of a single-line block. As you can see, there are a variety of ways to write functions and this course is helping me better recognize them. Some key terminology here is: function expression, arrow function, concise function, anonymous function, and implicit returns.

Falsy values

During the mapping phase of integration design, we often discuss how each answer choice for picklist values should map from the source system to the destination system. Sometimes the mapping is simple but other times, there is an extensive list of possible choices that can be found in the message and not all are relevant to the destination system. Then the question is, how should the job handle values which are not explicitly mapped?

Sometimes we hear clients say to "ignore" those values. But what does it really mean to "ignore" a value? Should we set it to 0? An empty string? How about null, undefined or NaN? In Javascript these are all falsy values.

tip

MDN is great for falsy values too! Check their explanation out here.

Determining what is really meant here is important and the value selected has different implications depending on the system.

Take this sample mapping for different districts in Conakry. The value left of the colon is from the source system and the value to the right is for the destination system.

const districtMapping = {
Ratoma: 'RT',
Kaloum: 'KL',
Dixinn: 'DX',
Matam: 'MA',
Matoto: 'MT',
Other: undefined,
};

If the destination system is Salesforce, this mapping would not upload "Other" to Salesforce. However if "Other" mapped to an empty string instead, this would upload the empty string to Salesforce. This distinction is especially important in cases where we are overwriting existing data. For instance, if a student previously lived in Ratoma and then moved to an unknown district marked as "Other", undefined would not update the student's district in Salesforce but the empty string would. Both of these are falsy values but have different meanings in Salesforce.

How about if the message includes a value for a district that is not in the mapping? Such as "New York". Should the job default to undefined? Or null?

These questions are just a few examples of how understanding falsy values in Javascript can make it easier to implement the best mapping for the real-world use case.

Short-circuit evaluation, template literals, and all the short hand that used to confuse me

Short-circuit evaluation

When we are syncing forms to a database, we sometimes expect different versions of the same form with fields present one version but not the other. One way to mitigate this discrepancy is by submitting a dummy value for the field whenever it is missing in the message. I just learned the fastest way to add this code to my jobs! For example, the code below will ensure that household_id always has a value in the destination system: if survey_info/household_id is present in the message this will be the assigned value, otherwise it will assign the dummy value state.data.body._id.

household_id: state.data.body['survey_info/household_id'] || state.data.body._id,

Template literals

Like the arrow discussed above, the "dollar sign" was another symbol that often confused me. But template literals are actually very straightforward. They increase the readability of the code and make it easier to see what the resulting string will be. Wrap your template in the backtick (`) symbols and then each variable in ${}.

const sign = '$';
console.log(`The ${sign} isn't so confusing!`);

Higher-order functions & iterators

The most challenging module in the course covered higher-order functions. These are defined as functions that accept other functions as arguments and/or return functions as output. But why are these important and how are they used in OpenFn jobs? It turns out we use them quite alot! The code below is an example from an existing integration with the field names replaced.

const participantsToUpdate = state.data.json.filter(data =>
state.idList.includes(data.id)
);
const participantsToCreate = state.data.json.filter(
data => !state.idList.includes(data.id)
);

This code is using a built-in JavaScript method that helps us iterate on arrays to manipulate elements and return values. The .filter() method is being used to return a new array after filtering out certain elements from the original array. We have declared two variables to store the new arrays: participantsToUpdate and participantsToCreate. Participants whose ids are existing in the destination system (or who are in the idList array) are added to participantsToUpdate, and any remaining participants are added to participantsToCreate. This filtering helped us perform the correct operations on each participant type. For instance, later in the job, we use the filtered arrays to only overwrite a participant's reportNumber field if it is a new participant. .filter() is just one of many higher-order functions that power OpenFn jobs.

Objects & job mappings

The final lesson was on objects and key-value pairs--something used in almost every OpenFn job! The result of the design and mapping phase of requirements gathering is almost always a mapping document which includes key-value pairs in plain English. These specifications are then translated to JavaScript via objects. The code below is a snippet of an object which captures the key-value pairs for states in the US.

const stateMapping = {
AK: 'ALASKA',
AZ: 'ARIZONA',
AR: 'ARKANSAS',
CA: 'CALIFORNIA',
....

The value left of the colon is how the state is represented in the source system, and the value right of the colon represents how OpenFn will send the data to the destination system. This mapping process is key to integration design. Learn more about mappings here.

tip

MDN has more details on objects here. Tl;dr: "The Object class represents one of JavaScript's data types. It is used to store various keyed collections and more complex entities."

Next steps

I'm well on my way to becoming a better job reader and writer. Here are some next steps:

  1. Understand fn(state) and how state can be manipulated in OpenFn jobs.

  2. Explore what's available on the JavaScript docs site.

  3. Sign up for the next level JavaScript course.