TellApart at MHacks


This past weekend Nick Gorski and Jeshua Bratman (two TellApart engineers) attendedMHacks, a college hackathon organized by Tom Erdman and the Michigan Hackers student group. MHacks wasn’t just any college hackathon, though: it was the largest college hackathon ever held with 1214 attendees. Not only that, but it was held in the luxury suites of the Big House, the largest stadium in the United States!




Word on the street was that the best and brightest hackers are attracted to the spotlight of the largest hackathon, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. There were over 100+ universities represented at the hackathon and we had the opportunity to meet many of the attendees.


3am: prime hacking time!

On the second day of MHacks, TellApart gave a well-received tech-talk, where we candidly discussed our tech stack, the challenges we solve, and our engineering culture. One point that clicked with the hackers was that at a larger company, it’s difficult to do full-stack software engineering simply because you’re boxed in by what your team owns within the company. At TellApart, all of our engineers are full-stack developers by necessity, as people scope work by project rather than specific component. For this audience of smart and talented hackers, the idea of learning to build sophisticated, distributed systems using open source stacks really resonated.

Bain Capital Venture’s StartUp Academy and TellApart co-sponsored a prize for the “Best Use of Data” in a hack. We were specifically looking for hacks that would qualify as using big-data when scaled beyond their proof of concept. Some noteworthy entries included: Profit Maker 3000, a website integrating social data with geo-locations that showed where products were being most purchased across the US; dwnhll, a Google Maps hack that found the best route between two points to skateboard; and ratio, a Klout-like website integrating many categories of data for brands.

The winner of our Best Use of Data prize went to, a javascript widget that could be dropped into a webpage to provide a real-time feed of articles by specific topic. An e-commerce retailer might use the widget to provide relevant content relating to brands on category pages or products on individual product pages. We could include the widget on our homepage showing a real-time feed of TellApart mentions in the press and around the web. There are many more use cases as well. Congratulations to the winning team, which as part of their prize will get an opportunity to e-meet with Wade Chambers, our VP of Engineering!

Between mentoring the attendees with their hacks, recruiting the great talent at the hackathon, and judging the final results, we also had a chance to fit in a quick hack of our own:


Using the MHacks logo as inspiration, we designed a Facebook ad to be shown in both the News Feed and on the right-hand side. Creating the ad was simple enough, but we had another goal: we wanted this ad to be hyper-targeted to only hackers at MHacks, and no one else.

Well-targeted ads are nothing new to TellApart, of course, but this was a bit of a twist on our normal operating procedure. Our personalized retargeted ads are shown our pixel pools which are made up of users who visited a website and received a TellApart cookie. Since many of the hackers would not be visiting the MHack’s website after the event started, getting our cookies onto the MHacks website wouldn’t give us the reach that we needed.

Instead, we targeted MHacks attendees (and no one else) with a Facebook Custom Audience ad. Not only that, though; we updated the text in the ad in real time as we moved around the site, so that attendees would always know where to find us. We estimate that we reached 90% of all MHacks attendees with the ad, and fewer than 5% of impressions were shown to people not on-site at MHacks. You might ask how were we able to create a custom audience comprised of only the MHacks attendees. Well, we’re not ready to give away all of our secrets yet.

After the event, we’ll continue to run our ad for a week or two. It has proven to be popular, with a high like-to-impression ratio compared to other News Feed ads shown on Facebook. In fact, we even received a photo of the ad from a super strong candidate that was excited to see the new text (showing that very targeted ads can continue to drive user engagement!).


When all was said and done, we had a great weekend and were very impressed with the MHacks organizing crew, the hackers, and the venue. Tom Erdman gave a short but touching speech at the close of the hackathon, where he praised the camaraderie and good naturedness that the hackers displayed. We want to echo those thoughts: although it was a competition with big prizes on the line, the hackers were all very positive and we saw groups helping each other throughout the event. The competition brought out the best of all involved, and we hope that everyone enjoyed it as much as we did.

We are looking forward to catching up on sleep, though, just like this hacker: