Math, data, & ads


On Wall Street, the math geeks are known as quants. They're the ones who create sophisticated trading algorithms that can ingest vast amounts of market data and then form buy and sell decisions in milliseconds. Hammerbacher was a quant. After about 10 months, he got back in touch with Zuckerberg, who offered him the Facebook job in California. That's when Hammerbacher redirected his quant proclivities toward consumer technology. He became, as it were, a Want.

At social networking companies, Wants may sit among the computer scientists and engineers, but theirs is the central mission: to poke around in data, hunt for trends, and figure out formulas that will put the right ad in front of the right person. Wants gauge the personality types of customers, measure their desire for certain products, and discern what will motivate people to act on ads. "The most coveted employee in Silicon Valley today is not a software engineer. It is a mathematician," says Kelman, the Redfin CEO. "The mathematicians are trying to tickle your fancy long enough to see one more ad."

Sometimes the objective is simply to turn people on. Zynga, the maker of popular Facebook games such as CityVille and FarmVille, collects 60 billion data points per day—how long people play games, when they play them, what they're buying, and so forth. The Wants (Zynga's term is "data ninjas") troll this information to figure out which people like to visit their friends' farms and cities, the most popular items people buy, and how often people send notes to their friends. Discovery: People enjoy the games more if they receive gifts from their friends, such as the virtual wood and nails needed to build a digital barn. As for the poor folks without many friends who aren't having as much fun, the Wants came up with a solution. "We made it easier for those players to find the parts elsewhere in the game, so they relied less on receiving the items as gifts," says Ken Rudin, Zynga's vice-president for analytics.

These consumer-targeting operations look a lot like what quants do on Wall Street. A Want system, for example, might watch what someone searches for on Google, what they write about in Gmail, and the websites they visit. "You get all this data and then build very rapid decision-making models based on their history and commercial intent," says Will Price, CEO of Flite, an online ad service. "You have to make all of those calculations before the Web page loads."

Ultimately, ad-tech companies are giving consumers what they desire and, in many cases, providing valuable services. Google delivers free access to much of the world's information along with free maps, office software, and smartphone software. It also takes profits from ads and directs them toward tough engineering projects like building cars that can drive themselves and sending robots to the moon. The Era of Ads also gives the Wants something they yearn for: a ticket out of Nerdsville. "It lets people that are left- brain leaning expand their career opportunities," says Doug Mack, CEO of One Kings Lane, a daily deal site that specializes in designer goods. "People that might have been in engineering can go into marketing, business development, and even sales. They can get on the leadership track." And while the Wants plumb the depths of the consumer mind and advance their own careers, investors are getting something too, at least on paper: almost unimaginable valuations. Just since the fourth quarter, Zynga has risen 81 percent in value, to a cool $8 billion, according to Nyppex.

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