Robots, AI Food Delivery & ‘Instagram Local’: Inside Taboola’s First Worldwide Hackathon
Friday February 17th || by Adam Singolda
If you had two days and the full technological resources of the world’s largest discovery platform at your disposal, what would you create? Last month, we posed that question to our engineering team in Taboola’s first-ever worldwide hackathon, providing every group with one simple guideline—create something you’re inspired by that your fellow Taboolars might find interesting.
I’ve always thought that being a technologist is like being an artist, and engineers thrive when they have the opportunity to work on creative ideas that take them outside of their day-to-day routines.
For 36 hours, over 100 Taboola engineers from across our offices in Los Angeles and Tel Aviv stepped away from their desks to work on building something entirely new. It was indeed inspiring to see people working on everything from mobile apps to deep learning to data visualization tools and even robots.
The winning team somehow found a way to combine many of these elements into an AI-powered food delivery notification system, using cameras and machine learning to sift through crowded lobbies and identify when a particular courier had arrived.
“It forced us to think out of the box,” said Gabriele Nizzoli, one of our principal engineers based in LA and participant in the Hackathon. “On a daily basis, we are managing specific projects for customers, and the hackathon is an interesting way to deal with those same problems from a different angle.”
Every team was responsible for developing a live demo of their product concept, which was then presented in a global livestream or virtual “town hall” from LA to Tel Aviv.
Presentations articulated the problem or challenge that each team was addressing, the roadblocks they encountered along the way, and ideas they had for potentially further building out the product in the future.
“This was my first-ever hackathon and it was a brand new experience,” said Jarrod LaRocco, a senior front-end engineer based in our LA office.
“It was so valuable having to force ourselves to rapidly learn and teach each other a bunch of new technology for the contest. It was interesting to see how different teams handled that.”
These are the projects that really stuck out.
One of the most memorable projects included a mobile app that functions as a kind of “Instagram Local,” enabling users to discover places and events that are being shared directly around them.
Another was a Taboola Robot, called “Roboola” (my personal favorite), which can replicate virtual sketches on a physical pad of paper; and Taboola Tables, a social app for organizing group lunches and meeting new people around the office.
Presentations were judged by a mixed panel of Taboola execs and outside judges: myself; Asaf Gover, Director Product of Taboola; Avi Zrachia, VP R&D of Yotpo; Aviv Sinai, VP R&D of Taboola; Einat Orr, CTO of SimilarWeb; Ilan Atias, VP R&D of Windward; and Lior Golan, CTO of Taboola.
“It was a true challenge and through a group effort we managed to do it, while having a lot of fun.” – Tal Sliwowicz, Director of R&D, Taboola
Although all of the projects presented exciting possibilities, the panel was most impressed by the complexity of the Taboola “LunchBot.”
When having food delivered to a busy office, things can get confusing. The winning team created a dynamic notification system for hungry Taboolars that combined computer vision, artificial intelligence, Nest cameras, and Slack and Gmail notifications.
“The project was ambitious to begin with,” said Tal Sliwowicz, Taboola’s Director of R&D who was on the winning team together with Raz Vakil, Alon Pilberg, and Jenia Gorokhovsky.
“The reason we were able to pull it off is because we had people from different teams joining forces. Data science, algorithms and backend. It was a true challenge and through a group effort we managed to do it, while having a lot of fun.”
Throughout the long night of coding, there was also of course time for some fun and games: midnight burgers, breakfast buffets, and power naps in egg chairs and bean bags.
It’s Not Just About The Technology. It’s About The Team.
Although our team at Taboola has hosted several public hackathons over the past year, it was especially inspiring to see the full range of Taboola’s engineering talent collaborating on big challenges and ideas, with our CTO and directors of R&D working alongside first-year developers and interns.
“It gives you the chance to work with people you wouldn’t normally work with — people with different skills, talents, and passions,” said Jacob Moghtader, one of our LA-based software engineers who worked on the “Instagram Local” app.
Like any ambitious tech project, many teams inevitably encountered a roadblock or moment of crisis that forced them to change course and improvise, sometimes at the eleventh hour.
“Things don’t always go as planned, and that’s when you really see the character and perseverance of our engineering team shine through,” said Ning Ning Yu, our VP of R&D who oversees the team in Los Angeles.
“Every engineer had to overcome an obstacle or problem using some kind of creative solution. That was the most fascinating story.”
The pace of change in our industry only seems to be accelerating, and by fostering an open engineering culture, our engineers are always able (and encouraged) to rapidly test new ideas, fail quickly, learn and iterate.
Ever since starting Taboola nearly 10 years ago with a few of my buddies from an Israeli intelligence unit, we have always been obsessed with executing on big and exciting ideas, no matter where they come from or whether or not they will have a direct impact on the near-term business.
We need a continuous stream of fresh ideas and viewpoints to ensure that our team has a pulse on what the future might look like—so that we can be ready to build it.
Taboola is the world’s leading content discovery platform, serving 360B recommendations to over 1B unique visitors each month on the web’s most innovative publisher websites. If you’re interested in joining our engineering team in LA or Tel Aviv, we’re hiring.