By: Aaron Peabody
The propensity to deconstruct things has been with me for as long as I can remember. It’s how I formulate my understanding of the world and the intuitions that guide me. Little did I know that this behavior would become increasingly valuable in my professional life. And it was through deconstructing and reverse engineering Tinder’s matching algorithm that I was offered my job at the AdTech startup, El Toro.
I first started messing around with Tinder, a dating app where individuals “swipe” right if they are interested in one another or left if they’re not, in the summer of 2015. If two individuals “swipe” right, then they are matched and can have a conversation. The dynamics of the platform were intriguing to me and quickly I had the desire to understand the components of the application. Of course, there were obvious implications regarding the motivation that would drive me to game the platform: more matches equals more dates.
With some proper insight and some technical savviness, I quickly formulated a theorem for how the matching algorithm works. For the next year and a half, I tested my theorem against the platform on a regular basis increasing my matches by 20-30% over time. Not a bad data science project if I say so myself. And yes, for once, math was ultimately responsible for getting someone dates.
While I was crunching numbers (that is a double entendre), the path to startup riches was eluding me. I’m 21 years old and had started, then folded, two tech companies within the prior 19 months. They were good ideas, but suffered from undercapitalization which is an issue in the midwest with the scarcity of angel investors. I knew that I wanted to be part of a startup--the pace and culture were simply where I belonged, but I also needed to pay my bills. I initiated the interview process focused on influential startups where I could spend some time regrouping and growing into a better entrepreneur. Considering I am a founder at heart, it’s difficult for me to work for other people, so the companies I picked to pursue needed to be special.
During a cold Friday in January this year, I stepped into the El Toro office for the first time. Prior to my visit, Human Resources had made it clear this was simply an introduction and not an interview. I had driven down to Louisville from Chicago, where I was living at the time, simply to get acquainted with the company. To get a better feel of the situation, here’s a direct quote from HR in our email conversation. “This is not an interview... but more of an introduction so we can officially meet.” Nonetheless, interview or not, I had dressed my best for any scenario that could have solidified.
Walking into the office space was a vibrant affair. It was quickly apparent by the quirky, alt-corporate layout and design of the interior that this setting was a hotbed for innovation and creative thinking. The atmosphere of the ground floor could be appropriately described as bustling. Swiftly I was carted back to a conference room by the HR Director, Maurice, to begin discussing former startups I had been a part of and why I was particularly interested in joining El Toro. The conversation that ensued was energetic and also felt very much like an interview. However, as previously mentioned, the expectations were for this to be an informal process, and that if an introduction faired well then potentially, I could interview in the coming months (in their defense they had just filled their last open position with one of my friends from my former startup, but more on that later). The conversation lasted for roughly an hour. I was given a bizarre written test and afterwards was taken on a tour of the office, ultimately concluding at the third floor of the building.
“You are definitely an interesting candidate, but like I said, we won’t have any open positions for another two months.” I’ll admit I felt no comfort in Maurice’s words. It seemed as though the decision was final--there weren’t any open positions for another two months. I had been fielding other job offers at the time, but truthfully, El Toro was the place I wanted most. The trouble was the waiting period. Two months was a long time to continue grinding it out as a consultant and I was committed in my search for a company that I could really learn and grow in. However, this was obviously the place I belonged. The technology was so dynamic and interesting, and it seemed like there was a near infinite amount of possibility for me. I was hoping that by some chance, they could potentially re-consider their hiring availability. But I wasn’t quite sure about how to do that.
As I walked down the stairs to the lower level to exit the building, I was flagged down by my friend who works at the company. As mentioned, we had previously worked in a startup together so he was well aware of my Tinder theorem. He asked if I had some time to show his El Toro colleagues the deconstructed math on whiteboard near by. Naturally, I obliged the inquiry, because I always relish any opportunity to help others succeed on the app.
This was the first time I had ever attempted to create a visual representation of how the theorem worked. So I was intimidated by the challenge to demonstrate a complex array of math and social phenomena on a whiteboard without very much practice. Certainly this was a bizarre thing to do in front of people I was not properly acquainted with. However, I felt an odd sense of reasonable certainty that this could potentially be the key to remaining relevant at the company. After all, someone who reverse engineers a dating app would presumably be pretty memorable. So in an uncanny fashion, I began to divulge the mechanics of the matching algorithm on the whiteboard near by.
Midway through my presentation, an individual whom I did not know sauntered over and began asking me questions. His goal seemed to be to drill into my theorem, and at the very least, understand what motivated me to game a dating app. I had vetted this math for a year and a half though, so his questions, although complex in technical diction, were not anything I was unprepared to answer. After fielding all of his inquiries, he had one final question, “So how do use this to make money?”
With an artful grin, my response was rudimentary, “Making money was not what motivated me to do this.” He then laughed and walked away with the same subtlety in his original approach. After this conversation I dutifully signed my name on the whiteboard next to my math and then began engaging in some small talk with my friend and his colleagues.
As I was about to pack up and walk out of the office, Maurice approached me and asked if we could talk in one of the back conference rooms. I followed him to the meeting area where he told me the exciting news, “Change of plans. I don’t think you know who that was, but that’s Stacy, our CEO. And he said not to let you leave without giving you a job offer.”
These were the tidings I longed to hear. In a matter of days I had accepted the new position and within a week packed up my entire life in Chicago to venture down to Louisville, Kentucky to work at El Toro. And if that all seems abrupt and crazy, then you’re properly experiencing what I felt.
So yes, breaking down the math of dating app led me to my current job, and that’s precisely what I love about mathematics. It allows for us to go beyond our intuition. It leads us on paths to discovering higher truths and the inner workings of most things. To say that logic and reason played a part in my story may be misconstrued. There is nothing quite logical, or very reasonable about spending large amounts of time reverse engineering a dating app, but you never know what might come of it. It could be the very thing that ignites a wild and exciting career.