Alumni snapshot: Emile Litvak

  • B.S., computer science, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996
  • M.S.E., software engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, 1997
Targeting advertising toward specific users isn't new, says Emile Litvak (CS'96,'97). As far back as the 1970s, marketers were using direct mail to target their pitches to people based on their catalog purchases and magazine subscriptions.

But unlike direct mail, online advertisers can't work with windows measured in months or weeks. Their decisions must be made in milliseconds.

In many online advertising models, advertisers pay for placements by bidding on the best available spots. Websites allocate ad space based on auctions that must be completed, for all intents and purposes, instantly.

"Some of the companies we know and love, such as Facebook, depend solely on advertising revenue to provide the free services we use," Litvak says. "The more money they generate from advertising, the more services they can provide."

Whether they're targeting viewers based on their social media preferences or their queries on search engines, advertisers need reliable data to decide what ads to serve and how much to charge the advertisers, and they need it with the lowest latency possible. The algorithms are "computationally intense," Litvak says.

Litvak is chief architect at Redwood City, Calif., based Turn, which harnesses the power of distributed, parallel computing--the "cloud"--to make those decisions. The company's software is currently being used by 75 of the top 100 U.S. advertisers and works on Web, mobile and video platforms.

In the 1800s, department store pioneer John Wanamaker famously quipped that 50 percent of his advertising was wasted, but he didn't know which 50 percent. Things are improving somewhat, Litvak says. "Data-driven advertising is rapidly gaining traction because of its impressive return on investment," he says. Online advertising is providing solid measurement of demographics and response rates that were hard to determine for traditional forms of advertising such as print ads and billboards, Litvak says. "It's still something of an art as much as it is a science," he says. "We're still in the early days of making advertising relevant and efficient. I think we've just scratched the surface. One of the things I like about the advertising market is that it never gets boring. The technology moves really fast."

Carnegie Mellon continues to play an important role in Litvak's life. A good number of Turn's 100 or so engineers are CMU graduates, and he's had three interns from SCS. Litvak also stays in touch with alumni such as technology "angel investor" Manu Kumar (E'95, CS'97, TPR'99) and Jonathan Betz (CS'99).

But playing an even more important role these days are Litvak's wife, Karly, and their children, Elijah and Isabella. "I'm more aware now than I used to be that it's important to have a work-life balance," Litvak says. "It's considerably more difficult to be a great parent than to be a great software architect. It's a great equalizer, and no amount of great education will prepare you for it."
--Jason Togyer (DC'96)
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu