How BlackRock used a hackathon to deepen its connection to its client-first culture of innovation.
The annual hackathon at BlackRock, better known as “HACK:BLK”, is a global, firm-wide innovation challenge focused on developing new ideas to solve some of the world’s most complex financial challenges with the smartest technology. It’s a favorite event for engineers, their non-coding colleagues and business partners from around the firm. The Hackathon increases team cohesion by fostering collaboration. It’s also a great way for employees to focus on their passions and furthers BlackRock’s goal of using innovation to better serve clients by generating some truly remarkable ideas.
In other words, we hacked our own Hackathon and strengthened our purpose as a result.
Aladdin Wealth is one such concept that came out of a previous Hackathon and is now a fully operational solution for wealth managers. And while we’ve had great success with our previous Hackathons, we’re always looking for ways to innovate. So, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to go remote, we saw the disruption as an opportunity to rethink our approach altogether. This year, we made our core values a guiding framework for the event. In doing so, we achieved greater cohesion across teams and created innovative work on sustainability and alternatives — work which will ultimately benefit clients. In other words, we hacked our own Hackathon and strengthened our purpose as a result.
This year, I was one of the Hackathon leads helping direct the planning, strategy and execution of the firm-wide event. In my main role at BlackRock, I manage the Data Strategy & Solutions Team within the Portfolio Management Group which is a centralized function for data strategy, data discovery and bespoke research solutions. It’s a one-stop shop for discovering differentiated data sources and integrating innovative solutions into the investment process via vendor data acquisition, web-scraping and data analysis.
Over my ten-year career at BlackRock, I’ve also worked in roles across Technology, Operations, Aladdin and Investments, and it was great to leverage my network and knowledge to help connect Hackathon ideas across different teams and also set up speakers and programming for the 2020 event.
This year, for the first time, we had two winners! The judging took place in two ways: A Global Operating Committee made up of senior leaders voted and the whole firm voted as well. The two winners were clearly connected to our future technology goals:
- Themantic: The winner of the firm-wide vote, harnessed state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to process corporate disclosures, enabling BlackRock to create thematic portfolios aligned with investors’ values and beliefs, in a systematic and scalable way. Themes included sustainability, growth, robotics, education and more.
- Aladdin Eye: The Global Operating Committee favorite was a flexible, scalable platform for performing search tasks and visualizing results in a way that is intuitive and relevant for financial analysts. It can also be applied to the wealth of documents in the Private Markets space to extract insights that were never before available for investing and due diligence.
Having two winners was not the only first for this year’s Hackathon. We also encouraged employees to keep our purpose — to help more and more people experience financial well-being — top of mind. To achieve that purpose, we constantly look for opportunities for BlackRock employees to work together across teams, regions and businesses. This comes to life every day here through our principle of “One BlackRock” which quickly became a prominent feature of this year’s Hackathon as well.
In years past, teams were primarily made up of people who worked on the same teams or out of the same office locations. But this year, shared interests were the main draw and proximity took a back seat. 85% of teams had members from outside of their direct team, 50% included members from multiple offices and 30% of the teams spanned their geographic regions. Not only that, but because judging couldn’t take place in conference rooms at the office, hackers connected over WebEx with senior leaders who were brought in early on in the process to view presentations. With remote work and democratized virtual judging sessions, senior leadership was more involved, shepherding local winners through the final round of competition and providing mentorship along the way. This shift helped give team members who were earlier in their careers more exposure to leadership and gave management a closer look at up-and-coming talent.
Our firm-wide vision for technology, known internally as “tech2025” was another area emphasized in this year’s Hackathon. The tech2025 goals include using data and technology to make it easier for all types of clients to build better investment portfolios, unlocking scale in Aladdin and opening up our Aladdin platform. Another key theme at BlackRock is the conviction that climate risk is investment risk, and that sustainability is important to investing. As we planned our Hackathon to be remote, we asked everyone involved to keep these focus areas in mind as they approached new solutions.
The results of better, broader collaboration and a closer integration of purpose produced some of the strongest ideas we’ve seen at a Hackathon yet! Out of 1,200 registered participants, 500 ideas were submitted and 192 of the ideas came from teams that spanned regions — another first.
Throughout our history and my time at BlackRock, one thing that has differentiated our culture, is that we challenge ourselves to see every problem as an opportunity to perform better for our clients.
Throughout our history and my time at BlackRock, one thing that has differentiated our culture, is that we challenge ourselves to see every challenge as an opportunity to perform better for our clients. It’s our commitment as a fiduciary, but it’s also at the core of who we are. By turning the disruption brought on by Covid-19 into a chance to rethink our Hackathon, we gave a broader platform to talent across the globe, connected more deeply with our purpose as a firm and continued to innovate on solutions that could benefit clients — with better insights into sustainable strategies and alternatives.
A version of this article was originally published on the BlackRock Engineering Blog on August 5, 2020. You can learn more about BlackRock’s work and career opportunities in Technology on our careers website.