Hacking with purpose
How BlackRock used a hackathon to deepen its connection to its client-first culture of innovation
By: Kirsty Craig, Head of Data Strategy & Solutions for Portfolio Management at BlackRock
The annual hackathon at BlackRock is a great way for employees to focus on their passion. It’s a favorite event for engineers, their non-coding colleagues and business partners. The Hackathon increases team cohesion by fostering collaboration. It also furthers BlackRock’s goal of using innovation to better serve clients by generating some truly remarkable ideas.
One such concept in years past, Aladdin Wealth, is now a fully operational solution for wealth managers. While we had great success, we’re always looking for ways to innovate. 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 our hackathon. 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 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 PMG (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 & data analysis.
Over my ten years 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 into different teams and also set up speakers and events for this year’s hackathon.
For the first time, this year we had two winners. The judging took place in two ways: the Global Operating Committee made up of senior leaders voted and the whole firm voted. The two winners were clearly connected to our future technology goals:
Themantic, the winner of the firm-wide vote, harnesses 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 could include sustainability, growth or more specifically, robotics or education or more.
Aladdin Eye, the Global Operating Committee favorite, is a flexible, scalable platform for performing search tasks and visualizing results in a way that is intuitive and relevant for financial analysts, applied to the wealth of documents in the Private Markets space to extract insights 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 under that common purpose in what we call “One BlackRock.” Our vision for tech2025 is another area emphasized in this year’s hackathon. where we emphasize how we want to move forward. 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 the 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 principle of “One BlackRock” quickly became a prominent feature of our Hackathon. In years past, teams were primarily made up by shared appetites: people joined groups made up by people they usually had pizza together. This year, shared interests were the main draw and proximity took a back seat. 85% of teams had members from outside their direct group. 50% were made of members across multiple offices and 30% of the teams spanned their geographic regions. Not only that, but because judging couldn’t take place in formal conference rooms at the office, hackers were connected over WebEx with senior leaders who were brought in earlier to view presentations. With remote work and democratized WebEx judging sessions, senior leadership was more involved, shepherding local winners through the final competition and providing mentorship along the way. This gave junior team members more exposure to leadership and gave management a closer look at up-and-coming talent.
The results of better, broader collaboration and a closer integration of purpose produced some of the strongest ideas we’ve seen at a Hackathon. Out of 1,200 registered participants, 500 ideas were submitted. 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 how every challenge is an opportunity to perform better for our clients. It’s our commitment as 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 firmwide, and continued to innovate on solutions that could benefit clients — with better insights into sustainable strategies and alternatives.