Meet Sitija Sarkar, Head of UX Engineering for Aladdin
We sat down with Sitija Sarkar, Director and Head of Aladdin User Experience Engineering, to discuss her work and what she’s learned in more than a decade at BlackRock.
You’ve spent your entire career at BlackRock working on Aladdin, BlackRock’s investment and risk management technology platform. What is it about Aladdin that has kept you here?
It is incredible to think that it has been more than ten years since I joined BlackRock as an engineering Analyst. Since then, I have grown to be a Senior Engineering Team Director leading the Aladdin UX Engineering team.
What keeps me here are the amazing people and the technology. As it relates to the people, I lead a team of engineers, some very experienced and some relatively early in their careers. They are an incredibly talented crew and it is a pleasure to work with them. As my career has grown, I have worked on many different projects across multiple domains supporting BlackRock businesses including Sales, Marketing, and now Aladdin.
From marketing to technology to business, each project has its own background, and it is incredible to learn from many different challenges. Just one example was the time I spent in digital marketing: building “MarTech,” where I learned how marketing campaigns are handled and the specific technical components needed for marketing technology to track data, performance, and other metrics. Now, whenever I’m on a project, even if it has nothing to do with marketing, I can leverage this marketing lens to identify opportunities from user behavior and capture insights that otherwise may have been overlooked. Staying focused on the user and understanding their needs is always of paramount importance.
On the tech side, BlackRock was founded on the notion that technology could build a better asset manager. Today, Aladdin not only supports BlackRock’s business but is one of three strategic drivers for growth for the firm helping to deliver $1 billion in revenue. Because Aladdin is a continually evolving platform, there are always opportunities to grow into areas that interest me. I have learned about big data, artificial intelligence, the latest front-end tech like web standards, the list goes on. The more I learn about each of these areas, the more I see how they are connected. That is another benefit of working on enterprise technology: so many different areas work together. The more I understand each domain, the better I am positioned to make effective decisions. Between the variety of talented leaders and the evolving technology, I don’t have to leave BlackRock to find new ways to grow or learn.
And that’s due to culture, really. If I could describe it in one word, I’d say that BlackRock has a culture of empowerment. When I wanted to move into data analytics, I was given everything I needed to succeed. When I wanted to move into my current role, I was empowered to lead a team that makes a real impact.
Speaking of your current role, what do you do and what do you like about it?
I lead the Aladdin User Experience Engineering team. We are responsible for developing all the components of the Aladdin Design System that all of our Product Engineering teams use to build Aladdin. A few years ago, Aladdin was undergoing a Brand and Design System shift and I was given the opportunity to build this UX engineering team from the ground up. We even had to name it!
Together, we created basic Aladdin engineering principles, governance, and processes for the Aladdin Design System — with plenty of room built in to evolve. I am very passionate about this team. We are empowered to weigh in on what our best practices should be as engineers, and how to get the best results. What I really like about working on Aladdin is that engineers have a real voice. We are given the opportunity to run our group like a small startup. With few boundaries, I was able to take a group of engineers fresh out of school and encourage them to be very entrepreneurial.
What I really like about working on Aladdin is that engineers have a real voice. We are given the opportunity to run our group like a small startup.
How do you feel supported by BlackRock and your team?
Support is a two-way street. My responsibility as a manager is to make sure my team has everything they need. I love finding the strengths of my team members and positioning them for success with the tools they need to thrive. Everyone on my team is leveraged to their full capacity, and they really shine.
At the same time, I’ve been very well supported by my managers. During the lockdown, when travel was difficult, I had a family emergency in India. There was a lot of uncertainty, and it wasn’t clear when I could return to work. That was hard for me because I love my job. But my managers made it clear that I had all the space I needed to take care of my personal life. They showed that they cared, and it made a very difficult situation much more manageable. With my team, I make sure to offer the same level of empathy and support that I’ve been shown over the years.
How do you feel about the impact that your work has?
We talk a lot at BlackRock about our purpose, “We help more and more people experience financial well-being.” When we engineer tools that make it easier for financial advisors to work with their clients, or we help investors at asset managers trade stocks, manage their portfolio, et cetera, we’re improving the lives of teachers, workers, everyone who is planning for their retirement. Our work has a real-world impact, and that informs how I approach building Aladdin and building teams.
One thing that I’m very proud of is the Aladdin Design System. My team was able to identify and then fill an important gap in our organization. We realized that our developers did not have a single coded library of UI components and patterns that could be re-used in every Aladdin product. By creating these components, we brought consistency and efficiency to the hundreds of developers who build our frontend. The Web Components use a standard introduced by the W3C for creating new elements for the web. These web components are technology agnostic, which makes this an efficient solution for React and Angular web frameworks, both of which are currently used in Aladdin for building web applications.
We worked across many teams on a solution. Within six months, we created an MVP of the design system. Now, the engineers we work with see the importance of the system.
Also, by working across so many teams, we were able to take the best solutions we discovered and propagate them across the organization. The design system work established a lot of credibility for my group and showed what can be accomplished when an organization gives engineers the space they need to identify and solve challenges.
You’ve worked with junior and senior engineers. What advice do you have for a young engineer just starting out?
First, get used to being uncomfortable. Embrace it. Don’t specialize right away. Instead, keep challenging yourself. It is only by trying many different things that you can land on what you are most passionate about. Once you find the things you really click with, you will grow in your career.
Another piece of advice is to really understand your domain. For example, at BlackRock we say that everyone should be a student of the markets or a student of technology. Whether you work in finance or any other industry, really get to know that landscape. The more you learn and understand what your users, clients, customers, or constituents are doing, the better you will be at creating solutions for them.
For example, I had the opportunity to lead the BlackRock Hackathon last year. BlackRock hosts an annual Hackathon and last year we decided to focus the theme on Sustainability since it is a top priority for BlackRock and our clients. The variety of creative projects that came from that was incredible. And one of the lasting benefits was that every engineer who hacked came away with a much better understanding of data and technology for sustainable investing, and of what investors need in that space. That is invaluable experience for their careers and for the firm.
Lastly, get to know your team, and the people beyond your immediate colleagues. Learn what your peers are interested in and how you can help. Hackathons and other group projects are a great way to work with senior people and meet people from outside your usual group. And find ways to share what you’re doing with other people throughout your firm — with a blog post like this one, for instance! Communicating who you are and what you do is incredibly important.
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