The BlackRock Black Rock

AUTHOR BIO

Matt Sahn

Matt leads the Product Engineering team within Aladdin Risk for Wealth Management. His team develops tools that allow financial advisors to build better portfolios for millions of their clients. Matt joined BlackRock in 2005, designing and building Aladdin infrastructure and processes for portfolio and security analytics. He has entered and lost the BlackRock Hackathon twice, but his first project has since been successfully commercialized as part of the Aladdin Risk for Wealth Management product offering.

 

 

I bought my first Raspberry Pi in April 2016 to start tinkering with home automation. Specifically, the goal was to connect all my lights to an app on my smartphone and be able to raise and lower the window shade in my bedroom on a daily schedule. I installed the excellent, open source Home Assistant hub software on the Pi, replaced most of my wall switches with Z-Wave ones, and connected Home Assistant to Alexa for voice control. Once all that was working, I began thinking about what next to do with the Pi.

At BlackRock, we have a Hackathon every year, which is a great opportunity to try new technologies, build something from scratch, and have an audience to show off what you’ve built. I thought it would be fun to build some sort of device with a Raspberry Pi. Making hardware products is not exactly on our everyday radar at BlackRock being a financial services company. But, by then, I had a decent grasp of how to get things running on the Pi and how to make it control LEDs and other external electronic components via GPIO pins. The big question was what to actually make with it that would be somehow relevant and useful for BlackRock?

The answer was hiding in plain sight: a black rock. What could be more fun than, literally, a piece of rock with the BlackRock logo on it and a Raspberry Pi inside that does something remotely cool? “Nothing!”, I thought, though the hackathon judges would eventually come to disagree, but I will come back to that. The next question was what would this little, computerized black rock actually do?

I had a hard time coming up with a “killer feature” that would revolutionize our business or the industry. Voice controlled investing? Talking to advisors through the rock? I couldn’t see it as a serious tool for productivity that would displace other existing channels. But there’s more to technology and hackathons than creating “serious tools” and disrupting industries. Remember Netflix Socks or the Staples Easy Button? They didn’t do anything particularly useful, but they delighted the public, generated a ton of free publicity, and gave a boost to those brands in the public’s mind. The Amazon Dash buttons are another example of an arguably silly application of technology, but, at the very least, they further differentiated Amazon from their competitors in the public’s mind as a true innovator.

With those examples as inspiration, I had a game plan for what the BlackRock black rock’s purpose would be. It would deliver BlackRock content in a fun and interactive way and be cheap enough to make so that we could give them away, in the thousands, to financial advisors and clients. In short, it would be a marketing play. It would connect to the internet over Wi-Fi and be able to read BlackRock blog posts, play audio clips of senior leaders, display notifications via an LED strip, and allow the user to interact via a pushbutton.

To get all of this done in the course of the hackathon, I needed help. I put together a one-pager slide of the idea and pitched it around to colleagues, including Chris Guthrie. Chris is a talented full-stack developer, who had also done side projects at home with a Raspberry Pi. He loved the idea, and we began designing the features and techniques for how it might all work.

Getting the hardware together was the first challenge. With pure software projects, you can get started right away. In our case, we didn’t really have a “development environment” to get started writing code in until we actually had the physical hardware in front of us and connected. I ordered a bunch of components from Amazon, not really knowing what we would end up using or what we could even get working at all. This included another Raspberry Pi 3, NeoPixel 8-LED strips, backlit LED pushbuttons, some tiny powered speakers, a soldering iron, a glue gun, and a tackle box to hold it all. But, the pièce de résistance would need to be the rock, itself: the case.

After looking at fake rock key holders and toy foam rocks as possible cases, I researched 3D printing as a way to make the rock case. I was delighted to stumble across www.tinkercad.com, a free, simple 3D design web app geared to beginners. What’s more, once you have a design, you can upload it directly to a host of online 3D printing services that will print and mail your design to you for as little as $15 to $25. Perfect!

I had my first prototype case design within a few hours. I ended up using Voodoo Manufacturing to do the printing largely because they offered next-day, in-person pickup at their factory in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Chris took on the more challenging programming tasks like getting text-to-speech to work on the Pi leveraging Amazon’s Polly cloud AI service from a Node.js app and connecting it to the BlackRock blog RSS feed. He then built a Heroku service for uploading audio clips along with metadata that the rock pings to trigger an LED notification letting the user know there is new content they can launch by pressing the rock’s blue-glowing button.

Finally, Chris and I had to get all the software and hardware components working together in a way that we could just plug it in and have it work for the hackathon live demo presentation in front of judges. That was a big challenge to get right for us since we are used to having laptops logged in and at the ready for orchestrating and running a live software demo. For an IoT device like ours, you’re operating without a safety net since you can’t easily fiddle with it on-the-fly if something goes awry. The software, all of which we wrote over two days at the office, ended up being a Frankenstein conglomeration of Node.js, Python, shell scripts, and cron jobs on the Pi interacting with Heroku, S3, and Polly from the cloud. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked!

Sometime after midnight, we threw together some slides and a demo script and, the next day, presented to the judges and Hackathon audience. Sadly, we didn’t advance past the first round. But, presenting was a lot of fun and there were a lot of smiling faces in the crowd. Especially during the holiday greeting feature when it flashed red and green lights, wished everyone a better financial future in the new year, and closed with a holiday song. Even though we didn’t go far in the hackathon, we haven’t given up. We’ve circulated a demo video to colleagues in HR and marketing and have gotten a lot of interest in creating more “rocks” that could be shown at events or used in student hackathons. For now, the rock currently sits on my desk beckoning colleagues to press its glowing blue button to hear a market update delivered in a surprisingly convincing British accent.

 

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