Interview with a project manager at the Copenhagen Consensus

Ben recently interviewed Brad Wong about his career and current job at the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), a leading global think tank which draws together over 100 top economists to work on prioritizing the solutions to the most pressing global issues.

We spoke to Brad to learn more about whether working at the CCC could be a good opportunity for our members, following up on our previous research.

If you think the role looks promising, the CCC is hiring two more project managers to work on a Copenhagen Consensus project for development in Bangladesh, in a role similar to Brad’s. These jobs can either be based in Dhaka, Bangladesh or Budapest, Hungary or in the Centre for Effective Altruism’s office’s in Oxford (shared with us!).

In summary, Brad told us:

  • Brad manages a project to provide cost-benefit analysis of the UN’s next development goals.
  • Before this job, Brad completed a PhD, worked as a consultant at Booz & Company, and did strategic consulting at an Indian nonprofit, Technoserve. All three were good preparation for his current role, which requires an understanding of academic research and development, combined with the ability to manage a project and get things done.
  • Brad really enjoys his work at the CCC. Day-to-day, the work ranges from very exciting (networking with UN ambassadors) to quotidian (writing contracts, organising meetings, proofreading).
  • He’s excited about the project’s potential impact – their analysis is being used at the highest levels within the UN and there are already more than 100 media articles about the project from major outlets, such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  • Brad would like to continue working at the CCC, though long-term would like to work at a major foundation or consult for foundations.
  • 80,000 Hours did not directly affect his decision to work for CCC, but exposure to Givewell and 80,000 Hours significantly changed his attitude towards impact in his career.

The interview was conducted via phone call. Below are some excerpts, which have been edited and reorganised for clarity.

Key excerpts

Career Background

Brad grew up in Sydney, Australia and got an undergraduate degree in commerce from the University of Sydney. Initially interested in a law degree, he pivoted when offered “an opportunity too good to pass up” – a co-sponsored PhD with the Australian Securities Exchange and the University of Sydney.

Essentially I would act as their research assistant while doing my PhD at the same time, because the questions they would ask me would be relevant for academic inquiry… They would ask me a question, I would do a bit of research, and write up a 10-12 page report for the stock exchange. [I would work] with my supervisor to expand it out, if it was worthy of being expanded into an academic publication.

After his PhD, Wong worked for a couple years at Booz & Company (now Strategy& of PwC, a management consulting firm).

I did that for a few years, then I got kind of sick of this, working in the private sector for six and half years. I went to Mumbai, India, and started working for an NGO called Technoserve. That was my first taste of development. I really liked it.

What prepared you for the CCC role?

All of [my jobs] have been really great experiences for me in terms of what I need do for the CCC…
From the time at the stock exchange, I gained the ability to critically analyze academic articles and economic research. From my days in consulting, I got a lot of project management skills. I was typically not running projects, at least at the start of my career, because I was too junior, but I worked within project management offices on corporate transformations, where I would team with a senior consultant and we would put together all the bits and pieces of running a project: charts, project plans, teaming arrangements, resources and budgeting, and all that type of stuff that’s very administrative, but is actually quite difficult to put together coherently.
I also learned from consulting how to get stuff done. I don’t know what it is with consulting, but… if you’re faced with a problem, it’s not a good enough excuse for you to say “oh this is a problem, sorry”. There’s a lot of pressure for you to be proactive, and take the initiative to go out and solve problems as they arise.

“I look back and say ‘if I was as efficient while doing my PhD as I had been in consulting, I could have completed my PhD in a year.’”

How did you find out about 80,000 Hours?

One of the people working at Technoserve introduced me to Givewell. I looked at their website, and I thought it was really fascinating. I really liked what they were doing, and then I stumbled across 80,000 hours, which was revelation for me. I had never thought of my career as something that you could optimize for doing good, ever. I had thought that I would just go off to India and that would be my bit for the world. I never thought that you could actually choose causes that were more efficient, that would do more good, that you could structure your career in a way that would eventually lead you to do more good over the long term. I never thought of the concept of earning to give, and the idea of cause prioritization research was something that I had never even heard of, let alone thought about being involved in. All of that changed when I was introduced to Givewell and 80,000 hours. That’s when I started thinking about this a lot more seriously.

How did 80,000 Hours affect your decision, if at all?

I started looking for jobs, any job that I could get because I wanted to stay in Budapest. I was applying to management consulting firms, to universities, and then I saw the CCC advertisement (though not through 80,000 Hours). When I read it, it sounded a lot like the stuff I had read at Givewell, and the concepts that 80k hours had been promoting .

I’m not sure I would have taken the job seriously or thought about it as a career option – as opposed to say continuing my management consulting career – if I hadn’t read 80k hours.

Working at the Copenhagen Consensus Center

How accurate is our postdescribing the position?

In terms of what the candidate would have and what types of things you would do, it’s really spot on. Roland has a quote in there that covers the main activities: charts, program plans, getting hold of economists, coordinating peer review, reading and discussing findings with Bjorn, communicating results : this is exactly what I’m doing right now.’

In the post, we also described work at the CCC as a high impact career opportunity, albeit with fairly high uncertainty. Brad comments:

I think [the post] describes the uncertainty well. We’re not going to come up with a final list and the UN will be like ‘Yay we’ve got the final list, we’ll take yours. Thank you CCC.’ The way we view it is because up to $2.5 trillion will be spent on development over the next 15 years, If we can get one good goal on the list, or one bad goal bumped off the list, that will make a really big difference, billions of dollars of difference.

Within the CCC, Brad is the project manager for the Post-2015 Consensus Project which “brings together the world’s top economists, NGOs, international agencies and businesses to identify the goals with the greatest benefit-to-cost ratio” for the UN’s post-2015 development agenda.

For more on what the Post-2015 Consensus Project does, see this three minute video:

What are your responsibilities?

Brad manages research, along with the overall process and strategy of the project. His background in academia helps him better communicate with the economists involved and translate their material into something that a lay audience and policy makers can understand.

“I thought it would just be easy – I could just call up people and sort of say ‘can you be involved with this?’ but the best economists are always busy, you have to work within their schedule, find the right incentives for them.”

There’s a second employee who focuses on outreach to the media, NGOs, ambassadors and other decision makers. A third, employee works on the website and engages bloggers and other web-based influencers.

Future projects will be structured in a similar way.

How has the job compared to your expectations?

I’ve really liked my job, and some of the experiences that I’ve had have been beyond what I expected from it. Particularly the parts where I’ve gone to New York and had the opportunity to interact with UN ambassadors and go to the UN and speak about our project to the decision makers directly, which frankly has been one of the best career experiences I’ve ever had.

On the other side, there’s the expectation of what Bjorn was going to be like. When you look at the CCC from the outside, a lot of what you see is the negativity around Bjorn. I’m happy to say that it’s not been that way. The accusations haven’t been accurate. For example, the main accusation regarding his opinions on climate change have not been correct. Bjorn is a data-driven guy who really cares about the evidence.

What about the impact?

I think the whole post-2015 project has been a great example of how you can make advocacy work in an uncertain environment. There’s so much uncertainty around [the UN’s process]. We were talking to ambassadors and stakeholders in April/May this year, and even they didn’t know exactly where it was heading. Obviously when the principles aren’t certain, you can have a lot more influence over the agenda.

I think our impact has been above average, particularly for an organization our size. We’ve heard that our analysis is being used within the highest levels at the UN, assisting to support positions during negotiations for the Open Working Group and generally, providing information that no-one else is really doing.

From a public awareness perspective I can’t think of many other organisations that are alerting people to the amazing opportunity of the post-2015 agenda, and how important it is we set effective targets. Twenty different media outlets in the developing world are running editorials on all our papers, and [already we’ve had more than 100 articles](] on our project from elite media such as the New York Times, Wall St Journal and the Guardian. So we’re pretty happy about our impact.

What is the work like day-to-day?

I kind of knew what running a project was like, I kind of expected it to be sometimes quotidian (setting up contracts, writing emails, administration), sometimes very interesting (like going to New York). That’s what project management is all about.

Do you see yourself as carrying on in this area for the longer term?

Yes, for sure. I was at a career crossroads maybe a year ago, since September. I’ve had to make the decision over the course of this year as I’ve been involved with the CCC: Do I stay in the development-type environment, or do I go back to the private sector, probably consulting?
The more I do this job, the more I’m leaning towards the development side. I think I can do a lot of good, and I can grow within the Center. I am building up skills that would be difficult to replace in the short term. Now I know how the organization runs, I understand Bjorn and Roland better, I understand the economists better, I get along with a lot of them. If I were to do another project with the CCC, it would be a lot easier for me, and it would be a lot easier for them.

Looking beyond the CCC

What kinds of opportunities do you think CCC is preparing you for?

My dream job would be to work for the Gates foundation, and I think I would have a good skill set for them at some point in the future. If not Gates then another prominent foundation. I’ve gained an ability to look across different causes, critically analyze the associated evidence and importantly, prioritize the better ones. .

Have you considered more on the policy end of things? Think tanks and international organisations?

I have thought a little bit about that. I guess I could aim to work for an organisation like the World Bank or another major think tank… But my next move would have to be more specialized than now. Getting into policy you need to know your stuff in depth, understand the nuances of the field, and I’m certainly not there yet.

Would you consider starting your own project?

Yeah I would love to. I have always wanted to start my own thing. I haven’t felt like I’ve had the experience to do it. Up until this point in my career I have very much been building career capital and very much learning from others. But in five to ten years, I could see myself doing something on my own.

If you’re interested in working at the Copenhagen Consensus, find out more.