Operations management in high-impact organisations
In a nutshell: People in operations roles act as multipliers, maximising the productivity of others in the organisation via building systems that keep the organisation functioning effectively at a high level. As a result, people who excel in these positions require significant creativity, self-direction, social skills, and conscientiousness. If you’re a good fit, operations could be the highest-impact role for you.
If you are well suited to this career, it may be the best way for you to have a social impact.
Based on a medium-depth investigation
Table of Contents
- 1 What does this path involve?
- 2 Why might working in operations management be high impact?
- 3 How good is the career capital?
- 4 Example of someone pursuing this path
- 5 How to assess your fit
- 6 How to enter this field
- 7 Learn more
This career review is based largely on our 2017 survey of talent needs and input from 12 people who have worked in these roles (often in leadership positions), including:
- Tara Mac Aulay, Caitlin Elizondo, Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg, and Kathryn Mecrow from the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA)
- Malo Bourgon and Alex Vermeer from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)
- Amy Willey Labenz, who has worked at both MIRI and CEA
- Morgan Davis from the Open Philanthropy Project
- Tanya Singh, Carrick Flynn, and Andrew Snyder-Beattie from the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford
- Kyle Scott, who has worked at both FHI and the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative (BERI)
- Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, who has worked at both FHI and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at Cambridge
(However, the views presented here do not necessarily reflect those of everyone listed.)
We also drew on several articles and talks, including:
- Tanya Singh on the need for operations
- An operations panel at EAG
- A talk at EAG on the need for operations in AI safety
- Our article on research management
Because it was written a little while ago, some of the information in this career review may be a bit out of date. However, our impression is that the broad points still stand — indeed, the 2021/2022 growth in funding for organisations in effective altruism means that more talented operations people are needed to help run and scale up projects.
Prefer a video?
Here’s a video covering many of the same ideas in 20 minutes.
Prefer a podcast?
You can also listen to two podcasts on the topic:
Otherwise, read on for the full details.
What does this path involve?
Operations staff enable everyone else in the organisation to focus on their core tasks and maximise their productivity. They oversee the functions crucial to every top-performing organisation — such as management, overseeing budgets, helping to hire and train new staff, ensuring people get paid, running the office, dealing with legal risks, and so on.
The best operations staff do this by setting up scalable systems, rather than addressing individual tasks. There is plenty of scope to find a job involving challenging, varied work that requires significant creativity and entrepreneurialism.
Common operations projects
Here are some examples of what you might work on:
Creating a financial system. Every organisation needs to take in money and make payments. This requires setting up budgets, a system for tracking expenses, a system for making payments, and much more. You’ll normally need to hire a bookkeeper, accountant advisor, and auditor. This system has to operate with near-100% reliability — everyone needs to be paid on time — and you need to ensure the organisation correctly manages its cash flows and satisfies all local laws.
Project management. When more than a couple of people are involved in a project, it can be challenging to keep track of what needs to be done, who’s working on what, and whether it’s on schedule. Project managers set up systems to keep track of all this, and then stay in touch with everyone who’s involved to keep them in sync.
Creating a productive office. Organisations often hire expensive staff to do research, engineering, or outreach, but then these staff spend a lot of their time doing all kinds of other activities — fixing the internet, getting distracted, buying food — and not being nearly as productive as they could. The ideal office environment frees people from this overhead, enables them to reach their full productivity, and is also pleasant to spend time in. This requires searching for the right building; negotiating with the landlord; redecorating; creating the right layout; and setting up systems to take care of cleaning, supplies, food, and so on. MIRI researchers spend more than 95% of their work time actually doing research, made possible by the operations team.
Executive assistance. Distractions can get even more extreme for senior staff, who end up spending most of their time in meetings — each hour they save can produce a lot of value. The ideal executive assistant can:
- Respond to emails on behalf of senior staff
- Represent senior staff in lower-stakes meetings
- Anticipate what the staff member will want before they do
- Create repeatable ways to save time
This requires great judgement and understanding of the person you’re working with. Right now, people with experience working as personal assistants are especially in demand.
Events. Many organisations need to arrange talks and conferences. This involves inviting speakers, finding a venue, deciding who can attend, and generally creating a programme that serves the objectives. On the day of the event, it involves coordinating a huge number of activities that need to come together with no mistakes. As Andrew from FHI outlines, organising the right conference can achieve a great deal:
I think my favourite example of this was the Puerto Rico conference [organised by the Future of Life Institute]. This took a tremendous amount of effort, and most of that effort required an operational skillset. That event really got the ball rolling for the AI safety and AI strategy trajectory that we’re on now, and was a critically important piece of work — probably more important than any single piece of research that’s happened recently.
Hiring and human resources. All organisations need to run recruitment processes that are fair and accurate, create contracts, get visas, and so on — and many of these steps are overseen by operations staff. New staff then need to be onboarded and trained, which requires internal documents, workshops, team retreats, and more. Existing staff need to know where they stand with pay, benefits, how their performance is assessed, and so on.
Operations roles also often blur into other areas — especially management, but also communications and fundraising. For instance, operations staff might help out answering questions from people applying to an event, or an executive assistant might communicate with the press on behalf of the staff member. Since they’re involved in finance, they might talk with donors or help prepare materials to assist with fundraising.
Why might working in operations management be high impact?
Many operations staff feel they’ve been able to have a large positive impact through operations. Amy Willey Labenz is an example:
I decided to work in operations for MIRI in 2009 rather than working as an attorney because Carl Shulman, Anna Salamon, and others convinced me that it was the highest-value thing I could do for the world. After dealing with compliance issues and improving operations at the organization, and facilitating connections at the Singularity Summit, I’m convinced they were correct.
When I got the opportunity to take a role as Director of Operations at CEA and Executive Producer at EA Global, I jumped at the chance. Now, we have been able to grow our operations team so that I can focus on specializing in events. I’m currently working on an event to bring on more operations people!
Why do we see these cases? Below are some reasons we think operations roles seem especially high impact.
1. Many organisation leaders believe there’s a shortage of skilled operations staff
Our 2017 talent survey asked leaders of effective altruism organisations to rate the greatest skill needs at their own organisation. The roles most commonly cited were:1
- Generalist research
- Administration and office management
|Skill||My org||EA as a whole||Sum|
|Good calibration, wide knowledge and ability to work out what's important||20||21||41|
|Government and policy experts||6||23||29|
|Machine learning / AI technical expertise||9||14||23|
|Movement building, public speakers, public figures, public campaign leaders||8||14||22|
|Administrators / assistants / office managers||10||6||16|
|Biology or life sciences experts||2||9||11|
|Marketing & outreach (including content marketing)||8||3||11|
|Other math, quant or stats experts||10||1||11|
|People extremely enthusiastic about effective altruism||8||0||8|
|Communications, other than marketing and public figures||5||3||8|
|People extremely enthusiastic about working on x-risk||8||0||8|
|Developing world experts||3||3||6|
2. Organisation leaders report high marginal value estimates
In the survey, we also asked the organisation leaders to quantify their willingness to pay to gain additional recent hires. This showed that leaders believe that many recent hires produce value equivalent to hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars of donations over three years. This suggests that people who are a good fit for direct work roles at the organisations could have much more impact than earning to give.
|Average weighted by org size||Average||Median|
|Senior hire||$12.8m ($4.1m excluding an outlier)||$7.6m ($3.6m excluding an outlier)||$1.0m|
Unfortunately, these results are not broken down by skill type — operations roles were lumped in with outreach, research, management, and so on. However, since many of the organisations have hired operations staff recently, these roles are included in the sample that the estimates are based on.
What’s more, if we were to ask about the value of recent operations staff in particular, our impression is that leaders would give similar or higher estimates of willingness to pay. To confirm this impression, we asked a couple of managers to answer the question for operations staff in particular.
Andrew Snyder-Beattie has helped to hire and manage operations staff at FHI. He said:
My numbers for an excellent operations hire would be towards the high end of the survey results, including the multimillion-dollar numbers for senior hires. A typical project manager at FHI raises something like $1 million in grants every year from research councils and various trusts. So even just from a purely fundraising standpoint I would argue that project management within an effective altruist organisation could potentially be a superior option to earning to give.
We also asked Kyle Scott the same question, but for a “good operations hire.” He now hires and manages operations staff at BERI, and said:
- For junior roles: $300,000
- For senior roles: $5 million
We should emphasise that these figures are highly approximate, and not stable estimates. They also depend a huge amount on the specific person, their personal fit, and the role at hand. However, they provide some evidence that at least some operations staff produce a lot of value for the organisations they work at, and likely more than most people could contribute by earning to give.
Explaining these high figures: why operations roles aren’t easily replaceable
People often think that operations roles are relatively replaceable, and could be filled by people from the private sector who aren’t so motivated by effective altruism. If true, this would make these roles less attractive for people who are motivated by effective altruism, because they could do something else that’s less replaceable.
However, the figures above already account for replaceability: we asked organisation leaders to make the estimates taking account of the possibility of the organisation hiring someone else.
In fact, the figures may undercount the impact of additional hires. If you take a role that’s ‘replaceable,’ then you ‘free up’ the person who would have replaced you. This person can then go and have an impact elsewhere. (The estimates, however, only account for the value created for the original organisation, and not the ‘spillover benefit’ to other organisations.)
So why are the figures so high, even if we account for replaceability?
In part, it’s due to all the normal reasons that organisations face skill bottlenecks. The amount of funding available has suddenly increased in the last few years (2021/2022 update: this is even more true now), while hiring is a risky and time-consuming process, and it takes years to build a well-functioning team. The result is that in the meantime, ‘ready to go’ additional staff can have a huge impact.
Why might operations be especially valuable compared to other roles?
As with research, management, and outreach, these roles are difficult — there’s a big difference between a ‘good’ operations staff member and an excellent one. An excellent staff member can design scalable systems and hire others, greatly multiplying their impact. As Malo from MIRI says:
Oftentimes people who are good at this don’t realize how few people have this skill, and so it seems obvious to them that this is a very replaceable position.
[They might think]: ‘I can’t do direct policy work or AI technical safety work, so I guess I can earn to give or use my skills elsewhere’ — and see operations as something that’s very replaceable and a little bit second-tier, and I think that’s very wrong.
Basically everyone I know who’s good at this role doesn’t understand why other people think it’s special. So if you think you have this thing, you are special, and FHI and MIRI and other places need your help.
Caitlin from CEA adds:
That’s my own experience too. People who are skilled at operations often don’t realise how rare the skill is. I think it might be because people are rarely directly compared to their peers on their operations skills as they grow up — unlike, for example, their academic skills — so they don’t realise how unusual they are in that respect.
Some other reasons that operations roles are valuable include:
- These roles often can’t be easily filled by people who don’t care about effective altruism. (We explain why just below.)
- You don’t get as much recognition in these roles, since they’re behind the scenes — positions in research or outreach seem more ‘glamorous.’ One particularly difficult feature is that when operations work goes well, people take it for granted; when there’s a mistake, it’s obvious and everyone is annoyed.
- The impact of your work is indirect, making it less tangible, which can make it harder to stay motivated.
- Effective altruism seems more likely to attract researchers, philosophers, and software engineers than people who are good at operations. The skillset seems to be somewhat rare in the community.
- Recent increases in funding have created especially large bottlenecks within operations. As a team increases in scale from five to 30+ people, the importance of operations goes up dramatically, and many organisations have started to make this transition. Small organisations can often get by with few systems, but this stops working after a certain scale. Likewise, additional funding drives up the value of time for top managers and grantmakers — which increases the impact of executive assistants and other ‘multiplier’ positions.
These factors mean that skilled people can create a lot of impact in operations, but there’s also a shortage of people who are a good fit.
One response is that organisations should raise salaries to attract more staff. We agree, and would like to see higher salaries for operations staff. Given that the roles involve less recognition and are hard to fill, it seems likely that similarly skilled operations staff should receive higher salaries than those in other types of roles.
However, note that at some academic organisations, operations staff salaries are set by the university. Our impression is that the levels are often too low to attract the most talented staff, creating a shortage that’s hard to solve. Sean from CSER expands:
This is somewhere that academia is competing with the business market. The skillset needed to be a project manager in academia is roughly the same as required for a similar role in business, but the salary structure in academia is fixed. This means that it makes it harder for us to get the right calibre of person for a position like this, because they could be better paid in a corporate setting. So someone who is altruistic or motivated by research can also make a big difference simply because they’re likely to be more skilled than someone without this motivation that would be doing the job otherwise. Someone who is willing to bring the same level of skill and initiative for a lower salary at a research institute brings a huge amount of return.
We talk more about assessing your fit below.
Why it’s important for operations staff to share the mission of effective altruism
People often suggest that it would be easy to hire excellent operations staff from the private sector — staff who aren’t especially concerned by effective altruism — which would free up those who are more motivated by effective altruism to do other roles that are harder to fill, such as outreach, community building, or research.
We think this is possible in some cases (such as accounting and legal advice), but in our experience, it usually doesn’t work out. Instead, we think it’s valuable for almost all operations staff to have a good ‘fit’ with effective altruism:
- They believe in the cultural values of the community and their organisation (e.g. scientific mindset)
- They’re highly motivated by social impact
- They know about important topics discussed by the community
- They have connections within the community
That’s not to say fit with effective altruism is 100% necessary. Rather, it’s one important factor that could be offset by strengths on other dimensions, and it depends on the role.
Note that not everyone we interviewed agrees that fit with effective altruism is as important as we do — but all agree that it’s useful.
Below are some reasons we think fit with effective altruism is usually important.
Enjoyment of the culture. People who work at effective altruism organisations tend to talk about effective altruism pretty constantly. This is great if it’s what you’re interested in — but if your interests are elsewhere, it can get tiresome. It can also become awkward if the culture of an organisation splits into two. We’ve also found that people who are less interested in effective altruism are much more likely to leave their job. This is problematic on two fronts:
- Turnover is very costly for the organisation, which now has to hire and train new staff, which can take years.
- Those who were less interested in effective altruism to begin with are more likely to leave the community altogether — and then all the knowledge, training, and connections they’ve built up don’t get applied to other effective altruist projects.
Motivation. It can be hard to stay motivated in operations roles since your impact is indirect, and success often isn’t as recognised. To compensate, operations staff need to be even more motivated by the mission and culture of the organisation. What’s more, if just one staff member isn’t motivated, this tends to harm the atmosphere for everyone else.
Prioritisation. Operations staff have to make a lot of decisions. Even apparently simple decisions require a good understanding of the values and culture of the organisation, and as you face more complex decisions in more senior roles, this effect becomes even greater. For instance:
- How much legal risk should the organisation take in applying for visas?
- Should it spend more to have a professional accountant?
- How should we design an unbiased hiring process?
Making these decisions requires weighing competing organisational norms against each other — such as frugality vs efficiency, and systematic assessments vs trying things out. The more someone has internalised these cultural norms, the more autonomy they can be given. Morgan Davis from the Open Philanthropy Project expands:
Someone who’s paying attention and really mission-aligned in operations in small- and mid-sized organizations can often identify and implement low-hanging fruit improvements that significantly help the team and often wind up growing the ops role. I think a good ops person is like the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. They’re constantly running a kind of background needs assessment / requirements-gathering loop in the back of their heads to notice items that affect everyone but no one owns. Then when they notice that stuff — whether it’s financial, HR, team culture, processes, policies, physical environment, tech, etc. — they take ownership of trying to make those things better.
Communication. Effective altruism is all about applying a certain methodology to doing good, and as you might expect, the organisations take a similar approach in running their own operations. Staff are expected to make Fermi estimates of the impact of projects, give confidence intervals, provide direct feedback, and make evidence-driven decisions. These practices are relatively rare outside the community. But if new staff can’t speak this language, they often struggle to coordinate with other staff and get their recommendations acted on. Carrick Flynn expands:
Much of the value of a team comes from how well they can coordinate internally, with as few as possible ‘transaction costs.’ Having everyone synchronize easily along values, prioritization, and (especially epistemic) methods results in a well-synchronized, lock-stepped team. Having someone without an ear for these things, or with different sensibilities for priorities or values, means other people cannot rely on their judgement or coordinate quickly without extensive communication.
Knowledge of effective altruism may be required for some roles. For instance, if you’re an academic project manager, you need to understand what the research is about so you can complete core responsibilities, like arranging conferences and writing grants. If you’re an executive assistant, you’ll save more time if you understand the content of the staff member’s work. Similarly, having good connections with the community is useful for quickly gaining information and hiring staff.
Leadership. Leaders need to embody the culture and mission of the organisation in order to motivate and unify their team. If someone doesn’t have a good fit with effective altruism, it makes it hard for them to be promoted into leadership positions in the future. This dramatically reduces their long-term potential for impact in the organisation.
Flexibility. It’s better to hire staff who can switch into other roles, because it gives you more options. Even if operations doesn’t require being motivated by effective altruism, if other roles do, then that’s still a reason to hire people who have this motivation. In practice, many people who have been hired into operations roles have taken on wider responsibilities over time.
When is it relatively easy to hire people who have less fit with effective altruism?
One key factor is how systematised the work is. If all the steps required are clear, it’s easy to monitor someone’s performance, and if the role has a standard job title, then it’s relatively easy to delegate. However, even in these cases it can be challenging. For instance, we’ve seen several organisations struggle to hire a good bookkeeper, even though it seems to satisfy these criteria.
The most difficult roles to fill from outside the effective altruism community are those that require making difficult judgement calls, creativity, and leadership, because these are the hardest kinds of skills to systematise.
Another key factor is the centrality of the position. Remote and temporary positions have less impact on the culture, so cultural fit is less important. Managers, on the other hand, play a major role in determining the culture, so it’s highly important in management roles.
The third key factor is the stage and centrality of the organisation. In larger, more established organisations, the work tends to be more systematised, there is more management capacity, and the culture is more established. This makes it easier to absorb people with different values. Likewise, the more central the organisation is to the community, the more important fit is. For instance, GiveWell regularly hires people who aren’t as motivated by effective altruism, which works because they’re more established and focus heavily on international development, which has a preexisting community.
How good is the career capital?
Some people worry that operations roles won’t help them gain good career capital — the skills, connections, and credentials that put you in a better position to contribute in the future.
We think there is some truth in this worry, and many of these roles aren’t the ideal options for career capital, especially at the junior level. However, the career capital you gain is better than many people think.
We’ve seen many people start in more junior operations roles and get rapidly promoted to positions of major responsibility, both within operations and more broadly. For instance:
- Tara Mac Aulay joined CEA as head of operations, but was promoted to CEO.
- Malo Bourgon joined MIRI doing operations, and is now COO and manages most of the team.
- Kyle Scott started as a personal assistant at FHI and became a manager at BERI.
- Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh started as an academic project manager at FHI and became the executive director of CSER.
One reason this was possible is because the organisations were growing rapidly, so everyone had the chance to advance rapidly. As Malo says:
There are a lot of interesting opportunities for advancement in these types of roles. In MIRI’s particular case, we’re always trying to ‘eat’ our superior’s job. So I’m always trying to steal all the things I can from Nate [the Executive Director of MIRI], and our office manager is trying to take all of my job. So I would encourage people who think they have operations skills to jump into entry-level roles and build their capital that way.
Another reason rapid advancement is possible is because management and operations skills are so in demand that someone who has them can rise quickly.
A third reason is that operations roles can place you at the centre of the organisation, giving you the internal knowledge and relationships you need to take a more central position in the future. Carrick recounts how he started at FHI as an office manager and became assistant director of the Centre for the Governance of AI doing research management:
Keep in mind that operations work at an organization like FHI can be a fantastic way to tool up and gain fluency in this space, orient yourself, discover your strengths and interests, and make contacts.
This is how I snuck into FHI about two years ago, on a three-week temporary contract as an office manager. I flew from the US on four days’ notice for the chance to try to gain fluency in the field. While my case of “working my way up from the mailroom” is not likely to be typical (I had a strong CV), or necessarily a good model to encourage, it is definitely the case that you can pick up a huge amount through osmosis at FHI, and develop a strong effective altruist career network.
This can set you up well for a wise choice of graduate programs or other career direction decisions, as well as more senior positions in operations.
This said, one transition that doesn’t normally work is from operations into research — so if research is your endgame, we wouldn’t recommend starting in operations.
If you want to transition to other organisations, operations is a skillset needed basically everywhere, so you can take the skills you’ll learn and apply them in many different areas in the future. As Tanya says in her talk:
The skills that you develop while working in operations are extremely fungible — they are very transferable skills — so you have the opportunity to work with organisations in a lot of different cause areas. When a cause area becomes extremely important suddenly, you can pivot towards it. Because these skills are so flexible, if you’re good at your job, you will always have the opportunity to work on extremely interesting and exciting projects.
Finally, for all these reasons, operations can be good training (and a way to test your fit) for founding new high-impact organisations — which can be a very high-leverage path.
Working in operations at an effective altruism organisation also provides all the other benefits of working at these nonprofits that we cover in our full profile on the topic. Namely, you can make lots of connections with other smart, altruistic people, and the organisations often have a strong culture of personal growth, helping you to improve your skills.
How does the career capital compare to working in the corporate sector?
Overall, we think that if you want to work in effective altruism organisations in the future — especially those focused on catastrophic risk and community building — then you can progress significantly faster by working within the community directly (if you have the opportunity). This is for a couple of reasons:
- The way these organisations operate is pretty different from the corporate sector. For instance, earlier we covered how decision-making is more likely to involve Fermi estimates and debiasing techniques. This means the preparation you gain outside of the community is limited.
- Building connections with the effective altruism world is important, and it’s hard to do this from a corporate job.
On the other hand, taking a prestigious corporate job — such as at a good tech startup (covered later) — can also develop your skills, and makes it easier to enter a wider variety of sectors in the future.
Ultimately, working in effective altruism or organisations focused on reducing existential threats involves taking a ‘bet’ on the community’s continued success. We think this is often a bet worth taking, in part because we expect continued success, but also because of the skewed upside:
- If effective altruism turns out to be a big deal, then you’ll be in near the start, and contribute to a development of potentially historical significance.
- If it doesn’t, then you won’t have given up much by taking a job in another area later.
Example of someone pursuing this path
How to assess your fit
We often find that people think they’d be a poor fit for operations roles, when actually they seem to us like promising candidates.
People may think they need to have a background in operations to contribute. While such a background is useful, it’s not required. As we’ve covered, being great at operations is ultimately about building systems. Someone smart and hardworking who has the right mindset can usually learn the specific knowledge they need for an operations role fairly quickly. What’s more, best practices and software are always changing, so even people who already have a background need to keep learning.
Another factor is that very few people in the community already have a background in operations, so the fact that you don’t either doesn’t tell you much. It could still be your comparative advantage to focus on operations.
On the other hand, people often think that operations roles are for people who aren’t good enough at research. This isn’t true either. Rather, operations requires a distinct skillset, which we describe in this section.
What traits do you need?
People often think that traits like attention to detail, being reliable, and having a good memory are key. We agree these general traits are all useful. However, as we’ve covered, the ability to create and manage systems is at least as important — and this requires intelligence, creativity, initiative, social skills, and conscientiousness.
From our interviews with successful operations staff, we made the following list of traits that were repeatedly highlighted as especially distinctive to operations. We’ve roughly grouped them by type of skill, not in order of importance. We’ve also focused on the skills most needed in operations itself — if the role also involves management or other responsibilities, then additional skills will be needed. We’ve also not emphasised traits required in every role, such as fit with the culture and social skills.
You don’t need to have all of these traits to excel, but the more of them you have, the better your chances of being a good fit for operations roles.
Optimisation mindset. You frequently notice how things could be done more efficiently, and have a strong internal drive to prevent avoidable errors and make things run more smoothly. Maybe your friends have been annoyed with you because you’ve often noticed how they can be doing things more efficiently and pointed this out to them. Ideally, you’ve noticed some problem that exists in a previous job you’ve had, and took steps to fix it without needing to be told to do so.
Systems thinking and going meta. Operations staff get endless requests from others to do specific tasks for them. A good staff member will do these tasks quickly and efficiently, but an outstanding staff member will instead try to understand the goal that the person is trying to achieve, and first decide whether the solution or actions proposed are in fact the best ways to achieve that goal. If they aren’t, they’ll propose a new solution.
Top operations staff also notice when people ask them similar questions multiple times, and then think about how to prevent the issue from coming up again. For example: “Can you share this doc in the Drive” turns into: “What went wrong such that this person didn’t already have access to everything they need? How can we improve naming conventions or sharing conventions in the future?”
Aesthetic pleasure in systems working smoothly. Great operations people find a deep aesthetic pleasure in building systems that work smoothly. They not only find it motivating to tangibly help their team, they find it even more motivating when they notice that they have made other people more productive without them even noticing it. (We’ve also heard of people developing this in operations roles even if they didn’t start out with it.)
Planning skills. You anticipate problems and steps that others miss when they’re planning a task. For example, you find it relatively easy to see the steps that need to be taken in order for you to put on an event or run a recruitment round.
Prioritisation skills. There are always more tasks to do than there is time, especially when you consider the long-run value of proactive work to improve existing processes. Great operations people are constantly thinking about the amount of time they should spend on any one activity before they hit diminishing returns.
Staying calm. Operations staff have to deal with lots of tasks and deadlines, so mistakes are inevitable, and they may have to be corrected at short notice. For instance, you might arrange an event and have it fall through at the last minute, or have a staff member denied a visa. Good operations staff worry enough to avoid mistakes in the first place, but not so much that they get overwhelmed by emergencies.
Able to learn quickly. Operations staff often have to quickly master new software, regulations, and processes. For instance, the EU recently released the new General Data Protection Regulation. Staff at CEA had to quickly work out how this might affect the data that it collects from events and online forms, consult pro bono lawyers for advice, and adjust the organisation’s terms and conditions to reflect the changes. This skill includes knowing what you don’t know, being able to quickly identify relevant information (e.g. by talking to operations staff at other organisations), and then quickly mastering the material. (Read more about learning how to learn.)
Communication skills. This is needed in any role that involves working with a team, and operations staff nearly always do a lot of teamwork. They often have to interact with many other staff in the organisation, quickly explain complex processes, deal with outside vendors, and manage others. This requires clear, rapid one-on-one written and spoken communication. Operations staff also need to be disagreeable enough to turn down tasks, while agreeable enough to do so while staying on good terms with the rest of the team. If you’re involved in events, human resources, or donor relations, then these skills are even more important. (However, you don’t need the ‘mass communication skills’ required by outreach roles, such as writing engaging articles or public speaking.)
High attention to detail. You likely have this if people you’ve worked with have learned that they don’t need to check your work because they trust you not to make errors, and you’re the go-to person for checking over documents and spreadsheets for accuracy because you pick up on errors that others miss.
Organisation and reliability. You create and use checklists, and have reliable systems for managing your tasks, your schedule, your documents, and other information. It’s rare for you to forget to do something, or for a task to slip through your net. Operations staff have to keep track of a huge number of tasks, and people need to be able to trust they’ll get handled. Carrick adds:
I think this might be #1 in my book. Knowing that when you hand off something, you don’t even need to think about it again, is key. Even if someone is not very efficient, if I can give them something and know it will be handled, it frees me up to work on something else. Having to check back in means leaving an open loop, and splitting my attention. I’d take 10 slow steady hands over one speed demon who drops things.
Fit with effective altruism, as we defined and argued for above.
Summing up, Morgan Davis states:
My model of an amazing ops person is someone who’s broadly interested in promoting the thriving and wellbeing of the org, proactive and pragmatic, very conscientious, and very collaborative with excellent internal customer service.
All this said, bear in mind that operations spans a wide variety of roles, which require different skills. For instance:
- Being a COO requires greater social and system-building skills.
- Working in finance and events management requires more conscientiousness and attention to detail. Events management also requires greater social skills and ability to work under pressure.
- Working as an executive assistant requires having a great relationship with the person you work with.
- Working in a university position requires patience to navigate a slow bureaucracy.
Would a different role in an organisation be better?
If you share the values of the effective altruism community, then the key question is where your comparative advantage lies in relation to other community members. Here are some ways to get evidence about whether your comparative advantage might be in operations:
- Can you already demonstrate operations skills? Since few people in the community (besides those already working in these roles) have these skills, this is good evidence it’s your comparative advantage. However, as noted, if you don’t already have this background, it doesn’t rule you out.
- Can you imagine yourself excelling and being highly motivated in one of these roles? This is also good evidence, but don’t rule it out on this basis if you haven’t tried it. People can find operations more motivating than they first expect.
- How do you compare to other people applying to roles at the organisations? You can ask people in charge of hiring to compare your skills in operations, outreach, research, earning to give, and so on against other people who are also applying. If you seem unusually good at operations compared to other skills, then that’s evidence operations is your comparative advantage.
Bear in mind that what’s relevant is not your skills compared to people in general, but rather compared to other people in the community. Sometimes people say, “I’m good at research, so I should do research.” But this doesn’t follow: you might be good at research compared to people in general, but poor compared to others who could take the role in the community. Or even if you’re good at research compared to other people in the community, you might be even better at operations compared to others in the community.
Many people who have taken operations roles in the community are good at research by ordinary standards. For instance, Sean did a PhD, and Andrew at FHI is pursuing one. However, they focused on operations because they’re better at operations relative to other community members.
We talk more about comparing direct work to earning to give and doing a PhD in our career review on working at effective altruism nonprofits.
How to enter this field
As is our standard advice, if you think operations roles might be promising, then ideally you can find some way to try them out. Perhaps you could do a side project, internship, or trial work period.
One common way people enter these roles in the community is by volunteering to help run an Effective Altruism Global conference.
However, bear in mind that your fit with a particular team and organisation is also a big factor. Boring work can become motivating if you’re doing it with fun people for a cause you believe in, while a poor boss can turn your ideal work into an ordeal. So, when you get closer to applying to jobs, try to compare specific positions and organisations rather than “operations” in general.
You can also see our general advice on investing in yourself, especially improving your productivity and organisation.
Any of the nonprofits we recommend on our job board — especially the rapidly scaling ones — could likely benefit from great operations work.
Find jobs working in operations
If you think you might be a good fit for this path and you’re ready to start looking for jobs, see our curated list of opportunities in this path:
Other jobs to prepare you
Ideally you can enter directly and work your way up. But you can also build your operations skills in other jobs, to prepare for operations roles within the community in the future.
The most obvious step is to take an operations role at a great company in the corporate sector, such as in event management, HR, or finance. We’d especially highlight working at a promising startup with 10–100 employees, ideally with a great manager and team who can mentor you. You can try to gauge whether there’s a culture of growth and mentorship by meeting people at the company before you join.
Startup operations roles give you an opportunity to learn the specific knowledge required in these roles, and tech startups often use best practice and the latest software. If the startup is well respected, then you also gain a credential and connections in the tech sector. We highlight the 10–100 employee range because in startups with fewer than 10 people there is often not enough time for training, while in larger organisations the roles become too specialised. What’s more, most organisations in the effective altruism community are small and growing, and it’s useful to learn what it’s like to work at an organisation like this, rather than a big bureaucracy. Read more about startup jobs.
You could also consider working in consulting or professional services to gain knowledge of operations, accounting, legal, and so on, but these large company roles don’t seem as directly relevant as the startup jobs.
Less relevant again would be operations roles at large traditional companies. Knowledge of law can also be useful, but isn’t the most direct route.
If you want to do operations at an academic institute, such as FHI or CSER, then it’s useful to work elsewhere in the university to learn how the bureaucracy works.
If you want to work in research management in particular, then graduate study is often required.
- Podcast: How the audacity to fix things without asking permission can change the world, demonstrated by Tara Mac Aulay
- Podcast: Tanya Singh on ending the operations management bottleneck in effective altruism
- The importance of operations roles by Tanya Singh
- Operations roles in AI Safety by Andrew Snyder-Beattie and Malo Bourgon
- Career review: Working at effective altruist organisations
- Bringing it all together: high-impact research management
- Our 2017 survey of skill needs in the effective altruism community
- 2021/2022 update: more recent surveys are now available, including the 2019 EA Leaders Forum Survey on EA priorities and the EA Survey 2019 Series: Careers and Skills
Operations roles are one way to have a big impact in the effective altruism community. Many people could contribute far more than they could by earning to give, while also placing themselves at the centre of the community.
If you’d like to pursue this opportunity, let us know and we can help match you with positions. We may also be able to introduce you to mentors and further training.
Notes and references
- Make sure to rank by “My org.” In this list, we ignore responses that are not role types (such as “Good calibration”) and other broad skillsets (such as “Government and policy experts”), but overall the operations type roles come out highly.↩