Operations looks like the highest-impact role for some people in the effective altruism and existential risk communities right now, rather than the roles that might first come to mind, such as research, outreach or earning to give.
For instance, Kyle considered taking a corporate job to earn to give or doing career coaching, but instead applied to work at the Future of Humanity Institute in operations.
This led to him becoming personal assistant to Nick Bostrom — the founder of the institute. In this role, he did a huge variety of things to save time, such as organising meetings and media interviews, editing his website, and deciding which conferences to attend. It seems likely he saved over 30 minutes of Bostrom’s time per day, adding up to hundreds of extra hours of research over a year from someone at the very top of their field. From there, he went to oversee a team at BERI, which provides operations support to other organisations in the existential risk community, likely having an even bigger impact.
We don’t think Kyle’s story need be unusual: other people could have a huge impact through operations by stepping into the roles that “make things happen” — onboarding new staff, ensuring people get paid, running the office, doing budgeting, dealing with legal risks, and so on — and multiply the productivity of everyone else at the organisation.
In this article, we argue that there’s a shortage of people able to excel in these positions in the community, making them especially high-impact right now. [Edit May 2020: This shortage has become less severe since the post was written (in part due to the post itself). We expect organisations in the community will continue to grow their operations teams but they’ll be more likely to receive many qualified applicants than they would have been in the past.]
We also argue they can be more creative and intellectually stimulating than many people think, often involving the design of complex systems and requiring creativity and social intelligence. And, we respond to some other common misconceptions people have about these roles.
Finally, we list some key open positions and explain how to work out whether this path is for you.
This article is based on our summer survey of talent needs and input from twelve 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 Inititative (BERI); and Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh who has worked at both FHI and the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge (CSER). (Though 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, Carrick Flynn on careers in AI policy, and one of our articles on research management.
Table of Contents
- 1 In a nutshell
- 2 What do these roles involve?
- 3 Why are these roles high-impact?
- 3.1 1. Many organisation leaders believe there’s a shortage
- 3.2 2. Organisation leaders report high marginal value estimates
- 3.3 What’s the explanation for these high figures? Why aren’t operations roles replaceable?
- 3.4 Why is it important for operations staff to share the mission of effective altruism?
- 4 How good is the career capital?
- 5 How can you tell if you’re a good fit?
- 6 What to do if there are no openings you can take right now
- 7 Further reading
- 8 Next steps
In a nutshell
- People in operations roles act as multipliers, aiming to enable those in the organisation to 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, and so on.
- Great operations people are “systems builders” — they create and manage repeatable processes that keep the organisation functioning at a high level. This means they require significant creativity, self-direction and social skills, as well as conscientiousness.
- These roles seem to be especially in-demand in the community right now, based on the results of our talent survey. Junior roles might contribute value equivalent to as much as $300,000 of donations over three years. That figure might be several million for senior staff. This makes them competitive with other top roles in the community, such as research and management.
- They’re so valuable because recent growth has created more positions, while the skills seem to be relatively rare within the community, and it’s difficult to hire people from outside the community to fill the posts in question. [Edit May 2020: These skills seem to have become somewhat less rare in the community since we wrote this post.]
- Taking an operations job gives you valuable transferable skills, connections with the community, and the opportunity to advance. However, you don’t keep your options open as much as if you worked in a well-known company.
- Many people don’t realise they’re a good fit for operations. You might still have a comparative advantage in these roles even if you have no background in operations. Rather, consider whether you’ve been self-directed in the past, able to learn quickly, and driven by the need to fix problems. If you’re interested, aim to test out working in a relevant role. [Edit May 2020: We broadly still agree with this advice but it has become substantially harder to get a job in operations without prior experience. It’s become more likely that you’ll have to develop relevant career capital (as described below) before getting one of these jobs.]
- If you want to enter in the future, then the best preparation might be working in a high-performing team at a promising startup in an operations position, where you’ll receive mentorship. You could also consider working in larger companies, consulting and professional services. If you want to work at an academic research institute, then consider working elsewhere in a relevant institution or graduate studies.
Here’s a video covering many of the same ideas in 20 minutes.
You can also listen to two podcasts on the topic:
- Tara Mac Auley on the operations mindset
- Tanya Singh on ending the operations bottleneck
Otherwise, read on to see the full details.
Reading time: 15 minutes.
What do these roles involve?
Operations staff enable everyone else in the organisation to focus on their core tasks and maximise their productivity. The best operations staff do this by setting up scalable systems, rather than addressing individual tasks. So, while you can take a junior role with less responsibility if you prefer, there is plenty of scope to find a job involving challenging, varied work that requires significant creativity and entrepreneurialism.
Here are some examples of what you might work on (not exhaustive):
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. Once more than a couple of people are involved in a project, it becomes difficult 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 of these points, and then stay in touch with everyone who’s involved to keep them in sync.
Creating a productive office. Often organisations hire expensive staff to do research, engineering or outreach, but 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, while each hour they save can produce a lot of value. The ideal executive assistant can respond to emails on behalf of the senior staff member, and represent them in lower stakes meetings. They can anticipate what the staff member will want before they do, and create repeatable ways to save time. This requires great judgement and understanding of the person you’re working with.
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, 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 skill set. 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 & HR. 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, assisting with fundraising.
Why are these roles high-impact?
Many operations staff working in the community feel they’ve been able to have a greater contribution through operations. Along with Kyle, Amy Willey Labenz is another 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 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? Here are some reasons we think operations roles seem especially high-impact, even compared to other positions at effective altruism non-profits:
1. Many organisation leaders believe there’s a shortage
In our 2017 talent survey of organisations in the community, when asked to rate the greatest skill needs at their own organisation, management was the second most commonly cited role type, operations was the third, and administration & office management was fourth. Only “generalist research” came out ahead. (We’re ignoring “good calibration” etc. since that’s not a role type; make sure to rank by “my org”.) People believe that some other skillsets are needed in the community more broadly, such as government and policy experts, but overall the operations type roles come out highly.
|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 at least appear in the sample that the estimates are based on.
What’s more, if we were able 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 double check, 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. Answering this question he said:
My numbers for an excellent operations hire would be towards the high end of the survey results, including the multi-million 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: $5m
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.
What’s the explanation for these high figures? Why aren’t operations roles replaceable?
People often have the intuition 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 the roles less attractive for people who are motivated by effective altruism, since those people could do something else that’s less replaceable.
However, the figures above already take account of “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 by taking the role you “free up” the person who would have replaced you. This freed up person can then go and have an impact elsewhere. The estimates, however, only account for the value created for the original organisation, and don’t account for the “spillover benefit” to other organisations.)
Why are the figures so high, even if we take account of replaceability?
In part, it’s due to all the normal reasons that organisations in the community face skill bottlenecks. The amount of funding available has suddenly increased in the last few years, 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; and there’s a big difference between a “good” operations staff member and an excellent one. A great staff member can design scalable systems and hire others, achieving a multiple of the 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 are valuable include:
- These roles often can’t be easily filled by people who don’t care about effective altruism. We explain why in the next section.
You don’t get as much recognition in these roles, since they’re behind the scenes. Instead, positions in research or outreach seem more “glamorous”. One particularly difficult feature is that when operations work goes well, people take it for granted, but 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 also make it harder to stay motivated.
For whatever reason, effective altruism seems more likely to attract researchers, philosophers and software engineers than people who are good at operations. The skill-set seems to be unusually rare in the community. [Edit May 2020: the skill-set has become somewhat less rare since the post was written.]
Recent increases in funding have created especially large bottlenecks within operations. As a team increases in scale from 5 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 in the community, increasing 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 skill-set 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.
Why is it 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 who aren’t especially concerned by effective altruism, freeing up those who are more motivated by effective altruism to do other roles that are harder for others 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 usually doesn’t work out. Instead, we think it’s valuable for almost all operations staff to have good “fit” with effective altruism. By this we mean 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, and 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.
Here are some reasons why we think fit with effective altruism is normally important:
Enjoyment of the culture. People who work at organisations in the community 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 found that people who are less interested in effective altruism are much more likely to leave their job. Turnover is very costly, because then you need to hire and train new staff, which can take years. What’s more, they’re more likely to leave the community altogether, meaning that all the knowledge, training and connections they’ve built up don’t get applied to other effective altruist projects.
Motivation. As we’ve said, it can be harder to stay motivated in operations roles since your impact is (even) more 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 more professional accountant? How should we design an unbiased hiring process? Making these decisions requires weighing competing organisation 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 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.
In some roles, knowledge of effective altruism is required. For instance, if you’re an academic project manager, it’s necessary 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, then you’ll be able to save more time if you can better 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. So, if someone doesn’t have 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 didn’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 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 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 pre-existing community.
How good is the career capital?
Another common worry with these roles is that you won’t gain good career capital — 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 joined MIRI doing operations, and is now COO and manages most of the team. We already covered Kyle’s journey from personal assistant to manager at BERI. Sean started as an academic project manager at FHI and became Executive Director of CSER.
One reason this is possible is because the organisations are growing rapidly, so everyone has 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 superiors 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 Center 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 2 years ago, on a 3 week temporary contract as an office manager. I flew from the US on 4 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.
Turning to transitions to other organisations, operations is a skill-set needed in basically all organisations, 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.
Working in operations at one of these organisations also provides all the other benefits of working at effective altruist non-profits 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 altruist organisations in the future, especially those focused on catastrophic risk and community building, then you can progress significantly faster by entering the community directly, if you have the opportunity.
One reason is that 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. Another reason is that 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 roles in a wider variety of sectors in the future.
Ultimately, working in effective altruism or existential risk organisations 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.
How can you tell if you’re a good fit?
We often find that people in the community think they’d be a poor fit, when actually they seem to us like a promising candidate.
One issue is that people think they need to already have a background in operations in order to contribute. But 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’ll now describe.
Which traits do you need?
People often think that traits like attention to detail, being reliable, and having a good memory are key, and we agree these “organization” related 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 and social skills.
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, and they’re 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.
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 me on 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 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.
Planning skill – 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 run a conference, or put on an event, or run a recruitment round.
Prioritisation – 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 – Not only do operations staff have to deal with lots of tasks and deadlines, 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 new General Data Protection Regulation. Staff at CEA had to quickly work out what this might imply about the data that CEA 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 — Communication skills are needed in any role that involves working with a team, and operations staff nearly always do a lot of teamwork. Operations staff 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 and 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 & reliability – You create and use checklists, you have reliable systems for managing your tasks, your schedule, and keeping track of 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 ten slow steady hands over one speed demon who drops things.
Fit with effective altruism – as defined and argued for earlier.
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. 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.
How to assess your fit?
If you look at your past work history, here are some clues that you might be a good fit for operations:
- Have you gone above and beyond in a previous job? For instance, did you notice a problem and take steps to fix it without anyone telling you what to do?
Have you been able to quickly learn new skills, and apply that knowledge? For instance, did you succeed in your studies or quickly pick up hobbies in your spare time?
Can you work independently? For example, have you pushed ahead with side projects that you weren’t required to do for work or school? If you’ve worked in an environment with very little autonomy, did you get frustrated?
Have you run a significant event, such as a conference, exhibition or concert? This involves some similar skills, and people have often had the opportunity during university.
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 EAG 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 make 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.
How to compare operations roles to other roles in the community?
If you share the values of the effective altruism community, then the key question is where your comparative advantage lies compared to other community members (we’ll argue for this in an upcoming article). Here are some ways to get evidence about whether your comparative advantage might be for 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. In fact, since there are few people in the community who have operations skills, even people who might not consider themselves best at operations in general could still have a comparative advantage in the role. (Though, we don’t recommend taking a job you won’t enjoy or perform poorly in.)
We talk more about comparing direct work to earning to give and doing a PhD in our career review on working at effective altruist non-profits.
What to do if there are no openings you can take right now
Jobs to prepare you
Ideally you can enter directly and work your way up, but if you want to go into one of these roles in a few years, what are the best ways to prepare?
The most obvious step is to take an operations role at a great company in the corporate sector, for example 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 smaller startups (under 10 people) there is often not enough time for training; whereas 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; though these large company roles don’t seem as directly relevant as the startup jobs we just covered.
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 (for instance, find temporary jobs at Oxford here).
If you want to work in research management in particular, then graduate study is often required.
Other ways to prepare
You could also work on one of the voluntary projects listed earlier, or another side project, to improve and demonstrate your skills.
Also see our general advice on investing in yourself, especially improving your productivity and organisation.
- Podcasts: Tara Mac Auleyand Tanya Singh
Personal thoughts on careers in AI policy and strategy by Carrick Flynn.