Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe by searching 80,000 Hours wherever you get your podcasts, or click one of the buttons below:

  • iTunes
  • SoundCloud
  • Stitcher
  • RSS

Yeah, I was able to free up more than one researcher-equivalent, I think that’s fair to say. It’s clear you can do that when the ops to researcher ratio is 1:10. Or 1:20, which was the figure I was dealing with for a while!

Tanya Singh

Almost nobody is able to do groundbreaking physics research themselves, and by the time his brilliance was appreciated, Einstein was hardly limited by funding. But what if you could find a way to unlock the secrets of the universe like Einstein nonetheless?

Today’s guest, Tanya Singh, sees herself as doing something like that every day. She’s Executive Assistant to one of her intellectual heroes who she believes is making a huge contribution to improving the world: Professor Bostrom at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI).

She couldn’t get more work out of Bostrom with extra donations, as his salary is already easily covered. But with her superior abilities as an Executive Assistant, Tanya frees up hours of his time every week, essentially ‘buying’ more Bostrom in a way nobody else can. She also help manage FHI more generally, in so doing freeing up more than an hour of staff time for each hour she works. This gives her the leverage to do more good than other people or other positions.

In our previous episode, Tara Mac Aulay objected to viewing operations work as predominately a way of freeing up other people’s time:

“A good ops person doesn’t just allow you to scale linearly, but also can help figure out bottlenecks and solve problems such that the organization is able to do qualitatively different work, rather than just increase the total quantity”, Tara said.

Tara’s right that buying time for people at the top of their field is just one path to impact, though it’s one Tanya says she finds highly motivating. Other paths include enabling complex projects that would otherwise be impossible, allowing you to hire and grow much faster, and preventing disasters that could bring down a whole organisation – all things that Tanya does at FHI as well.

In today’s episode we discuss all of those approaches, as we dive deeper into the broad class of roles we refer to as ‘operations management’. We discuss the arguments we made in ‘Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism’, as well as:

  • Does one really need to hire people aligned with an org’s mission to work in ops?
  • The most notable operations successes in the 20th Century.
  • What’s it like being the only operations person in an org?
  • The role of a COO as compared to a CEO, and the options for career progression.
  • How do good operation teams allow orgs to scale quickly?
  • How much do operations staff get to set their org’s strategy?
  • Which personal weaknesses aren’t a huge problem in operations?
  • How do you automate processes? Why don’t most people do this?
  • Cultural differences between Britain and India where Tanya grew up.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

Key points

There’s something to be said about a distinction between what I would like to call administration and operations. What I call administration is when you’re dealing with a preset system that you don’t control, that you can’t innovate, or radically overhaul, whether it’s interacting with some government department that you have to push some forms through, some policy body that you have to engage with and they pre-date you by many decades and you know are set in their ways. You have to play ball with their rules, get entrenched in their system, and then operate.

If you’re doing something like that, I think that’s largely administration where economies of scale kick in because you’re doing the same sort of tasks. You’re doing fairly repetitive tasks interacting with the system. It’s hard to make this more efficient on your terms. Those are admin bits. Then everything else, making sure that the organization’s very effective, and even sort of figuring out how much of your workflow or anything that you’re dealing with needs to be interacting with this maybe slower administrative setup versus how much often can you directly control and speed up or change at will. Those decisions as well would be ops. That’s how I think this community should be looking at operations. There’s an element of administration to it and then there’s an element of making things happen.

When you’re working with an organization for a really long time, you’re going to hit low times as well. There will be times when you’re at odds with mostly everyone in the organization or you feel differently and other people feel differently or you feel that something should be done differently whereas it’s being done wrong. You’re going to have all sorts of moments, not having a crisis of faith then, it sort of boils down to how much do you believe in the overall mission that you are working towards. Is it all meaningful to you or is it just a job that you’re trying to earn and maybe earn to give or something, but basically, that’s what it essentially I think boils down to. That’s where I think value alignment becomes really important. You’re not going to feel isolated or alienated.

Effective altruists have like a very typical way of talking. We’re talking about the same things. We’re obsessing about the same problems. Someone who’s not a part of this community is going to find that very annoying all the time. “What are you guys on and on about?” If they’re not bought into that way of thinking, how urgent all of this is, they’re going to be fairly isolated in the whole setup is my sense. They’re also not going to work with the kind of urgency. They’re not going to be appreciative of the urgency of others. I think in operations roles, it’s important to have value aligned people who want to stick around so that you can grow these people as operations leaders. I think when an employee churns out, there’s a lot of institutional information, tacit knowledge, relationships that are lost that leave with that person. For the health of the organization, it’s important to grow people who have long term careers in operations.

I’ll try and put out what I think are super important characteristics or traits that mostly all good ops people or most of the good ops people have. I think one would be a bias towards action and making sure that you’re tabling good solutions. Basically, tabling solutions and the second part that follows is tabling good solutions, being the person who feels very unsettled if things are broken. Rather than just complaining about them, you’d probably throw yourself at it and patchwork it somehow. I think that’s a very useful quality that’s very … also that’s very easy to see if someone has consistently displayed it because you’ll find it and the kind of things they’ve done in their school. You’ll see if they were instrumental in organizing any events in their college community building kind of stuff. You’ll also see it in their work. It sort of shines through this quality. I think it’s very important.

Then the second thing I would be sort of psyched about seeing in ops people is yeah, the excitement to learn different things and not be very settled in their jobs already. The drive to want to do different things, want to make things better, sort of put scalable systems and solutions in place even though it seems like a mammoth task, that who will change and people will probably adopt, not adopt. There’s a bunch of unknowns, but being comfortable in this ambiguity and knowing that we’re going to put something in place, that’s probably not going to work or is going to work poorly initially and then is going to improve drastically, because we’re going to make it improve. Just having that mindset of wanting to build scalable solutions, robust systems that make you redundant, that make your own job redundant. If someone’s excited by that, that’s a useful thing. That’s a useful indicator that they’ll be pretty good.

Operations make for very interesting opportunities in this community where you are working with organizations like FHI, MIRI, CHAI, Open Philanthropy Project. A lot of these places where really exciting thinking is happening. While the things that we’re trying to work on are in a very dynamic stage right now, the fields and the landscape is evolving. As an operations person, you have the privilege to interact with all these people, absorb this knowledge. I’m not saying researchers don’t have, but by nature, their work at times is a bit more siloed where they have to focus on their problem and tune out everything else. Operations people can absorb all this information while developing skills that are fairly fungible. Those skills are going to come in handy whether you’re working with one organization or the other organization, so you can switch to different cause areas if you feel strongly about some other cause area today while having developed skills that are fairly transferable, useful for that organization, which is not true of a researcher whose zooming in on one’s particular topic or something like that. Ops gives you that luxury and I think there’s a lot to be said about how important that can be especially while these fields mature, grow, change.

Learn more about relevant career options

Transcript

Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, the show about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.

Today is our second episode about the broad set of positions we are calling operations roles – it follows on from the previous episode with Tara Mac Aulay which attracted some strong reactions.

Tanya and Tara have somewhat different views so if the topic interests you may want to listen to both.

If you’re interested in roles like this, the Centre for Effective Altruism is still accepting applications for an Events Specialist, EA Grants Evaluator, UK Operations Specialist and US Operations Specialist. But applications close this Monday so you’ll want to act on that right away. You can learn about those roles at centreforeffectivealtruism.org/careers.

You may also remember my episode with Owen Cotton-Barratt a few months ago. He is hiring early-career researchers for a Research Scholars Programme at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. Applications for that are closing very very soon. You can find out more at fhi.ox.ac.uk/rsp/

We also list a wide variety of other operations roles at 80000hours.org/job-board/

Without further ado – here’s Tanya Singh.

Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Tanya Singh. Tanya is the executive assistant to Professor Nick Bostrom at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute. Tanya has an MBA and engineering degree with a major in computer science. In the past, she’s worked in HR consulting, business development, user growth, and data analytics, including running a monthly P&L sheet of up to $100 million. Over the last six years, she has worked at companies including Mercer Consulting, the world’s largest human resource consulting firm, Indian E-commerce company, Snapdeal, and online education nonprofit, Khan Academy. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Tanya.

Tanya Singh: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be here.

Robert Wiblin: We planned to talk about the social impact of careers in operations and how listeners can potentially do a lot of good by pursuing one, but first, it’d be good to find out a whole lot more about your background, so tell me just about the story of the work you’ve been doing since you completed your studies.

Tanya Singh: Sure. I did my computer science engineering and then, without having a very good idea of why I wanted to do management or what sort of management did I want to get involved, and I very quickly did an MBA in HR right after my engineering degree. Then after that, I joined the consulting firm, Mercer, for a couple of years where I was working either at Mumbai or Delhi working with M&C clients who had operations all over the world, but mostly focused on their Indian and Southeast Asian operations, being a part of projects that involved change management, org design, designing competency frameworks, performance management systems, etc., and I think that gave me a bit of an insight into how organizations function, how you’re like a part of a larger system and trying to make something happen. I felt that I could possibly have more impact, be happier if I moved closer to business rather than coming in to do an intervention with this organization that’s dealing with its issues. I’m getting a very partial picture of what the actual issues are and proposing a solution and walking away or helping implement some of it. I think that’s sort of a … the consulting world does that sort of engagements largely.

Something about that was unsatisfying, so I moved closer to business and I got an opportunity to work with Snapdeal which was an Indian eCommerce homegrown giant competing with Flipkart. After I joined Snapdeal, I think Amazon entered the Indian market like a force. My year and eight months with Snapdeal were very educational but very activity laden and a lot happened. Snapdeal grew to be a 12,000 people company after I joined them. I must have been like a thousand something sort of employee. Even when we had like all operations in-house that time, customer calling team, etc. Then they grew to 12,000 people then they cut back to 6,000 people or something at the time during the time I was leaving. It was a wild ride with a lot happening, a lot of good learning from there, a lot of good learning about what not to do from there.

After working in Snapdeal, I realized that it’s important for me to feel that what I’m doing is very meaningful. That element was sorely missing. I used to fantasize about working for an organization where like I really cared about the change that they were trying to bring in the world. After completing the second project, it’s a premeditated decision, I left.

I’d requested my manager back then, who I worked really well with, learned a lot from him, to connect me to someone in Khan Academy, because Khan Academy was a very inspiring to me. I’ve used their produce for my own MBA prep. I’d heard about the founder story, very inspiring. I was actually lucky enough to join that company because they had just started operations and then that’s why I’d read about and hence made the request. It was an eye-opening experience because it was a team of a hundred people who … I did not get to interact with all of them, but it was very clear that they were very inspired in their mission. Everyone had focused on education from one angle or the other in their past work and had come together under the Khan Academy umbrella to do something. It mattered a lot to everyone. You could see that in the way they were interacting and the way they were expressing disagreements, so it felt very right. I thought that I also wanted to work in a organization like this in a cause area that really mattered to me.

Meanwhile, my life was going through a bunch of changes. We’d move to London because my partner wanted to shift to working in AI safety. I reached out to a few of these organizations. A few of them being like OpenAI, DeepMind, MIRI. I saw FHI’s website. They only had research roles that time, but I remember seeing MIRI’s website to be very encouraging of people with ops skillset to sort of reach out. I reached out and then Matthew Graves from MIRI put me in touch with Neil and I came to FHI. That’s like a overview of my work journey.

I should point out because I think I’d want to dive into something on these lines, but I’ve held very different roles. I was an HR consultant and then I was doing business development, setting up a category for an eCommerce company which involves defining the product somewhat because it required slightly different product features from Snapdeal’s regular eCommerce platform, because you were buying cars and bikes online. Then working on this huge intervention project to sort of make the unit economics work better. You’ll be working with the customer team, seller team, training, a bunch of different teams. Then I did data analytics and user growth for Khan Academy which is absolutely something that I’d never done before, but that was what they wanted, some very quick upscaling. I only worked with them for seven months, eight months, and focused on that. Then I very briefly joined as a product head of a tech company in London before coming to FHI and doing everything that we couch under the umbrella of operations in FHI.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, so you weren’t that happy in these roles in the end, so you wanted to move into something different, I guess now you’re kind of in a university.

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I wasn’t very excited about working in eCommerce. I realized it after a year and a half of having work there.

Robert Wiblin: What was the reason? Just that it wasn’t that meaningful?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, it wasn’t that meaningful. I really liked the one person who taught me probably the most that I know about running a business or running a project tightly, Badal Malick. I worked with him on the second project that I worked with on Snapdeal. I think the pull for me was to continue learning from him and working rather than being associated with this organization. I think he left after we’d completed our project, and that was when I decided that I’m sort of done with Snapdeal. I’m also done with eCommerce in general. Yeah, I wanted to very actively move away from eCommerce, or I wanted to continue working with technology, or maybe even startup kind of companies because I think the exposure that you can get in a startup is way more than what you would get in something that’s like a very well-oiled machine where you have your fixed role and probably not much elbow room unless you establish yourself to go outside the remit of your role.

Startups for smaller companies give you that flexibility and that’s something that I would have definitely preferred. But I did not want to work towards consumerism of sorts, because I was also getting to a point where I thought that digital advertisements and … Part of my job was to make sure that people clicked on my ad rather than anyone else’s ad. I find our land ads annoying and have blocked them. I sensed this certain level of hypocrisy in what I was generally doing and that made me really sad, so I decided … It was a premeditated decision that after I’m done with my project, I will leave. I was pretty clear about that.

Robert Wiblin: What were you doing at Khan Academy?

Tanya Singh: I joined them to launch a user growth plan for them. They were launching operations in India, had launched operations in India. Sandeep who is India Khan Academy head was setting up his team, so I joined them to figure out who are the people who are using Khan Academy. Even without focusing on their user base, they had 400,000 monthly active users. That’s a lot. This was with no focus on the market. These were people who were of their own accord, god knows where they’ve heard about Khan Academy from, were using the platform and using it quite extensively. What I did was I did a qualitative and a quantitative analysis of its data set. I joined them just to sort of focus on what will lead to more user growth. Then that was a very broad kind of a project. It resulted into concrete pieces of work where I did a user research survey of sorts. So I looked at the data quantitatively, sliced the users into four categories depending on their usage habit, time spent on platform, and things like that, the parts of the tool that they were using and things like that.

Then interviewed some sample users from all of these categories and came up with some recommendations of how to grow, which user base to focus on to grow, and what are the kinds of things that we could be doing to grow them. Then some digital marketing initiatives just to see what are some low lift things without pumping any money or energy that you could do to keep them engaged or inform them about other things. Some really interesting insights came out after we spoke. Since this was the first initiative to speak to people who are actually using the product in India, interesting insights were called out of that. Finally, I submitted a year long growth management plan that kind of got me … something of that has been implemented in 2017. I think from 400,000, they’re now 1.5 million users per month, unique users per month, just in India, so that’s quite phenomenal. But yeah, much of that has to … It’s not to be credited to my growth plan, it’s to be credited to the amazing product that they have going there and some really good initiatives that they’ve taken to improve the engagement with that product.

Robert Wiblin: You’ve worked in, I guess, quite a mature international corporate, a startup that’s scaling really quickly, a nonprofit, and now a university. Do you want to have any comments on the range of different cultures that you’ve worked in and which ones you like, which ones you don’t?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I suddenly have a strong bias towards really liking FHI and Khan Academy for the kind of things that they’re focused on. I think that resonates heavily with me, speaks strongly to me, more FHI because I really care about these cause areas. But Khan Academy was a brilliant working experience and if we had not moved to UK or can’t have, actually I can say that I would probably never have left Khan Academy unless they’d kick me out because I was so happy working with them as a team and the mission that they were focused on. Yeah, I think all organizations function fairly differently. They have problems that you can see same themes in those problems, but they deal with very different demons depending on what their size is, what they’re trying to accomplish, the kind of people they attract, which leads to this larger, this cultural thing which is so hard to encapsulate, so hard to change or intervene and get set by the will of the head of the organization. There’s so much nuance there, so I think all organizations are very different.

But in terms of the kind of people who would work well there or the kind of people who’d find joy in working with Snapdeal versus Khan Academy, that’s I think something some people should explore for themselves because the experience can be really different. This is not to say that working at FHI is all … it’s awesome, it’s all fun and play, and there’s nothing hard about it because I love what they’re doing. I think unequivocally, FHI is the hardest role that I’ve ever done in my life, like across the board, if I compare FHI to Snapdeal or Khan Academy, it’s really hard. I will hopefully explore why it’s hard.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, tell me. What do you do with FHI?

Tanya Singh: I’m coming up to a year in FHI now. I joined as a temporary administrator. I joined a team of five people then focused on different bits of operations, so website, there was an associate director that we had, one person was functioning as Nick Bostrom’s EA, Kyle Scott. There was this team that after two to four months of my joining, everyone sort of moved on to different roles. I got to whatever I could and wanted out of all this, and I think in September I started focusing on being a full time EA to Nick Bostrom and then doing whatever I could which was in the gamut of all the other roles.

Robert Wiblin: That’s executive assistant, not effective altruism.

Tanya Singh: Yes, executive assistant to Nick Bostrom, yes. I think I’ve done like a wide variety of things. I’ve handled some website and social media last few months. I’m handling the HR process. I handle the HR processes for quite some time. For five, six months, I was the only ops person around, so only ops person along with the web incomes person. Yeah, I’ve done a fair few different projects within FHI. The only constant of my role is working as Nick’s EA, so churning through his email, doing his media arrangements, booking his travels, sort of trying to be a force multiplier to him, and then making sure that I pass along information that’s relevant. I take an input on organizational priorities and then try and push out projects which are important for FHI, given that we were going through the spirit of churn, now we again have almost four people. The fourth due to join in a month or so. Four people ops team in place, so there’s been a bit of a change in this. I can answer it simply.

Robert Wiblin: What is it like being the only ops person in an organization of something like 20 people? I mean, isn’t that just insane?

Tanya Singh: It’s hard, yes. That’s why I said FHI was hard. It’s also because I think there’s a lot of self-impulse pressure that I had. I’ve seen other people in the effective altruism community who work in operations or across the board. But basically, the ones that I can sympathize with their situation, empathize with their situation, sorry, work in ops because you feel that you are directly responsible for making sure that these people are working towards this cause area that you really care about, can do their work very efficiently, and anything that’s very inefficient is probably because operations aren’t running as smoothly as they should. There’s a lot of self imposed pressure towards not destroying value in the future or not being a part of something that is actively not able to contribute to the value that you can generate for the future, so hence probably a negative contribution, so that’s the hard part which brings you sort of down.

Then not everyone at FHI or an organization like FHI interacts with, is bought into your ideology to the extent and the level that you are. So if you’re dealing with Oxford University who have many institutes like FHI and all focusing on all sorts of important and different and eclectic issues, the communication between you and them needs to be taking into account that they don’t think that you’re saving the world or whatever, that you’re doing these things which are probably one of the most important things that people should be focusing on. So tempering that side of you down, making sure that you’re communicating what’s relevant to be communicated. You’re not getting disheartened by things not moving, being okay with that, especially if you’re the only ops person. When I was the only ops person, all the things that did not happen in FHI were my fault, and no one told me. People here are pretty kind, so they would tell me that it’s alright and we’re in a special situation. But it’s hard to keep taking comfort in that for months that we’re in a special situation. Things need to happen. If they’re not happening, you’re probably dropping some very important balls.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve heard that you work pretty insane hours, so maybe you could make that kind of thing work for … I mean, is that typical among people in ops? Kind of the work drives you forward to …

Tanya Singh: No, I don’t think it’s a ops specific thing. I also don’t think it’s a required thing to be able to do what you’re doing well. I think some people are obsessive and some people aren’t. I’m fairly in the obsessive people category. I’ve always worked hard even arguably where I shouldn’t have spent so many hours because I did not add any additional value by spending three extra hours, but it’s a bit of a your own nature and working style kind of thing. That’s why I do it, but I don’t think that’s … You need to have that orientation. I think you can balance out your work and make sure that your prioritizing right and having a support system in place, like a big team can take on a lot of things. If one person’s trying to do everything, then yeah, they’ll be faced with a different challenge. I found that a bit challenging when I was the only person, but some things also had to be said about like the comfort you draw from the knowledge that you’re plugging some hole that might actually be sinking the ship right no. That thing drives you also or at least drove me.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. Let’s back out from what you’re specifically doing to thinking about operations more broadly. What kind of roles are operations? Is this kind of a natural group thing, or is it just a group thing of kind of everything that’s not perhaps research in FHI’s case?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, depending on the industry in which you’re operating, different things would be grouped under operations, but if I talk specifically about FHI, anything that’s not research is operations like you said. I think that would be true of any largely research focused organization, like any academic institute or a research organization of sorts. But if you look at philanthropic organizations, etc. They might have like a separate legal team and a separate team to look at, I don’t know, their website and marketing and things like that, if they are focused on those things. Operations would probably only include running the office smoothly, HR management of sorts. I like to look at it this way that historically, operations, COOs were people who were the right hand person of the CEO, making sure that things happen while the CEO is focused on some specific initiative or something where the CEO is zoomed into something specific or trying to be a thought leader in the industry, but someone needs to be focused full-time on the fact that this a company that needs to be working efficiently and effectively, achieving whatever its stated objective is. Those were operations roles. People who would probably take up CEO-ship after the CEO in many companies, in many cases, and people who are there to make sure that everything runs smoothly, so whatever, then they control in order to make sure that that happens, it became operations.

In eCommerce it’s supply chain and logistics that are ops. In for profit companies, different functions become important enough or big enough that they’re siphoned off as their own department, sort of marketing and sales. But in a research setup where it’s about good research that needs to reach policy makers or the larger populace and audience, anything that supports the core value chain of thinking the thoughts and putting them out there, anything that supports this whole process is operations.

Robert Wiblin: What things do you think people sometimes confuse for operations that you wouldn’t classify that way?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. It might be useful to talk about this in the context of a specific type or in the context of a specific industry or type of organization. I think for EA orgs, largely what constitutes operation is anything apart from, let’s say, FHI’s research case or some functions might be separate, but everything else that culminates into the organization delivering their core product or their core expertise to the people they want to reach out to, anything that facilitates that process as operations. Now I think there is an important distinction to be made which I don’t have the right terminology for it. It’s not very fleshed out in my head or in the couple of people that I’ve spoken to this about, but there’s something to be said about a distinction between what I would like to call administration and operations. What I call administration is when you’re dealing with a preset system that you don’t control, that you can’t innovate, or radically overhaul, whether it’s interacting with some government department that you have to push some forms through, some policy body that you have to engage with and they pre-date you by many decades and you know are set in their ways. You have to play ball with their rules, get entrenched in their system, and then operate.

If you’re doing something like that, I think that’s largely administration where economies of scale kick in because you’re doing the same sort of tasks. You’re doing fairly repetitive tasks interacting with the system. It’s hard to make this more efficient on your terms. Those are admin bits. Then everything else, making sure that the organization’s very effective, and even sort of figuring out how much of your workflow or anything that you’re dealing with needs to be interacting with this maybe slower administrative setup versus how much often can you directly control and speed up or change at will. Those decisions as well would be ops. That’s how I think this community should be looking at operations. There’s an element of administration to it and then there’s an element of making things happen.

Robert Wiblin: So operations are also the ones where there’s a lot more opportunity for creativity and innovation, redesigning things, whereas administration is once that starts to kind of already been fixed in place, then you just need to go through the process that exists.

Tanya Singh: Yes, at least I’d like to believe that that’s the right way to make a distinction, because then you can attract people who want to be creatively solving problems, dealing with putting innovative frameworks in place, thinking sort of out the box, willing to deal with a lot of rapid change testing. You can attract them to operations and then you can attract people who like to work with a system and like continuity and stability and have them do administration.

Robert Wiblin: Before we go on, we should probably give some examples of the kinds of roles that we’re actually going to be talking about in the rest of the interview, so we’re going to have a concrete vision of that. The kinds of operations roles that people are looking to fill, things like the Partnership on AI is looking for a chief operating officer. GiveWell is also looking for a director of operations or is looking for a chief operating officer or it being an AI forecasting group, the Open Philanthropy Project. We interviewed Holden a couple of months ago, has been looking for a director of operations but they recently filled it with someone who had a senior role in the Hillary Clinton campaign. Then there’s a whole bunch of other roles. We’ve got the operations associate at Open Phil. I think they’re still looking to fill that and a grants associate.

The Future of Humanity Institute until recently was looking for a senior administrator. Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative is looking for a project manager. The Center for Applied Rationality is looking for a workshop operations lead. There’s really quite a lot of these. The list in our article goes on. We’ve got Founders Pledge is looking for personnel and development assistant. Copenhagen Consensus is looking for an executive assistant. There’s a bunch of other roles as well. I think some of these might have been filled by the time this episode goes out. But they give you kind of a taste of their other positions that are available. Do you want to add anything to that?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, just how across the spectrum of the board like senior to junior, all sorts of vacancies are available for people who might think that they want to be trying their hand at ops kind of stuff. At FHI, we’re also going to be opening more program manager sort of positions, like at least a couple of more program managers who I would say are like mid level ops roles which we’d like to fill with people who have some experience of project management under their belt already, so all sorts of roles in the community, operations focused available, depending if you think that you’re going to be excellent at modeling someone’s preferences, you’ve got executive assistant sort of roles open. If you think you have some experience and would be a good person to set the strategy and direction, you’ve got director of ops sort of roles open for Ought and GiveWell and everything, so yeah.

Robert Wiblin: Are there any other positions I didn’t mention that FHI or the Global Priorities Institute might be hiring for in the next couple of months?

Tanya Singh: I think Global Priorities Institute will hire for our head of research operations of some sort. FHI will also open a head of operations, a couple of program managers. We also would probably open another couple of executive assistants or administrative assistant sort of roles. In our organization priorities, we are looking for strengthening, bringing more hands on deck for our ops team, it’ll be kind of across the levels for now. Maybe three to four more roles from FHI and GPI only focused on operations, three to five over the course of this year.

Robert Wiblin: Whenever this goes out, I’ll stick up a link to our job board and the latest list of operations roles that are available in our article about operations roles specifically, so people can check those out and see if there’s any that they’d like to apply for now. Just tell me more about what a COO does relative to a CEO. I guess a CEO is kind of setting the strategy for the organization, but then they don’t have any time to actually make sure that it gets done, so the COO is the person that actually implements it?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think a COO is closer to the pulse of the organization than the CEO. CEO of a large for profit company might be focused on how to keep the stakeholders happy, talking to a few of the key people rather than interacting across the board with a bunch of people, doing things like mergers and acquisitions, or focusing on expansion and sort of putting on these meta strategic level hats, and thinking through how the next five years, 10 years, or two to five years should pan out. The COO on the other hand is very tuned into this ideology, this direction, and then is trying to make it happen, trying to move step by step the organization from where you’re at and where you’d want to be two to five years from now, focused more on making that plan materialize while that plan is evolving. Ideally you would want to stay a couple of steps ahead of and have thought through contingencies and sort of things that could potentially go wrong and proactively move in the direction that you want to move, and keeping in mind that that direction might change a little bit, which I think is something that effective altruism’s community, we’ve experienced a bunch of change and at change management, I think the COO, it’s on their shoulders to do it smoothly, so to say, for the rest of the organization.

Robert Wiblin: Are there any kind of particularly famous COOs that people work in operations kind of look up to and admire? Or any kind of companies were operations was like particularly important to them in getting dominance?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting literature if one tries to understand what are some of the cool things to be doing in operations and what are some of the strategies that have gone right. At my talk at EAG, I talked about General Leslie Groves. I think he’s a very good example of an operations person who made a sea of difference to the whole project, Manhattan Project, and was extremely instrumental in making some really interesting things happen. If something is to be said about him as individual there, I don’t think it’s a role thing. Someone else in that role might not have been so effective, so it’s his buy in into the project and his understanding of everything important and his ability to optimize things because he knows everything that’s happening. Something like that is inspiring. A lot of this has been studied for the corporate world, like what are the best practices, what are the things that have worked, some business case studies that are, like HBR publishes a bunch of these case studies.

I think there are some very famous case studies of people in Dell who’ve done interesting operational innovations. People in Walmart, I think Walmart introduced something like a cross docking, the minute the product comes in, it’s sort of shipped out to where it needs to finally be displayed on the shelf. These are the kind of success stories you hear about ops, but it’s a very interesting fact that operational innovation is the least tried form of innovation, least doubled in form of innovation. I’m not sure about this, but yeah, I remember having read this somewhere in some HBR article. That’s where least innovation is attempted because it’s not sexy. It’s not very glamorous to say that, “Oh, we’re the whole process in.” Look at these three small changes that are leading to, I don’t know, .6% more efficiency or .6% less defects or .2% more engagement. It’s hard to communicate the achievement. It’s less fancy than have acquired that or we’ve done this or we’ve done that. It’s harder to do because only very few people in an organization are equipped to take a look at everything that’s happening and take a very metasystems level view of how to optimize. At least in larger organizations, that’s harder.

But there are a bunch of companies who’ve done very innovative things in an operations including companies like Uber, Toyota. Toyota production management system is known as Toyota production management system which is like their whole expertise on how to do operations better. There’s an element of efficiency to it, there’s an element of innovation to it. The innovation is less, it’s harder to do, fewer people are equipped to do it. Even after sort of massive innovation or something, very few people will appreciate what you’ve actually done. It’s less sexy to talk about, it’s less glamorous to be boasting about .2% increase in something, something.

Robert Wiblin: I’ll try to stick up some links to some of these different case studies. Is this the Toyota just-in-time system where they figured out how to store almost no inventory because everything was moving?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, Toyota’s just-in-time system. Even Walmart’s cross-docking system was basically to make them inventory light so that they don’t have to be storing all the products in one place and then some other container will come and then ship everything.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. There was this famous economics paper showing, as I recall, just the improvements in Walmart’s logistics during the ’90s. That alone drove several percent of all US economic growth.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, wow.

Robert Wiblin: Just from managing to move a lot more product much more cheaply because it’s, I mean, Walmart I think is the biggest retail in the world still. Then I guess also this, did you have any other details on the Manhattan Project story? As I understand that the Manhattan Project actually was absorbing several percent of GDP during that time period.

Tanya Singh: During that time period, yeah.

Robert Wiblin: Yet they still managed to keep it secret because people were making all of these materials. I mean, obviously, and in fact a million people were working on it, but I just didn’t know what they were contributing to.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, it was running a very siloed kind of way to make sure that it wouldn’t leak out, it’s supposed to be secret, a bunch of it was supposed to be secret, which I think is a testament to how expertly was it managed, how tightly was it managed at some levels that all these other bits and parts of it could afford to be so siloed and so unaware of what the other arm is doing. I think that was a masterful execution sort of case study which I don’t know too many details about to be honest. I’ve just heard about it. I think yes, yeah, that makes sense. That is one way of showing that person who’s not a scientist had a great impact and in a largely researched project where he wasn’t really equipped to have much of an impact if he stopped to find the facility, sourced the raw material, and then just step away, let the scientist do what they want to do. He took initiative and was very proactive and a bit of taskmaster. I think he managed a great deal.

We’re talking about innovations and operations are sort of case studies of ops work done well. I think the fact that COO is often a stepping stone to becoming CEO in the corporate world goes on to show that heading operations prepares you for knowing what are the true business challenges. If you are such a person who’s sort of has deep knowledge about all the aspects of running the business. It’s a very good position that primes you for leading the organization in some way. Tim Cook was the COO and Sheryl Sandberg’s the COO. These are famous COOs, you know. Most companies don’t have very famous COOs. Just because I think what they facilitate for the CEO is that CEO can become a media figure, become like a figure for the organization for people who are looking towards learning more about the organization. The COO is a bit in the background and works. Then some of them become famous because some of them do extraordinary things.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. As I understand, Tesla doesn’t have a COO. But I think I guess Elon Musk kind of fills that role as well. He’s like so deep into the details being in the factory all the time that he kind of …

Tanya Singh: I think they might be calling some things differently. The roles are fancy titles, director of XYZ, but there would be people who are focused on operations. Yeah, I’ve in places that Elon Musk is very, very hands on. He might be doing many of those things himself. I’m sure he has a team of people who are managing his projects and making sure that all the information is synthesized and right people are made aware of the right things, so that is the team that works with him, his program director, project managers, those are largely the people who are running the organization in the sense that I think they are instrumental in making things happen, making sure that Elon Musk’s will is translated to the rest of the organization, their feedback is fed back to him. They are essentially the operations, whatever they call themselves. They might be calling themselves something else.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s think about how relevant this stuff is I guess to existential risk reduction and the effective altruism community. I guess for organizations like Against Malaria Foundation or Deworm the World Initiative or Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, I mean, those are extremely operations heavy kind of projects. In fact, I mean, almost most of the operations because they’re moving a product to people or distributing it like checking it or … For effective altruism like movement building and so on. How relevant do you think these kind of big corporate case studies are? Does it have that much in common?

Tanya Singh: Probably not. Probably not very relevant. I think there’s some generalist sort of insights that you can call out from failures where there it’s at a big organization or in a startup or in some public/private partnership sort of body, but beyond that, I think these organizations which are focused on doing the most good, effective altruist organizations, are dealing with different problems. It also goes so far as to say that these organizations are full of people who are very value aligned and mission aligned which is kind of very rare generally in the community. Generally in the corporate world, not everyone’s rallying behind the cause with the kind of forward enthusiasm that effective altruists are for the causes that they care about in the organizations they’re working for. In that sense, I think it’s better. It’s a better environment to be doing things because you’re not wasting a lot of energy trying to bring people who should be on board, bring them on board. You’re not wasting effort there.

Those case studies and so far as they explain how to anticipate growth challenges, so far is they talk about how to deal with things like improving the culture of your organization or improving communication channels in your organization. I think one particular area where the insights from the industry are particularly relevant is project management. It doesn’t matter the kind of project that you’re managing. There are some very good practices that you can adopt to efficiently manage projects, to make sure that you’re minimizing redundant work, you’re minimizing in efficiencies that are bound to creep in. Experience teaches you that. Some best practices teaches you that. You can try and learn a little bit from all of that, but operations in the EA community are slightly different ballgame as is true for any industry I would say.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. Let’s talk about operations in effective altruism now. As I mentioned earlier, we recently published this article, why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism which was I guess trying to lay out the case for something that the people inside the community, people that work in these organizations, were aware of. But I think most people outside of them were not which is just that we’re struggling to grow and one of the key reasons is just that we like the operations capacity to make organizations function at a larger scale. Do you want to present a bit of a case on why you think operations can have a really large impact within organizations that are doing something very valuable?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. If I talk about my personal motivation for working in operations in this community is that the force multiplier argument that because economies of scale kick in, because if one person’s dealing with processes regularly and frequently, they’re likely to know more about them and they’re likely to be more efficient at it. You can free up a lot of Batman time, where Batman is a proxy for whoever you think is amazing and needs to be doing more of what they’re doing. I like to think of all the work that I put in as an executive assistant to Nick as freeing up some of his time. Now I’d refrain from making a qualitative assessment of quality of time that I free up for him. I think effective altruism is full of a lot of people who are very efficient. They drink their meals and listen to podcasts at 3X speed while walking. I’m not sure what’s the value, but I definitely think that I reduce some level of decision fatigue, some level of sort of having to deal with administrative things that possibly he doesn’t want to deal with and possibly won’t be as efficient in dealing with because he has not dealt with them.

Taking away some of those things is the kind of motivation for doing this from my perspective, so you can have a turbo charge kind of effect on the mission that you’re working towards. I think that’s what’s super motivating about working in operations. There is a dearth of talent of people. There’s a dearth of interested and talented people who want to work in operations and the community. I think that’s a temporary thing. When I say temporary, these are nascent organizations that are just growing. I don’t think the challenges that ops in these organizations face right now are such that an industry veteran with 25 years of experience is going to quit his job and come. He will see this as, “Oh, well, you don’t really need me.” We do need experienced people, but the industry veterans don’t think that they’d have much to gain from these sort of roles.

We have a bunch of people who are young, excited, unsure of what they want to do, possibly operations might be useful. I’ve heard it’s high impact, that kind of argument. Then they’d come and try their hands at ops. That’s the kind of talent that’s available right now. I think more people are likely to see that these roles can be super important, and then possibly we’ll have more people come in. I’d also like to say unless you want to become a AI safety researcher, I’m not sure how do you plan to contribute if you want to contribute towards making sure that these technologies come and they are used for the improvement of the world in general, like benefit of the world in general. You could be a policy person, or you could be a technical researcher, or you could be someone who’s making sure that communication happens smoothly and all these organizations work well together.

I think it’s a really good place to put yourself and absorb a lot of the information about the cause area by osmosis, by learning, by reading and making connections that are very valuable. You are connected. These are very small tightly knit communities so you get exposed. You get a lot of exposure talking to the people that you would prefer to talk to because you like working in these areas. Those are the things that should be the driving forces of people who want to work in operations in these fields. I think it’s important for people who want to do operations to want to continue to want to do operations were to find those rather than someone who’ll give two years of their life to ops, because I think that’s a slightly inefficient way of going about setting up systems that are scalable and are going to stay scalable and robust.

Robert Wiblin: Let’s see if we can break down the impact into various different categories. At first you were talking about the fact that you can save the time of other people. Potentially, if you put in eight hours a day, then you can save like eight hours of everyone else’s time by doing things that otherwise they would have to do. Potentially more than that, because you can be focused on these things extremely well. Whereas they would have to be get distracted and waste their time, then they got to do this one task that they don’t really know how to do, and then they could go back to their work. In as much as you’re doing this kind of trying to want to amplify someone else’s impact by saving all of their attention at times so they can do the thing that they’re really amazing at. You’re able to kind of shop around to find the highest impact person in the world basically if he’s willing to hire you for that role. You’re incredibly flexible in that way, that potentially you aren’t in some other roles. Do you think Nick Bostrom is extremely high impact, so you can go and work for him just directly and buy his time?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think that gives me so much satisfaction and joy to know that I’m freeing up some of Nick’s time, because I think he’s incredible at what he does. More Nick time will lead to more work that needs to happen happen and by possibly the best person who could be doing that work. That’s a very inspiring goal to run towards and motivate myself with.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Suggesting people who are donating money often get a bit frustrated because they can’t find things to fund that they really like that aren’t already funded, so someone like Nick Bostrom usually isn’t limited by whether his salary can be paid because so many people are interested in funding him. But there’s other things that you can provide in your case. By providing skill, you can buy more Nick Bostrom in a sense just by filling in for these tasks that otherwise he’d have to waste his time doing.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, yeah. That’s such a fascinating way of looking at it. It’s a very intuitive argument once it’s made, but I had to sort of see it like this to buy in to the fact that, “Oh yes. This is what I could be doing. This is really exciting.”

Robert Wiblin: Okay, so there’s the saving time aspect. There’s also just the fact that from my experience, I was the executive director of CEA for a couple of years, you just find, like if operations can’t scale, then you just aren’t able to hire or you just find that you’re kind of stuck. You don’t have the capacity to put in place the processes to actually get the people who you need. Even if you got them, things would just become a mess very quickly. This thing of just like an organization can just get in a position where it can’t hire people doing frontline work without the necessary operations in the background. Do you want to talk about that?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I think if you don’t have an ops team in place, there’s going to be inefficiencies that are … I think [Malo 00:52:20] or someone uses this analogy of death by a thousand cuts which I think is so accurate. Someone or the other will need to be doing these things. If someone wants a research assistant or an intern, they’re going to go out and find someone themselves and try and bring them in the system, make mistakes and learn, reinvent the whole wheel. If you don’t have ops people or ops systems, someone will be doing some of these things just that’s the nature of ops tasks that most of it needs to get done. If CFAR needs to organize workshops and don’t have the bandwidth of ops people to help organize them, then I don’t know. I know someone will be organizing workshops. That’s not an optimum use of her time, that’s not the most efficient way to go about these things.

Robert Wiblin: Also just to some extent if the other staff don’t know how to do it, then it just don’t happen. They just decide not to schedule them or [crosstalk 00:53:04].

Tanya Singh: Yeah, or they’ll just let go of that work stream altogether which is potentially worse. Even if you have ambition and if you have resources in terms of funding, etc., and you don’t have the team that can execute on all of that, can run the operations, you would A, not be able to scale to meet your ambition. Even if you do manage to sort of trudge along and scale somewhat because you absolutely need to, it’s going to be inefficient. You’re going to grow in ways that are probably going to be problematic later on because there’s no one who’s synthesizing everything and consolidating everything when it needs to happen, when you’re growing up, when an organization scales up. I think operations becomes really important from that perspective that there’s going to be a thousand holes that sink your ship very gradually. One day you’ll realize that, “Oh shit. Now I’m in trouble.”

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like as organizations move beyond the scale of just a couple of people who all know one another well, that operations becomes much more important, and like really, really essential if the organization to function. What are kind of the challenges that organizations face as they go from being two people to 20 people?

Tanya Singh: There’s something to be said about when organizations go beyond friends and family which is like 10, 15 people, very like-minded, everyone with the capability to communicate directly with each other, with very good communication channels. After you grow out of that and reach this, till the time you reach this 100, 150 people, 200 people scale, there’s a lot of changes that come about that you have to deal with in a very systematic and efficient way in order to not have staggering inefficiency settle in in your organization. I think that’s where the growing pains that all organizations have to deal with while they’re scaling up. They’re the ops challenges. Some of them have common underlying features, making sure that communication channels are smooth.

I think operations as a function, especially in the EA express community, that should take responsibility for making sure that people aren’t making decisions based on partial information, that relevant people who need to be consulted or informed about a project or a decision art. They’re in the know, they’re being consulted on time, all the relevant opinions that need to be factored in are factored in on time. Someone needs to be doing this task of being the central person who’s monitoring everything and informing the right people of the right things at the right time. That’s why I’m saying operations becomes really crucial. I think I imagine when you scale from, I don’t know, 250 to 500 plus or a thousand plus, there’s again like a certain hill that you have to climb which is of a similar nature that scale up beyond that point will lead to some other things that you have to factor in.

Some of your processes will break because they are not robust enough to support thousand plus people interacting with them or something like that. Or you’ll have to put fairly new different processes in place. You might have to cultivate in-house capability for things like recruitment and headhunting like you might need to have a recruitment specialist in-house. You might need to have a person who deals with a bunch of recruitment consulting firms. That’s their full time job and then they can figure out what are the good ones in the industry you can rely on, which other ones which give you leads that usually don’t pan out into anything meaningful, so someone who can sort of focus on these specialized tasks and meanwhile keeping the communication really strong and making sure that people aren’t talking past each other, they have common knowledge and awareness about what they should know about the organization.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. We talked about two ways that ops staff can have impact. One is save a group’s time. The other one is like allowing the organization to actually scale. I think maybe there’s a third one which is preventing catastrophes, because it is just the case that sometimes an organization can be significantly brought down by a failure within operations. I know of one case where our operations staff came in and basically saved the organization from failing very quickly because they noticed that someone was embezzling money and …

Tanya Singh: Oh wow.

Robert Wiblin: … put a stop to that right away, which otherwise basically would have meant that the organization was out of money and would have folded. Do you think that’s another large route to impact?

Tanya Singh: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right there. Because your job is to keep an eye on all the balls possible and make sure that you’re aware of everything that’s happening in all the directions in which your people in the organization are pulling the organization in, so to say. You are best placed to point out potential problems in the future, things that are not optimal to be doing given the objective of the goal of the organization. You’re in a very good spot to be able to point out any and all of that. From that perspective, that is something that you can have a huge impact on by being able to sort of clarify the mission, or define some useful systems and processes, or useful directions for the organization to be focusing on also, or just to be able to look at where you are and where you’re headed and say that these are the things that we should definitely avoid, these are the challenges that we should definitely avoid.

I think experience of having done ops preps you well for that because failures teach you a lot. It’s not to say that, “Oh well, then lets go out and fail 500 times because then we’ll end up learning a lot of things,” but that’s where seasons ops people I think help an organization, especially because they tackle this third aspect very head on, because they bring in experience that leads to them having sort of having better instincts about how to grow or what to watch out for or what to … be very mindful and cautious about while moving in a particular direction.

Robert Wiblin: You work for a week, I’d say, how many weeks of researcher time do you get out of a week of your time? Through this various different avenues, so one is saving people’s time by taking things off their plate, another is allowing the organization to have more people in it just by making the ops function so you can hire more. Do you have any sense of whether … Is there kind of a multiplier that you can give here?

Tanya Singh: I try and track all of this for my very unique situation at any given point in time, but I really don’t think that I have A, enough insight into effective altruism as a community and what all goes on in all the different roles that people are expected to play, B, enough insight into decision making. Because I think how an organization distributes its decision making par leads to a lot of what and which people in the organization impact. Like if you empower roles significantly, then they can make like a disproportionate impact on things. The second point that we talked about that if you’re able to make things run smoothly, you can hire quickly, you can scale up faster. That’s very tangible, direct number of research hours added or saved kind of calculation that you can do. But on the time you free up, I think in my EAG talk had talked about freeing up an hour of Nick Bostrom’s time every day, roughly saying that 30 minutes of it is something that would have required him to execute his decision capacity. Those are very wishy washy handwavy numbers. I’m not sure. He’s a fairly efficient guy who would have figured out a way to do all these things on the fly while drinking his liquid meals.

There are also people who are not very good at these things, and probably would not have … I’m not going to name names, but when I just joined FHI, I was setting up, installing a new printer for a bunch of the people. This researcher and I spent two hours trying to install the printer on his laptop, his Windows laptop. Two hours of his time solidly wasted because I was massively incompetent at trying to do this. I couldn’t figure out what’s the issue with this. Something like that can happen. It’s a very person dependent thing, but yes, I’d like to believe that because all the information rests with me and I am used to doing these things and they’re more in my skillset than in researcher skillsets or in the skillsets of academics, I can free up more than eight hours of FHI researcher level time per day. I think that’s fair to say, especially if you’re responsible for 10, 12 people. If the ops to researcher is one is to 10, one is to 11, or for a time one is to 20, that was in FHI while I was the only one around. Yeah, I was able to free up more than one researcher.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s what I would imagine it is. Potentially you could get a several fold multiplier depending on what the ratio is or the …

Tanya Singh: Yeah. On the third aspect where if you can avoid massive inefficiencies, if you can avoid crash and burn or sinking of some part of the organization completely because there’s operations are not run well. It’s harder to figure out what the counterfactual is there like what could have, would have been done, what have you avoided is something you don’t know, possibly nothing. But yeah, all of that’s very hard to calculate. I think it’s easier to do it for your own role with the complete understanding that you have the ecosystem you function in. But across the community, as operations, as a function matures and as more people are focused on trying to do this more effectively, we’ll know more and discover more, I think.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Some people think yes, operations roles are very valuable, but they also believe that it should just be easy to hire mercenaries basically to do this, that we should just outsource all these functions to kind of some external firm like APMG or just hire people who are not interested in effective altruism and don’t really care about the mission. You don’t believe that we can do that and neither do I, but why is that?

Tanya Singh: I want to be fairly epistemically modest here and say that I really don’t know what’s the best way, but I personally think that for someone to stick around for a long time with an organization, it’s important that they are happy with their job and they’re content with their job. I personally have struggled to find contentment even when I was working with a person I really respected. I liked most of my team. I think the work was challenging. There was a bunch of … I was paid really well. I was given all sorts of incentives to stick around, and autonomy. All those hygiene factors were sort of checked off for me, but I wasn’t happy. I think value alignment brings that contentment, that satisfaction.

When you’re working with an organization for a really long time, you’re going to hit low times as well. There will be times when you’re at odds with mostly everyone in the organization or you feel differently and other people feel differently or you feel that something should be done differently whereas it’s being done wrong. You’re going to have all sorts of moments, not having a crisis of faith then, it sort of boils down to how much do you believe in the overall mission that you are working towards. Is it all meaningful to you or is it just a job that you’re trying to earn and maybe earn to give or something, but basically, that’s what it essentially I think boils down to. That’s where I think value alignment becomes really important. You’re not going to feel isolated or alienated.

Effective altruists have like a very typical way of talking. We’re talking about the same things. We’re obsessing about the same problems. Someone who’s not a part of this community is going to find that very annoying all the time. “What are you guys on and on about?” If they’re not bought into that way of thinking, how urgent all of this is, they’re going to be fairly isolated in the whole setup is my sense. They’re also not going to work with the kind of urgency. They’re not going to be appreciative of the urgency of others. I think in operations roles, it’s important to have value aligned people who want to stick around so that you can grow these people as operations leaders. I think when an employee churns out, there’s a lot of institutional information, tacit knowledge, relationships that are lost that leave with that person. For the health of the organization, it’s important to grow people who have long term careers in operations. But obviously, there are also some roles where it’s all right if you don’t have someone who’s bleeding for the cause already, to bleed for the cause, or like a fanatic.

It’s all right to have some people who like working in a nice team, nice office environment, derive pleasure from the fact that they are checking off 15 things off their to-do list every day, keeping all these wonderful people happy, are doing something that they enjoy and are hanging around in an environment that they enjoy. I think it’s all right to have those roles be filled by people who are not necessarily that values align. There needs to be a certain level of appreciation for what effective altruists or whatever organization that they’re trying to do. They can be opposed to the idea of whatever you’re doing, but they don’t necessarily need to be absolutely bought into it. They can be exploring. They can be interested. Even if they churn, they don’t take away sort of important information that presents itself as sort of solid loss later, I feel. I do feel that senior roles in operations should be filled only by value aligned people because decision making and decision trade offs would be pretty impossible to understand or appreciated like the other people if you are on some other trajectory or tangent of what is important and what is not.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, that raises another issue that because it’s so important for more senior staff who have more strategic role to share the values, if you hire someone who doesn’t, then you basically can’t promote them. Also, you can move them, but you can’t move them horizontally either.

Tanya Singh: Yeah. It has a trickle down effect on the rest of the team as well. If they’re not aligned to the values of the organization, not bought into or to a very healthy, or sort of largely to the extent that’s needed, then the team that’s functioning under them and executing on the operations strategy under them is also going to be somewhat confused. Their incentives are going to vary a bit because their leader’s incentivizing something else and their organization largely is incentivizing something else.

Robert Wiblin: What’s the best argument for interest in the cause not being necessary for working in operations?

Tanya Singh: Since it’s easy to understand what are the kind of skills and mindsets that you’d need to be effective in your role in operations. A good project manager whose always worked in some different industry does not care about what’s happening here and also maybe things that okay, whatever, maybe not the most important thing or whatever, but fine. I’m in Oxford or I’m in the Bay, let me give these jobs a shot. If they’re really good at what they do, if they’ve been super successful in the past and past record, it has a bearing on your ability to be able to assess whether they’ll be good, specifically in the environment that you’re presenting them with. If you want someone to be able to accomplish things fast, move fast and break things kind of mentality, then you have to look at someone who’s on project management and tech startup kind of space.

If they’ve been successful, if they come with strong recommendations of being a reliable safe pair of hands who can execute things and has a good ability to pick things up quickly whenever needed, so if you can find someone like that, then maybe they can work well.

Robert Wiblin: How about outsourcing these operations tasks to kind of external professional services firms, just a bookkeeper who you find on the internet?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. There’s lessons to be learned about outsourcing from the industry in general, where I think there was a trend towards bringing all sorts of expertise in-house in the ’70s and the ’80s where you had these massive M&Cs come up on the scene who were trying to leverage economies of scale but had become like very clunky and non-flexible organizations that could not respond agilely to any situation. Then you also have these consulting firms that take away the cognitive aspect of ideating on a better solution or just the execution aspect of something like a payroll management or VISA processing for you and that’s what they specialize in. Economies of scale are on their side so you just engage with them on very specific narrow domains that they have expertise in. In the EA community as well, there’s a lot of similarity in the kind of things that come under operations for all different EA orgs, like a bunch of them are dealing with processing VISAS for people they’re hiring. That’s across the board a commonality that everyone’s having to face, or since there are so many not-for-profits then there’s some policy implications that you have to follow, there’s some organizations, companies, houses, etc., that you have to definitely deal with, so those are common things that everyone’s dealing with.

As the industry matures, it makes sense to centralize these things that can be handled well by one organization supporting many organizations rather than everyone reinventing the wheel and not being able to learn off of each others mistakes or experiences. I think something like BERI getting setup is an example of some semblance of centralization outside your organization for things like VISA processing or for things like dealing with a bunch of contractors, copy editors, on request that they can do which you as an organization, like every organization can’t have an army of people on standby only to be pulled in or activated when they’re needed. But an outsourced company that’s doing this for 15 organizations can.

I think we will see one, two, three, organizations emerging that will help all the EA orgs with some set of services which are very … like the 70% of the solution is already there, 30% needs to be customized. This will not happen for very specific to your organization problem, it’ll happen mostly for things that are outsourceable. But this has happened in the industry, likely to happen in the EA space as well, but I think it’s a bit early for that according to me. I think everyone’s just trying to figure out things. There are some things where this is already happening, but yeah, the scope of those things is fairly limited right now, likely to increase more in the future even, so taking away total HR management, financial management, all aspects of that, many aspects of that, like up to 80% can be outsourced away.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I don’t know. My experience with outsourcing things is that it can create a lot of communication frictions, like that the external group doesn’t always understand exactly what you want. Have your experiences with outsourcing been positive or …

Tanya Singh: Yeah, my experiences with outsourcing or at least my observation, that has been positive in the sense that if it’s run well or if it’s run with the appropriate caveats in mind, then it’s useful. If you’re trying to outsource something that’s very core to what you’re trying to … like FHI can outsource research, that’s it. You can only outsource something that’s not really mission critical. It’s critical for that thing to happen for your mission to succeed, but that thing in of itself is not very mission critical. For those bits, you can have one person in the organization whose duty it is to interact well and communicate preferences and communicate back contingencies and issues that might come up with that organization to which you’re outsourcing things, but it’s important to have like a strong relationship that one person owns and holds and is responsible for with that organization or that outsourced entity within your organization and try and control that outsourced entity and what you want from it through that one person.

Now you’re right. Doing something in-house with people who are 100% on the same page as you is very different from people who somewhat understand what you’re doing. But again, if it’s like the administrator-y work, then you can do it with people who are not necessarily mission aligned, but they have service level agreements that they’re going to adhere to and give you finished product deliverable within the timeframe that you’re looking for. As long as they don’t need to be value aligned for that, it falls in somewhat the administrative bucket of things that we talked about, I think it should be fine.

Robert Wiblin: Presumably, you’ve had to hire other people working within operations before, do you find usually that the best applicant is significantly better than the second best applicant and the second better than the third? Is it like widely distributed capability?

Tanya Singh: Not in the experience that I’ve had. I hired my team in Snapdeal, so I hired basically project managers whose jobs would have been to communicate with the automobile organizations, do the marketing, handle the launches so to say of some new scheme that we would have launched. Yeah, some applicants stand out. You’re very tempted to hire them. I think interviewing someone, it becomes very clear how well you would be able to work with them. I think that two people who are working closely together or even … when I say closely together, some manager and manage kind of thing, spending, a bunch of time interacting on how to call out the best solution possible, so some brainstorming. Any working relationship of that sort, I think it’s important that they are able to work well together. It’s a very personality sort of thing. One can say that people are mature enough to appreciate different styles and still be able to work in lock step with each other without talking past each other, miscommunicating, and things like that.

But I find that you need a special level of maturity to hit that with two people, more often than not, you find a very inadequate situations, equilibriums, where people are not very happy, are sort of gritting their teeth and continuing on along, and don’t appreciate that they have very different working and managing styles. From that perspective, I feel it’s important to be able to figure out whether the person you’re interviewing or considering is going to work well with you. This is not to say that you don’t presuppose that you’re working style is awesome and everyone needs to align to that. If they bring a special skill on board, I think it’s important for managers to keep evolving to be quite flexible in their ability to work with different sorts of people. Some people need more direction, some people need more elbow rooms and more space to be able to do things. But yeah, amazing ops people do stand out a little.

If you’re very confused whether I should be hiring someone or not, it’s probably better to not hire them than take that bet. If you have the luxury to trial test, do sort of one or two month trials, that’s I think the best way to figure out how good/bad would they be, how they respond to feedback. I think those are the things that I personally look for. A person should be willing to take feedback on board. They should be excited about making things happen in the sense that they should be like doers. You can see this in the background story of a person. If they’ve been often the person who’s trying to make something happen, gone outside the remit of their role and responsibility, those are things that I appreciate. Then I think I appreciate drive a lot. Experience has its values, its merits, and I really value that. But if someone’s extremely driven, then I think yeah, I’d place my money on that candidate.

Robert Wiblin: How much people and operations get to set the strategy of an organization? I think this is one thing that people worry is that if they’re in an ops role, they’ll just have to hope that the organization as a whole is heading in the right direction because they want to be able to control it.

Tanya Singh: Again, I think that would depend on the organization, also the individual. I think my experience of working with FHI is that roles like executive assistant to a person who’s directing an effort or an institute, I think those roles while yes, your primary responsibility is to make sure that all of this administrative and operational work is off of that person’s plate, but you’re getting an insight into how they think and make decisions. You’re briefing them on whatever is relevant for them to know and seeing the decision making process real time. You’re also doing this with other key stakeholders in the organization. If you have important things to contribute, and if you have a good grasp of the subject matter which is not to say the research subject matter, like a lot of these decisions, a lot of the decisions that FHI has to take on a month to month basis does not have to do with our research direction. That’s largely clear to the researchers. They’re pursuing those trajectories. It’s more to do around what to promote, where to do outreach, how much to focus on marketing or outreach or website versus how much to focus something else, how to run HR processes more smoothly, how to hire faster, or how to move offices into a new … what are the things that we should be mindful of while we’re scaling up over the next three, four years.

These are organizational sort of day to day functioning level decisions, some of them are more in the future, some of them are more day to day. We can only hire for three roles over the next three months, so which three roles, while we want to choose from our pick of 10. These kind of decisions were I think being in operations, your job is to figure out what are the considerations that people keep in mind, what are the things that you need to make them aware of, basically making them aware of the things that they should know, and then modeling their preferences and stepping into those shoes. I like to believe that even if I’m not an instrumental part of making a decision, I’ll place my bet in my head and see where it’s going, so I think it’s a good way to keep holding that skill and also start contributing, give your two cents.

While you’re laying down, while you’re making sure that there’s efficient communication of all the important information, you can always add in a couple of lines of what you think is the right thing to be doing. I think therein part of the decision making process. If ops is not a part of the decision making process or the day to day decision making that an organization has to do, I would say that 60% of the decisions that are org level, that affect the whole organization, 60, 70% are in this category where there needs to be safe from someone who is handling the ops, handling the execution of things. If you’re not involved in that, then I think something’s going wrong. This is not to say the whole ops team should be involved in that, but there should be some representation from operations in those decisions. I do see that happening at FHI. I’m not sure about other organizations, but I’d be very surprised if that’s not the case.

Robert Wiblin: Do you have any good stories of things going wrong when operations is done poorly, or they haven’t been able to hire the necessary people?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think it’s less interesting but the biggest problem that ops not being done well or being under capacity, overburdened is that you’re not able to hire people quickly. There’s two elements to hiring, A, doing everything that’s required to sort of release a role, promoted, etc., etc., and get the person on board, so running those processes and the other element is making sure that you have an applicant pool that you’re excited about, because at FHI, oftentimes we run a recruitment process but ended up sort of not hiring anyone from it. That’s a situation where all the effort from an org perspective has gone into executing a process, but nothing has come out of it. Essentially, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. It’s equally important to be focused on making sure that if you are running the recruitment process for a role, you have some applicants that you’re really really excited about, like at least three, four, five applicants where you’d think that it would be surprising if none of them get the job. Not doing that leads to things that you’ve done and are sort of leading to nothing. I’m sure there are many examples of sort of legal troubles cropping up because you’re not careful or aware or you haven’t preempted all the things that you needed to possibly because you’re learning by doing kind of thing. In the industry, I’m sure there must be very many examples.

From my own personal failures I can talk about in Snapdeal where I was learning to set up a process, running sort of AB tests on the product, and the way I used to run the tests in the beginning and the way I used to run the test after two and a half months of running tests was really different. I could have gathered much better data that were trajectories of wrong development on the product that I made everyone follow because I wasn’t doing a good enough job of thinking through what the end product should have. I think I will couch all of them in a very handwavy way, operational and efficiencies are like failures of that, but it’s essentially an ops person not doing their job as well as they can potentially, which is not to say that they don’t want to. It’s just hard to figure out the perfect secret source for your organization especially when multiple stakeholders are involved. I think those situations become fairly tricky. I was working with seven or eight different teams and then coordinating and aligning all the dots. I know that I learned that by trial and error, by failing and improving. In the initial phase where I was learning, I personally let do a lot of inefficiencies because I was learning.

Robert Wiblin: Sometimes you hear people complain that there’s kind of too much operation in their organizations, that perhaps processes have been created where they don’t have to be created, and this is just excessive administrative overhead. What do you think of that? Is it possible to join an organization that had too much ops capacity?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I think in the realm of possibilities that definitely seems possible. Just as you can have too few people looking at these things, you can also have too many people looking at these things, and too many cooks spoiling the broth kind of situation, that’s sort of most definitely possible. It’s also not clear to me which is worse. That might as well be worse because you’re adding far more overhead than there needs to be. There’s overanalysis, there’s analysis paralysis and things aren’t getting done because too many decision makers are trying to pull the organization in different directions, so there is a sweet spot or a sweet range of number of ops people that an organization of a certain size and scale should have. Again, it’s tricky to figure out. I don’t know what good should that be for EA orgs. It’s too early to say there’s a bunch to be discovered there, but being ineffective because of too many people trying to do operations and introducing systems and processes almost for the sake of it is definitely highly suboptimal.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess my impression is that kind of none of the organizations that I’m familiar with are like this because they find it hard to hire ops staff rather than trivial to, I don’t know, to accumulate too many.

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I don’t think the EA organizations suffer from the too many problem right now, but they could in the future.

Robert Wiblin: It could happen, yeah.

Tanya Singh: They don’t right now.

Robert Wiblin: There seems to be this phenomenon that people who are good at ops don’t realize how much better they are than other people and they just assume that everyone else can do these things as well when they can’t. Do you have any explanation for this phenomenon?

Tanya Singh: I definitely think it’s true. I don’t have an explanation. A lot of ops tasks seem to be ones where you have to dive in, do the work, get your hands dirty kind of thing. If you aren’t comfortable with the lack of knowledge and awareness of what Pandora’s boxes might open, what might you have to deal with. Unless you have that risk taking appetite to some degree, you’re going to wait for some expert to come and do the job. I think bunch of ops people are very good genderless. It’s hard to appreciate genderless kind of skills. It’s easier to say that I’m really good at X, but I don’t know what am I good at. I find it hard. I think I can handle some sorts of things all right. I don’t think I’m particularly smashing at any one thing. Then if you say it like that, it’s a weird underconfident sort of statement to make. But I’ve seen ops people often be a bit confused about what is the magic there. Probably because is there is no magic to it.

It’s very systematically attacking problems, committing to doing things, experimenting a bit, like trying a few things, seeing what works. Oftentimes, it’s figuring out what’s the best thing to be done. You don’t know it, but some other person might hit upon that inside, so just making a few calls, knocking on a few doors, and assimilating information. None of it sounds like, I don’t know, expertise. I don’t think I’m great at gathering information, but that’s essentially what I’m doing most of the time. I don’t know what to credit myself for. I think that’s what a lot of ops people face and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m doing anything special. I’m just doing these things. I don’t know what is special about it.”

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. I want to try to figure out what the explanation for this is. I mean, when you’re saying it’s about being generalist, it could be that if someone is very good at operations, they’re just good in everything, then kind of they never look outstanding. When you look at them doing one task, you don’t appreciate. In fact, they’re amazing because they’re good at such like tons of other stuff that they’re not doing in that precise moment.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, possibly. Or also in the same way in that a bunch of these tasks are not the kind of things that you applaud on the annual celebration day of your organization or the kind of things you talk about in media. They’re like minor incremental improvements that you’re bringing day to day, or some pivotal shifts where operations is definitely not the only sort of function responsible, so everyone comes together, there’s collective by interchanged directions and then you change that direction. None of the ops tasks are very … You can’t attribute to them a lot of credit for having shifted gears or change directions or uncovered some things that could have gone wrong. It’s a very organic, incremental, happens behind the scenes largely. It’s a complex three dimensional territory that needs to be chartered. It’s difficult to project like a very compelling two dimensional picture in an article or a blog post or an interview about what is so awesome about it. It behooves ops people to be a bit more humble and say that we don’t know what are we doing that’s magical, but the idea is to keep things running efficiently. That’s what we bring to the table.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Another explanation might be that they’re doing something that other people could do in principle, but then just do it a fiftieth as fast or they do in their way, less systematic way. They wouldn’t automate it so they’d have to spend hours and hours doing something that they would automate and then manage to get done in minutes.

Tanya Singh: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: Perhaps that differs from other people couldn’t have come up with the theory of relativity or something like that.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, exactly.

Robert Wiblin: It wasn’t just that Einstein was 50 times faster than me doing it. But you can’t just hire 50 ops staff to a job and need to be very slow, because then you’ve created this enormous communications overhead. It would be worse than having no one.

Tanya Singh: Yes.

Robert Wiblin: The only operations people who are worth having and people who are extremely fast in getting tons of tasks done very quickly and automate it all.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think that’s a very, very good way of putting it.

Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s push on to talking about what you actually do. Operations kind of day to day in your job. Is it possible to break down what do you spend your time on in any given week?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, sure. A bunch of my time goes into delivering on the requirements from my role as executive assistant to Nick. There I’m churning through his email, I’m trying to figure out what his preferences are, whether it’s for things like travel or whether it’s for engagement with media or taking on some interviews and things like that. I’m communicating with those people and making sure that there’s no communication overhead for Nick for them, then trying to figure out what are some of the things that he needs to get done on a day to day basis. It’s about basically rising up to the challenge of whatever are his requirements and bringing in an element of proactivity to it if you can, giving him more time, more freedom from sort of these things that are bothersome about the fact that you work within systems and with other organizations. Part of my time is spent doing that.

Then I’m also handling some sort of projects for FHI where we have a scale of plans, so putting together our growth plan, making sure the stakeholders are aware of what plan we’ve put together, keeping everyone informed, feeding that information to Nick, so how we function is … Nick makes a smoothie or elixir, he likes to call it, every day in the morning where he’s sort of blending together vegetables to drink. I brief him on his email. I brief him on updates on other priority projects that are going in the organization where he either wants to know what’s happening or wants to give his two cents and pass one along something that he thinks that the team should think about or be aware of, so something like that. Then there’s a couple of other projects where we’re launching a training program, so I’m trying to help with the dealing with anything that needs to happen for that communicating with Oxford University for that. Hopefully, we should find like a keeper, like a full-time person to drive that.

We’re planning to shift offices later this year or early next year. We’re moving into a much larger office space, so going through the university, all the different committees that we have to present our case to, setting up the financial plan for that, so focusing on some projects, some discreet projects like this, also figuring out how or helping figure out along with other people what are the trade offs that FHI should be making in terms of its hiring. There’s a bottleneck in the number of people you can hire which is because of the bandwidth that the university people who we tag team for these processes can give to this and the internal bandwidth crunch that we have. What are the next roles that we should be hiring on? What are the things what we should be focused on? Because now we’re growing a new ops team in place where FHI has also undergone some restructuring recently, so how to make sure that all different parts of the organization are seamlessly speaking to each other, just focusing on some of these things.

Robert Wiblin: How much involvement do you have in, say, grant applications or dealing with donors? Does that come up somewhat?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, dealing with donors comes up every now and then, whether it’s about giving them an update about an existing grant and how we’re using that money. I think this year, all the annual updates, etc., for the donors that we give annual updates to was sort of handled by me. There’s also a university team who’s full-time role it is to be sort of dealing with donors and giving them the information they need, so communicating with that team, being the point of contact for them, making sure that our donors have everything that they need at the end of the year, the satisfaction of knowing what happened with their money, how was it spent, what impact came out of it, and getting in call with donors in case they want to ask something or even reaching out to them proactively in case we want something from them. All of those are elements, but infrequent elements. It’s not a part of my day to day job. Just because it’s not like a very regular ongoing activity, it happens once or twice with every donor annually kind of thing.

Robert Wiblin: It sounds like originally you were hired just to be Bostrom’s executive assistant, but then you’ve ended up doing many different things. It seems like a pretty typical story for operations staff.

Tanya Singh: Actually, originally, I was just brought in as a temporary administrator. Niel Bowerman then sort of handed off the reins of some of these things, some of these sort of projects to me. Then yeah, then there was this thing of how to keep me here, I’m on a … My partner is here and I’m able to work in the UK because of his visa, then we were able to open executive assistant to Nick’s position. Yeah, I think I have sort of delivered across multiple roles just because we did not have people filling those roles. Now that we have four people, possibly we’ll have, we should be opening three more ops roles this year if everything goes right. Yeah, we’ll have more hands on deck, and then I’ll probably have somewhat of a more defined role. But right now, yes. It’s hard to explain why am I doing all sorts of these, why am I wedged in so many different types of projects. But it was need based more than anything else.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I guess my impression is that this isn’t that uncommon though, at least in the organizations that I’m familiar with. Perhaps it’s because they’re smaller, and so each person is less specialized. You only have so many staff. Kind of someone spends a third of their time on hiring and a third of their time on kind of … the office moving project and things like that, but there’s no one person who’s dedicated to each thing only.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, the organizations are smaller. I think this is also how much initiative you take is sort of directly proportional to how much work you end up doing and how many different things you end up handling. I call this scope creep of luck, you have a defined scope and then that creeps and creeps and creeps and becomes larger, except Mercer where I was learning how to do a job. It was my first job. I’d done this in every organization. I was hired to do something, I ended up doing a bunch of other things. I have a tendency to get wedged. I think people who are doing operations in this community are all doing operations because they think that these things should be done and are important. That’s why all of them have this trade of, “Oh well, that needs doing. Can I do it? Or can I help facilitate doing that?” Because that needs doing. I think that mindset makes you leverage your skills even where you don’t necessarily know what to do, but because you want to do it, and there’s not many other people and these are smaller organizations, you have the liberty to take that initiative and test waters, use that head and trial methodology of it.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you find that fact that you’re working on a lot of different things appealing? Is the diversity enjoyable or what does it mean that you’re just like full split, too many different ways?

Tanya Singh: On any given day I’d tell you the diversity is like what makes I special, brings it flavor. I’m sort of learning new things constantly and that illusion of intellectual progression is very important for a person like me. But every now and then, I’d like to say maybe with the frequence like once a month, you’d find me in a place where I’ll be like, “I cannot do anything,” because my attention is split across 18 things. More than attention being split, I think there are some things where you need to take a strategic overview of all the little bits and pieces and try and do a very meta level, systems level thinking. There are some things where you need to be focusing on the most nuance thing and trying to do that or execute something on that.

I personally find this zoom in and zoom out across different tasks during a work day or a work week at times challenging. I’m not very efficiently able to zoom out or zoom in or sort of give anything the kind of mindspace it deserves. I step back and I thought about, “Is it useful if I do more things at 80% efficiency or less things at 100% efficiency?” I thought that the former was more useful, could be wrong. I’m not very confident about that, but I decided to do more with compromising on quality a little bit. Obviously, keeping most of my focus on the top five, six important things, and then tackling the tale and in a very quick and dirty way.

Robert Wiblin: What are some of the things that you’ve accomplished in your career either in FHI or before that that you found really satisfying?

Tanya Singh: In every job that I’ve held, I think till the time that I was doing that job, there were elements of satisfying things that were motivating to me and that kept me going. Watching your solution be put to good use or materialize in the form of a process that that organization commits to following in my consulting days or with Snapdeal. Those are extremely sort of satisfying things to witness that people are interacting with a process that you’ve helped create, go create, put in place, so that leads to a bit of a feeling of satisfaction of sorts. I found later in hindsight that it was temporary unless it’s sort of all adding towards something that you really, really care about. It fizzles out the satisfaction that you get by hitting your monthly BNL or making a crate higher. Those are all things that give you somewhat of a kick, somewhat of a yes, this is awesome kind of a feeling. It has differed.

I think big wins would be … I think I was very proud when I was running like a big BNL till the time I was not proud of it. It was very … There have been some transitions in that process, but having opened and run five recruitment processes with FHI, six recruitment processes with FHI, sort of tracking that, knowing that that needles moving, more people who want to be researching on these things, more awesome people who we can find and bring in our orbit, I’m facilitating that process. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. I personally find it very satisfying to know that if on the rare occasion I can sort of premeditate Nick’s requirements and make sure that he’s equipped with what he needs to be equipped with while even making a certain decision and things like that. Being able to do that, there’s like a very day to day level of satisfaction in knowing that you’re improving there.

Robert Wiblin: Could you just give a kind of a quick summary of what are key characteristics that makes someone a good fit for the operations roles?

Tanya Singh: Sure. Bit hard to sort of boil it down to only very few. I also don’t want to launch into too many, so I’ll try and put out what I think are super important characteristics or traits that mostly all good ops people or most of the good ops people have. I think one would be a bias towards action and making sure that you’re tabling good solutions. Basically, tabling solutions and the second part that follows is tabling good solutions, being the person who feels very unsettled if things are broken. Rather than just complaining about them, you’d probably throw yourself at it and patchwork it somehow. I think that’s a very useful quality that’s very … also that’s very easy to see if someone has consistently displayed it because you’ll find it and the kind of things they’ve done in their school. You’ll see if they were instrumental in organizing any events in their college community building kind of stuff. You’ll also see it in their work. It sort of shines through this quality. I think it’s very important.

Then the second thing I would be sort of psyched about seeing in ops people is yeah, the excitement to learn different things and not be very settled in their jobs already. The drive to want to do different things, want to make things better, sort of put scalable systems and solutions in place even though it seems like a mammoth task, that who will change and people will probably adopt, not adopt. There’s a bunch of unknowns, but being comfortable in this ambiguity and knowing that we’re going to put something in place, that’s probably not going to work or is going to work poorly initially and then is going to improve drastically, because we’re going to make it improve. Just having that mindset of wanting to build scalable solutions, robust systems that make you redundant, that make your own job redundant. If someone’s excited by that, that’s a useful thing. That’s a useful indicator that they’ll be pretty good.

Being okay with presenting dissident arguments, like many times since I did my MBA in HR, I heard this quite often. HR people need to be people’s people. I’m a people’s person and I love people. I am not a people’s person. I’m like, “Oh my god. Am I doing the wrong thing?” I don’t think you need to be a yes sayer. In fact, I think that’s pretty damaging because you have a better intuition about operations because you’re working there. If you’re very agreeable, then you’re likely doing more harm than good. I don’t know whether I mentioned this somewhere, I do think that I’m better at solutions, especially pertaining to operations of an organization, are easy to defend. It’s easy to convince people and make them see the merit in it. You should be willing to step into that uncomfortable situation rather than going ‘let me avoid this confrontation, let me just do what you want me to do, and I’m going to fix it later’. That fix it later is problematic orientation to develop if your defaulting to it fairly frequently. That’d be one thing, yeah.

Excited about learning new things, also excited about working in a team. Operations can probably be never be a one-man show. You should be a bit of a team player and focus on reducing communication overhead, A, within the team and B, throughout the organization. Lastly, I would say the ability to wear sort of slightly different hats. Your role, if you’re a good operations person, is likely never going to be the same kind of stuff over and over again. You’ll get new challenges. You should be able to tailor your message to your audience, come down to or rise to the level of your audience, the kind of nuance they want and need, and be able to talk to them about that. Efficient stakeholder management form the perspective of being able to be high level or zoomed in or very detailed oriented, whatever you need to be, knowing what’s the kind of hat to wear while communicating with a particular person.

These are some of the sort of very broad generalist kind of things that are good. I have a strong bias for working with data, relying on data for your instincts rather than sort of these wig feelings that you can’t really explain properly. I also know great ops people who don’t work too much with data already have some very good instincts maybe because of a lot of experience under their belt kind of things, so yeah, that’s the sort of less important.

Robert Wiblin: Are there any skills that are important in other jobs that you think aren’t so important in this one?

Tanya Singh: Oh, that’s an interesting question.

Robert Wiblin: What are the weaknesses that you can get away with maybe?

Tanya Singh: Because operations is such a team effort, there’s going to be four, five people who are responsible for the efficient functioning of I would say 50, 70 people organization, because you’re working in a team, you can afford to be bad at some things as long as you have someone in your team who’s good at them, and you can tag team efficiently with them. I think you can get away with having many or most of these things absolutely absent as long as you bring something quite indispensable to the table, to the team. If you’re really good with numbers and not really great with interpersonal communication which is a fairly common thing to be found in the world that someone’s really good at analyzing numbers, calling out insights from data, but ask them to have 15 conversations and get the pulse of the situation, they’re probably not going to do a good job. You don’t need someone to have both of those things, your team can get away with as long as it has both of these capabilities, but in different people. They know how to communicate well with each other.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I was going to say it seems like in operations, in contrast perhaps with being a writer, the work kind of drives you forward because there’s other people involved. You’re working in a group rather than just by yourself. It’s not quite that you don’t need motivation, don’t need the conscientiousness, but you don’t need to be someone who can force themselves to work by themselves on a task that they kind of have just imposed on themselves?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, absolutely. Yes, because there are other elements along the path to keep you accountable or where you’re handing off semi finished process or semi finished sort of deliverable, and then they’re going to take in on from there, or someone else is dependent on your task. Yeah, it’s easier to rally motivation. It’s not that hard to do this. It’s also easy to track where is the motivation failing and which piece of the chain is failing to deliver to the extent that they’d need to be delivering, whether it’s like a person, whether it’s a whole team. I think yeah, that internal drive, I’m not sure about this to be honest, because I don’t know … If someone just doesn’t want to get out of bed and do anything, then sure, it’ll be easy to figure it out, but they’re the one who’s not doing this. That person will still … If they want to continue, we’ll have to find the motivation and the will somewhere to be able to do it.

I think someone who’s in a job that requires writing, they need creativity and sort of need or make sure that they’re able to write even if they’re feeling that … in a very blah place. Similarly, if you have to execute, if you have to do 15, 20 things today, and you’re in that mood of really not wanting to do anything and just bum around on YouTube listening to videos. You have to bring yourself out of that funk and actually do those things, because there’s deadlines that you have to meet and commitments that you have to keep. Yes, having a team makes you more accountable because they’ll tell you that you’re being a bit of a bum if you’re not pulling through or pulling your own weight.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, I think one thing is that a lot of people struggle to motivate themselves in a environment with low feedback on how much they’ve accomplished and how well they’re doing it, like the classic extreme cases that people writing PhD where they only get feedback from their supervisor every couple of months and in between that. They just got nothing to go on. I guess operations fortunately is not like that. You get intermediate feedback kind of all the time.

Tanya Singh: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: If you’re someone who might find a PhD difficult, then this might be a lot easier, or at least within that one dimension.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, absolutely.

Robert Wiblin: Are there any other benefits of operations roles compared to a bit of other positions as you see it? What are the attractive things about operations roles that we haven’t discussed already?

Tanya Singh: I think we’ve sort of briefly touched about all aspects of it, one, that I might want to double click on is that operations make for very interesting opportunities in this community where you are working with organizations like FHI, MIRI, CHAI, Open Philanthropy Project. A lot of these places where really exciting thinking is happening. While the things that we’re trying to work on are in a very dynamic stage right now, the fields and the landscape is evolving. As an operations person, you have the privilege to interact with all these people, absorb this knowledge. I’m not saying researchers don’t have, but by nature, their work at times is a bit more siloed where they have to focus on their problem and tune out everything else. Operations people can absorb all this information while developing skills that are fairly fungible. Those skills are going to come in handy whether you’re working with one organization or the other organization, so you can switch to different cause areas if you feel strongly about some other cause area today while having developed skills that are fairly …

Robert Wiblin: Transferable.

Tanya Singh: … fungible, transferable, useful for that organization, which is not true of a researcher whose zooming in on one’s particular topic or something like that. Ops gives you that luxury and I think there’s a lot to be said about how important that can be especially while these fields mature, grow, change.

Robert Wiblin: What do you think explains the fact that so many operations hires have just gotten promoted obscenely fast in EA organizations? That the schools are rare? Or they’re just perhaps like the schools that they bring are actually very useful for more senior management positions?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I think very competent people are doing operations in these organizations. Very few of them are there, so the ones that are there are obviously quickly going to fill in the leadership or sort of the heading these functions sort of positions fairly quickly I imagine, also because these fields are growing and there’s operations and EA and X-risk orgs are something that is being formally talked about and formalized fairly recently now. It hasn’t been around for a while in the shape and form that we now talk about it, very defined and developed, and sort of mature operations functions. We’re still working towards putting them in place. While the field’s young, I think people who come in early are going to see good growth, if they rise up to the challenge, are going to rise along the sort of organization hierarchies fairly quickly which is not to say that this is going to totally stop. It think any industry sort of functions like this. Then you’re going to have new talent coming in who these people can train. I’m not sure what is the attrition rate for operations people in EA orgs. Do they churn into senior positions still looking at operations? Do they churn out of operations? I’m not sure. It would be interesting to figure out what’s happening with most of the people, most of the first responders to ops needs and these organizations.

Robert Wiblin: It seems like one of the key bits of value that you add, and that good ops staff add, is automating things as much as possible. How do you about identifying opportunities to do that? I guess, why do you think many people are not inclined to do that?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. It think the right mindset for an ops person that I understand is to automate yourself out of your job and to take over bigger, larger share of responsibility. Free up your time in order to focus on better things, more interesting things. From that perspective, automation becomes super key in how the operations if you’re organization runs. What are the kind of tasks that one should look to automate? Anything where you’ve stopped thinking and started just doing. You’re so familiar with what needs to happen that you do this, then you submit that form, then you do XYZ, you reach out to that person. They give you this document. You put that in that pipeline. Like a fairly complex process which I digital in some parts and offline in some parts. It could be a cludge of all sorts of things. But if you hit a point where you know what needs to happen without having to sort of think much about it, then you should aim to automate it. I use automation very loosely in this regard.

Tanya Singh: You can figure out how to deal with the process in the least cumbersome manner in the sense that I’ll a script for some part of it, outsource some other part of it that you think you don’t need to have core expertise in-house, or you don’t need to upscale yourself for, or make sure that you have the process in a very detailed way written down so that anyone can do it. You’re not a critical piece of the puzzle in any way for that process. These are the things that I think I mean when I say automate something. It’s very useful to do that, so that you have then the bandwidth to focus on other possibly more important crucial things. Why some people don’t do it or can do it? I think everyone can do it. It’s just a question of, “Oh, I can quickly do this in 15, 20 minutes right now,” but if

I figure out how to write a script and how to make this clunky system, put everything in a folder, and how to make this work, then I’d might take like five hours, two hours, one and a half hours. It’s that temptation of doing it by hand one more time rather than spending the amount of time you need to spend to make it so that it’ll just be a two minute thing from then on and not a 15 minute thing. I’m sure people are more tempted to automate things where they have to … if it would be like, “Oh, automation allows me to do it in 15 minutes.” Not automating it makes me spend six hours. That is very clear that they’re automated. But where it’s 15 minutes versus 35 minutes, it’s unclear and people are a bit resistant to the initial investment of time that automation or something requires. Initially exploration, investment of time, problem solving.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s interesting. Do you have a process for deciding in those closer calls?

Tanya Singh: Whenever I felt that, “Oh my god. I’m doing this again,” I think that’s the time. It may be a bit late. I’m sure I can figure it out a bit sooner in the process, but every now and then, it becomes clear that I could be doing this a little sooner. Over the years, I’ve developed the appreciation for saving time wherever you can because if something is going to take me 10 minutes then I’m likely to do it. If the same boring thing is going to take me 40 minutes, I’m likely to procrastinate. I’ve developed very intuitive models of working with this. I don’t really have a formal system that if it’s more than 30 minutes, then I’m going to automate it and figure out how to automate it. But every now and then I see myself faced with the process where I’m like, “This needs to happen automatically and I can’t be spending more time on this.” That’s when I put in the effort.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah.

Tanya Singh: Arguably a bit late.

Robert Wiblin: I wonder if I don’t automate things enough. I guess, I don’t know to program basically is one thing that probably limits me in some parts of this that I can’t tell the computer to automate stuff. Is it typically involving programming or it’s sometimes setting up a from or …

Tanya Singh: It might typically involve writing up some script. If you’re working, I used to work a bunch with Excels, and there was a time when did not know Excel well at all. I still don’t don’t know it. I think Excel’s a really … Microsoft Excels are really powerful tool. There’s marriage and sinking some time and learning some good things there. Might involved some programming. If you’re dealing with other things as well, some bit of programming, some bit of writing some script that allows different parts of the work to sort of talk to each other without you having to intervene so much. That’s the best way to automate. That’s the quickest and the most homegrown way of automating and not relying on someone else’s expertise. I think I have seen a lot of popl who are not with programming sort of leverage the network around them very effectively, very clearly tell someone can I block out an our, two hours of your time? I need this done and this will save me this amount of time. You’ll find many people who will be very willing to help you with them. I think there’s a large barrier to starting to try these things. Once you stop trying them, Google can help you so much. I don’t know nothing, but I’m able to Google so much and get my automation fix because it’s so helpful.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I think part of my skepticism is that I often find that if you automate something, then you kind of have to fix the automation again after a couple of months. Things can seem easier to do than the next year. You get this kind of planning fallacy thing whereas I know how long it takes me to do the dumb way that I’ve done it before. Whereas if I try to automate it, it’s good. I think it would take me half an hour or take me an hour. But I suppose with enough experience you can actually estimate things correctly.

Tanya Singh: I think someone of it can be chalked down to experience. But you’re right, there are times when you’ve wasted a bunch of time in this effort to automate things. But I think, again, it’s that thing of keeping it well practiced, the side of your thinking. Then I personally would say that there’s net gain than net loss from indulging this instinct to automate things. Even at an individual task level for anyone, net gained from a time and time spent doing things you don’t really enjoy kind of perspective.

Robert Wiblin: Let’s talk now about what kind of career capital people get out of operations roles. I guess both within the EA community and that side of it.

Tanya Singh: Yeah. If someone’s absolutely bought in. I think the 80,000 Hours article touched upon this and talked about this quite systematically. If someone wants to stay within operations in EA and X-risk organizations, then obviously working in ops in these organizations and getting hands on experience is good for your career capital because you’re one of the few people who actually know the specific problems that you’re going to have to deal with or these effective altruism organizations are sort of plagued with. But if you aspire to move out of the space and go back to working for a corporate for profit company kind of thing. Then arguably, your skills that you’ve developed here or the methodologies that you’ve honed and practiced while working in ops communities in EA organizations is not the most useful I would argue because we have a very different way of approaching discussions and focusing on how to calculate impact. Fermi estimates and all of these things that the world is not talking about and that’s not how they’re approaching their operations. Most of the companies that I’d know about, my friends. Friends are working and that I hear about are not approaching anything like that.

Robert Wiblin: How do they do it if not that way?

Tanya Singh: They have more knowledge specific to their industry, specific to their operation. There’s so much history of how ops have been done and evolved. There’s a lot of data and insights available to rely on. There’s a lot of what’s already working for other organizations in the industry who are sort of doing very similar things available, there’s data available on that that in terms of best practices and benchmarks. They have a lot to work with already. I think that bit of a lot is sort of being generated for EA orgs now by people who are attempting these things now and figuring out what are the commonalities between the various ops roles and organizations. From that aspect, I think career capital wise, if you want to go outside the ecosystem, it might not be really good. In order to talk about being within the ecosystem, like having worked in ops and in EA orgs, how does it compare to having done ops in a start-up or having done ops in a large multinational. Those are also things that you can sort of know nuance and detail out. I think if you worked in operations in a large multinational or a consulting firm, it basically teaches you a lot of best practices for that industry, knowledge about what are the things that have historically gone wrong, what are the interesting case studies that you can learn that your organization or this industry can learn from?

It gives you information about some best practices, some good benchmarks, and equips you to deal with a very narrow slice of that whole value chain, because your know you’re one part of a large, large system. You’re one cog in the wheel so to say with a large M&C. Working with a startup gives you a more diverse, very fluid flexible experience where if you’re driven person, skies the limit of what you can try and do and achieve, and try and get involved in. That gives you I think more useful experience that’ll be more transferable to the EA community as I understand it. Again, it would depend on the specific kinds of things you’ve handled. There’s a reasonable specialization that can kick in and small startups as well depending on what they’re focusing on. We don’t need to create, I don’t know, digital marketing expertise in the community according to me. There’s no need for that because that’s just not the kind of thing that anyone is doing. That would be probably less ideal than some of the other roles where you’re dealing with complex projects, multiple stakeholders, changing requirements, very dynamic environments, that’s the kind of training that’ll come more in handy.

Talking about it from both perspectives, your career capital while you’re working in EA orgs is solid. If you want to continue in the space, if you want to move out, it’s questionable, you still might be a great fit in some of the organizations. I think people working with FHI or something with CHAI, handling operations at CHAI, because they’re focused on technical AI safety only, people who’ve done operations at CHAI would probably make good fits for AI startups who are looking for some ops people because the same kind of community you have to be interacting with. You have to have a certain understanding of the mindset of the safety community which being exposed to the inside by working at something like a CHAI can give you. I think that’ll be a useful skill from the corporate perspective. There will be avenues to follow those career trajectories if you want to move up, but yeah, it’ll be very case specific.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Do you think people should consider starting their ops careers in the private sector in these quite intense companies like you did?

Tanya Singh: Again, I’m not very confident of what should be done there, but I think if you’ve only gained exposure of how an EA org works, and EA orgs are relatively younger if you compare to sort of the industry outside. While you’re sort of solving problems that are more relevant to the kind of problems, you’re probably going to be solving if you switch to another EA org. I think diversity of experience and even the size and scope of things that you can get to handle in the corporate world or the startup world is very different and probably useful, probably useful to have. Definitely if not, everyone … Definitely not everyone but definitely some people with that different perspective. If they can come into the mix and add the insights, the knowledge, or whatever they’ve gained from their outside ops experience to the EA community, I think that’ll merit the community in general.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, that’s a piece of advice that we used to give a lot is to go into private sector flirts then come into non profits. I guess we’ve become a little bit more concerned that that could be a mistake. One reason is just that, the knowledge hasn’t always transferred over as you’ve said because they’re quite different environments. Another is just that we need people now. The delaying, having impact for a couple of years to go and kind of continue getting skills, it could be a mistake because there’s kind of an urgent need.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, could be a mistake. But I find it hard to sort of qualify just to that point because I think, I don’t know. Let’s say if we have someone 10 years of experience, can they bring in that additional intelligence or additional maturity in their thinking where they’re able preempt problems that we’re bound to run into while scaling up and things like that. Because there are some things you learn only with experience. I think in all my experience of managing projects, different types of projects with different organizations like switching streams etc., is that the ability to manage a project well improves with managing more projects. It’s a very simple basic intuitive sort of thing to say, but I think there’s something to be said about if you expose yourself to complex operations roles in the industry, you probably develop insights and instincts specially for being able to preempt problems, especially for being able to be extremely responsive and very dynamic in times of flux, be very mature in the way you led the organization.

Those are things that I think it’s hard to say whether if we need people now and they come in now, we grow them, and they don’t have a very deep awareness about what are the right things to be doing versus if we don’t get sort of seasoned people right now, but we have effective altruists who are training in other organizations and might come in three, four years later, the kind of experience and expertise they might bring, how is that? Whether it’s more useful, less useful, to get that talent right now or to get that talent after it’s been trained in the industry. It’s very unclear to me what’s better, but yeah, hopefully, the right ways to hedge and sort of have both try and attract people who have experience but also people who already have the awareness that I want to be doing impactful work, have the avenue to bring them in the ecosystem and train them well. I think as long as we’re aware that there are these two things that we should be aware of, we should be able to manage.

Robert Wiblin: Let’s say that for whatever reason people are in the position to take a really high impact operations role right now. When can they start training to get really elite at these skills? I’m thinking like what could someone do when they’re 15 or when they’re 20 or when they’re 25, if they think that this is a road that they might want to go down later.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, if you have that awareness then doing some things and figuring out how good you are at it or where do you need to improve is useful. I think if you’re 15, you’re fairly young. I was a very ignorant person when I was 15, but I can talk to today’s 15 year olds if they want to test out what to do and how to hone these skills, it’s good if you’re the central planning manager officer for your family and friends, like if you’re the one planning trips, if you’re the one trying to plan activities in your school, taking initiative, and schools have fairs, they have sort of big science projects and things that … the whole. Trying to be a part of the team that’s managing that whole affair is sort of like ops experience that you can get onboard when you’re 15. That’s in a school or a formal setting. You can also sort of just be the one stop shop for vacation planning and things like that for your family or if your family’s throwing like a big Christmas dinner, then be the person who’s responsible for purchases of raw materials, be the person who’s responsible for décor or something like that. Those are good opportunities to dive into, things that you haven’t done before, figure out where do you land, what are the things that you’re pretty bad at or pretty good at.

Similarly, in a grad school, when you’re 20, volunteer for the student societies, be instrumental in setting up or pushing the agenda of the society that speaks to you, volunteer your time for organizations, companies, NGOs, basically whatever you can. In my MBA, we used to call these things called life projects where you just volunteer your time with organizations and they give you not very interesting or glamorous pieces of work, not even very important pieces of work because you’re stepping in for two months and doing something for them, whatever they want to outsource and is outsourceable. It’s a good way to get an insight into how other things work and would you be excited to do the role of the person who you’re doing this project with. It’s good learning and good … It’s a good process of self discovery of what you might want to do. That’s something that you can do at 20.

Then at 25, I think if you want to work in operations, then you should be working in operations. Of course there are many times when you can’t like … I’ve been in that situation where you know you want to and then there’s no right role, you’re stuck in a different geography. There are so many … Life plays its role and you’re unable to make that switch to the kind of thing that you want to be working on. I think there you have to be a bit more entrepreneurial. It’s a bit scary. It’s not very … I was not very confident of whether I’d be able to find a job that I actually liked. It’s largely a feeling that brings you down. I think EA, the fact that there’s a community you can reach out to is very useful. It comes in very handy then, so you should be reaching out to organizations you keep on saying that we need more ops people, we need more ops people. Volunteer your time whether it’s for a summer, whether it’s … whatever you can do to get some feedback on your work as well as some hands on experience that’ll tell you, make you more aware of what you want to be doing, so yeah, that would be my recommendation.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Does it matter very much what you study? I mean, you did quite a serious degree in engineering. I guess, also an MBA. Do you think either of those things were were really important?

Tanya Singh: No. I don’t think so.

Robert Wiblin: Could other degrees be important?

Tanya Singh: Possibly not. It’s about … I’m sure if you’re doing supply chain in Amazon, then supply chain management MBA from a good place that trains you well is handy. But in my experience, my computer science engineering or my HR MBA are not what are the crucial elements that I would need in this. The kind of knowledge you have to acquire can be acquired on the job. Invariably, you do end up doing that. Every organization has its own secret source, its own sort of models they work with, its lingo, its jargon. You have to anyway scale up a little bit basically, get comfortable with that methodology. I don’t think there are any crucial pieces that I brought to the table because I had an MBA. In the EA community, you have engineers, I think Marlo was an engineer, Michelle’s a PhD in philosophy, and she’s done operations. You have all sorts of people and doing it really, really well whatever they’re doing. It’s less to do with the background, more to do with mindset and skills and the kind of skills you want to develop and are excited about developing.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, does that suggest that people could potentially get these jobs without even doing a degree? Could they potentially slot into one of them at 19 and save several years?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I think it’s as true of this as is of research where you’ll .. At MIRI, you have people and they’re encouraging. FHI, would I think also want to move in that direction. For the training program for example, we want to make sure that there’s no absolute better minimum requirement. If you have a talented person who has the awareness that this is what they want to do, then like a formal degree should hopefully not be a barrier towards that. It usually is in the world, but hopefully, it shouldn’t be and definitely I don’t think it’s absolutely required to have any degree. As long as you have some experience and for entry level roles where no experience is required, that’s also not required. It’s just probably willingness and having some of these traits, skills, mindsets, you can discern that probably this person will be good for operations.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. There’s one particularly talented operations person in the community who I know was already doing incredibly well at ops at 16, 17 before they even finished high school. It does seem like it’s something where people can … If they have a real knack for it then they could do this work potentially quite early on. I guess I’m always nervous about people not doing a degree because that can potentially reduce their flexibility later in life.

Tanya Singh: Yeah. Your growth options, your later in life options, you definitely close some doors if you don’t have any degree because some people aren’t willing to be risky or they see you at somewhat more unconventional than they can handle. Those doors get closed. Yeah, from that … I don’t have … I can’t comment on … I really don’t want to be encouraging people of not doing degrees and directly jumping into operations. I think you’ll learn more about yourself as you spend time learning.

Robert Wiblin: We have talked a lot about the pros of operations because we’re trying to encourage more people to go into it, but we should also give some time to what are the downsides. What do you see as kind of the biggest arguments against working? Who are the kind of people you should stay away?

Tanya Singh: I think if you’re uncomfortable with ambiguity, if you get too tense about situations, or too tense in situations where you’re facing something that’s broken, you’re having to put out fires. A lot of the things are dependent on you and you could potentially be the reason they fail. If that kind of pressure stresses you out enormously, there are definitely some sorts of operations role that you’re not very tailor made for. There might still be sort of more niche, more defined, more specific, less prone to urgent requests kind of roles that you can take up. But I think largely the downside of working in operations is the kind of stress that putting out fires and dealing with ad hoc requests and or dealing with things not going right.

An organization like FHI or any other research outfit, it would argue that any problem that the org is facing, you can bet your money that it’s because of an ops failure or something in the operations side of things are happening well. Being able to deal well with the pressure that you’re likely going to put yourself in because we’re all effective altruists who can calculate the impact that we’re not having. Yeah, being able to rationalize or being able to deal with that sort of time pressure, quality pressure that you’re likely to be faced with. I think that’s a hard part of working in operations in these organizations. Another thing I would say is that especially for people who are looking to keep honing their skills, ops in the community are handled by people who are early responders and started doing ops early or people who have the time and the energy to devote to it. There aren’t very many very seasoned people who are training, create ops stuff in the community. You’re learning in development as largely in your own hands or in the hands of someone who’s two years your senior on this whole scene and probably does not know too much or as much as they should know.

There’s that element of uncertainty about what you’re learning and the skills you’re gathering, how relevant are they going to be. I’m sure, if you’re learning a new system, learning to program, those are … sure, you should keep adding those feathers in your hat, but are you faced with challenging enough situations that you’re actually … you’re getting very meaningful experience under your belt so that you can lead like a thousand people organization or if the time comes, can you sort of transition into a role that has a different size and scale. I don’t think there are any opportunities in the EA community for handling those sorts of operations roles. I think that specifically for people who are coming in with experience under their belt, that’s a bit of a dampener. I could call it as sort of con of working in operations in this community.

Robert Wiblin: Neither of us was born in the UK or in England, but we’ve both ended up living here for substantial periods of time. How do you find the British compared to Indians?

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I hope I offend no one with my responses to these questions, but-

Robert Wiblin: It’s very British.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think I learned to be a bit more polished and sure, give the disclaimers right off the bat and talk about the weather. That’s hat I associate with the British style of communication. Some level of awkwardness and some level of uncertainty giving disclaimers, being very polite, not making too much eye contact. Indians on the other hand I find to be like very different, we’re very loud, we come across very aggressively. We’re very nosy. We talk to everyone we can find on the escalator or the subway kind of thing. I think yeah, it’s a very different way of communicating and interacting. Culturally, I imagine, in my experience. There is one thing. I’m a huge fan of the British weather which seems like I’m the only one in UK. I have yet to meet another kindred soul, because I love the weather here. I hate the sun coming from India. We’ve had too much of it. It’s disgusting. I really enjoy the fact that there’s so much rain and very little sun. It’s a treat to be in UK because of the weather that’s there.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think Australians kind of experience the same thing. Australians and Brits have a lot in common, but perhaps one thing is that we do tend to be a bit more loud mouths and a bit more impolite, to swear a little bit more and inappropriate jokes, that kind of thing is very Australian. To be honest, I’m not sure that I have adapted that much to Britain, or whether I ever did because we had such a large number of Australians here anyway that we just kind of formed our own quirky cultural group that people just had to work around.

Tanya Singh: Yeah.

Robert Wiblin: How does the more aggressive Indian culture kind of play out in the workplace? Perhaps by comparison to FHI or when you were working in London.

Tanya Singh: Even within the three organizations that I worked with in India, I experienced very different culture. I might not have any sort of thematic insights that I can attribute to India and UK, but I can definitely point to … While I was working at Snapdeal, it’s a tech company, startup, the culture across the board is such that every month when we were reporting whether we’d hit, exceeded or missed our targets, if I’d miss my targets, I’d get shouted at. I’ve been shouted at in front of 200 people like in a very ruthless way. It’s very common. This is not something specific to Snapdeal. Even people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have been known to be quite shouty in their approach towards motivation and telling people that they’ve messed up. But I find it very hard to imagine in the EA community shouting at you for not having that … I haven’t heard that. I haven’t experienced that at FHI. I also think that’s something to the British way of being a bit less hands on or not sitting on top of your head, giving feedback mildly gently that I find it very hard to imagine people would be screaming themselves and saying at each other here. That’s sort of different way of operating, but I want the qualify by saying that I have a very narrow slice of experience, no way generalizing any of this, but it’s just in my personal experience that’s the difference.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone shout in the workplace over here.

Tanya Singh: Oh wow. Interesting.

Robert Wiblin: Maybe it’s more of a private sector thing.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, I think you’ve worked in more mature organizations. The startup culture is pretty rough, pretty aggressive. In US also from what I understand friends who are working, more mature organizations treat infringement like shouting and sort of giving into your baser instincts of being vocally abusive or shout, basically raising raising your voice against another employee. There’s repercussions in big companies for things like that, but in a startup, more informal setting, people resort to all sorts of behaviors. A lot is acceptable. It’s not like it’s promoted or accepted, but it’s tolerated because …

Robert Wiblin: It’s just less professional and formalized.

Tanya Singh: Yeah, less professional, less formalized, just a bunch of it’s tolerated. Gives you thick skin, so I appreciate the fact that I’ve been shouted at.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. I don’t know what I’d do. All right. Just before we finish, do you want to … there’s presumably some people who are still listening to this after a couple of hours. Might be on the fence about whether they want to apply for the roles that we talked about earlier. Do you want to give them a final push to actually go to this article and read about it and consider putting in applications?

Tanya Singh: Yeah. I think my motivation to do this and my sort of expectation here is that I can reach out to some people who want to contribute or looking for avenues to contribute, are confused about how to do it, probably are not going to pivot to research full-time. Don’t want to do that. But want to be useful to the cause in general. I’m hoping to reach some of them because I was one of those people. When I was looking to sort of make an impact in this space, there weren’t so many so many ready things to come by. I hadn’t come across any sort of blog posts or podcasts that specifically attack some of these things. Hopefully, we can reach some of those people who are a bit confused about what it might entail, why might one do it, is this exciting. It’s hard but it’s really exciting. It’s very, very rewarding, I think. If you’re bought into what the whole community is trying to do and if you think there’s impact and change and success, when I say success in sort of achieving our end goals and objectives along the spot, then it’s a very good time to enter the field.

Things are very young, there’s a dearth of people who want to do this, so coming in at this time and growing and helping train other people, you could become like thought leaders, so to say within this community and be very instrumental in bringing about the kind of changes that our generation or the generation after probably will have like very unique opportunities to bring about the kind of … the new paradigms that these technologies will bring, working towards these causes even sort of farm animal welfare, alleviating poverty, those are very rewarding and satisfying things where we’re likely going to dent to the sky as effective altruism the next 50, 60, 10, 20, I don’t want to give a timeline. It’s a whole nother discussion. You can be a part of that. I think it’s going to be an incredible journey. Everyone who’s on the fence, I’d strongly encourage them to try, reach out to people who are doing this. I’m very happy to respond to questions on email, etc., specific questions, some doubts that you still have that are lingering, some things that you’d think are sort of too risky. Yeah, just be very open, explore this fully and if you think you want to do it, take the leap because I think it’s a very good time to be doing it. It’s very important for good people to be doing it.

Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Tanya Singh. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Tanya.

Tanya Singh: Thank you for having me.

Robert Wiblin: Once again, check out CEA’s open roles at centreforeffectivealtruism.org/careers/ or work with Owen Cotton-Barratt at fhi.ox.ac.uk/rsp/ .

You’ll need to act fast as both of those are going to close very soon.

We also list a wide variety of other operations roles at 80000hours.org/job-board/

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

Thanks for joining, talk to you next week.

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths - from academics and activists to entrepreneurs - to share their wisdom, so that you can better understand the world and have a greater social impact.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected]

Subscribe by searching for 80,000 Hours wherever you get podcasts, or click one of the buttons below:

  • iTunes
  • SoundCloud
  • Stitcher
  • RSS

If you're new, see the podcast homepage for ideas on where to start, or browse our full episode archive.