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.

Highlights

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. 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.

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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 and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

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

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