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.
Sorry we didn’t get out an episode last week – I got a cold and lost my voice, which puts you at a pretty big disadvantage in the podcasting game.
I’d wanted to interview Tara MacAulay since I started the show so I’m glad we got to catch up in Oxford recently.
If this episode speaks to you, the Centre for Effective Altruism is hiring an Events Specialist, UK Operations Specialist, US Operations Specialist and Project Manager for the Office of the CEO. You can learn about those roles at centreforeffectivealtruism.org/careers . Applications are closing in two weeks so take a look now. CEA and 80,000 Hours work together closely so you’d also be helping to grow 80,000 Hours.
Without further ado – here’s Tara.
Robert Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Tara Mac Aulay. She has a pretty eclectic background having worked in senior operations roles while in high school and as an undergraduate. She did a degree in pharmacy, then worked at a hospital in Melbourne, at Deloitte, and at the Red Cross in several countries. She later worked at the Center for Applied Rationality before becoming Chief Operations Officer for the Center for Effective Altruism and then being promoted to CEO. She’s now earning to give in entrepreneurship. So thanks for coming on the podcast, Tara.
Tara Mac Aulay: Thank you.
Robert Wiblin: We’ve done an episode with Tanya Singh where we discussed the core messages in our article, why operations is one of the key bottlenecks in effective altruism. So here, I wanted to hear some stories from your just generally fascinating work history in operations and also find out where if anywhere you disagree with that article about operations careers in effective altruism organizations. But first off, yeah, tell us how you started your career just in general.
Tara Mac Aulay: So, one of the first jobs I actually had was working at a fast food restaurant called Oporto which is sort of like Nandos, it’s a chicken shop. And I just started working there as a cook in the kitchen and I think that was a really great experience for me because it’s a really fast-paced environment where you’re put under a lot of pressure to do a whole range of different tasks really quickly and they were all things that I had never done before. And I really loved being thrown into a systems-based environment where there were checklists everywhere and you were told how long each of these different tasks should take.
And I think I got to learn a lot from that. It just kind of felt like a game, like I could optimize all of the different motions that I took and the order in which I did of all of the tasks to try and tick off everything in that checklist, find things that were missing from the checklist that should be added or tweak it in little ways to make my work more effective and to make it go smoother for everyone who worked there.
I did that for a little while and at one point, I brought a stopwatch to work and then I timed myself for all of the tasks that I did commonly and timed lots of other people and I compared how long it took me to do it one way versus lots of different ways and kind of did that over a couple of days until I found the most efficient way to do all of the tasks that I had to do at that organization. So then, I got promoted to manager of the shop and then ended up working with a lot of new franchisees to train their staff and build new systems to run these chicken shops really effectively.
So, one thing I did there was to come up with a predictive ordering system based on really hilarious things like the weather forecast for the day to try and predict what things people would order and how much stock we needed to have so that we could fulfill all the customer orders and how many staff we needed to have on shift at all the different times so that the shop would be more profitable. And by implementing that system, we were able to cut staff cost by 30% and make a lot of stores that were failing profitable again.
Robert Wiblin: How old were you at this point?
Tara Mac Aulay: When I was doing that, I was about 15 or probably 16. It was very unusual that I was advising franchisees who were usually semi retired in their 50s or 60s and people who had run a lot of businesses before. It was pretty challenging for me to come in and basically be trying to tell them how to do their jobs and how to run their business.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. What’s going on here? How come a 15-year old could come into this established restaurant chain and significantly improve their inventory management and cut their staff cost by 30%? So you’re cutting staff cost because you figured out when people needed to be there and when they didn’t?
Tara Mac Aulay: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Robert Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. What do you think equipped you to do this? Feel free to flatter yourself. I think it’s reasonable in and of the circumstances.
Tara Mac Aulay: I think a lot of people approached that job by feeling like they were subject to the system that they were a part of and not that it was something that they could change or influence in any way. And so other people hated the checklist and hated being told when they should do something and how they should do something really simple like mop the floor but I approached it with this optimizing mindset and I thought it was really fun to just figure out what was the best way of doing things. And I think I, by nature, I tend to question authority a little bit so I didn’t just accept that what I was being told was already the most efficient and most optimized way of doing things. Also, the job itself was a little bit boring and not super challenging, right? So, it just was a way that I made it fun.
Robert Wiblin: So what were you actually trying to do in the first place?
Tara Mac Aulay: Basically to flip burgers. At the start, I just operated the grill and I would work all day in a hot kitchen, cleaning all of the equipment and cooking chicken burgers.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. And how did you convince them to allow you to start reorganizing the store? Were you just clearly a cut above the other staff and I guess you were wanting to do it.
Tara Mac Aulay: I kind of just did it. Like the day I brought in the stop watch, I just decided to do that and I just did it and then I kind of let the results speak for themselves and I did get a lot of pushback from the other managers or from the franchisees but then I had the data to backup all of these claims I was making and I could show them how much more efficiently we could do things, just by reorganizing things a little bit. And I kind of had to stake my reputation on it a little bit and say, “Look, I believe that this will make your business this much more profitable or this much more efficient and we can try it for a week and if it doesn’t work, you know, you can fire me or we can go back to doing it the old way.” So I had to negotiate to get them to agree.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so this was the first … so the first store you’re hired to flip burgers, then you improved their staff management, their inventory management, the shop becomes more profitable. What happened then?
Tara Mac Aulay: Well, at the time, I was in pharmacy school and I had another couple of years left in my degree. So then they tried to convince me to work for them full-time and so they offered me a full-time role there and with a pretty decent salary. And they wanted me to drop out of university. And I thought about that quite a bit and then I decided that I could probably do both at the same time. So I took on the full-time job at Oporto and then continued doing my studies on the side so I could learn a lot from there. And there, I learned a lot about management and about organizational politics and about hiring and firing and how to assess talent, basically, to figure out who would be good for this organization and how to build an effective team.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. If I remember correctly, the chain was somewhat struggling at the time, right? They were in the process of closing stores and you managed to save some of them?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, their store had just gone through this rapid expansion. So they went from being about 20 or 30 stores all in Sydney and they expanded to all of the states in Australia and also set up some stores overseas and they kind of expanded a bit too quickly before they really nailed down a lot of these good systems and processes. And so then there were six stores all owned by one guy who was like super over confident in Melbourne. And those stores were all on the verge of being shut down because they weren’t generating a profit and so I got sent in to try and save those stores.
Robert Wiblin: And to try to make them profitable again. And how many stores was this? And again, how old were you at this point?
Tara Mac Aulay: Six. So I was 16 at this point.
Robert Wiblin: 16.
Tara Mac Aulay: So, the first store I went into was Oporto in Knox City and I went in and decided to just work with the staff for a couple of days to observe and so I didn’t tell the staff what my role was or what I was there to do. I just worked on the grill and watched what was happening. And I quickly gathered that the culture in that workplace was one of the main things that was holding them back. So a lot of the staff who worked there didn’t take a lot of pride in their work and just sort of were having a lot of fun and joking around together and one person in particular was sort of the the ring leader of that group, he was encouraging a lot of bad behavior in some of the other staff. And encouraging other staff to kind of shirk their duties a little bit.
In particular, the store had a policy that if the work wasn’t finished at the end of the day that they would pay staff overtime. And so the first thing I did after that week of observing was I changed that rule and I made it such that no one could go home until everything was done rather than people being able to leave as soon as they’d finished their work. And that really changed the culture and made it feel like more of a team because everyone had to rely on other people to do their work efficiently and get everything done so that they could get home on time. And some of the staff had families to get home to or other reasons that they wanted to leave on time and other staff wanted to stay and be paid overtime. But that really caused everyone to pull together and figure out how we can change things and it gave me an in to kind of suggest some changes we could make so that we could achieve that goal.
Robert Wiblin: So you could finish on time.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So what’s this scenario where you send in a 16 year old to observe everyone? It reminds me of this reality TV show, we have the secret CEO integrated into the company who goes and finds out about how things really are on the shop floor. How did people react when they found out that you were not just there to flip burgers? Was there ever kind of some big reveal?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think that, initially, all of the staff sort of didn’t really believe it and they tried to scare me. Like you know, one of the staff sprayed me with a water gun as soon as I walked into the store and so I got completely drenched and I think they were testing me to see how I react.
Robert Wiblin: How long did that staff member last before getting laid off?
Tara Mac Aulay: I didn’t actually end up firing him in the end. He ended up really turning over a new leaf and becoming a team leader and one of the most productive members of the team. So that was really great.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so you found a way to get the staff to work together better. Were there any other improvements that you managed to find that saved a lot of money? And I guess, what fractions of stores that you looked at did you manage to save from shutting down?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think I managed to save about two thirds of the stores. A lot of what I did was make small improvements in process that were tested in one store and then when they worked, they were shipped out to all 120 stores all over the country. I sort of touched on this before but one thing was ordering and to try and predict the needs when we opened up a new store. So when we opened up a new store, you have to purchase a lot of expensive equipment, like a number of grills and fryers and things. And so to really try and do some more research before going into a new environment to predict what sort of product mix would be ordered in that new store which really depends on the demographics of the population there, whether it’s in a shopping center or a strip mall and lots of other various things like that.
Even simple things like the weather. People would order really different things on hot days compared to cold days which seems obvious in retrospect but no one had really looked at that or considered it and quantified it so they knew what things they should order.
Robert Wiblin: Do you remember what kind of model you made? I’m guessing this is an Excel spreadsheet where you looked for kind of correlations?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, absolutely. It was like a really shitty, very simple Excel spreadsheet.
Robert Wiblin: Like a single linear regression or multi-linear regression?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, a lot of the time it wasn’t even that sophisticated. A lot of time I would just dump all my data into a spreadsheet and kind of eyeball it.
Robert Wiblin: Oh right, but that was still a massive improvement.
Tara Mac Aulay: That was still a massive improvement.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, very cool. Okay, so that was helping to scale up a restaurant which is impressive for a 16 year old but perhaps not the most important problem in the world. But something that’s a bit more impactful was a year or a couple of years later, you were working at a hospital, right, while you were doing a pharmacy degree. And if I recall, you managed to save them millions of dollars, basically. Do you wanna just describe how you did that?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, so after I graduated from pharmacy school I went in to my first job as a very junior intern pharmacist at St Vincent’s Hospital. And there were a lot of similarities that I’d done at Oporto. I was thrown into an unfamiliar environment, I had more patients than I knew how to handle and lots of different demands on my time. So for the first couple of months i did the same thing. I carried around the stop watch, I timed myself on all of the tasks, I counted how many steps it was between all of the different wings to try and figure out the best route that I could take to get all of my work done as quickly as possible.
And then after that, I started trying to figure out how I could improve the workflow of all of the other people that I worked with as well. And a thing that pharmacists in the hospital did that a lot of people really hated was kind of running around restocking medicines. We would always get a call from say the emergency department and they’d say, “We’ve run out of drug X,” and no matter what you’re doing, you had to drop everything, run back to the pharmacy, get that drug and bring it do the emergency department ’cause they need that.
And so I figured out that pharmacists were spending 30% of their time on these kind of ad hoc drug requests which meant that that was time that they weren’t spending with their patients. And on top of that, it was also significantly increasing mortality for a lot of patients there, there were a lot of urgent requirements, cases where every minute that you delay causes worse outcomes for those patients.
So I, again, pulled a lot of data from the pharmacy dispensing system to try and figure out which drugs were most commonly out of stock. The hospital was using a really simple par based system for stocking all of their drug cabinets around the hospital where they would just have a minimum allowable quantity and a maximum allowable quantity for every single drug and you’d go around and if it’s below the minimum, you top it up to the maximum. That didn’t changed based on the day or the time of day or even the time of year, even though we know that there are lots of variations in that.
So what I did was to try to link hospital admissions data to the pharmacy dispensing system so that we could predict how much we would use of various different antibiotics or other drugs at different places in the hospital at different times and make sure that those lifesaving drugs never went out of stock.
Robert Wiblin: Based on who was being admitted and with what conditions?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, based on the primary diagnosis which was the only thing I used at that point in time.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so we got two examples here where somebody who’s quite junior has come in and just seen massive efficiency improvements sitting there on the table. Do you think this is universal? Or is it very common? And if so, does just the whole world suck because people are not paying attention? What’s the explanation?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, absolutely. I think these kind of things exist everywhere and a lot of it is because … my colleagues at the hospital were all astounded at what I did and they were like, “This isn’t your job, why are you doing this? Why are you putting in so much effort? Who is allowing you to do this?” And the thing that I said is, “You don’t need permission. You don’t need to be allowed to do something that’s not in your job description if you think that it’s gonna make your company or your organization more successful and more efficient, you can often just go and do it.”
Robert Wiblin: Is that true everywhere? There is various political reasons why people … well, there’s always the risk that you let someone junior do something and they mess it up and so people might be cautious for that reason, that’s the most common thing I see. You also get the problem that you might show up the other staff and they’re good or that the boss should have done this already. Have you ever encountered that kind of resistance?
Tara Mac Aulay: Absolutely. When I was a junior pharmacist, I had a lot to learn about organizational politics and I did cause fights among the department. And I think the lesson I learned from that was that I really needed to model all of the people involved in the decision making process and figure out who in the organization could block me basically or could cancel my project or prevent me from doing what I needed to do. And then figure out what they cared about, what things mattered to them and how I could get them on side and get them to agree. So I figured out that, say the head of the nursing department had really different KPIs from the head of medicine and I needed to show them that my project wasn’t going to negatively affect their KPIs and was in fact going to help them achieve the goals for their department before I could get the go ahead to start experimenting with some of these things.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So coming back to the hospital pharmacy. You improved the stocking of drugs and the emergency ward and I guess other wards, predict what they needed. Were there any other major contributions that you made there?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I realized that a lot of data in the hospital was really siloed and they … say the pharmacy department was the only source of information on patient drug use and then the pathology department had a completely different database and what the doctors use to put in prescriptions was completely different and none of that information was being shared. I think that’s a common problem you see in all of the world, not just in health care but in any kind of discipline.
And so, I started building my own database where I requested access to the pathology database and the medical database and then try to build a very shitty kind of combined database which, at the start, was just a Google spreadsheet and then I made a really shitty database in Microsoft Access which I had never used before and had no idea how it worked to try and combine a lot of that information. And the reason I wanted to do that was to figure out how we could better treat rare presentations. So when a complex patient would come in who had you know, kidney failure who’s taking 20 or 30 different medications and who needed to be on chemotherapy, very often, it was often more art than science because the doctors wouldn’t have a lot of clinical expertise in treating that specific patient.
Whereas with my database, I could look up and find similar patients that we’d had in the past and figure out what had been done there and what we could learn about how to improve our treatment from the millions of visits that we’d had at the hospital so far.
Robert Wiblin: What were the biggest barriers that you found in doing this, were they political? Was it actually challenging from an operations point of view or was it all just straightforward there, it just required someone who had the gumption to come in and ask the right questions.
Tara Mac Aulay: So, I had to learn a lot of new skills. Before then, I’d never done any data analysis except my shitty spreadsheets. I didn’t know anything about databases. There were also a lot of privacy concerns. But the main thing was really the politics of it. So the IT department was responsible for permissions on all of the different databases and how the information was stored and the data architecture and who could make what kind of queries on the system and they were pretty protective of that and also pretty slow moving.
And because they weren’t clinicians, they didn’t really understand the use cases that we cared about and so they had a form where you could request any of this data but then it would take two weeks for them to get it back to you. And by that time, your patients you know, are either discharged or might have passed away and so that’s far too late. So it was a lot of just getting buy in from all of the different parties and all of the different groups in the hospital, figuring out who the decisions maker were and what things they cared about to get it done.
Robert Wiblin: Did your colleagues realize that these improvements were possible and they just thought it was politically … or they didn’t have the time to take on these challenges? Or were they just not paying attention and were they not aware that these improvements might be possible?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think it was a little bit of both. A lot of people knew that there were problems with our drug distribution system before but no one really knew what could be done about it or how it could be improved or how we could figure out, how we could even figure out how to improve it. So they sort of didn’t know where to start. Whereas I just jumped in and tried to look at some data and come up with some ideas and figure out how I could test if those things were better. And a lot of the time … like a lot of people responded with, “That’s not my job,” thing. They would realize that there were problems but they were worried about overstepping or they felt like they were too stressed out and didn’t have enough time in their work time to dedicate to these other projects.
Robert Wiblin: To fix the broader system. So you’re like 18 or 19 at this point?
Tara Mac Aulay: I was 20.
Robert Wiblin: 20, okay, right, right. Slightly getting more reasonable. What did you do before you got this job at the restaurant? Sounds like you must have had some experience working with spreadsheets or working with data or is that not the case? You just went into work and then on your first day, just had an incredible amount of energy and innovativeness?
Tara Mac Aulay: I mean, I’d used Excel a little bit at school and at university but I was by no means an expert and I just resorted to Google and I think it was really … I learned so much because it was really motivating to me. I had a problem that I wanted to solve and I just needed to figure out what skills I needed and what I had to learn in order to solve that problem. And so I kind of engaged in a lot of just in time learning rather than upfront learning. I became an Excel whizz because I had to, not because I thought it might be useful for some future project.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. This is slightly unrelated but I’m curious to know what you think of the fix on fail idea that you should fix things once they actually go wrong ’cause that way you avoid wasting time fixing things that are never gonna actually gonna be wrong or not gonna matter that much.
Tara Mac Aulay: I guess in my experience, everywhere you look, there are hundreds of things going wrong all of the time and my viewpoint is kind of based around seeking perfection in systems. And so anything that could be better is a problem and that’s something that’s going wrong and then you just need to prioritize those and figure out what the biggest bottlenecks are and work on those.
Robert Wiblin: Did any of your efforts to increase efficiency at the hospital or in the restaurant backfire? Did you make any big mistakes?
Tara Mac Aulay: I made a lot of political mistakes, particularly in the early days. So one thing I really championed in the geriatrics ward of the hospital was pharmacists reviewing medication for patients who are on more than 20 medications. And I didn’t realize at the time that this was something that social workers at the hospitals saw as part of their job and was something that they could offer families as kind of an olive branch, is they could be the ones who were seen to be advocating for the comfort and ease of daily living for patients by reviewing medications and figuring out which ones were causing the patients problems and then advocating on their behalf to the doctors or nurses to try and get those medications ceases.
So I kind of overstepped a bit there and then took away something that was … it did fit better in the pharmacist role but it was fulfilling this important piece in how the social workers gained trust with their clients.
Robert Wiblin: That’s interesting ’cause that’s an example where it’s political in a sense but I guess, the social workers there aren’t being self-serving so much, they’re not protecting themselves, they’re protecting something that’s actually kind of cross subsidizing another activity that’s important to them.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Did you manage to figure that out and correct it once they explained it?
Tara Mac Aulay: Sort of. I’m not sure I did the best job on this. But then I experimented with having a social worker prompted or led medication review where the social worker and the pharmacist would sit down together or the social worker would then call in the pharmacist to have a discussion with the family and they would kind of lead or guide that and inform the pharmacist of the patient’s wishes and which things were bothering them so they could work together more collaboratively. And that helped quite a bit.
Robert Wiblin: Okay. So I think a few years ago you told me that you saved a couple million dollars for the hospital in avoiding drugs getting thrown out, is that right?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Do you remember the exact figure?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, it was eight million dollars.
Robert Wiblin: Eight million. How did you calculate that? Did you calculate that? Someone else calculate that?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I calculated that. Yeah, it was a combination of two things, so both the cost of drugs that were not expired and then also the cost of fines that the hospital was paying basically to the state government for times when they had failed to meet some of their benchmark criteria. So if they say didn’t see a patient within four hours of them being admitted to the emergency department, the hospital would get fined.
Robert Wiblin: Interesting.
Tara Mac Aulay: And so making sure that the drugs were available prevented a lot of those fines and so the fines made about two million dollars worth of that and then another, I think, between two and four million dollars, was a figure that the hospital used for days of admissions saved where the hospital used a figure of $800 per day of hospital stay. So I was able to figure out that availability of medication prevented some patients or quick making sure that the patients were treated really promptly prevented, I can’t remember exactly how many days of hospital stay but it meant that a lot of people were discharged sooner than they would have been had they not received care promptly and so there was that as well as the actual cost of drugs.
Robert Wiblin: Do you know if any other hospitals in Melbourne tried to adopt these methods or whether they’re common elsewhere?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I presented my findings at the National Pharmacy Conference and then got a lot of interest from other hospitals who used the same dispensing systems and they wanted my spreadsheets and my code so that they could start implementing that and so then there were, I think, six hospitals that at least tried to implement some of the same procedures but I don’t know exactly how that went.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so let’s move on from the hospital. I think after that you went to the Red Cross, right?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, that’s right.
Robert Wiblin: Was that because you were getting interest in effective altruism and wanted to have more impact or was that for different reasons?
Tara Mac Aulay: It was a combination of things. So I was interested in effective altruism when I was working at the hospital and I’d thought for a long time about whether I could have more impact sort of working in developing countries or working for an organization like the World Health Organization or the Red Cross overseas. And for a while, I thought that was I was sort of having such an outsized impact at the hospital where I was working that it was likely that that was more effective, in particular because I could build systems that could then be transferred to other hospitals and other clinical settings and have that work kind of spread.
But then this really amazing opportunity came up for me to work with the Red Cross where I would go in and do a capacity assessment of various different hospitals to figure out what conditions they could safely treat, what medications they should stop, how they should ensure a reliable supply chain and I thought that that was a particularly good fit for my skill set and an opportunity for me to learn a lot more about development and really grow, so I took that.
Robert Wiblin: Yes, so which country did you go to first?
Tara Mac Aulay: Well, I first spent some time in Indonesia where I mostly looked at malnutrition and I mostly worked with educating community health workers there so because there was a shortage of qualified health professionals to deliver care.
Robert Wiblin: So what kind of things did you end up teaching them about?
Tara Mac Aulay: Really, the thing I ended up doing a lot of was scabies treatment. Community health care workers were finding it quite difficult to get scabies patients to use the standard treatment which required a patient to cover their entire body in this sticky, gross cream. And it was really … the cream that they were using was the cheapest one but it was very oily and greasy and Indonesia is a really hot and humid environment. So patients were using that ointment very sparingly and they were kind of really unhappy about it. And the standard treatment is the patient should use … they should apply it to their whole body and anyone in close contact with them should do the same. So whole families were sleeping together under the same roof, so they’d have to apply this ointment to their whole body. And they were just having massive treatment failures.
So I actually advocated for the hospital purchasing a different type of water based cream that contained the same drug, was just as effective. It cost almost double the amount per treatment but the treatment success went way off.
Robert Wiblin: But it actually worked.
Tara Mac Aulay: Because people would actually use it. And I think that they were trying really hard to focus on cost effectiveness but they were just missing one of these key pieces of the puzzle and that was something I was able to dig into by sitting and talking with the patients about it and figuring out what was going on.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, doesn’t matter if it’s half the cost if it doesn’t work.
Tara Mac Aulay: Exactly, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: What other things did you manage to teach them? And do you think you had much of an impact there?
Tara Mac Aulay: I don’t think that I did really manage to have that much of an impact. I spent quite a lot of time reviewing a lot of different projects that the Red Cross was involved in and trying to do some kind of naïve cost effectiveness calculations and then after I did all of this work, I presented my findings to my boss at the Red Cross and what I found was that a lot of the programs used skilled volunteers from Australia who were then sent out into other communities where they didn’t understand the context or that kind of thing.
And the Red Cross was really excited about these sort of programs and I found that a lot of them were just not very cost effective and that both the volunteers were dissatisfied with the work they were doing and the amount of impact that they were having and also, that they weren’t really producing really lasting change in the communities that they were going into. So I advocated for scaling back some of those programs and that was not politically feasible. It caused me to become really disheartened with the organization itself.
Robert Wiblin: Not politically feasible, is that a euphemism or what was the reason?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I think my boss at the Red Cross made a lot of arguments about how it was an enriching experience for volunteers and how volunteers went on to become donors to the Red Cross or would go back to their home country and would encourage people to be more altruistic. And so I went and I tried to include all of those effects in my calculation of cost effectiveness and it still didn’t look good. Every time, there was another reason and so I felt that-
Robert Wiblin: It wasn’t their true rejection.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So then after Indonesia, you went to Bhutan, right?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: What did you discover and learn there?
Tara Mac Aulay: I went in to Bhutan to set up a cancer treatment center, basically. So I was told that the hospital had a pretty advanced treatment program, mostly for stomach cancer, that they were providing chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the hospital there. But when I arrived I was really shocked to find that their chemo cabinet had no venting which meant that all of the operators were constantly exposed to cytotoxic agents and in fact, some of the workers at the hospital had developed cancer due to occupational exposure of cytotoxic agents.
Robert Wiblin: I guess they didn’t have to go anywhere for treatment but that’s like extremely morbid. And there are other problems, I’m guessing, if they did that?
Tara Mac Aulay: Absolutely. So I think that in Bhutan, a lot of the clinicians were just operating outside of their skillset or level of training but were a bit unaware of that fact. So dosing of chemotherapy is pretty complex, you need to use body surface area to dose a lot of chemo and then you make a lot of modification to the dosing, depending on say the patient’s lab results, the blood tests and their vitals. And what I found was that there were a lot of errors being made in the dosing of chemotherapy because the baseline level of arithmetic was sort of a bit too low to safely dose chemotherapy in this kind of setting.
So it was remarkably common for me to see order of magnitude errors in calculation and a lot of just very simple errors with division or multiplication or failing to carry figures, even though this was being double checked with the calculator. And as well as having poor arithmetic skills, the clinicians lacked the experience or knowledge to know when they’d made a calculation error because the result was outside of the normal range.
So I think in my experience in Australia, if you do the calculation and you come up with something that is 10 times the normal dose, you’ll sort of recognize that and check your calculations, so that will give you some idea that you’ve made an error and you need to go back and check. But that level of clinical knowledge just wasn’t there so these errors weren’t being caught.
Robert Wiblin: Wouldn’t they just notice that it was an unusual amount of the drug to be dispensing, surely you develop a … this is the typical dose but they’re not picking that up.
Tara Mac Aulay: You would think so. Another problem I ran into with the culture of treatment. So doctors and particularly the doctors who prescribed chemotherapy were really well respected in the community there and the nurses, pharmacists and technicians didn’t feel comfortable bringing that up with the doctors if the doctor was the one who made a mistake. And there was this idea that you should always defer to seniors and think that they were kind of infallible. And this is something that has been worked on a lot back in Australia where they’ve been a lot of training programs to get nurses and other members of the healthcare team to speak up and to question authority when they think that there’s something that might affect patient care. This was something I really had to work on as well.
Robert Wiblin: I mean, an unwillingness to question the answers that you’re getting or the instructions that you’re getting plus just messing up all the time ’cause you can’t do math. This sounds like it could be absolutely fatal, right? Were patients just often dying as a result of this?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. One of my worst days in Bhutan was when I was starting to realize that and I decided to actually crunch the numbers and so I went through and looked at all of the patients who had records in the hospital and track their survival rates compared to what I would expect if they were not given treatment. And survival was lower for patients who were treated in the chemotherapy unit compared to no treatment at all. So what we were doing was so dangerous, prone to side effects and prone to errors that we were basically torturing people, giving them months of horrible chemotherapy in exchange for lower survival rates.
Robert Wiblin: Was this hospital run by the Red Cross?
Tara Mac Aulay: No.
Robert Wiblin: I see. So you were just there in order to provide help.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Did you try to shut down the whole operation at that point?
Tara Mac Aulay: I did. I think first I showed up, I had an in country representative with the Red Cross and I showed up there and I was just in tears and I had the findings of my study and my first thought was, “I can’t do this, we’re torturing people here, we’re harming people and we need to stop If what we’re doing is worse than no treatment at all then it’s better for these people to be home with their families.” But the Red Cross representative said I should try to work within the constraints of the hospital and figure out what I could do to improve it rather than just advocating for the whole program to be shut down.
Robert Wiblin: So was there some alternative they could do that would be less prone to error and killing people?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. So I decided to ask for help, basically. So I contacted a lot of oncologists, mostly based in the US to ask for advice and I just found them all on LinkedIn and I got together a Facebook group with yeah, four or five oncologists who are based in the US who could provide support and could check the treatment decisions that were being made. And then I set up an iPad that the hospital had so that the doctors there could Skype with these clinicians in America and get advice and help for their treatment.
And then, together with those oncologists, we developed a checklist to go through and check calculations for the dosing of chemotherapy and to make sure that patients’ vitals were checked before chemotherapy went ahead. We introduced a procedure where every calculation had to be checked by at least two people before it was signed off and that all had to be documented. And it was really difficult to get buy in for that and to explain and motivate all of the staff at the hospital to engage in this double checking procedure and to kind of follow that checklist because from their perspective, we were just giving them extra work.
Robert Wiblin: Why weren’t they as troubled as you were about the fact that they were killing their patients?
Tara Mac Aulay: I have a couple of different theories on this and I’m not sure if any of them are correct. One thing is that the attitude towards a death and mortality is quite different in Bhutan. Say a thing that kind of really weirded me out was when a family member would pass away in the hospital, no one else in the family would cry or express grief because that was seen as sort of a sign of weakness or like you might be preventing that spirit from moving on to the next life and so death was sometimes seen as a release or a celebration rather than something to be sad about.
But the other thing was just that Bhutan was really … the healthcare system was really hierarchical. Most people saw their role as just doing their job and no one saw it as their ultimate responsibility to ensure patient safety and patient care.
Robert Wiblin: Bhutan has this international reputation of being like a super happy place, like this happiness quotient is meant to be some national target and you could probably hear from the tone of my voice that I’m a bit skeptical of all of this. But yeah, did your impression living there match with this international golden reputation?
Tara Mac Aulay: Somewhat so. I think people’s approach to suffering was rather stoic. So when bad things would happen or you know tragic situations would occur, people wouldn’t tend to appear very visibly upset about those kind of things. And people seemed pretty happy and accepting of whatever lot they were dealt in life and just try to care about their family or other things that brought them happiness and fulfillment. So that was definitely there.
But I think Bhutan has changed a lot over the last eight to 10 years since it’s undergone a lot of modernization, they first brought in TV and radio and internet access and that’s influencing the culture a lot. So now people are starting to see a lot more how other people are living overseas and that’s changing the goals that people aspire to.
Robert Wiblin: So let’s come back to the hospital, just a final question. I mean by the time you left, you tried to implement a bunch of reforms to make the hospital net positive rather than net negative, or at least the chemo part of it. Do you think you succeeded by the time you left, were they killing people in there?
Tara Mac Aulay: No. I think I failed. I wasn’t able to reliably get those processes to be implemented. I think when I left, the chemo department was still net negative. But, I I think i did leave enough seeds that sort of six months later that department did undergo a big restructure and a big review and the doctor who was in charge of chemotherapy there was replaced and a lot of other staff were sent for more training overseas and there was a big improvement in patient safety.
Robert Wiblin: Why did you ultimately leave and how long were you there for?
Tara Mac Aulay: I was in Bhutan for six months. In the end, I didn’t think that I was having enough impact in the role there. I think there were a lot of challenges. Firstly, I was very young and also, I was female and I think those things meant that it was harder for me to bring about change than it otherwise would have. I think had I been the same person but a 60 year old man, I would have been respected a lot more and it would have been easier for me to implement a lot of the changes that I wanted to and that was something that I couldn’t really change.
And there were a couple of things that happened there with patients that just kind of got to me and I found it very emotionally difficult to be in Bhutan. So one case was where the head of the department prescribed a lethal dose of a chemotherapy to a six year old boy and the nurses and the pharmacist there were using this checklist and this checking procedure that I’d developed with these American oncologists and they noticed that the dose was way too high and that would have been fatal if they gave it to the six year old boy. And they made it anyway. And so I intervened, the pharmacist had already made up the chemo and were ready to send it to the ward to give it to the boy and I took that bag of chemo and destroyed it because I knew if they gave it to the patient that he would die.
And I said I was going to find the doctor and get that prescription changed and get the dose corrected to the right one. And while I was away, looking for the doctor, the pharmacy department made a new bag of the same chemotherapy and set it to the ward and when I got back, the nurses were preparing to give the chemo to the boy and I talked to the nurses and said, “What are you doing? Don’t you know that this dose is fatal and that it will kill him if you give this?” And they kind of laughed nervously and they were like, “Yes, but doctor’s orders, you know?” And eventually, I found the doctor, he took the prescription from my hands, sort of like you know, turned away, and I saw him kind of crumple it up and throw it away and he pulled out a new one with the correct dose and then handed it to me and he said, “What are you talking about? There is no mistake. This is the correct one. Why did you make the wrong dose?”
And that was something that was really hard for me to deal with. I think had I not intervened, it seems very likely that they would have given that fatal dose of chemo to that boy and instead, I had to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, my mistake,” and then go and make the right dose of chemo for that boy. But things like that kind of really got to me after a while, I was really worried about what would have happened had I not been there and I didn’t feel like I could really do very much to change some of the cultural factors that influence decision making in cancer treatment.
Robert Wiblin: It’s an incredible story. Let’s push on though as we’ve only go so much time. After Bhutan, did you go back to Australia or is that when you moved to America?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, after Bhutan I decided to go to the Bay Area and actually, I spoke to some people at CFAR and I was saying that I’ve done all these different things over my career, I didn’t really think that I should go back and work as a pharmacist and I didn’t think there were that many great opportunities for me in Australia and I sort of wanted to spend some time really thinking about EA and about how I could have more of an impact in my career. And they suggested that I just come to the Bay area and volunteer at CFAR and then that way I could meet lots of different people and talk to people who worked at all the various different organizations in EA and spend some time, trying to figure out what the next step for me was. So after I had that conversation, I kind of got on a plane, I left Bhutan six days later and showed up in the US.
Robert Wiblin: And what did you do at the Center for Applied Rationality, CFAR?
Tara Mac Aulay: That was my first role where I started doing ops stuff. So I was kind of thrown in in the deep end, I think they didn’t really have much of a plan for what I could do and how I could be useful and so I ended up just kind of trying to observe and learn and figure out what I could do to improve CFAR’s operations.
So again, I looked how they were storing and transporting all of the different things that they used for workshops, I realized that they’d never prioritized accounting or bookkeeping which meant that they had very little insight into how much it actually cost them to run workshops and how much income they were getting from all of the different ways that they were admitting people. And so it was hard for them to know whether they were spending money effectively to achieve their goals. I spent a lot of time looking into that.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, and then you came to work at the Center for Effective Altruism. What contributions there did you manage to make at the CEA?
Tara Mac Aulay: So just for a bit of context, when I decided to take the job at CEA, I was really scared and I thought I was horribly unqualified and I thought that I had all of this other experience, it wasn’t gonna be relevant to the job at all. And somehow, I thought CEA had made a mistake in deciding to hire me for this job.
Robert Wiblin: Very much not true.
Tara Mac Aulay: And you know, I read the job description and thought, “I don’t know anything about UK accounting or tax law or HR stuff and I’d never done all of these things that they’re gonna expect me to do or ask me to do,” and so I was really thrown in in the deep end at CEA. And when I arrived there, I just sort of had to figure it out and I thought that I would arrive and people would say, “Here is this long list of tasks that you should do and you should just do them.” But what I actually found was that the role was more about figuring out what the biggest bottlenecks were or what things needed to be done and then doing them. So I actually had a lot of autonomy and a lot of ability to direct the work that I was doing and focus on figuring out what I could do and how I could use my time and my efforts and my skills most effectively to improve the operations of CEA.
And that was something that I really thrived on. So it was a really great learning opportunity for me to just be thrown in there and have to figure out how things work, how you run accounting for an organization, how you should go about hiring and onboarding new staff and what challenges CEA was facing, how we could budget and make sure that we had planned and prepared so that all of our projects would succeed.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any stories that are impressive from CEA as I do from the hospital and other things. I think a lot of the work that I did-
Robert Wiblin: We weren’t murdering people within the office.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: I guess that glass is half full.
Tara Mac Aulay: And I think a lot of the work that I did at CEA was invisible to a lot of other people. I think a lot of what I did was focus on kind of identifying problems that would prevent us from scaling in the future and solving them before they became a bottleneck. So I would always think about what CEA would look like in three years time and how I could set up systems now that would scale effectively and enable CEA to continue operating and continue moving at a fast pace so that operations would never be the bottleneck.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I think that is apparent. In the few years before you came, we were struggling to grow and accommodate new staff and then things definitely became a lot smoother in the years up to that. Are there any other lessons that you can draw from your time at CEA?
Tara Mac Aulay: Well, I think at CEA I sometimes felt like I had seven bosses or like 10 different bosses and that there were lots of different projects going on, all different priorities and I realized that I was in this unique position where I was a person who had a lot of information about all of the different aspects of CEA and that meant that I was able to have a lot more influence than I first expected that I could have because whenever there was a question about which project was the most cost effective or how we should allocate resources, I could be there and spot off these figures off the top of my head. Like it would cost us this much money and this much time to onboard one new person or you know, various other things.
So through that, I was able to kind of actually influence a lot of decisions that CEA made, even though I wasn’t in a position of much authority when I first joined.
Robert Wiblin: Do you feel people mostly listened to that information and made decisions based on the information you gave them or based on the right information?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I think absolutely and that was really nice. It was great to be in an environment where I felt I could do a Fermi estimate or something or some kind of really hacky calculation and that would be heard and listened to and actioned on.
Robert Wiblin: So after, what was it, a year and a half or two years, you got promoted to the CEO of the organization, is that right?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Tell me a little bit about how that happened and I guess, how you found it being CEO?
Tara Mac Aulay: That was a huge learning experience as well, I think. I felt like the operations role had actually prepared and trained me really well for stepping into that role. One thing you have to do a lot of in operations is constantly shift your focus between kind of like all of the different levels of matter. You spend some time working on that object level task and then a lot of time thinking about the bottlenecks for the organization and the big picture of priorities. And then as CEO, your job is often to pay attention to all of the things that are easily forgotten about or that other people are not paying attention to.
So I spent a lot of time working on building an effective culture and environment at CEA so that we could accomplish our goals and be a productive and functioning organization. And yeah, I think I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not spent so much time in operations roles before.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, it’s a very common move from COO to the CEO.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah.
Robert Wiblin: Do you feel that there were any problems with that switch? Like with the parts of the organization you didn’t understand as well?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think it was challenging, like I’d spent so much time as COO basically trying to please everyone else and listening to everyone else and figure out what other people thought we should be doing with the organization. And suddenly then I was in a position where I was expected to come up with the overall strategy for the organization and the overall priorities and kind of lead more by fiat rather than by consensus. And it was difficult to balance that really well because I think it’s really important as a leader that you make sure that you keep those channels of communication open and that you’re constantly getting feedback from all of your staff about what the organization’s doing, what we should prioritize and how things are going so that you can make good decisions.
But you also need to be this source of a kind of stability and direction so that you can keep things in check when the mission starts drifting a little bit or when we’re failing to prioritize some projects that are really important.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, what are some of the most challenging things you’ve had to solve in the few years that you were at CEA?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think the thing that was really challenging for me was building a really great company culture at CEA. And I think this is one of those things that you read about all the time, companies say you should have a set of values that you hire and fire against and that you kind of use to make decisions day in and day out and I think it’s easy to brush that aside and think that it’s not a priority. But I think focusing on that was one of the most important and best things that I did in my time at CEA is I talked to all of the staff and came up with a list of values that we could agree on and then built that into a hiring process, into the feedback that we did in our 360 reviews.
And that was kind of an anchor for us. Like any time we were considering a new project or a new direction for the organization to go in, we could come back to kind of those values and that culture and figure out how that fit in with the organization we were trying to build.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah 80,000 Hours just wrote up our values and I think I have … my gut says it is just not important ’cause don’t we already know this, like isn’t this just common sense’ but yeah, outside use says it’s very important and I think, yeah, we’ve already gotten benefits from it. When we have difficult cases we look at, yeah, what are the principles that we laid down.
Tara Mac Aulay: And for me, as a manager, it just made my role just so much more clear cut. You know, I noticed it was really important for me to kind of praise the behaviors that I wanted to see and things that I thought strenghtend our culture and to give staff feedback or call people out when I felt they were doing things that destabilized the organization or were kind of counter to the values that we wanted to hold and promote as a company. And I think that was really great for improving staff morale and keeping everyone motivated and building a strong sense that we’re all in the same team and we’re all trying to accomplish the same things. And that was something we could fall back on whenever there were disagreements in the team about what we should focus on or how we should we go about it.
Robert Wiblin: Are there any values that you put in that document that are unusual or that you wouldn’t find in most such documents?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think something that is probably pretty common in the EA community but that you wouldn’t find in another kind of organization is the one we call best argument wins and the way that we operationalize that at CEA is that anyone in the company can propose an idea for a project or speak up about something they disagree about and believe that that would be heard by management and they’re given air time and debated based on the merit of the idea itself rather than sort of the seniority of the person or anything else like that.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s really cool. Yeah, in my experience, yeah EA orgs mostly do live true to that. I suppose, there can be some degree of internal seniority that determines which ideas get taken more seriously or at least which ones people are inclined to think they come from someone with more experience. So maybe there is reason to give more weight to people who’ve been around for longer and perhaps have a better intuition about what’s gonna work and what’s not. But yeah, by and large, it is like a very open company culture.
But yeah, speaking of which, how did you find your interactions with other people in the organization or with other organizations, working in operations? Were there any challenges there or were people generally very enthusiastic to get your help?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I generally found that while working on ops, I was actually given a lot of recognition and respect and that wasn’t something that I expected going into it. I sort of thought that ops was this role that was kind of like low status and thought of as something that was easy that anyone could do. But I actually found that other people in the organization were constantly giving me lots of positive feedback because I was doing things every day that made their jobs easier and more satisfying and so it was really rewarding for me.
And I felt that … I think in any organization, when you’re new, you do have to build up trust and respect and I kind of tried to just be relentlessly competent and always execute on task to the best of my ability and I think that helped me really gain a lot of trust and respect with other people in the organization which then meant that my ideas were heard and given air time and when I suggested something, people took me seriously and really listened and were interested to hear my point of view.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, speaking of which, are there any people working in operations in the EA community who you’d like to give a shout out to, who you think are doing really impressive work?
Tara Mac Aulay: Well, I probably wanna mention lots of CEA people but I feel a little bit bad about that. I think the whole ops team at CEA has really come together and they don’t seek the spotlight very much so people like Miranda and Caitlin. Caitlin spends a lot of time really trying to make sure that everyone in the organization is happy and satisfied with their work and she’s really great at modeling people and just kind of making time to have a nice conversation with them at lunch so that they feel like they’re part of the team. And I think that’s something that can easily be overlooked and isn’t necessarily part of her job but something that makes a really big difference.
And Miranda is just sort of always diving deep into budgets and spreadsheets and the legal code to try and find out what we should do and it’s really great to see how excited she gets about things like that when I think that that’s something that other people might think is kind of boring or not very fun.
Robert Wiblin: All right, let’s turn now to just general careers advice that you have for people who might wanna contribute to effective altruists causes and organizations through operations roles. As I mentioned at the start, we had this interview with Tanya Singh where we go through a lot of the points that are in our article about this. And I’m actually not sure which of these will come out first and which will come out second but Tanya, mostly, agreed I think with the core message in that article and hit on most of the key points that we made there.
So, I’m particularly interested to hear from you to what extent you disagree with what 80,000 hours written or to what extent you disagree with just people’s views about these careers in general, what kind of distinctive perspective you have.
Tara Mac Aulay: I think one thing I sort of object to is this framing of operations work as predominantly providing value through freeing up time for researchers or other people at the organization to be able to do more. That’s sort of not how I see it at all. I think that operations is itself a distinct skillset and the work that a really good ops person would do just can’t be substituted for with some other … like a researcher or someone else doing it.
And so you could think of operations work as this fixed multiplier where you need one operations person for every three researchers you have and so in order to scale the organization, you need some number of ops people. But I think that 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 of work that’s done by researchers.
For example, I feel like so many times people have come to me and said, “Oh, I don’t know, why don’t we do this thing or why don’t we solve this problem?” And I’ve been able, because I have so much context on the organization and how it runs and all of the things that go into any of the projects, I can suggest ways of solving that problem that other people wouldn’t have come up with that actually make it possible to do a project that wouldn’t have been possible if we’d only thought about the other way.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. So do you agree that there are flows of value which are saving time and allowing the organization to get bigger, but you think that that’s missing a big part of the value that’s provided?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, absolutely.
Robert Wiblin: Which is just so you can do things that otherwise would be impossible?
Tara Mac Aulay: Absolutely.
Robert Wiblin: Did you have any examples of the kinds of things that you can only do when you have outstanding ops staff?
Tara Mac Aulay: I mean, something like running EA global is a really great example here. EA global required a lot of work and hundreds of hours from a lot of really talented operations people and that’s a skillset that’s kind of unique there. And something like that couldn’t have been pulled off effectively without really talented ops people. There’s so many little things that go into making a conference run smoothly, things that you just wouldn’t even think of. And a good ops person can predict all of the things that might possibly go wrong and realize how many powerboards you need to have, how many kind of backup systems you need, what you’re gonna do if someone’s running late. And how to deal with crowds and various other things that make the conference run really smoothly and effectively and make it a really great productive experience for everyone who is there.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, one thing that I think makes clear of this multiplier argument isn’t touching everything is just there’s some organizations where ops is the thing that they’re doing, it’s the whole thing, they’re not enabling anything else and like delivery of drugs was an example that I gave in the conversation with Tanya. The Against Malaria Foundation is just basically ops in its conception. And then also just like manufacturing. It’s to such a large extent ops. Both like designing a system and then implementing it well, there’s nothing else being enabled, the whole thing is ops. Do you think that’s about right?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of people couldn’t even conceive of an organization like AMF without this kind of optimizing mindset or operations focused mindset.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, no that’s exactly right. And in terms of better staff allowing you to do qualitatively different things. I mean, car manufacturing, I’ve learned a bit about that, it’s just so extraordinarily complicated and even small errors can bring down the entire process. And yeah, basically unless you have really good people at all of these levels, it’s like you’ll never make a car. And basically, the only way that you can have modern car manufacturing process is to have amazing staff at every point. I mean, you can make cars just in a very inefficient way that we haven’t done for like 50 or 100 years because we have better processes now.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. I think a lot of ops stuff is about reducing the risk of failure and also reducing catastrophic errors and so good ops stuff can often make a project possible that would have otherwise been cost prohibitive or would have been too risky to embark upon because of all the negative consequences of failure. But if you can really go through and figure out how the project might degrade or what bottlenecks you’re going to face then it makes embarking on some of those projects seem possible when they otherwise wouldn’t be.
Robert Wiblin: Did you have any examples of that?
Tara Mac Aulay: Probably just little things like the process we used for EA grants or EA global applications. We were able to build a pretty automated system for tracking all of the applications, kind of scoring them, reviewing them and following up with people to make sure that tickets were bought or that grant applications were reviewed. And that meant that we were able to review like 700 applications for EA grants and come up with grants that we were really excited about making. Whereas had we not built that mostly automated process, it would have been prohibitive to look at 700 grant applications and maybe we could have only taken in a handful of 30 applications from a pool of people that we sort of already knew and thought might have really good ideas. And that means we were able to cast a much wider net and come across lots of projects that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
Robert Wiblin: Are you able to share what that process was? Is that a-
Tara Mac Aulay: A little bit. I mean a lot of systems at CEA are based around Zapier so we use a lot of Google spreadsheets that are connected and a lot of MailChimp automations and things like that to send out emails. So we have to map out every step in the process in advance and all of the interactions that we’ll have with applicants, either to EA global or to EA grants, when we’re gonna send out those emails and make sure that all of the right things happen at the right time and that no balls get dropped along the way.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so yeah, are there any things that we said in the article or perhaps the framing of them where you think we’ve gone down the wrong direction?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think one thing that was kind of missing for me is how much job satisfaction you can get in an ops role. And I think ops is sort of sold as this thing that can be super motivating because you can free up time for all of these other people and then enable more direct work that you care about to get done. But I think that the job itself is actually really exciting and interesting and it gives you a great opportunity to learn and to skill up. So ops has a lot of great feedback loops and a lot of variety as well. So you’re constantly learning new skills, doing different types of tasks and getting to improve how well you do all of those things.
And then you get feedback from really, you know when your plan worked and you know how effectively you were able to solve that problem and then you can do it better next time. And you also get a lot of autonomy. A lot of the work is really self-directed. So this means you’re working … a lot of the time you’re working on concrete tasks, so you get a sense of progress, you have a lot of autonomy and freedom to choose what you wanna do and the day to day work contains so many different things that you kind of never get bored. But I think the job itself is really satisfying, not just because you know how much impact you’re having but also because the work itself is really fun and challenging.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess one way that it could be less fun is if you get kind of swamped with administrative tasks, something like that or just get paper cut into potentially a boring role that doesn’t have enough strategy or enough innovativeness in it, do you agree with that and if so, how do you think you can avoid that?
Tara Mac Aulay: I don’t agree with that. I think that a really important mindset for someone working in operations to have is this idea of how can I automate this task away? So if you do find yourself swamped with administrative work like responding to emails you should go one level meta and think, “How can I reduce the load of this kind of work and how can I make this system easier and take less time and less energy?” Or “How can I outsource this so that’s not part of my job anymore?” Which gives you a lot of freedom. Basically, anything that you don’t like doing or that you find pretty annoying, then you can spend time figuring out how to make it smoother and easier and less a part of your job.
Robert Wiblin: What about just getting overwhelmed with the volume of tasks that are directed towards you. I’ve seen some operations people find that hard. And I think part of that is because we don’t have enough operations people which is partly why we’re having shows about it. Do you think is that potentially a source of career dissatisfaction?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think that is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it can feel like you’re swamped all of the time and you never make a dent in the amount of work that you have coming in. But the flip side of that is that there’s always something that is urgent and high priority that you can do that you know will make a difference to your organization. And so if there’s something you’re kind of stuck on or not very excited about then you have some other project that you can be working on that’s also super high priority and so you can kind of pick and choose a little bit which things you work on and how you focus on them. And it sort of means that the job never gets boring and it never feels like mundane or routine. There’s always a new challenge.
Robert Wiblin: Cool. Let’s come back to potential disagreements that you have with the article. Is there anything else where you’d have a different emphasis or disagreement?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. I think you guys touch on this in the article but I think it’s a common objection that a lot of people in the community have where people say that, “Well, why don’t you just hire non EAs to fill a lot of these roles?” And I think my take, and definitely that I did at CEA was to hire people who are really committed and embedded in the community for these roles. And I think that that’s really important because in operations you spend so much of your time prioritizing and really trying to figure out what the bottlenecks for the organization are and how you can enable that growth.
And to do that, you need a huge amount of context on the organization, the community that you’re a part of, all the different organizations working with space, you need to have your finger on the pulse of the community, of what things are important to them and how that matters. And I think it’s really hard to make the right calls, time and time again, without all of that context.
And that’s something that’s definitely been challenging for us. I mean, this is kind of a straw example but I think sometimes we’ve had, when we’ve tried to outsource some of these things, people from a more traditional non-EA background will be overly focused on professionalism or making sure that you fully comply with all of the legal restrictions whereas the approach that we tend to take is more to try and look at what are the costs of non compliance and what bad things actually happen if we don’t tick every box on some government checklist and then figure out how much time and effort we should spend on these things versus all of the other priorities in the organization. And I think that’s something that’s really hard to do without this kind of context in EA culture.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I remember a few years ago, CEA tried outsourcing a bunch, I think, of the financial work to a prominent professional services company that you probably heard of. How did that go?
Tara Mac Aulay: Oh that was horrendous. It was astounding to us how useless it was and how much better it was when we did those things in house when we had so much more context on the goals that we had for our financial statements and what figures were important to us. And I think the take that we had was just so different from other small businesses that they were used to working with that they weren’t able to be really helpful to us.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. At one point that ball was in my court and I was probably mildly in favor of also trying to outsource this stuff but I never got around to doing it so I kind of succeeded by failing on that one. I guess, did we extricate ourselves from that relationship in the end and then bring it back in internally?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, we did. And like now, we have outsourced a lot of the bookkeeping function. But that really required us to learn a lot more about what was required and to make a distinction between which things were required to do for reporting purposes and which things we wanted to be able to do so we could have accurate financial information in order to make management decisions about the organization and how we could satisfy all the reporting requirements while also getting all the figures that we needed to make those decisions. And so we actually had to learn a lot about accounting and about all of these reporting processes so that we could design a system in conjunction with qualified accounts that met both of those needs.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, this is fantastic. So let’s just keep going down the list. Is there anything else where you wanted to correct the record?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. One thing that I think is really great about working in ops is that it’s a cause neutral skill set in some sense. I think with the experience and skills that I have now, I could go work in AI, I could work in bio risk, I could work for an organization in global health and there are so many different things that I could do. So I think that ops gives you really a good flexibility and it’s really a great avenue to go down if you’re someone who’s pretty uncertain about how your views might change in the future or think that as you learn more, as EA grows and changes that you might not want to specialize too soon and develop this really highly specialized skill set that only makes sense in some worlds.
I think another thing is that … I think ops actually gives you really awesome career capital and particularly working in ops in an EA organization is not what it used to be. I think ops trains skills that are really transferable to any kind of organization and it gives you an opportunity to … like you have a lot of opportunities for advancement and taking on a lot more of responsibility than you’d ever get in a junior role in the traditional corporate sector.
So I feel like I’m really well placed. Like if I wanted to go say back to work in consulting or something else that the skill that I’ve gained through working in ops roles and EA orgs would be looked upon really favorably and more so than if I’d taken a junior role in a corporate job in the first place.
Robert Wiblin: Because you’re effectively … you’ve got like a view of the entire organization and also the freedom to just reorganize it according to what seems more efficient?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. And I think another thing that people often do prioritize is kind of cool stories. I think when you go into a job interview, if you can tell a story about how you went into an organization and changed things and really improved that organization, that’s gonna get you so much further than saying you just went in and kind of did the job that you were expected to do really well. And I know that now, any startup would be really excited about hiring ops people who’ve worked at EA organizations because they’ve had that breadth and depth of experience in so many different areas and they’ve constantly had to just solve problems on the fly and pick up new skills.
I think another thing that’s important is if you think that you might ever want to found your own project or organization in the future, then working in ops is probably one of the fastest ways to gain that kind of skillset ’cause you learn how to run an organization from the ground up. And getting that deep knowledge of all the things that go into running an organization and decision making and prioritizing what you work on and how is really, really important if you ever want to set up your own project. So I’d recommend working in ops for a bit for anyone who thinks that they might want to run their own company or run their own project in the future.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, no the skills just seem exceedingly transferable. There’s a kind of analogy that I need to give that if you’re making money then you can direct it wherever you think it’s gonna be best used. And I think similarly, if you have good ops skills, you have a good shot at getting into basically any project, almost any project might be interested in hiring you.
Tara Mac Aulay: Another thing that I think is a common misconception about working in ops is that you need to be super organized and detail oriented. And I know, I’m certainly not like that. And I think there’s sort of this perception that you need to have a really good GTD system and track all of the different tasks and write everything down and never forget anything. But I think ops actually requires a much deeper problem solving skillset and what you actually need is a lot of creativity and initiative and working memory.
And to succeed at ops, just being kind of generally smart and well motivated will probably get you further than only just being super organized. So I think, I talk to a lot of people who are interested in working in ops and they’ll say to me, “Oh, but I’m not very organized or I’m a bit forgetful,” and they think that that rules them out and so I kind of want people to know that that’s not the only thing that matters. And you can be really effective by just taking initiative and by coming up with creative solutions to problems.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, my role in EA hasn’t mostly been ops most of the time but I had pretty major exposure to it and I feel one of the areas where I improved the most was just an intuitive judgment about what things are going to be a disaster and what things are not. You’re nodding your head, talk about that.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, I’m just laughing ’cause I feel like we’ve had a conversation like that so many times within CEA where … I don’t know, I think it’s common to think that some outcome would be kind of inconceivably bad or just like not an option but we’ve needed to kind of assess it and figure out what bad things would actually happen if we fail, let’s say if we failed our next audit or something like that. And then once you sit down and look at how bad the outcome is it brings things into perspective. And then you’re able to make those decisions much more quickly in the future when you constantly look at what bad things will happen if you don’t do it.
And simultaneously, a lot of the things that don’t seem like a big deal do end up actually taking up a lot of staff time and attention. A thing that’s been huge for CEA is things that affect staff morale. And it’s easy to think that that is not a priority but, you know, if there’s say a disagreement between two people that could end up taking up hundreds of hours of lost productive work time because people are feeling a bit demotivated or don’t feel comfortable in the work environment, so that is sort of a bigger disaster than some of the things that seem more obvious.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, those are good examples. The kind of thing that I was thinking of is people often come up with ideas or ways of arranging things. Like, “Oh, we’re gonna order the lunches in this particular way,” something as simple as that. And these days, I just have a much better intuition for when this is actually gonna involve a hell of a lot more faff than what it initially seems, that this is gonna create coordination problems and conflict and actually be very hard to organize. And I think when I started out working, I just didn’t appreciate how often things that seemed very simple on the surface can actually lead to huge amounts of wasted time, especially if they’re not implemented really, really well. Do you have the same sentiment?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, for sure. I think a thing that springs to mind for me is the expense reporting procedure and I know this is something that lots of organizations have looked into and you can very easily end up in a situation where lots of your staff are just not submitting expense reports and not getting reimbursed for things because they don’t know how or the process is kind of annoying. And that means that the organization is both not reflecting its true costs when they look at that and also that their staff are kind of dissatisfied and unhappy ’cause they’re spending their own money for things constantly.
Or maybe they don’t buy things that would make them much more productive in the workplace because they don’t wanna deal with the hassle of submitting all the receipts. So something as simple as making that process really smooth and easy can make a huge difference.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, having this intuition about how people actually interact with systems.
Tara Mac Aulay: Oh my God, yes.
Robert Wiblin: When you’re designing something, you can just see how it’s gonna fare ahead of time is so helpful. But you get this like red flashing lights going off in your brain that this is gonna be a disaster.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, oh my gosh. So many people, when they naively try to design a system assume that the users will interact with it perfectly and exactly intended and I think it’s a really important step to actually sit with people and watch what they do and think about what people will actually do or what they’ll try to do when they interact with this system and how the users will actually use it in the real world rather than what you think they should do. And you need to kind of work with human nature a bit more and think through what happens if someone forgets to do this step, how are you gonna make sure that it does get done? And how that system degrades over time.
Robert Wiblin: When it gets passed on to someone else who doesn’t understand it for example.
Tara Mac Aulay: Exactly, yeah.
Robert Wiblin: So yeah, we were talking about how these skills are incredibly transferable and it’s been my experience that this is useful in all jobs that I have and also just in my personal life as well, just seeing where things are going to not gonna work as I might have thought when I was 20.
Tara Mac Aulay: A thing that was really transferable for me is getting an intuitive sense of how much time is worth spending on any particular research path. So I notice that before I would often keep looking up the same topic and reading more and more about it and before I knew it, I’d spent six or eight hours on something and then in retrospect would realize hit diminishing returns after the first hour. And I think ops caused me to really hone that process so I had this sense of when I was starting to gain less information. So I think that ops has also made me much better at research tasks and solving problems and even something as simple as doing literature reviews, I think that I’m much better at that because I’ve had this experience.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Okay, are there any more things that you wanted to clarify?
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, another thing that I wanted to point out is so many people who are good at ops don’t realize that they have that skillset and I think the reason for that is that when you’re good at something it feels easy. And so I hear so many people say, “Well, all I did is I just kind of did the obvious thing.” And it’s easy to forget just ’cause it’s obvious to you doesn’t mean that it’s obvious to other people.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, if we’re giving this to someone else they would have burned the entire office down.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah, or they would have forgotten some really simple step. And I remember, one time I was trialing someone, two different people for an operations task and they had to do something really exceedingly simple which was like pick up a package from a depot. And one person, it took them three days because the first time they went and the office was closed. And the second time they went, they didn’t have the ID that they needed. And so they only got the package on the third time.
And the first person, as soon as I said, “Can you go and pick up this package,” they called and found out what time they were open and what they needed to bring and they made sure that that package was there and so they went and they’d accomplished the whole task in an hour with the phone call and it’s really simple things like that that really show you what kind of mindset you need to figure out what are all the ways that this thing could go wrong and they’re like stupidly simple tasks.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I actually think there’s a bit of a trade-off between that kind of operational competency, I think sometimes, and being a good academic. I think these things are negatively … well, maybe not in every field but I really believe there’s this archetype of the muddle headed philosopher and basically all of their thinking is going into these philosophical issues and so they just can’t even make their own breakfast properly or this messing up simple tasks, that actually has been my experience. And the more you’re actually doing the ops stuff right, you don’t have your head in the clouds, but then I guess, maybe you miss the things up there.
Tara Mac Aulay: Yeah. I think this is something that’s really challenging for an ops person actually is how to figure out how people who are very different from then will interact with the system.
Robert Wiblin: How to interact with these morons.
Tara Mac Aulay: Or how people like that would interact with systems they built. And they’ll think that something is just really obvious or very easy but then they’ll try and delegate it to someone else who won’t think that those steps are obvious. So you really need to check and figure out what things you need to make explicit and what things you need to write down when you’re delegating that task to someone else, yeah, it’s a totally different mindset.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I mean true in management in general, I think. I always underestimate how many instructions I have to give or how clear I have to make anything ’cause obviously, the illusion of transparency … or is that the right term, or the curse of knowledge maybe. Like if things are very obvious to the person who is giving them but very hard to understand.
Tara Mac Aulay: One thing I will push back on a little with that, though, is I think something that ops people are really good at is figuring out how to solve problems and so sometimes, I’ve had so many conversations where someone will try to delegate a task, or they’ll say to an ops person, like you know, I need this piece of information and they won’t say what they need it for or why it’s important or when they need it. But instead if they just say what goal they’re trying to achieve, the ops person can maybe suggest 10 different things that would take half the amount of time or be really easy and would do a better job of solving the problem than something that they first suggested. So I think delegating at the level of the goal rather than the task is really important.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah, makes sense.
Tara Mac Aulay: Just one last thing is that I think ops requires really good social and political skills. And even if you’re not in a management role because your job is to interact with everyone both inside the company and also lots of external stakeholders and to keep your venders happy and all the contractors that you work with. So you really need to be good, not just at modeling systems but at modeling people and figuring out who the decision makers are and what those blocks are. And so working in ops is a really good way to kind of train this organizational management skill and your political skill and figure out how people interact together to form effective teams and how you can bring that about.
Robert Wiblin: What kind of people do you think ops isn’t for?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think if the idea of working in a really fast-paced environment where you constantly have more tasks than you have time for and so many different demands on your time and you’re juggling lots of different priorities sounds really stressful and overwhelming then maybe ops isn’t the best fit. Similarly, if you’re someone who tends to get really sucked into rabbit holes and spending a lot of time diving really deep into one particular topic and really enjoys getting into deep work then ops might not be the best fit because ops requires a lot of context switching and task switching and being able to cut off that chain of thought and pull yourself out of that rabbit hole and stop once you gained most of the information that you need.
And also, if you’re someone who just doesn’t think it sounds like fun or exciting to build systems and optimize them. If you want to try once and be done then ops isn’t for you ’cause ops is about building a system and iterating 100 times until you’ve built the best possible systems and sometimes that means throwing all of your work away and starting from scratch with something new. And if that sounds kind of demoralizing or demotivating then I don’t think it’d be a good fit.
Robert Wiblin: Okay, so we’re almost done. But I’m imagining if I was listening to this I might have heard all of these stories of your career between 16 and 23 and be thinking, “Can I live up to this?” ’cause it feels like you’ve just been a whirl winder, like efficiency improvements or at least attempted efficiency improvements everywhere that you’ve gone. And you’re not even completely sure where you developed the skill before you started doing this. Do you feel like someone who perhaps doesn’t have the confidence or the record of doing this kind of work in the past should seriously consider applying for these roles and how can people tell whether they’re a good fit?
Tara Mac Aulay: I think that a lot of people don’t even try to do a lot of these things because they think that they need to permission or that it’s not their job. So I recommend first, just try some things. Like whatever job you’re in, whatever project you’re working on now, try to think about how you could improve it or what things you could change to make your workflow more efficient or to make a project more likely to succeed and just give it a go. And I think my experience awes really about building a success spiral and starting with really small things that just make my life easier or my job easier for myself and then figuring out how I could expand that and spread that to other people as well.
And I think that really set me down the path of developing this deep skillset and it was something that came with a lot of practice and a lot of honing. It didn’t just kind of pop out of nowhere. I think some people do just kind of natively have this mindset. I talk to some people who say, “Oh, I tried walking home from work three different ways and timed them all and found that this one was the most efficient and took up two minutes less than this other time,” or I’ll meet some people who take pleasure in making sure that they’re always exactly on time to meetings and never too early or too late and they’ll know how long every step in their commute takes so that they can optimize that. And when I’ll come across someone who just optimizes really silly things in their life I’ll think, “This person will be great at ops.”
I think another thing to note is people who are … if you’re just kind of paying attention to systems, whether they’re imposed on you or whether you built them yourself and noticing … if you’re the kind of person who gets kind of irked by things that don’t quite work smoothly or you know, inefficiencies in other systems that you interact with, you feel a desire to change it or you can see how you can do it better, then you’re probably a person who’d be great at ops.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Tara Mac Aulay. Thanks for coming on the 80,000 hours podcast, Tara.
Tara Mac Aulay: Thank you. It was fun.
Robert Wiblin: If you enjoyed that episode look out for my conversation with Tanya Singh which goes into more detail about how you can make a difference by building organisations.
Remember that if you’d like to make a difference this way, the Centre for Effective Altruism is currently looking to hire an Events Specialist, UK Operations Specialist, US Operations Specialist and Project Manager for the Office of the CEO. You can apply at centreforeffectivealtruism.org/careers until the 6th of July.
For other positions there’s also our article Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism which I’ll link to in the show notes.
The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.
Thanks for joining, talk to you next week.