Some Scattered Thoughts on Operations

by Eli_Nathan2 min read4th Jan 20214 comments

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Operations
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This post is a collection of scattered thoughts I’ve had on operations at Effective Altruism organizations since I started working in the area full time a year ago. There’s no central narrative here, though I thought people might still be interested in the various thoughts outlined within. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been much written on operations in the past couple of years, and I hoped to add some new ideas to the conversation.

For those unfamiliar with this topic, I’d recommend first reading the 80,000 Hours article on operations management, as well as EA Norway’s posts (part one and two).

1. Decreased discussion on operations work

Pursuing roles in operations was quite widely discussed in the EA community a couple of years ago, though the discussion seems to have tapered off since then. I expect that this is for a few reasons:

  1. EA organizations managed to successfully hire operations staff from outside the community, including candidates who were more new to EA.
  2. Members of the EA community were generally not interested or qualified for these roles.
  3. There are only a few EA organizations out there, and only a few roles per year, making extensive discussion on operations not suitable for a community of >10,000 people.

That said, I expect applying to operations roles to still be a good move for many, though due to the small supply of said roles, I would strongly advise applicants to have backup options.

I think many people within the EA community actually could excel at operations, but often have other things they’re better at or enjoy more (probably because competence in different areas is broadly correlated). This may make EAs falsely believe that there are plenty of people around to do these jobs, whereas in fact, these roles often have a short supply of qualified, value-aligned applicants.

2. How important is alignment?

Alignment depends on size

I think there was some subtlety lost in the discussion of how important it is for operations staff to be aligned with Effective Altruism, which is that I expect the importance of alignment to drop as an organization grows larger and is more established. Specifically, an additional hire is likely to affect company culture to a lesser extent the larger said company is and the longer it’s been around for. You can test your intuitions here by imagining how important it might be to have your first employee at a three person start-up be bought into your company’s product. Then compare this to an additional hire at Goldman Sachs — where the bank is well aware that the employee is optimizing for their own pocket. As such, I can imagine having aligned operations staff to be more important for new EA organizations or non-profits, and less important for more established ones.

Successful hires from outside the community

It appears that many EA organizations have been able to successfully hire talent from outside the community, which I think should make readers more skeptical that alignment is important for operations roles. This has partly been out of necessity, as many of these roles require domain expertise that is hard to come by amongst EAs (e.g. several years of experience doing finance at small non-profits).

Aligned hires can do low-status work

Working in operations at nonprofits is often viewed as low-status and is not as highly paid as similar roles in the for-profit sector, such that talented graduates with an operations skill-set will often end up working for prestigious companies like McKinsey or Google. If you don’t care as much about wealth or status (because you are value-aligned), you can work for an organization that could never otherwise hire someone with your skill-set. Similarly, a lot of the work that effective nonprofits need done is work that very few people actually want to do, meaning that value-aligned hires can be especially valuable. I worry that many EAs think that these jobs can easily be outsourced to people outside the community, but this can be difficult in practice: many talented university graduates simply don’t want these jobs. For value-aligned hires, there’s a sort of “butler mindset” where you’re trying to be as useful to your employer as possible, which can be incredibly valuable. To clarify, I think this also applies to some extent to other roles, such as those doing research.

3. Some flags about personal fit

Many EAs are fairly intellectual, and as such may feel like they're missing out on something by working in operations roles. Although these positions are often challenging, they tend not to be academically or intellectually stimulating in the same way as school or university. Anecdotally, several people I’ve spoken to who work in operations at EA organizations have mentioned that they miss academia or research in some form or another. 

Additionally, a lot of operations work is not glamorous, and is based on what the organization most needs, rather than what is most interesting or exciting. Although operations staff are highly appreciated within the EA community and at EA organizations, these roles may still be seen as low-status to society at large — when I describe to people outside the community what I do, they generally assume that I want to do something else long-term. For some people, this may be something that’s worth bearing in mind.

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I remember being surprised by the differing mindsets about operations when I transitioned to being more involved in the tech startup world after already being involved in EA. In the startup world you often hear things like "Ideas are cheap; execution is everything" which likely leads to operations feeling less low status. This is a major contrast to the EA world where many are highly intellectual, and place a high value on ideas. Given that startups tend to have more skin in the game than non-profits, perhaps EA non-profits could benefit from shifting more towards this mindset.

Yes, FWIW my guess is that at the current margin this would be good in many places (but of course there is considerable within-EA variance, so it won't be the right marginal change everywhere and in every situation).

Agree!

Another possible difference between the startup world and the EA world is that startups have access to much stronger direct feedback loops than non-profits, i.e. trying to sell to customers and seeing what happens. This means that startups don't have to think through everything super carefully before executing.

This is a very good point:

Many EAs are fairly intellectual, and as such may feel like they're missing out on something by working in operations roles. Although these positions are often challenging, they tend not to be academically or intellectually stimulating in the same way as school or university.

As an undergrad liberal arts major, it was only in the last 2.5 years that I grew to love the intellectual depth (and fun) of operations research/ops-oriented economic analysis, and project management practices and courses. To pick two examples addressing food insecurity, there's this work by an economist and this work by operations research faculty. It could be worth pulling together an informal Google Doc syllabus — akin to AI safety syllabi like this — including resources from: 

A more-digestible entry point is The Everything Store on Amazon, which highlights how Bezos recruited a number of ORFE and Sloan alumni to make logistics and operations AMZN's core competency. See notable alumni here, this  Jeff Wilke video, and this excerpt from the book for an example of the heated operational debates within Amazon during its first decade, which could be good food for thought for distributed EA organizations.

At a management offsite in the late 1990s, a team of well-intentioned junior executives stood up before the company’s top brass and gave a presentation on a problem indigenous to all large organizations: the difficulty of coordinating far-flung divisions.

The junior executives recommended a variety of different techniques to foster cross-group dialogue and afterward seemed proud of their own ingenuity. Then Jeff Bezos, his face red and the blood vessel in his forehead pulsing, spoke up. “I understand what you’re saying, but you are completely wrong, ” he said.

“Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

...At that meeting and in public speeches afterward, Bezos vowed to run Amazon with an emphasis on decentralization and independent decision-making.

“A hierarchy isn’t responsive enough to change, ” he said. “I’m still trying to get people to do occasionally what I ask. And if I was successful, maybe we wouldn’t have the right kind of company.”

Bezos’s counterintuitive point was that coordination among employees wasted time, and that the people closest to problems were usually in the best position to solve them. That would come to represent something akin to the conventional wisdom in the high-tech industry over the next decade.

The companies that embraced this philosophy, like Google, Amazon, and, later, Facebook, were in part drawing lessons from theories about lean and agile software development. In the seminal high-tech book The Mythical Man-Month, IBM veteran and computer science professor Frederick Brooks argued that adding manpower to complex software projects actually delayed progress.

One reason was that the time and money spent on communication increased in proportion to the number of people on a project.