Operations is really, really demanding.

I work as a software product manager, but spend two weeks a year as a reservist at a US Navy operations center. There I work 12 hour shifts where I send chat and email messages, make and take phone calls, and otherwise try to be of use. Before I was a full-time software PM, I was a full-time submariner where I project managed our ship's maintenance.

My current workplace is a large e-commerce company with heavy operations footprint. My experiences there confirm what I already knew from the Navy--operations is a really demanding field. 

Operations is so, so important! How do we make it less demanding to its practitioners?

What is operations?

I want to play a little bit with the version of operations discussed in the 80,000 Hours career guide. Organizations have people that create things (medicine/widgets/research), people that highlight the value of these goods (salespeople/marketers/outreach), and then people that make sure all of the above goes smoothly--those are the operations folks.[1]

The career guide focuses on operations as the support class of the organization: HR, recruiting, finance, etc. But if GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, or any org that delivers aid/goods are within the scope of "high-impact organizations," then operations might be the org's core competency, rather than something (relatively) behind-the-scenes. Their operations teams are responsible for delivering the products.

Both forms of operations are hyper challenging and undervalued.

Why is operations especially demanding?

Operations is especially demanding because the scope and impact of its errors. Because operations deals heavily with human systems, the scope of ways things can wrong is nearly unbounded. You can't debug or test human systems. You can provide all the thoughtful written documentation on "How to X" but  humans can still find a way to get it wrong. [2] This is unlike code or other forms engineering--those objects do precisely what you tell it to do![3]

So not only are the failure modes unbounded, the impact of an operations team's error can be quite high. Think about botching payroll, event execution, HR policies, or having an unprepared executive. An organization can't readily undo these things or make them "right." A poor marketer/salesperson/researcher has limited downside by comparison--they just cost you money. Bad ops exacts institutional damage.

OK, but what exactly about operations especially demanding?

Operations staff are keenly aware of the stakes of their work, and tirelessly work to reduce the chance of errors. This is super demanding! Consider the following real-life examples I've witnessed or personally dealt with in my most recent two weeks of operations work. Perhaps these are military heavy, but I'm sure they have analogs elsewhere:

  • It's 1am on a Thursday night. The flight scheduled for midnight didn't happen, and now your team is running behind schedule. You get a call about this, and need to get some guidance from your boss so now you call them. Both of you will need to be in the office by 8am.
  • It's 6pm on Sunday night. The scheduler for a Royal Navy admiral calls you to get something on the calendar with your US Navy admiral tomorrow. The earlier in the morning the better--can you accommodate?
  • Your executive gets a daily report on operations, including on the weekend. The last few times the report hasn't been made to standard so you need to come in Saturday and Sunday mornings to make sure they're done properly.

The above may seem pretty mundane, and it is if you work in ops. But human systems run 24/7. The cost of operations errors is high. Combine those two things and operations staff are never really quite off-the-clock. 

If you think the above is unique to military folks, I'm sure EA ops staffs has their own stories of everyday stressors. Obsessing with getting these sort of details is not unique to the military--think of everything that goes into EA Global!

What can we do about this challenge?

If you think that there is a bottleneck in EA orgs for operations management folks, then we should question why's that the case. The career guide offers a couple of reasons:

  • You don’t get as much recognition in these roles, since they’re behind the scenes — positions in research or outreach seem more ‘glamorous.’ One particularly difficult feature is that when operations work goes well, people take it for granted; when there’s a mistake, it’s obvious and everyone is annoyed.
  • The impact of your work is indirect, making it less tangible, which can make it harder to stay motivated.
  • Effective altruism seems more likely to attract researchers, philosophers, and software engineers than people who are good at operations. The skillset seems to be somewhat rare in the community.

To which I'd add "...and it's demanding in quality of life dimensions that research/outreach isn't." 

Perhaps one way to tip the scales towards making things right for operations management folks is to play with more creative forms of compensation. As the career guide notes, a lot of what operations management does is a kind of risk management. At the base level, you're there to prevent things from going off the rails. You excel if you further enable members of the organization. How can operations folks get some of the upside of the organization performing more strongly?

I wish I had more ideas on how to make things better!

Reasons I'm wrong or why you should ignore me

  • Maybe the above is just the ramblings of someone who is NOT good at ops and has spent some time in it. It's possible that someone who is great at ops looks at the above challenges and doesn't find it stressful at all. But I've worked with a lot of operations folks--no one underplays how demanding it is, so I might be on to something.
  • I am way more familiar with ops as function that delivers or fields the product. It could be the ops roles that support the product (HR, finance, etc) are really where the shortage is in EA, and these challenges aren't as relevant.
  • Maybe operations is really demanding and that's just the job.

 

 

  1. ^

    Depending on the size/maturity of your org, some of these functions may be compressed or shared.

  2. ^

    "The technology may be proven, but people are not." - one director of research at a US research lab on nuclear energy technologies. 

    Benjamin K. Sovacool (2010) A Critical Evaluation of Nuclear Power and Renewable Electricity in Asia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 40:3, 369-400, DOI: 10.1080/00472331003798350

  3. ^

    This is perhaps a simplification. For instance, the work of Charles Perrow catalogs how complex engineering systems can fail in totally unpredictable ways. See summary here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B0080430767045095?via%3Dihub

    I largely stand by my point in the context of EA's high-impact organizations. The kind of work being done doesn't seem to open itself up to Perrow's "normal accident" theory. 

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Thanks for sharing this! I think that it is tough that the experiences you list are shared by many other people with ops experience. I also think that something I've witnessed at a lot of organizations is that growth can be somewhat stumbling - e.g. new non-ops staff are added until ops is overwhelmed, and only then are ops staff added.

To mildly shamelessly plug my own employer, Rethink Priorities has been really focusing on offsetting some of these challenges, including doing things like:

  • Having a pay system that doesn't discount ops work - ops staff are paid the same as other staff at the same title level
  • Really emphasizing working at most 40 hours / week, and making it clear to people that if they are working more than 40 hours / week, it means we are understaffed and need to address something
  • Investing in ops expansions prior to other expansions, so we have the bandwidth to grow, and slack in our operations in general
  • Giving people a high amount of autonomy in their roles
  • Focusing on providing professional development opportunities

So far, these have gone really well - we've had no turnover on our operations team, and the team consistently reports being quite happy in their roles. We are also hiring for a bunch of operations roles right now (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/of9qrfb5HQfwgj3Le/rethink-priorities-operations-team-is-expanding-we-re-hiring).

Thanks for sharing!  I agree that ops can be demanding  - although I'm able to switch to "emergency mode" pretty well, it still leaves me feeling drained and exhausted.

I think it's more than just deadlines or missed calls that makes ops challenging, here are just a few:

  • Constant task switching because you have to check emails and messages to respond quickly to time sensitive things, or chase people on your team for information you need
  • Not always feeling like you've accomplished a lot because you worked on 5 different small things in the day, and made incremental progress on each (many ops projects naturally span 1-3 weeks and there isnt' a good way to speed them up)

Things that help make this better for me

  • Good work culture - I feel appreciated and valued by my team
  • Learning - I'm learning a lot of skills that will be useful in any future project I try to do
  • Autonomy: I enjoy having ownership and autonomy over my domains. 

Yes, the context/task switching! Very under-explored in my post and can make things difficult. 

Great to hear you have things that off-set the stress.

Having seen overworked operations staff in several organisations throughout my career, reducing stress and having a healthy culture seem to be key improvement factors regardless of organisation size. (This goes for many roles.) If you consistently can't accomplish everything you need to accomplish in 8 hrs/day – given a full-time situation – you are clearly understaffed and this should be resolved ASAP. There are many other stress reducers, such as many weeks of paid vacation per year, great salaries, clear areas of responsibility, structured interviews on the work environment (not the same as performance reviews!) etc.

It seems like many "normal" organisations are under the delusion that they need to operate under the, literally, military conditions you describe. This "get it done yesterday" mentality can kill the morale in any organisation and especially operations people will take the hit, because they are expected to tie all the bits together. What you describe as "never really quite off-the-clock" is super-dangerous and leads to burnout.

If you have worked in different organisations with vastly different cultures on these issues, it seems wild that any organisation wouldn't prioritise the well-being of their employees, when it so obviously also improves the quality of the work.

A common excuse is that some roles or types of work "are just like that" but when people doing that work start talking to others doing it elsewhere it often turns out not to be the case. It's a matter of culture. I know this from experience in software engineering – one company I worked at had a "no death marches" rule to explicitly counteract a common unhealthy bit of culture at many software companies.

"structured interviews on the work environment"

I'd be interested in hearing more about this. Any links or documents that you could share to point me in the right direction?

I can't think of any specific links or such but I can tell you more: I may not go so far as to say it's the norm in Sweden, but it's definitely common to have an annual "utvecklingssamtal" (personal development discussion) and it's often combined with salary negotiations. Personally, I think these two discussions should be separate.

Good organisations use this opportunity to gather a lot more knowledge than what is related to performance. In particular, it can be a way to have an open-ended discussion about the work environment and what improvements can be made. For example, improvements in the physical environment (it's too cold, too dark, chairs and desks are annoying etc.) or improvements in mental environment (Monday meetings are too long, people ping on Slack too often, my colleague is always late for meetings etc.)

Usually, you would fill out some form with prepared questions beforehand and try to standardise this to use over several years to get a sense of improvements made, i.e. asking the exact same questions every year and to everyone. In other words, combine an open-ended part with a very structured part.

If it would help you a lot more than the above, I could probably dig up some old such documents from previous employers, although I would have to paraphrase them rather than share them directly due to privacy and/or intellectual property reasons.

The Navy has "command climate" surveys that are mostly "independent" of the current officers-in-charge.  A poor showing on such a survey resulted in the removal of a captain I know ;).

That helpful, thanks for providing the context. No need to dig through old documents; I think I have a rough idea of it now.

But if GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, or any org that delivers aid/goods are within the scope of "high-impact organizations," then operations might be the org's core competency, rather than something (relatively) behind-the-scenes. Their operations teams are responsible for delivering the products.

I hadn't thought it those terms before. Thanks for this post!

This was such a good post. It was great getting accounts of your experiences in both software and in the military.

Markus gives a thoughtful comment on your experiences in depth. I think just want to echo what he says.

 

Here are some low quality opinions/thoughts (I'm just some random dude on the internet):

  • My guess, based on a hopefully reasonable reading of your writing, is that your instincts are right and your bad experiences are probably due to dysfunction from bad management and this is unfair. 
  • In the private sector when bad management happens, good talent can just go elsewhere. In the case of the military, maybe something pathological can happen, where people are locked into roles, and this leads to mistreatment.
  • Some of the things you mentioned, like sudden high priority calls with a flag officer and operations around the clock, do happen and aren't avoidable in good, high functioning organizations. In many successful organizations, personal assistants or operations staff do put up with this. But these people are paid very well, like, well into the six figures. 

 

Good ops/assistant talent is rarer than it seems and is really respected in good orgs. This kind of talent is usually given a lot of "space", "agency", trust and respect.

Good organizations don't see operations or execution as a side show, and I think you're really on the nose with your post, which was really valuable. 

You may find it interesting that in the military being a flag officer's  assistant is a very high prestige gig and reserved for top performers. But there isn't an "executive assistant" career track so a person does this role for 2-3 years then rotates back to day-to-day operations.

For a given rank, compensation does not vary between roles in the military so perhaps the "clout" associated with being an assistant makes up for this. 

Same thing with being a law clerk in the field of law.

Yes, this is really interesting. 

I really don't know much about either domain, but by mentioning law clerks, maybe you're suggesting that the flag officer assistant role serves as a special tour/marker of status that is awarded for especially promising officers.

This seems fascinating because these particular institutions work well in the US (probably), so understanding them seems useful to apply them to other domains. Also these paths might govern and control who ends up in these important positions (admirals, generals, judges). 

If you have more thoughts about these institutions, incentives, operations, it would be great to read!

Perhaps one way to tip the scales towards making things right for operations management folks is to play with more creative forms of compensation. As the career guide notes, a lot of what operations management does is a kind of risk management. At the base level, you're there to prevent things from going off the rails. You excel if you further enable members of the organization. How can operations folks get some of the upside of the organization performing more strongly?

Effective altruism seems more likely to attract researchers, philosophers, and software engineers than people who are good at operations. The skillset seems to be somewhat rare in the community.

 

The solution that seems best, easy and obvious:

EA orgs and funders can develop norms for much higher pay standards, e.g. double or more for these operations or assistant roles, than roles that historically have been in larger supply and also often get a lot of "compensating differentials" (clout, visibility).

"when operations work goes well, people take it for granted; when there’s a mistake, it’s obvious and everyone is annoyed"

I don't have much to contribute with this comment, other than to emphasize the often understated importance of the above concept. Similar to plumbing or bank transfers or internet access or any of a dozen other examples, maintaining a system and preventing mistakes is often ignored/neglected when people think of valuable work.

I think this post is excellent for a number of reasons:

  • discusses something underexplored on EA Forum (day-to-day operations)
  • raises perspectives from outside the EA lens (military)
  • raises why this post might be wrong*

*Perhaps there should be more elaborating this second point of different types of ops. I would guess that research EA organizations may have less 'reactive' operations requirements. Though I think working at an 'in the field' organization would be closer to the experience you describe. Of note is that research organizations may have more 'in the field' elements (planning events, meetings, logistics), but I would expect there is less non-systematized logistics - less chance for human error.

I would love to see another post about your experience of operations within the navy, any key lessons learned or advice you could give from what I would imagine is a unique and effective work environment.

Hah perhaps I'll get around to it. In this post, I wrote very, very briefly about some other observations, particularly around standards and talent acquisition. 

The Navy/military is very unique because you can go long periods of time of sleeping at work. For months up to nearly a year, you'll be sleeping in the same space as you work. You're with your coworkers 24/7, working 7 days a week.

Perhaps I think too fondly of this. But if you are going after an opportunity worth billions of dollars ("earning to give" ;) ) or working directly to save millions/billions of (future) lives, isn't that fervor actually rational? After all, there are professionals in the military that work with such mania to prevent nuclear war.