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.
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.  This is unlike code or other forms engineering--those objects do precisely what you tell it to do!
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.
Depending on the size/maturity of your org, some of these functions may be compressed or shared.
"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
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.