billzito

COO at Redwood Research (applied AI alignment). Formerly an early software engineer at Aurora, a self-driving car startup.

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EA Forum Lowdown: April 2022

I found this useful, thanks!

billzito's Shortform

Tweet thread for "What is operations and why EA needs great people doing it."

For "what is operations," Holden’s post on aptitudes https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/bud2ssJLQ33pSemKH/my-current-impressions-on-career-choice-for-longtermists#_Organization_building__running__and_boosting__aptitudes_1_… is the best thing I’ve read on this— the “organization building, running, and boosting” aptitude, including management, recruiting, legal, hr, finance, events, etc.

I’m always confused when an EA says they want to do community building, but aren’t interested in operations work (this happens regularly). Starting a new community building org has lots of overlap with operations (50-70%?) — operations just means running orgs and doing things.

I think the real objections underlying people's beliefs there are: 

1. Feeling that operations is low status. 

2. People telling them we need lots of community building. 

3. Don’t know what operations is. 

4. Worried that operations is not a good pathway for personal development.

 

I'll come back to 1). For 2), my guess is that there was some over-correction happening, and hopefully things will swing back in the other direction, with e.g. 80k updating their list of priority paths to include operations.

For 3), hopefully this thread helps some. 

For 4), I think people significantly underestimate how hard and useful it is to get better at operations, and also underestimate how useful it is to top orgs to do operations work.

People work for years in various operations roles, and become much better at accomplishing larger projects. There's a lot of demand for mid-senior ops roles in EA right now from the top orgs.

There are a lot of badasses doing operations work. A few examples: James Bregan, Malo Bourgon, Cate Hall, past-Tara https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/tara-mac-aulay-operations-mindset/

As one random data point, a while back I looked up the backgrounds of ops people I knew at a handful of top EA orgs, and fond out that ~1/2 of ~n=15 of them had engineering backgrounds (e.g. degree, professional experience as software engineer, etc.).

As I mentioned here https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ejaC35E5qyKEkAWn2/early-career-ea-s-should-consider-joining-fast-growing… , I think joining early at a fast-growing org is a great way to build skills, and this includes operations roles.

 

Ok so back to 1) (ops being low status) -- I think this is already in the process of changing. It's largely just sharing the answers to 2-4, the list of EA ops badasses, and having people at top orgs repeatedly tell people that ops is important.

I've been tempted at times to stop using the word operations and find some sexier word that we can use instead, but that doesn't feel like the right way to change things. I think we should just make it clear that operations is hard, useful, and high status.

Lots of people who "do community building," are "doing operations" imo.

Lots of people who do operations now will do very interesting things in the future, like starting companies, managing large teams, etc.

reallyeli's Shortform

I agree with this take (and also happen to be sitting next to Eli right now talking to him about it :). I think working at a fast-growing startup in an emerging technology is one of the best opportunities for career capital: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/ejaC35E5qyKEkAWn2/early-career-ea-s-should-consider-joining-fast-growing 

billzito's Shortform

Cross-posted thread.

Some other people including Asya have floated the idea of having a "despair day" where people question their core assumptions of their current work. I like this a lot, and also like encouraging more of this mindset in EA. (I'm not speaking for her, just for myself).

Oftentimes I'm having a 30m one on one with someone, and I don't know where they want me to be on the spectrum from "encouraging their ambitions" to "ruthless honesty about whether it sounds like a good idea."

This is sad because I think the latter is more helpful, but it's also riskier. So often I try to choose some point on the spectrum that is less risky, like just asking hard questions but not saying how I feel.

It's very helpful if people say things like "tell me how I might be screwing this up" or things like that, as it helps me know where on the spectrum to be.

I worry that because so many EA orgs are nonprofits, it's hard for people to have good feedback loops on how useful their orgs are. It's hard to know how hard it is for others to get funding, and how much of the funding is because the people are good vs. the idea is good.

I think grantmakers try to give this feedback, and it's useful. But I think it's a lot worse than having users that one is talking to very frequently (e.g. daily instead of every 6 months).

So I want to encourage anyone that is into more direct feedback to ask for it, both from me and from others. Some of my favorite convos with EA's are when they've asked for "no really, tell me why you don't think I'm working on the right thing."

billzito's Shortform

Fun project idea: gpt-3 app where whenever you finish a Google doc draft, it gives compliments on the contents, helping build a positive feedback loop to encourage writing. (From convo with Eli Rose and others a while back).

billzito's Shortform

(cross-posted from twitter).

I bet Twitter would be good if all my friends used it and only to talk about interesting things. I’m imagining some slack-Twitter integration where my coworking space slack came with a private Twitter network that everyone was on. Feels possible currently, just annoying to do.

Also I want it to be halfway between Twitter and EA forum short form. More focus on interesting ideas instead of memes (memes still welcome).

It’d also be great if there was auto cross-posting between EA forum short-form and Twitter.

billzito's Shortform

I made a twitter! Copy/pasted thread.

Lots of young EAs want to found companies. I like encouraging people to be ambitious, and this can be really good. Oftentimes the reasoning seems somewhat confused though.

1. People say it’s for personal growth, but don’t have great models of how startups are good for growth. Starting a 3-5 person organization that never does very big things in the world isn’t good for growth. Joining as employee 10 at a top company that grows to 100 is great

I first came across that idea in a Dustin Moskovitz talk ~7y ago, second half of this video http://youtu.be/CBYhVcO4WgI It worked out well for me in deciding to join a company as it grew from 30-300 instead of trying to do my own thing.

2. For some reason it’s a meme in EA that everyone should either do AI safety or community building. I think a lot of young people look up to other community builders and want to replicate what they’re doing, which looks like running 3-5 person community building orgs.

I’m excited for a bunch of that work. But I also think there are a bunch of high impact and high growth projects people could work on if they were more open to a wider array of projects.

When I joined Aurora, I went from intern —> project lead for a high priority team of eight 6mo later. You have to be willing to put in the leg work, but then people will happily hand you high growth opportunities because there aren’t enough people for all the problems.

Also, helping grow a top AI or bio org is likely great for community building. “It also suggested to me that high-quality object-level work can be as effective at achieving “meta” goals as meta work for a variety of reasons.”

Update from Open Philanthropy’s Longtermist EA Movement-Building team - EA Forum

I think people tend to be too focused on “founding a company” and not focused enough on the people they work with. Much of the impact comes from the top ~10 companies in a 5 year period. Is the company you’re at plausibly one of those?

Nuclear Preparedness Guide

Thanks for sharing! As a heads up, several of the amazon links go to items that are sold out or no longer exist (which makes sense given that there's more demand for those items right now, and it's hard to keep links like this up to date).

Buck's Shortform

Some chance it's outdated, but my advice as of 2017 was for people to do one of the top bootcamps as ranked by coursereport: https://www.coursereport.com/ 

I think most bootcamps that aren't a top bootcamp are a much worse experience based on a good amount of anecdotal evidence and some job placement data. I did Hack Reactor in 2016 (as of 2016, App Academy, Hack Reactor, and Full Stack Academy were the best ranked bootcamps, but I think a decent amount has changed since then).

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