Why is Operations no longer an 80K Priority Path?

post by Anonymous_EA · 2022-01-11T15:39:20.679Z · EA · GW · 18 comments

This is a question post.

[Note: I am posting this anonymously since I work in policy.]

Having spoken with senior folks from at least three different orgs within EA, it seems like a lot of very valuable EA projects (both those that have already launched and those which haven't been started due to lack of talent able to run them) are bottlenecked by operations skills at the moment.

80K made a post on the operations bottleneck in 2018, but it has been updated with the following note at the top:

Note: Though we edited this article lightly in 2020, it was written in 2018 and is now somewhat out of date.

Due to this post and other efforts, people in the effective altruist community have become more interested in working in operations, and it has also come to seem easier to fill these roles with people not already active in the community. As a result, several recent hiring rounds for these roles were successful, and there are now fewer open positions, and when positions open up they’ve become more competitive.

This means that the need for more people to pursue this path is somewhat less than when we wrote the post. However, many of the major points in this post still apply to some degree, there is still a need for more people working in operations management, and we expect this need to persist as the community grows. For these reasons, we still think this is a promising path to consider.

My perception, to the contrary, is that the ops bottleneck is in fact more severe now than ever. Is this wrong?


answer by CaroJ (CarolineJ) · 2022-01-11T22:39:08.460Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My impression of this, as I worked in Operations at CHAI for two years and talked to several other operations people, is that we still have a very very high need for Operations people.
My intuition is that we have the following level of need from 0 to 10, where 0 is " we have actually too many Operations people" to 10 where "we have a dire need for Operations people such that an EA-affiliated or EA-adjacent org would pay $20K just to hire that person as a hiring bonus (which I think is really high)".

  1. COO-type: 7. It's hard to find those people but the current people in operations can level up really fast and become those. (We have both capable and ambitious people!).
  2. Manager-type: 8. These people are able to manage very well others, motivate them, keep them on track, create and nurture a great excellence-oriented culture. In small EA organizations, it's quite likely that you one can go from project manager to COO, but as those organizations grow, there will be the additional "manager" step.(EDIT from 01/18/2022: I added this category )
  3. Project manager-type: 7.  A proactive person, very agent-y, team-oriented and deeply aligned with the purpose of the org. A junior person out of uni can become this after 2 years of junior work in an EA org or a consulting company-like. We lack this kind of people at the moment but it's not dire yet.
  4. A very specific type of Project Manager: the Personal Assistant/Chief of Staff: 9. This is an incredibly rare skill set that requires to be in the "brain" of the person they help and multiply their impact. It requires all the properties of the PM, plus a deep alignment with the person they're helping and the "humility" to be behind the scene and do both high-level work and admin work.
  5. Junior PM: 5 this is the "helpful intern" that an EA org can recruit to help with a project or with an event. We have plenty of brilliant students EAger ( ;) ) to help and their help is really welcome. They'll become 3 (and hopefully 4!) soon!
comment by CaroJ (CarolineJ) · 2022-01-18T15:46:52.450Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

As a follow-up to my comment, I would strongly suggest having higher salaries for Personal Assistant/Chief of Staff people. They bring immense value and their salaries need to reflect that. I think this would increase the number of qualified and sustainably-motivated candidates. 

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2022-01-17T15:49:29.535Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For the 10/10 criteria do you mean a $50k hiring bonus, or a $50k annual salary?

Replies from: CarolineJ
comment by CaroJ (CarolineJ) · 2022-01-18T15:40:44.907Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

A $50k hiring bonus, which I think is really really high - maybe too high. $10-20k would probably make more sense.  I've edited my comment to say $20k instead of  50 and for clarity. (Curious to know if you think this is about right or not).

answer by Benjamin_Todd · 2022-01-11T21:36:13.350Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey there,

My impression is that the relative degree of ops bottleneck might have become worse recently (after easing a bit by early 2020), so we'll consider updating that blurb again. To double check this, we would ideally run another survey of org leaders about skill needs, and there's some chance that happens in the next year.

Another reason why we dropped it is just because 'work at EA orgs' is already a priority path, and this is a subpath of that, and I'm not sure we should list both the broader path and subpath within the priority paths list (e.g. I also think 'research roles at EA orgs' is a big bottleneck but don't want to break that out as a separate category).

comment by Anonymous_EA · 2022-01-13T15:56:45.433Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this! I really appreciate how carefully 80K thinks these questions through and have updated toward this bottleneck having gotten worse fairly recently, as you suggest. With that said, if there was an ops bottleneck in 2018 and 2019 as reflected in  previous surveys of skill needs [EA · GW], and if the ops bottleneck is back as of now, I wonder whether early 2020 was more the exception than the rule. 

To double check this, we would ideally run another survey of org leaders about skill needs, and there's some chance that happens in the next year.

I don't want to rush your process. At the same time, because I perceive this as fairly urgent bottleneck (as seems to be at least somewhat confirmed in comments by CarolineJ, Scronfinkle, and Anya Hunt), I'll just note that I hope that survey does in fact happen this year.  I doubt I can be helpful with this, but feel free to DM me if I could be - for example, I can think of at least one person who might be happy to run the survey this year and would likely do a good job.

Another reason why we dropped it is just because 'work at EA orgs' is already a priority path, and this is a subpath of that, and I'm not sure we should list both the broader path and subpath within the priority paths list (e.g. I also think 'research roles at EA orgs' is a big bottleneck but don't want to break that out as a separate category).

Again, I appreciate that you all are extremely thoughtful about these decisions. I will offer, from my outside perspective, that it seems like the Priority Paths already do a great job of conveying the value of research skills (e.g. 5/9 of the Priority Paths have the word "research" in the title), whereas they don't currently convey the value of operations skills. I'm not sure whether adding ops back to the Priority Paths is the best way to address this, or if there's another better option, such as simply removing the blurb about how ops skills are less needed now. But I think right now a reader of 80K would likely get the impression that ops skills are much less urgently needed than they are (see for example Eli Kaufman's comment on this post).

answer by abrahamrowe · 2022-01-11T17:33:06.936Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Edit: Given the other answers here it seems like there probably is a higher unmet demand for ops roles than I suggest here, so I don't think this comment should be the top answer here. I think my comments below might still be helpful for indicating why we and some other organizations have had less trouble hiring for ops than other organizations, but it seems like a bunch of groups are struggling to hire for ops.


I've hired operations people for EA-aligned organizations both during the period that 80,000 Hours had ops as a priority area and after.

Some quick thoughts:

  • I've never perceived there to be a bottleneck in operations talent. I remember hiring for a role around 2018 that received probably 50+ applications that seemed worth at least looking at, and now we regularly receive 100+ for ops roles.
  • My experience is that there are way more aligned and strong ops candidates than previously (e.g. in 2018 we'd probably have 2-3 highly skilled ops candidates per round, and now we have more like 10, though this is across two different organizations, so not a direct comparison).
  • At the time they made ops a priority area, I was fairly surprised, as were several other people in ops I spoke to, because we had not had any trouble at all hiring ops people (my impression is now it's even easier, but it didn't feel like a bottleneck then either).
  • The organizations I've hired for have been 100% remote. I think this is likely where the dividing line is between organizations that have trouble with hiring ops people, and those that don't.
    • From the perspective of people considering EA careers during college, I think the non-remote ops jobs are pretty unappealing — they are relatively low salaried and status despite being mostly in some extremely expensive cities (e.g. San Francisco, London). If I was a college student considering in-person jobs, salaries for ops roles vs. technical roles in San Francisco would strongly bias me toward pursuing technical roles.
    • Right now, I think remote organizations are in a way better market for EA-aligned talent. I'd guess in terms of EAs-per-job, the number is much lower in the Bay Area, Oxford, etc. vs outside those cities, and remote organizations can hire in the hub cities too. Plus, remote organizations can offer highly competitive salaries outside expensive cities without breaking the bank.
    • I think it is fairly likely that this was made a priority area in the first place because of bottlenecks at some non-remote organizations or because of very high standards for value-alignment that might now be looser, but I am uncertain about this.
  • Identifying talent for projects that haven't been started seems like a fundamentally different bottleneck that operations for existing projects.
comment by Anonymous_EA · 2022-01-12T03:40:19.794Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

These are great thoughts, thanks! We definitely have different perceptions, but I really appreciate this perspective.

One crux may be what CarolineJ points to in her comment: "ops" captures a continuum of skillsets, some of which seem much rarer and more urgently needed than others. I am not sure what roles you were hiring for at your orgs, but I agree with CarolineJ that we especially need those with "chief of staff"-type skills. Examples that come to mind are Zach Robinson (Chief of Staff at Open Philanthropy) and Bill Zito (co-founder and COO at Redwood Research). 

With that said, my impression is that even inexperienced but superb junior PMs are extremely valuable and not easy to find. Here, by "superb," I mean to gesture at the kind of skills described by Tara Mac Auley in her 80K podcast. I'll quote her at length:

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. [Bolding added.]

Robert Wiblin: How old were you at this point?

Tara Mac Aulay: When I was doing that, I was about 15 or probably 16.

Obviously there's only one Tara Mac Auley, but (as she discusses later in the podcast) ops skills can be learned and honed. I'd be surprised if there were multiple people of 16-year-old Tara's caliber applying to any given EA ops position - in fact my impression is that anyone with this level of ops talent tends to be rapidly promoted to top positions in EA orgs. I think highly talented EAs who think they could be excellent at ops should very strongly consider this career path, even if they could also be very good in, say, top policy roles. But right now, I think they would not feel encouraged to do so by the community (and I think 80K's Priority Paths have a big impact on this).

Identifying talent for projects that haven't been started seems like a fundamentally different bottleneck that operations for existing projects.

This does seem like another crux. The recent Forum post on Concrete Biosecurity Projects [EA · GW] offers some example projects which would likely benefit from highly entrepreneurial ops talent, and it's part of what led me to post my question. 

Maybe I also think ops skills and founder skills are closer together than you do, partly because a lot of the people I think of as excellent at ops also seem like they would be excellent founders (or at least co-founders/early employees). 

Thanks a bunch for the answer :) We may just have a difference of perception here, but I hope this at least clarifies a bit the bottleneck I had in mind. Would love to hear if any of this sounds off to you, and if any others who have experience with ops hiring want to chime in with their own impressions.

Replies from: abrahamrowe, CarolineJ, casebash, abrahamrowe
comment by abrahamrowe · 2022-01-12T13:15:10.465Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think it sounds like people are saying that there is a lack of executive-level talent, which makes sense and seems reasonable - if EA is growing, there are going to be more Executive-y jobs than people with that experience in EA already, so if value-alignment is critical, this will be an issue.

But, I guess to me, it seems odd to use "ops" to mostly refer to high-level roles at organizations / entrepreneurial opportunities, which aren't the vast majority of jobs that might traditionally be called ops jobs. I definitely don't think founding an organization is called Ops outside this context. Maybe the bottleneck is something more like founders/executives at EA orgs? 

I think my experience is that finding really high quality junior ops folks like you describe is not that difficult (especially if we're willing to do some training), and that might hinge more on the remote factors I mentioned before, but I guess I totally buy that finding founders/execs is much harder.

I do think that ops skills matter for founding things, but also just having the foresight to hire ops-minded people early on is a pretty equivalent substitution. E.g. if I was running something like CE, I probably wouldn't look for ops related skills (but also I say all this as a person who founded an organization and is ops-inclined, so maybe my life experience speaks to something else?)

comment by CaroJ (CarolineJ) · 2022-01-21T11:10:28.722Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I appreciate the comments of @abrahamrowe on this as well as the discussion.

Just mentioning here that the Personal Assistant / Chief of Staff really is a continuum, where you could have Junior PM to COO-level people, as highlighted in this article.

comment by Chris Leong (casebash) · 2022-01-12T06:45:14.059Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I guess if you start setting the standards that high, maybe that would lead to far too many jobs becoming a priority path.

comment by abrahamrowe · 2022-01-13T13:37:17.864Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Looking at other comments here, it seems like more people share your thought. I think maybe the remote/non-remote line is still important. But given that other ops people perceive a bottleneck, I added a note to my answer that I don't think it's really accurate.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2022-01-14T06:51:50.162Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it's easier in effective animal advocacy, because there's a broader animal advocacy movement to draw from and some large animal advocacy orgs building talent? Also, EAs seem to disproportionately have STEM backgrounds and want to do research, but this is probably not the case for animal advocates in general, so the proportion of animal advocates with ops skills may be higher than for EAs.

Replies from: abrahamrowe
comment by abrahamrowe · 2022-01-14T13:40:25.455Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah that makes sense to me - RP definitely is at an advantage in being able to recruit people interested in tons of different topics, and they might still be value aligned? I'd say that we've gotten some very good longtermism focused ops candidates, but maybe not proportional to the number of jobs in EA? Not sure though. I think remote work really factors heavily - most of the organizations mentioned in this thread as having open positions that they are struggling to fill aren't hiring remotely, and are just hiring in the Bay Area it looks like.

answer by Anya Hunt · 2022-01-13T13:02:51.482Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Based on my experience working in hiring at Open Phil, my sense is that operations is an urgent need and that many organizations are currently struggling to meet it. I think this is a shift I've seen happen especially in the last year as more mature organizations are trying to scale, and an increasing number of early stage projects are working to get off the ground. Anecdotally, over the last year I have been asked (by others in the community) for referrals/recommendations for operations roles more frequently than I've been asked about any other kind of role, and I can easily think of 10+ EA organizations or projects that have recently suggested to me that they are struggling to hire skilled and aligned operations people.

I'll also take this as an opportunity to reiterate that OP is currently hiring for virtually every operations function and will be for the foreseeable future. (As are many exciting EA organizations right now including Redwood Research, Anthropic, Lightcone, Rethink Priorities, and more!)

answer by [deleted] · 2022-01-12T03:30:16.771Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Excuse the cell phone thumbs :-) Anecdotes ahead Good question! I'm glad that you've written it! I think the bottleneck I'm more familiar with is longtermist operations issues, and I can say at least from my own perspective it is quite severe. Ben's survey, fwiw, will not capture orgs that have funding available but no one to lead the org if he's only reviewing existing orgs. It's a terrible thing to have a great idea and money for a thing and no one who can lead the project or run ops with minimal direction.

For just a taste: in at least the past 24 hours there have been two separate needs for ops roles (senior and mid) in the same org. There are at least 4 other longtermist projects/potential orgs I'm aware of that need an Executive Director (ED) type to lead them. At least in the longtermist space I think value alignment of an ED means more than in other cause areas because the vision and direction of the org have to be aligned (but this is true in climate change, animals, and most causes so maybe this is not unique). If the ED does not fit within your definition of ops than please disregard. To me an ED is fancy ops management person layered with strategic thinking. Also agree with everything Caroline says here.

I think what would be exciting would be more people who have experience managing teams or running ops (in any capacity) leveraging their networks (or building out their networks) and actively seeking ED opportunities or opportunities to create new businesses or orgs or work at new businesses or orgs instead of spending time on 80k job board. This is NOT a criticism of 80k, I just think that people should be more creative and ambitious than, "hmm, I should scan 80k for EA jobs." I think time would be better served spending a few hours actively reaching out to folks on LinkedIn and, if interested in longtermism, other longtermists, and talking to them about how you want to help with "x" (e.g., "I have experience in managing a team of 6 people at my current job but I'd really like to help with longtermist community building.") I've seen it be the case that a lot of hiring gets done through connections (due some mixture of more trust and time restraints) so this can be really great to just be a name that comes to mind when someone is thinking of starting an org. Sorry this also turned into advice but I hope it helps at least one person reading.

comment by Anonymous_EA · 2022-01-12T14:28:59.986Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Just confirming that "longtermist ED" is more the type of skillset I have in mind when I refer to  a "severe" bottleneck. Though I think even "EA-aligned with significant ops skills and potential to grow into ED-type roles" is also highly valuable and in short supply. 

I also like your advice!


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comment by Eli Kaufman · 2022-01-12T19:54:18.659Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Following the topic with interest, as someone coming to the EA-world mid-career with background in operations and looking to apply my skills in an EA org. I saw the 80,000 hours article with the 2020 update and was somewhat disappointed but realize that there are a lot of orgs out there with various needs and expectations.

comment by Chris Leong (casebash) · 2022-01-11T18:19:51.265Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'd be curious to know about the kind of salary that those orgs were offering as if it were significantly below market rate that might explain the discrepency. Alternatively, maybe it's the case that well-known and long-established orgs are flooded with applications, while newer ones have slimmer pickings?