AMA: Working at the Centre for Effective Altruism

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-05-22T15:12:58.381Z · EA · GW · 34 comments

Contents

  Our current open positions
  Staff members joining this AMA
None
34 comments

CEA has a lot of open positions right now. So we’re hosting an AMA to answer questions about what it’s like to work here! 

We’ll start to respond on Tuesday, 5/25, and keep going through the rest of the week. But if you happen to find this post after that, feel free to add a question, and Aaron will make sure the right people see it.

All questions are welcome, but here are some things we’d be especially keen to discuss:

Other links you might find useful:

Our current open positions

Note: We previously had a separate AMA for the Events roles, but decided to merge it with this one.

Staff members joining this AMA

You can learn more about us on CEA’s Team page.

34 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by tamgent · 2021-05-23T19:52:20.323Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a question for primarily for Nicole but open to all: what does CEA do to improve the community's epistemics? 

Replies from: AmyLabenz, aarongertler, Maxdalton
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-24T20:33:22.376Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The events team tries to feature content and promote community norms that maintain/improve the community's epistemics. 

Examples of content (these are just a few talks of many): 


A few things we have done to try to influence norms:

  • I have calls with almost every speaker where we discuss their talk and how they will present it. I encourage them to use reasoning transparency in their presentation 
  • At welcome talks at the start of the event, I've encouraged folks to be open to changing their minds, to seek out ideas that they think they disagree with and try to engage with them, and to try to pass Ideological Turing Tests of attendees they disagree with
  • We bought copies of The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef to hand out at the EA Picnic, coming up in July :) 
     
Replies from: AmyLabenz
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-25T18:33:45.676Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

We also have had a bunch of workshops to help folks build their rationality toolkit: including workshops on forecasting and Fermi estimates as well as Center for Applied Rationality and Clearer Thinking content. 

I also include practical application of rationality tools in events training. For example, the project management presentation that I'll be giving at our EAGx team training this Thursday includes a handful of rationality tools in a ~15-minute presentation (including planning fallacy, Murphyjitsu, inside vs outside view, and back planning). 

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-05-30T08:13:00.213Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

On the Forum side, I think of the Forum Prize as a small effort in this direction (highlighting posts that are written clearly and do good epistemic things, holding them up as models to emulate). 

AMAs and general solicitation of expert content are also part of this — bringing good thinkers and knowledgeable people to the Forum, and exposing readers to their knowledge and habits of mind.

comment by MaxDalton (Maxdalton) · 2021-05-26T16:33:49.191Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Amy covered some of our work here. I think more broadly this is something that we try to consider in all of our programs.

Another example of some proactive work is discussed here (under "epistemics").

Replies from: Nicole_Ross
comment by Nicole_Ross · 2021-05-26T17:23:59.466Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What Amy said above! I've also been doing some thinking about how to improve the community's epistemics in a more targeted way. As part of this, I conducted a small test run of a project that I hope will help (the "EA Librarian" project mentioned in Max's link). I've also developed a few other ideas (e.g., a coaching program). Unfortunately, the work here has been pretty limited so far due to capacity constraints. Right now, I'm focusing on trying to hire to add more capacity. I've also been working on my project management skills to try to increase my ability to push things forward in this space.

comment by Darius_Meissner · 2021-05-24T06:59:42.221Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My impression is that as an organisation CEA has undergone substantial change over time. How might working at CEA today be different compared to working there, say, 3/5/7 years ago?

Replies from: AmyLabenz, Maxdalton
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-24T11:56:11.119Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that a lot has changed!

Five years ago CEA was only had a couple of staff members and was more of an “umbrella organization” to incubate other projects. My ops role was with “CEA core” and my events role was with EA Outreach (one of the projects we supported, which no longer exists as a separate org). Julia was on the EA outreach team at that time along with a handful of teammates - I don’t think anyone else on the current team worked with us at the time. During my first 6 months or so at CEA, EAO merged with CEA core.

In terms of culture, five years ago it felt much more like CEA was a startup. I think teammates were much more stretched then: I worked two roles at once (Director of US Operations and Head of Events), and the people I managed were working on different projects. And many of the EAO teammates were part time. That meant I worked lots of hours and still couldn’t always execute at the level I would have liked.

Now I have a team of people helping with events (see our post, we are hiring!). And a whole different team manages Operations. This helps us improve our execution. CEA has also shifted to a culture that emphasizes self care more. I feel more able to take time off now because I have a team around me, which helps because I have two very young kids (2 yo and 4 months old). Julia managed this back in the old days but I don’t think I could have at the time.

Replies from: AmyLabenz, Julia_Wise
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-24T12:32:40.292Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Three years ago I think there was a lot of internal disagreement about the strategy. It doesn’t feel that way now. I have some disagreements with teammates now and then, but it feels like we basically agree on the direction of the company.

We also had significant teammate turnover 5 years ago and 3 years ago. I now expect teammates to stick around longer and expect leadership to stay in place for longer. This means I have more confidence that our strategy will stay the same, rather than the frequent strategy changes we saw when leadership changed so many times.

comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-05-25T19:00:30.128Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have a similar impression to Amy - when I came on almost 6 years ago and for several years after, things were much looser. There was not a particularly consistent strategy, hiring was sometimes very informal, and we were running a lot of projects without always having adequate staffing to do a good job.

Now things are more settled, more formalized (e.g. annual performance reviews, standard hiring process, clearer communication about who is responsible for what). We're less likely to take on big new projects, and we're focused on better performance on our existing projects.

comment by MaxDalton (Maxdalton) · 2021-05-26T16:47:18.873Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with a lot of Amy/Julia's impressions. Some other thoughts:

7 years ago (I was an intern over the summer, so I'm probably missing some things). I think "CEA" was really just a legal entity for a wide variety of other projects. There was a bit more research being done in-house (e.g Global Priorities Project), and I think basically everything was happening in Oxford. 

Compared to then: more cohesive, less research, people more distributed across the world.

5 years ago: things were beginning to get a bit more integrated. Different teams were coming together and trying to figure out what the internal culture was. I think CEA was also really figuring out what to focus on: there were research projects, projects promoting effective giving, EA community building etc. 

Compared to then: Narrower focus and more established/consistent team culture.

2 years ago: I think there was a lot of uncertainty: we were searching for new leadership, and didn't have a solid long-term strategy. However, I think we were beginning to integrate a bunch of cool hires that we made in 2018, and we had a supportive culture. We were focused on making sure we followed through on existing commitments (rather than ambitious goals/new things). We had an office in Berkeley as well as in Oxford.

Compared to then: Clearer goals/leadership, more focus on expansion, no Berkeley office and more focus on remote work.

I think I listed mostly good or neutral things. When I reflect on what I miss from previous eras, the main thing is the in-person office culture (though I hope we'll get this back as we move into our new Oxford office).

comment by Darius_Meissner · 2021-05-24T06:56:35.875Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you believe the EA community's overall level of investment in community building is adequate/too low/too high?

(While this question isn't strictly about CEA itself, I'd imagine a key motivating belief for many CEA staff members would be that community building work is neglected relative to other high impact opportunities.)

Replies from: AmyLabenz, Ben_West, aarongertler
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-24T12:22:00.022Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’ll answer from an events perspective:

I think we could be doing a lot more to support community building using events! This is one reason I’m so excited about the two roles I posted for my team.

In particular, I’m always inspired by how well EAGx teams do. We provide them a bit of support, mentorship, and money and they create events that can be quite impactful. One of the events roles we posted, the Community Events Manager, is meant to take this to the next level by supporting a portfolio of community run events (which could include a wide range of events formats!). We have seen community members take initiative to run things on their own with very little money and support and this feels awesome and like a shame. I’m impressed with what folks have been able to do on there own, but it seems like we are leaving value on the table by not helping community run events more. I’m hopeful that we will find someone who can fix that!

I also think our internal events could do more with the right person, which is why we posted a pretty broad second job of Events Generalist. I think I’ve fallen down by not doing as much as impact analysis on events as I could. In my perfect world I would add someone to the team who could help me with that. But even adding another team member who could help run targeted retreats or scale up our mentorship around events or a variety of other things would mean we could invest more in the community. I’m hopeful that we will find someone who can help us do that!

comment by Ben_West · 2021-05-25T20:02:19.596Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I sometimes speak to people who aren't aware how many career paths in community building [EA · GW] there are, even outside of EA. I do think this causes there to be fewer community builders than there "should" be.

It feels hard to make really broad statements though; some people's skills and interests are pretty clearly not a fit for community building, and I don't think they should try to force it.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-05-30T08:21:37.542Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(Sharing impressions, there's no well-developed theory here)

Intuitively, I'd say somewhere between "too low" and "adequate". 

I'm not very involved in groups work, so my knowledge on that side is limited, but I don't have the impression that lots of potentially awesome group leaders aren't fulfilling their potential — nothing like that. But I do think that many people who don't see themselves as "community building" types should consider how they can contribute in small ways:

  • Being one more friendly/experienced face at a local event
  • Giving helpful advice to someone outside of EA who's trying to make some relevant life decision (even via something as simple as "try GiveWell, they have great stuff" or "the 80,000 Hours career tool might be helpful")
  • Sharing a quick Facebook post about their next donation, to make more of their social network aware of the general idea of "effective giving" (and to catch any of those people who might be in the very real category of "hears about EA, instantly sold")

These are all very generic ideas, but depending on other things about someone (language fluency, membership in other communities, personal network), there may be other smallish things they can do. It would be interesting to see everyone past a certain level of EA familiarity (e.g. has done a fellowship or read multiple books) spend 15 minutes asking themselves "how can I do one small thing to grow the community?"

comment by BrianTan · 2021-05-26T12:41:23.023Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For anyone: What do you think are the most important things CEA does to improve or maintain staff morale? Does CEA do any regular internal socials or other fun stuff? Would be interesting to see a fun or lighthearted side to the organization, assuming there is one.

Replies from: Nicole_Ross, AmyLabenz, BrianTan
comment by Nicole_Ross · 2021-05-26T17:37:01.293Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have a lot of "life shit" that has happened (chronic health issues, I'm accident-prone, my mom died). In addition, my role can be inherently stressful sometimes (I do some risk mitigation work). CEA has been amazingly supportive. CEA has helped me figure out a schedule that feels sustainable and part of a thriving life for me. CEA has helped me orient towards my "life shit" in much healthier and constructive ways. I now have an automatic reminder (or "TAP") installed to talk to our people ops person whenever I feel angsty or stressed, or uncomfortable. She's so good at helping me identify what's going on and helping me figure out what to do about it.

Replies from: BrianTan
comment by BrianTan · 2021-05-27T01:23:00.838Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Glad to hear that CEA has been amazingly supportive! It does feel like maintaining staff happiness is less about specific fun activities/socials, and more about the culture (i.e. how well your co-workers help make your work a source of meaning and happiness, and how well they empathize with you and help you during tough times too).

comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-26T16:38:42.343Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Some things we do to support and improve staff morale:

  • We have weekly "Game Time" where we play a drawing game
  • We used to have in-person retreats and will again soon (which always involve a lot of silliness, including karaoke for those who enjoy it), this year we have also had various virtual events for the team, including a murder mystery type game and an elaborate clues-based game in Gather Town
  • We have had some dress-up days for staff birthdays, including one day where we all dressed up as different characters from a card game that one of our staff is good at
  • This year for my birthday the team collaborated on a poem where they said something nice about me for every letter of the alphabet (it was awesome!)
  • We have various slack channels that encourage bonding: a silliness slack channel (where we post memes, jokes, Ben's tik toks...), a support slack, high fives to compliment others, "I done good" to brag, mindfulness, workout, and pair debugging to support good habits, etc
  • Different staff organize other meetings that are optional: I'm involved in a monthly "action for happiness" meeting and a weekly "accountability" meeting
  • We have other opportunities for 1:1s: we optionally get paired every couple weeks in Donut for "fun on ones" and have occasional Icebreaker 1:1s in Gatheround
  • We have a budget for personal development and morale-supporting items like SAD lamps, monitors, etc
  • Managers check in on staff morale weekly and our People Ops checks in with polling and reaches out or provides support by request for folks who need it
  • We do a "cheer" at the end of every All Hands where we all say the same word to end the meeting, selected by our "cheer tsar" - and Max always says "can the cheer tsar tell us what the cheers are"
Replies from: Maxdalton, BrianTan
comment by MaxDalton (Maxdalton) · 2021-05-26T16:56:14.235Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Amy covered most of this, but to expand on a few points.

  • My favourite retreat activity was an EA-themed baking competition. Our last retreat was in December, and we also had a really nice "secret santa" round.
  • Memorable office party activities include seeing who can slide the furthest on a beanbag on a smooth floor, and trying to estimate how many average dinosaurs you'd have to have  to equal the mass of the moon.
  • Caitlin is our head of people ops. A big part of her job is supporting staff morale - both by facilitating fun things like the above, and by making sure that staff have the support they need.
Replies from: AmyLabenz
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-26T17:03:39.952Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh, those were good too! Definitely loved the bake-off. My team’s name of Nick Bakestead was one for the books.

I also really liked the EA themed rap battle. Even though I epically choked trying to freestyle, the raps from Aaron and Louis made up for it!

And I liked when Stefan did spot on impersonations of other staff members. I think he really nailed me, Oli, and Tara!

comment by BrianTan · 2021-05-27T01:25:13.938Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Lots of good ideas here - thanks for sharing! :)

comment by BrianTan · 2021-05-26T12:42:25.334Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Relatedly: Is CEA planning on doing or trying anything new to improve or maintain staff morale?

One reason why I ask this question and the one in the parent comment is in case any other organization leaders or project leaders might want to try similar things to improve or maintain staff morale, whether as short-term or longer-term activities.

Replies from: AmyLabenz
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-27T11:30:29.306Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

One thing that CEA recently changed was to go from thinking about the org as "based in Oxford with remote staff" to "remote first".  As someone who has been a remote employee for many years now, I'm excited about this change.  What it means in practice, is that even after the pandemic ends

  • One-person-one-laptop for meetings
  • Coworking
  • Informal/social time
  • Systems to encourage +  support travel

I'm especially excited about that last bullet point. I remember January 2016 as one of the best months of my life because I worked for weeks at the Oxford office. It was Julia's first time visiting too and so I got to know her, Will, Rob, Michelle, and lots of other CEA / 80K staff. It will probably be a bit harder now that I have kids, but I'm really excited imagining a work setup that involves the opportunity to go work with my team and other EAs at the Oxford Hub! 
 

comment by Darius_Meissner · 2021-05-24T06:53:06.374Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

What are the most positive and/or negative aspects of your work at CEA?

Replies from: aarongertler, Maxdalton, Nicole_Ross, Julia_Wise, Ben_West, AmyLabenz
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2021-05-30T08:28:09.922Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Positives:

  • I work with really excellent people (both at CEA, and the various people I meet through my Forum/content work).
  • Good management policy — I feel guided, encouraged, and constantly pushed to do better, but not in a draining or net-negative stressful way.
  • Lots of ways to do the job — many projects could be a good fit for my goals, there's a constant flow of new options and ideas I can try to implement.

Negatives:

  • Lots of ways to do the job (the dark side) — I'm aware that some optimal version of me could probably have 10x the impact in exactly this role, and it's difficult to find enough time and focus to move closer to being that person. I'm acutely aware of the skills I lack, and the way my personal preferences can push me towards work I enjoy rather than work I expect to have the best possible long-term impact.
  • The sense of being a "public face" — no matter how many epistemic statuses I employ, it's still easy for my personal views to be taken as CEA's (or the community's in general, when I write things for public consumption).
  • The level of meta I often work at — it's easy to lose contact with the purpose of my job, and my love for EA, when I'm spending most of my time copyediting or testing Mailchimp formatting or counting engagement hours, rather than feeling directly responsible for any specific person being helped (or any useful longtermist initiative being launched, etc.)
comment by MaxDalton (Maxdalton) · 2021-05-26T17:06:30.263Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I love my job, and feel very lucky.

Positives:

  • I genuinely like and trust my colleagues. I really enjoy working with people who care about very similar things and are deeply into the same ideas/culture. I've learned a lot from them.
  • Being able to (somewhat) shape the role to what I enjoy and am good at (e.g. I hate public speaking but love writing - others at CEA are the opposite, so I can write speeches for them). This is something that we try to do for everyone at CEA: to find a role that really plays to their strengths.
  • Facing a lot of open-ended and challenging projects, and having feedback (either from colleagues, stakeholders, or reality) on them. I think this is a great way to learn (and again, I think this is maybe pretty common at CEA).
  • When I feel like we're making progress, it's amazing. It's so good to invest deeply in something and see it pay off.

Negatives: (I think this basically boils down to "when it goes wrong, it's stressful")

  • The flip side of shaping the role around me is that I can't always shape the role to my interests and personal likes! I gave a talk at the EA Coordination Forum and that really stressed me out (I think probably it was a mistake to give the talk).
  • The flip side of the progress is that I feel pretty bad when we mess up or I fail at some project I've been working on.
  • The flip side of the open-endedness is that it's often unclear whether I'm doing the right thing. I spend a lot of time reflecting on this sort of thing. It's a bit stressful.
comment by Nicole_Ross · 2021-05-26T17:42:03.668Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Positives:

  • I feel like I was able to create a role that played to my strengths, and I feel excited about the expected value of my career.
  • I care a lot about my work.
  • I really like my colleagues.

 

Negatives:

  • It can be stressful. I feel like I'm working on important things, and care a lot about how they go. When things don't go well or there's something time-sensitive and important to get right, it can feel stressful. This might be particularly related to my role (I handle risky situations a lot).
  • It can be hard to take my brain off of work. I'm a lot better than I used to be, but it's a concerted effort I have to make. (e.g. my partner will remind me not to look at my work computer, I've uninstalled my work slack from my phone)
comment by Julia_Wise · 2021-05-25T19:15:10.436Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

For me it might be two sides of the same coin (particular to my role on the community health team).

The positive is getting to serve a community I really believe in, and supporting people who feel very much on the same team as me as far as big life goals.

The negative is that there's less separation between work life and community life than there would be in a lot of jobs. I'm not a normal community member in the way I was before I worked here - there are more things I have to try to be neutral on, etc. Facebook is mostly a work space for me.

comment by Ben_West · 2021-05-27T13:53:54.425Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Positive: The people I work with, both at CEA as well as the wider EA community, are often impressive, talented, and kind.

Negative: I'm not a morning person, and living in Pacific time while working with Brits means I have to be up early a lot

comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-05-24T12:07:09.468Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I love my job a lot. I think the biggest positive for me is hearing impact stories from the events where people get some amazing connection or opportunity as a result of attending. From a pure enjoyment standpoint I am a sucker for the feeling when an event starts and I get to see all of the excited EAs who have come to attend this thing that my team worked so hard to make for them. There are moments when people start streaming in and it is so busy with activity during registration and everyone looks so happy... it feels like when you buy someone a present that you know they will like and you get to watch them open it!

I used to find the criticism from the community to be a bit hard, but now I have a much thicker skin and better relationship with the feedback. I think part of that comes from having more time, so that if we get negative feedback about something it is a data point about something where we made a decision to do one way or the other. I still feel stress when I think I underperform on something because the stakes feel so high.

In the past I traveled quite a bit for work. At the time that was a positive for me. I’m not sure if it will be as much of a positive now that I have two kids. We will see pretty soon!

comment by yiyang · 2021-05-30T08:07:54.838Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Looking at the comments, it seems like CEA has changed a lot over the years! 

This may be too broad, but in CEA's list of team values, what has CEA as a whole done well in? And which ones do you think the team wants to prioritise improving on? 

Replies from: AmyLabenz, Maxdalton
comment by Amy Labenz (AmyLabenz) · 2021-06-04T18:23:43.787Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this varies based on the team. My team (Events) is very strong on Alliance Mentality and Purpose First. I think we could improve on Perpetual Beta, which is why we are emphasizing skills related to impact analysis and program evaluation in our current hiring round. 

comment by MaxDalton (Maxdalton) · 2021-06-01T07:59:34.853Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Good question! Unfortunately I don't have an amazing answer. I think the values are a bit of a mix between simply reflecting where we currently are, and where we'd like to go. Overall, it feels like we're maybe 60-80% towards the ideal on these dimensions. So they are genuine strengths, but I think there's still room for us to grow in the dimension. There isn't one that stands out as more already-achieved, or as  more in need for improvement: they're all in that ~60-80% range.