EAs working at non-EA organizations: What do you do?

post by Akash · 2020-12-10T16:12:06.810Z · EA · GW · 6 comments

"I think the whole EA community would be a lot healthier if people had a much more limited view of EA, striving to take jobs that have positive impact in the long  run, rather than focussing so much on the much shorter-term goal of taking jobs in high-profile EA organisations, at great personal expense." -- Jakob_J [EA · GW], here [EA · GW]

"What (in my opinion) the EA Community needs is to get away from this idea of channelling all committed people to a few organisations - the community is growing faster than the organisations, and those numbers are unlikely to add up in the mid term.

Committing all our people to a few organisations seriously limits our impact in the long run. There are plenty of opportunities to have a large impact out there - we just need to appreciate them and pursue them. One thing I would like to see is stronger profession-specific networks in EA." -- Denise_Melchin [EA · GW], here [EA(p) · GW(p)]

 

There has been discussion recently (sparked by Denise Melchin, here [EA · GW]) that EAs might not recognize the kinds of impactful opportunities at non-EA organizations. I think one contributing factor is that it's easier to see how you'd have an impact at a "mainstream EA organization" than at a non-EA organization. As a result, I think it could be useful to hear some examples of EAs who decided to work at/for non-EA organizations.

I'm interested in hearing from EAs who are working at non-EA organizations. Some sample questions include:

To get things started, I'll paste my answers in a comment below. Please feel free to share your own responses below! 

6 comments

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comment by tamgent · 2020-12-10T18:43:54.087Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it's good if I comment, as it's been an explicit strategy of mine for a while. I'll answer the questions but first give some reasons why I decided to mostly focus on working in 'non-EA orgs'. (I won't back them up unless asked by someone so that I can just write without worrying about spending time.)

1) I think there are many more neglected opportunities to do good in non-EA orgs, where you will truly be irreplaceable, and see so much low hanging fruit to make impact in so many places. When I say impact here I do mean it with an EA lens.
2) There is lots more optionality if I default to non-EA org jobs, and see EA orgs as just another place to work in the world, to be evaluated alongside other opportunities. I don't understand why I would ever limit my options (except when I have to in order to progress).
3) I can bring so much more to a place that has less EA ideas in it, as someone who has thought about EA ideas a bit - what I bring will be more highly valued and novel for people (though I usually won't talk about EA explicitly, I'll just imbue the underlying values because turns out lots of 'non-EAs' share them when you get down to it).
4) I will learn about which other communities are also working on doing good and be able to work with them and also to make and facilitate connections between EA and 'non EA' and have a better map of who is making what impact where. Limiting this just to the EA space seems so unnecessarily limiting.
5) Related to 4) I actually see integrating EA and non EA as itself very important work to do if EA is to achieve many of its goals. Sometimes it might be better to have a more inclusive branding than the EA one, both to attract a more diverse set of views and also simply instrumental to EA goals. 
6) So far, I have found lots of EA ideas in 'non-EA' orgs and spaces - yes, fragments of them, worded differently, or just bubbling under the surface, but that is such an opportunity!

Where do you work, and what do you do?

I work in the civil service as a data scientist. In practice my role also involves tech policy stuff.  I code, do data analysis, talk to people, try to understand what's really going on both internally and in the world on the real world problems we work on. I try to get on projects I think are impactful, or that will help me get to a place where I can be more impactful, or ideally both.

What are some things you've worked on that you consider impactful?

In my current role I've done research and advising on digital markets which (definitely not just due to me though I am there to contribute/learn) has led to the establishment of the first  big tech independent sector regulator that I know of (Digital Markets Unit). As this unit grows legs over the next couple of years, I'm excited to be part of its initial shape-taking and think there will be lots of opportunities to have impact (if you're interested in it send me a message).

I've also done quite a few significant efficiency-enhancing things that make impact I guess, but I feel like I'm more replaceable on those so less sure about impact. 

For the most part though, I see my current role as upskilling/preparing/positioning for making impact - and lots of the impact I make might just be getting in the room and saying why we should not do something, and also might not the kinds of things I can just talk about on the internet.

Separately, I founded a not-for-profit educational/talent programme which aims to in 5 years or so make a significant contribution to the number of highly-capable individuals on their way to making lots of impact on pressing problems. You might consider this an EA project but from the perspective of my own career development it's not really. I didn't join an existing EA org, but more like I made 'non-EA' connections at a university and went from there (with lots of help from some awesome volunteers some of whom may identify as EA though). Also we want to be inclusive so don't explicitly identify EA as an organisation.

What are a few ways in which you bring EA ideas/mindsets to your current job?

The following is not EA ideas only, but I would say they pretty relevant to EA:

I try to work on projects related to big tech, from a perspective of risks of emerging technologies, focused on but not limited to AI. This is where the bulk of my time goes.

I'm trying to help develop the impact measurement/evaluation activities we do, in various parts of the organisation, although haven't made that much progress so far, mostly because there's just too much to do and there are competing priorities.

I met with the head of risk, and we discussed launching a monthly 'mistakes monday' where we will have presentations from different teams on mistakes that were made internally, and prizes for the biggest/best. I think this culture is quite important for good internal decision-making culture of of a regulator.

I brought in Ozzie to talk about forecasting, and his tools are being used by our team now (so far just on things of no consequence though, sorry Ozzie, little steps though).

Networking across departments to find out where is tractable to make impact, and use my role to make connections with people at other organisations.

Overall, I do think that firstly looking outside of EA to make impact is a good strategy for many people. It's not that I'm closed to EA jobs, just that I'm not primarily focusing on them. Having said this, I'm not sure where we are right now as a community on this, but I'd be really sad if we ended up over-correcting as a community and EA orgs stopped getting a good supply of talent. Obviously I really care about this as I spend most of my 'side-project' time on talent pipeline.

I think overall the best idea is to talk to lots of people about your specific situation to get a good variety of career advice, and to make sure the advice you are getting is varied enough (find someone who will give you the advice you don't want to hear!) - however, I will expect a lot of people involved in the EA community to have social motivators towards jobs at EA orgs, and think a little bit of correction in this direction is still due (probably? how can we measure this?).

OK I'll stop there as this is getting long. Thanks for reading if you made it this far, hope it was useful.

Small nitpick: I responded to this post even though I'd prefer if it was framed as people who are into EA, or EA-aligned people or who work in EA orgs or something rather than 'EAs', as I personally prefer that framing - but probably just being a pedant.

comment by Akash · 2020-12-10T16:15:50.013Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Note: You don't have to answer to follow this structure or answer these questions. The point is just to share information that might be helpful/informative to other EAs!

With that in mind, here are my answers:

Where do you work, and what do you do?

  • I am a PhD student studying psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

What are things you've worked on that you consider impactful?

  • I'm trying to focus my research on topics that are impactful and neglected (e.g., digital mental health, global mental health).
  • I co-developed a mental health intervention for Kenyan adolescents and tested it in a randomized controlled trial.
  • I've published papers reviewing smartphone apps for depression and anxiety (here and here) and developed a new method for analyzing digital health interventions (here).
  • I developed an online mental health intervention designed to teach skills from CBT and positive psychology in <1 hour. We're currently evaluating it in Kenya, India, and the US.
  • I recently started performing research on promoting effective giving [EA · GW]. I've received funding from the EA Meta Fund and from UPenn to support this work. Through the project, we're aiming to evaluate an intervention that applies psychological theories to improve effective giving. We'll also be spreading information about EA to 1k+ people, and much of the funding from the project will be donated to effective charities.

What are a few ways in which you bring EA ideas/mindsets to your current job?

  • I work with many undergraduate students. I try to introduce them to EA concepts (e.g., thinking about importance, neglectedness, and solvability when considering projects) and refer them to EA sources (e.g., 80,000 Hours).
  • Several of these students have changed their independent study projects as a result of learning about EA (mostly to work on the effective giving project mentioned earlier).
  • I've casually mentioned effective altruism to graduate students professors I work with, many of whom weren't familiar with EA previously. (Bringing this up "casually" has become easier to do now that I'm doing research relating to effective giving).
  • I've been connecting with members of the EA community who are doing similar work, like members of Spark Wave and the Happier Lives Institute.
comment by vaidehi_agarwalla · 2020-12-11T08:29:50.621Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this idea is really great ! Since I'm early career, I'm going to share my plans more than my actual work, but hopefully there will be some value to this! (And I'm happy to chat with anyone offline about this topic in more depth as well)

This would probably be most relevant to people interested in operations & management, or if you one day might start and org or join an early-stage org. 

  • Where do you work, and what do you do?
    • Context: I graduated in May 2019 with a BA in Sociology, and have been working since then.
    • I work at an enterprise software company (software like SAP, ORACLE & Salesforce), currently focused on marketing and sales in Singapore. Before that I worked at a boutique consulting firm that specialised in accounting software implementation for utilities companies.  (Yes, it's all as dull as it sounds :D)
    • My current plan is to continue at my current company for at least 1.5 more years, possibly more depending on how flexible the hours are/how much I'm learning (currently, the learning curve is very steep, and I don't expect it to plateau for at least that amount of time).
  • What are a few ways in which you bring EA ideas/mindsets to your current job?
    • I mostly have the mindset of skilling up and trying to take ownership of projects, and have been lucky in my current job that I have a lot of flexibility in that regard. I think that if you do have the flexibility, even if your job is boring (reminder: the company I work for essentially sells very fancy accounting software), you can kind of gamify it into "what useful skills can I learn today?".
    • Overall, I feel like learning these skills in a low(ish) stakes scenario (at least, impact-wise) is nice, because if I make mistakes, or take longer than I need to it's fine, I have a much longer rope to make mistakes.
    • A lot of the following skills you could learn at any job, but I think mentally thinking of them as "learning" rather than "stuff I have to do to get paid" is probably a better framing.
    • From speaking with a few mid- or late-stage career EAs, I've gotten the advice that they've been able to contribute a lot from the corporate skills they've learnt.
    • It can be tempting to do EA things full-time, every so often I remind myself that I have at least ~45 good years left in my career, and all the things I'm learning now while earning to save are things that will ultimately make the marginal dollar donated to the org where I may work in the future more valuable because I'll spend my time better, have a larger network to leverage, or just more wisdom about how to set up a new project, make the right hires etc.
    • General skills
      • Attention to detail & organisation (e.g. extremely small things like consistent naming conventions, properly structured if weird-looking emails etc.)
      • How to interact in a workplace with many different people with different motivations & goals
      • Managing contractors/people (and writing contracts).
      • Realising what needs to be in place in an organisation (this is really vague, but basically, seeing something is mising & realising why it was so important - e.g. a company intranet, good inbox management systems)
    • Specific operational skills
      • Recruiting:
        • Creating a recruiting process: I used a lot of EA resources to design this and choose the right work tests, although it's definitely something you learn through trial & error
        • Creating a applicant tracking system: I got an excuse to learn Airtable (it's so cool!) and save me time by automating the process while doing so
        • Learning how to filter people: This is probably the most important thing - no matter where you work, if you want to get to a mangerial level, you will need to know how to recruit people. This is difficult,  especially when you're trying to evaluate someone's personality fit for the company (this is harder when the company culture is not fully defined or you're not aware of it) or recruiting in cultures you haven't spent a lot of time in.
      • Marketing: 
        • I'm not a professional marketer, so I had to learn a bunch about the basics of marketing, SEO, and copywriting (enough to distinguish what is good and bad, which is a pretty useful skill when hiring I think)
        • I've also been trying to develop a marketing strategy for the company, which has been an interesting process because there's definitely
      • Sales
        • A lot of sales is really understanding your target audience & being able to speak to them in the right way, and understanding what you're talking about and knowing it really, really well. I feel like being able to talk to complete strangers and maintain a friendly rapport is a useful life-skill,to have. 
  • What are some things you've worked on that you consider impactful?
    • I think I'm too early in my career to have really had a lot of impact, but I work on a few EA community building projects that I think are either low hanging fruit, or important and neglected, specifically focused on careers.
    • These are done in my spare time, and I'm lucky that I have enough flexibility to work on them as well as my job
    • I think there's usually a lot of synergy in what I learn on my EA projects & work, which is nice.
comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2020-12-10T19:44:20.931Z · EA(p) · GW(p)
  • Where do you work, and what do you do?

I'm a software engineer at Plaid working on the Infrastructure team. My main project is leading our internal observability efforts.

  • What are some things you've worked on that you consider impactful?

In terms of EA impact at my current job, not much. I view this as an earning to give situation where I'm taking my expertise as a software engineer and turning it into donations. I think there's some argument that Plaid has positive impact on the world by enabling lots of new financial applications built on our APIs, thereby increasing access to financial resources for those who historically had the least access to them. But I don't work directly on that stuff, instead working on the things that enables the org to carry out its mission.

I will say I considered some other jobs, say working at Facebook or continuing to work on ads as I had been doing, and although the mission was not the primary reason I chose Plaid it is nice that I don't worry I might work on something that harms the world.

  • What are a few ways in which you bring EA ideas/mindsets to your current job?

I often use the TIN framework informally in work and elsewhere in life. It's sort of baked into my soul to think about tractability, impact, and neglectedness when thinking about what to do. Plaid has a big internal focus on the idea of impact, including having a positive impact on the world, and of course as an engineer there's plenty of focus on doing things that are tractable (possible). Neglectedness considerations mostly show up in what I personally choose to work on: I look for things where I can have impact, that are tractable, and that are being neglected by others such that I can make things better in ways that are currently not being pursued. In a growing organization this is easy, because there's often a lot of stuff we'd do if someone had more time to do it, so then it largely becomes a question of prioritizing between different neglected issues.

comment by mrk · 2021-01-16T16:59:26.316Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Currently working for DeepL, the automatic translation service, as a frontend developer. My motivation to go there included both the higher impact as compared to my previous job (millions of people use the service, it seems to help solve a big inefficiency in the world which is language barriers) and career capital considerations. Plus some personal reasons of course, such as having reason to assume I'd most likely be very happy with the job.

Even though the work itself seems more meaningful to me than what I did before, I still feel like certain side projects as well as local group involvement might ultimately turn out more impactful. I thus try to find a balance between doing good work and enjoying my time at the job, while working on EA related things in my spare time.

I used EAGx Virtual 2020 to discuss my plan to start at DeepL with a whole bunch of people, as I wasn't sure whether it would be the most high impact thing I could possibly do at the time. Many of those I talked to seemed to think however that, as a frontend/web developer, it's not that easy to find full time employment in EA orgs, and that my plans sounded quite good.

 

  • What are a few ways in which you bring EA ideas/mindsets to your current job?

Not so much in my current job, but at the previous place I gave a short talk on donating effectively towards the end of my time there. Got a bit of positive feedback but ultimately am clueless to what extent it did or did not influence people. At the very least they should now have one association with the term "effective altruism".

comment by tamgent · 2020-12-11T01:14:59.397Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Link to relevant post about doing nonstandard things within your career [EA · GW] (as well as in your career choice) to make the post impact.