So you want to do operations [Part one] - which skills do you need?

Eirin M. Ev­jen, Exec. Dir. EA Nor­way
Jør­gen R. Ljønes, Ass. Exec. Dir. EA Norway

This is the first post in a se­ries on the tal­ent con­straint for op­er­a­tions roles ex­pe­rienced by the EA move­ment and as­so­ci­ated or­gani­sa­tions as the com­mu­nity grows. The fur­ther posts in the se­ries are:

Why are we writ­ing this post?

There’s a cur­rent dis­cus­sion on what tal­ent gaps/​con­straints ac­tu­ally en­tail, and how we as a com­mu­nity can best over­come the bot­tle­necks to en­sure progress. See parts of the dis­cus­sion here and here. Although a lot of the con­fu­sion around tal­ent gaps have been some­what clar­ified, it is still un­clear ex­actly what it en­tails for those of us who are try­ing to fill these gaps. A lot of EAs, in­clud­ing lo­cal and na­tional groups such as EA Nor­way, are ea­ger to help fill the differ­ent tal­ent gaps in the com­mu­nity. Some of the most sought-af­ter skills, ac­cord­ing to 80,000 hours’ (80k) tal­ent gap sur­vey in 2018, has to do with op­er­a­tions in an or­gani­sa­tion. By “op­er­a­tions” we mean peo­ple at or­gani­sa­tions and in­sti­tu­tions that en­able other em­ploy­ees to fo­cus on core tasks and max­imise pro­duc­tivity. This en­tails fi­nan­cial sys­tems, pro­ject man­age­ment, en­sur­ing a pro­duc­tive office, as­sist­ing ex­ec­u­tive roles, or­ganis­ing in­ter­nal events, hiring and hu­man re­la­tions (HR), as well as com­mu­ni­ca­tions, fundrais­ing and gen­eral man­age­ment (80k, 2018). Such roles are of­ten ab­bre­vi­ated to “ops”, and which of these re­spon­si­bil­ities an ops per­son has varies a lot from one or­gani­sa­tion to an­other.

What is this post about and who should read it?

This post is about what rele­vant skills are needed to suc­ceed in an op­er­a­tions role, which of these skills are in­nate and which are ac­quirable. It is a sum­mary of what we have learned so far, and an in­vi­ta­tion to dis­cuss these ques­tions fur­ther. We have gath­ered in­for­ma­tion from 80k’s re­cent fo­rum posts and pod­cast epi­sodes, dis­cussed with rele­vant peo­ple in the EA com­mu­nity, and sur­veyed a few peo­ple with ops roles. This se­ries of posts is rele­vant for peo­ple who are in charge of or helping out hiring for op­er­a­tions roles, peo­ple in­ter­ested in op­er­a­tions roles, groups similar to ours, and peo­ple in the com­mu­nity who are in­ter­ested in these ques­tions. We are very ea­ger to re­ceive feed­back, ad­di­tional re­sources, and any thoughts on this topic.

What skills are needed, and which of them can be taught

Do­ing op­er­a­tions well is hard, and part of the rea­son there still is a deficit of op­er­a­tions tal­ent in EA orgs is that the list of re­quired skills for op­er­a­tions peo­ple is long. We be­lieve it is im­por­tant to have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of these skills if we want to help re­cruit­ing peo­ple who have them. A fun­da­men­tal ques­tion we found is whether the most im­por­tant skills are mainly in­nate, or if they can be ac­quired through train­ing. This ques­tion is im­por­tant be­cause it in­fluences the de­ci­sion of whether one should try to find peo­ple who already are good at op­er­a­tions, or train good can­di­dates to be­come good op­er­a­tions em­ploy­ees.

80k on skills needed in op­er­a­tions roles

Ac­cord­ing to their ar­ti­cle on “Why op­er­a­tions man­age­ment is one of the biggest bot­tle­necks in effec­tive al­tru­ism”, 80k pro­vides a list of skills that are needed in op­er­a­tions roles based on in­ter­views with suc­cess­ful op­er­a­tions staff. Th­ese are:

  • hav­ing an op­ti­mi­sa­tion mind­set,

  • be­ing able to cre­ate and think in sys­tems,

  • hav­ing an aes­thetic plea­sure in sys­tems work­ing smoothly,

  • be­ing able to plan a task, pro­ject and larger event,

  • pri­ori­tis­ing be­tween a great amount of tasks,

  • be­ing able to stay calm,

  • hav­ing great com­mu­ni­ca­tions skills,

  • be­ing able to learn quickly,

  • hav­ing high at­ten­tion to de­tail,

  • be­ing or­ganised and re­li­able, and

  • hav­ing a good fit with effec­tive al­tru­ism.

Th­ese skills are as­so­ci­ated with op­er­a­tions in gen­eral, and there are other types of skills that are re­quired in spe­cific po­si­tions at HR, le­gal, or fi­nance.

80k ar­gue that many peo­ple don’t re­al­ise they are a good fit for op­er­a­tions, and that many might have a com­par­a­tive ad­van­tage of pur­su­ing such roles even with­out a back­ground in op­er­a­tions. This sen­ti­ment is echoed by 80k’s pod­casts with Tanya Singh, ad­minis­tra­tor at Fu­ture of Hu­man­ity In­sti­tute, and Tara Mac Au­lay, former CEO (chief ex­ec­u­tive officer) and COO (chief op­er­a­tions officer) of CEA (cen­tre for effec­tive al­tru­ism). There­fore, it seems like one could have a lot of the skills needed, with­out di­rect ex­pe­rience in op­er­a­tions roles.

This might be be­cause a lot of the skills men­tioned are more gen­er­ally ap­pli­ca­ble, and might also be in­nate, sug­gest­ing one might have the nec­es­sary skills with­out hav­ing ex­pe­rience from an op­er­a­tions role. Espe­cially for a ju­nior role, Singh ar­gued that hav­ing cer­tain traits was suffi­cient, such as hav­ing a bias to­wards ac­tion, be­ing ex­cited about learn­ing new things,and hav­ing a drive to want to im­prove things and put scal­able sys­tems and solu­tions in place. Mac Au­lay ar­gues that a deeper prob­lem-solv­ing skil­lset, cre­ativity, ini­ti­a­tive, and good work­ing mem­ory are skills that a good ops per­son needs to have. The fact that 80k and the two pod­cast guests list a lot of skills needed for such po­si­tions, while si­mul­ta­neously say­ing that some “just have it”, left us with unan­swered ques­tions about which skills are in­nate, and which is it pos­si­ble to ac­quire through train­ing.

Sur­vey of op­er­a­tions peo­ple in EA-organisations

To bet­ter un­der­stand the na­ture of these skills, we ran a short sur­vey of peo­ple with ops roles in differ­ent EA-or­gani­sa­tions. Some of the ques­tions were re­lated to the re­spon­dents’ per­cep­tion of their own skills, while oth­ers were about if they were to hire some­one for an op­er­a­tions role. As has be­come ap­par­ent from 80k, there is a differ­ence be­tween ju­nior and se­nior roles in op­er­a­tions, and we there­fore asked for both roles when ask­ing about hiring to make this dis­tinc­tion clear.

In the ju­nior po­si­tions, the re­spon­dents said they would look for can­di­dates who has at­ten­tion to de­tail, are self-mo­ti­vated and en­thu­si­as­tic, are or­ganised and con­scien­tious, and have gen­eral men­tal abil­ities. In ad­di­tion, they men­tioned grit, tak­ing ini­ti­a­tive and com­mu­ni­cat­ing well. One re­spon­dent men­tioned ev­i­dence of some ex­pe­rience, for ex­am­ple vol­un­tary pro­jects and in­tern­ships.

In the se­nior po­si­tions, the re­spon­dents em­pha­sised more ob­ject-level skills such as ac­count­ing, pro­ject man­age­ment, and HR, as well as strate­gic think­ing. In ad­di­tion to the skills needed in the ju­nior po­si­tions, the re­spon­dents sought af­ter can­di­dates with good judge­ment, be­ing able to man­age mul­ti­ple com­plex pro­jects, hav­ing man­age­rial and lead­er­ship skills, and even bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. Fur­ther­more, hav­ing some form of rele­vant ex­pe­rience was men­tioned by mul­ti­ple re­spon­dents. One re­spon­dent would look for can­di­dates with 6+ years ex­pe­rience with com­plex pro­jects for se­nior roles. The same re­spon­dent also men­tioned ev­i­dence of hav­ing a con­crete im­pact in pre­vi­ous roles. Others were less spe­cific and looked for ex­pe­rience with le­gal is­sues, HR, fi­nance, lead­er­ship, and pro­ject man­age­ment.

We asked our re­spon­dents to think of the tal­ent and skills that made them el­i­gible for their op­er­a­tions roles, and rate on a scale from one to five to what de­gree these are in­nate or ac­quirable. On the scale, 1 rep­re­sented to­tally or mostly in­nate, while 5 was to­tally or mostly teach­able. The re­sults were that three of the re­spon­dents chose 3, one chose 2 and the fi­nal one chose 4. This means that the re­spon­dents think the rele­vant tal­ent and skills they pos­sess are about half and half in­nate and ac­quired. This re­sult is maybe not that sur­pris­ing, but it makes us up­date away from the more ex­treme po­si­tions that a strong ma­jor­ity of the im­por­tant skills for an op­er­a­tions role is ei­ther in­nate or ac­quired.

We then asked them to list their in­nate tal­ents and ac­quired skills. You can see the full list of skills men­tioned in the ap­pendix. In terms of in­nate tal­ents, three men­tioned gen­eral men­tal abil­ity or in­tel­li­gence. One men­tioned un­der­stand­ing and not be­ing dis­cour­aged by com­plex is­sues and sys­tems. Another two em­pha­sised mo­ti­va­tion to do the work, and grit/​tenac­ity when deal­ing with the more difficult or te­dious tasks. Lastly, one re­spon­dent men­tioned an in­ter­est in do­ing ops type of work, and find­ing such work re­ward­ing. The skills listed by the re­spon­dents are similar to 80k’s find­ings. An ad­di­tion to their re­sults is the no­tion of grit, tenac­ity, and mo­ti­va­tion.

There are two key points re­gard­ing the list of in­nate tal­ents and skills. First of all, the list con­tains many varied an­swers, a minor­ity of which are men­tioned by mul­ti­ple re­spon­dents. We think this sug­gests that differ­ent op­er­a­tions roles re­quire differ­ent types of skills. For ex­am­ple, be­ing re­spon­si­ble for fi­nan­cial sys­tems might re­quire be­ing able to un­der­stand com­plex sys­tems than do­ing more pro­ject man­age­ment tasks. Se­condly, it is im­por­tant to note that the skills men­tioned in this list aren’t nec­es­sar­ily com­pletely in­nate, but that at least a sub­stan­tial part of them are.

Re­gard­ing the re­spon­dents’ self-re­ported ac­quired skills, all five re­spon­dents men­tioned man­age­ment, do­ing tasks or be­ing pro­duc­tive. Two men­tioned at­ten­tion to de­tail and be­ing able to zoom out and see the big­ger pic­ture. One of the re­spon­dents who men­tioned at­ten­tion to de­tail as a key skill ex­plained that this can be in­nate for many peo­ple, but it wasn’t for them. Other skills men­tioned twice were be­ing able to pri­ori­tise and be­ing good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing. Lastly, there is a list of skills that were men­tioned once:

  • be­ing calm un­der pres­sure,

  • hav­ing good “op­er­a­tions” judge­ment,

  • be­ing re­li­able,

  • hav­ing cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing skills and be­ing able to iden­tify bot­tle­necks,

  • tak­ing joy in solv­ing op­er­a­tional prob­lems,

  • hav­ing pro­ject man­age­ment skills,

  • be­ing able to effec­tively del­e­gate,

  • and hav­ing knowl­edge of em­ploy­ment laws, how to re­search, and fi­nan­cial track­ing.

Th­ese find­ings are also similar to 80ks re­sults from their sur­vey. Ad­di­tions are hav­ing good “op­er­a­tions” judge­ment, hav­ing cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing skills, and be­ing able to del­e­gate, though these are men­tioned by Mac Au­lay and Singh. There are other ad­di­tions as well, but they are mainly about con­crete tasks that vary be­tween differ­ent op­er­a­tions roles, such as em­ploy­ment laws. As with the an­swers to which skills are in­nate, the list of ac­quired skills is also varied, where few skills are listed mul­ti­ple times. It is also in­ter­est­ing that tak­ing joy in solv­ing op­er­a­tional prob­lems is men­tioned in both cat­e­gories—mean­ing that it is both viewed as largely in­nate and largely ac­quirable. Again, we think this has to do with the var­i­ance in op­er­a­tions tasks, and the fact that the re­spon­dents likely do not view each skill as com­pletely in­nate or com­pletely ac­quirable.

Re­main­ing questions

Re­search­ing and writ­ing this post has been a very valuable ex­pe­rience for us, and we hope oth­ers who are in­ter­ested in nar­row­ing the tal­ent gap of op­er­a­tions roles in EA or­gani­sa­tions will benefit from read­ing this as well. Still, there are many unan­swered ques­tions, and we hope that the dis­cus­sion on tal­ent gaps and on what the best course of ac­tion is will con­tinue. We are es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in an­swer­ing the fol­low­ing ques­tions:

  • How to best test if you have the nec­es­sary in­nate traits?

  • How to test to what ex­tent you have the ac­quirable skills?

  • What are the best ways of ac­quiring new skills valuable for op­er­a­tions roles?

  • What should promis­ing can­di­dates do to sig­nal their fit and ex­pe­rience to po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers to help smooth out the costly re­cruit­ment pro­cess?

  • Given the an­swers to the ques­tions above, what can lo­cal and na­tional groups do to find and train po­ten­tial can­di­dates and help in the re­cruit­ment pro­cess?

As there are mul­ti­ple facets to this topic, and re­main­ing ques­tions we would like to ex­plore, we want to con­tinue this se­ries with fur­ther posts that try to an­swer the ques­tions above. We think there are op­por­tu­ni­ties for EA or­gani­sa­tions and lo­cal/​na­tional group to work more closely to­gether to find how we best can re­duce the tal­ent con­straints in the com­mu­nity, and think dis­cussing and an­swer­ing the ques­tions above are ways to ex­plore these op­por­tu­ni­ties. We wel­come a con­tinued dis­cus­sion and feed­back in the com­ment sec­tion be­low and in the posts to come.


Ap­pendix—List of skills the re­spon­dents of our sur­vey viewed as in­nate or acquired

In­nate:

  • gen­eral men­tal abil­ity/​in­tel­li­gence,

  • un­der­stand­ing of and not be­ing dis­cour­aged by com­plex is­sues and sys­tems,

  • mo­ti­va­tion to do the work,

  • grit/​tenac­ity when deal­ing with difficult and te­dious tasks, and

  • In­ter­est in do­ing ops type of work and find­ing such work re­ward­ing.

Ac­quired:

  • man­ag­ing and do­ing tasks/​be­ing pro­duc­tive,

  • at­ten­tion to detail

  • be­ing able to zoom out and see the big­ger picture

  • be­ing able to pri­ori­tise be­tween differ­ent tasks and pro­jects,

  • be­ing good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing,

  • be­ing calm un­der pres­sure,

  • hav­ing good “op­er­a­tions” judge­ment,

  • be­ing re­li­able,

  • hav­ing cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing skills and be­ing able to iden­tify bot­tle­necks,

  • tak­ing joy in solv­ing op­er­a­tional prob­lems,

  • hav­ing pro­ject man­age­ment skills,

  • be­ing able to effec­tively del­e­gate,

  • and hav­ing knowl­edge of em­ploy­ment laws, how to re­search, and fi­nan­cial track­ing.