What is operations?

by Swimmer963 2mo26th Sep 20197 min read6 comments

99


This the first in a sequence of posts about “operations”.

Acknowledgements to Malo Bourgon, Ray Arnold, Michelle Hutchinson, and Ruby for their feedback on this post.

My ops background

Several years ago, I decided to focus on operations work for my career. From 2017 to 2019 I was one of the operations staff at the Center for Effective Altruism, initially as the operations manager and later as the the Finance Lead. Prior to that, I was a volunteer logistics lead at approximately 10 CFAR workshops; I also ran ops for SPARC twice, and for a five day AI-safety retreat. I also attribute some of my ops skill to my previous work as an ICU nurse.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about hiring and training for operations roles. In the course of hiring I have had numerous conversations about what exactly “operations work” refers to, and found it surprisingly hard to explain. This post, and the rest of my operations sequence, will be an attempt to lay out my current thinking on what these roles are, what they have in common, and what skills they lean on most heavily.

Operations: not a single thing, still a useful shorthand

Operations work, or “ops”, is a term used by organizations like 80,000 Hours to refer to a particular category of roles within organizations.

I don’t think that “operations” as used in this sense is a single coherent thing; my sense is that 80,000 Hours is gesturing at a vague cluster that doesn’t completely carve reality at the joints. There isn’t a set of defining characteristics shared between all operations-type roles, and many of the attributes described are also found in other roles. However, I do think this is a useful shorthand that points both at a set of functions that need to be filled within organizations, and the skills that are necessary to carry out these duties.

It’s worth noting that this use of the word “operations” does not seem to be standard outside the EA community. In large companies, it can sometimes refer to e.g. the production side of manufacturing, or to supply chain logistics, whereas the internal admin roles are called by their individual job titles (Finance Manager, HR Manager, etc). I do think it makes more sense to carve out the “operations” cluster for small organizations, where the internal support work is more likely to be done by a single person or team rather than a multi-part bureaucracy. In smaller orgs, operations/admin staff often wear multiple hats since there often isn't a full-time work for a role in just finance/HR/etc.

Operations Roles: Support, Infrastructure, and Force Multiplication

80,000 Hours: “Operations staff enable everyone else in the organisation to focus on their core tasks and maximise their productivity.”

My sense is that roles in the ops cluster usually fill the following functions:

  • Maintaining the day-to-day infrastructure of an organization: there is a near-endless list of tasks and hoops to jump through to keep an org functioning, e.g., paying the bills, staying in compliance with local tax and HR laws, maintaining accurate bookkeeping, etc.
  • Supporting, implementing or executing externally-facing projects. This can involve setting up a spreadsheet or other workflow to track various steps and deadlines, researching the legal constraints on a project, communicating with external vendors, etc.
  • Acting as force multipliers for other staff: a good ops person will make it as easy as possible for the rest of an organization to interface with processes like payroll and expense reimbursement, and will set up internal systems with an eye to improving the productivity of staff. Office managers, for example, are responsible for maintaining the physical office space and helping staff with the setup they need for their work. Some roles in the ops cluster, such as personal or executive assistants, very directly involve supporting a specific person, taking on the attention cost of various logistical details (emails, scheduling, deadlines, booking travel, etc) and allowing them to spend more time in deep work.
  • Operations roles are usually on the generalist side; the tasks involved are extremely varied, requiring shallow knowledge across a huge range of domains, and therefore the ability to quickly pick up new knowledge and skills. They usually do not depend on a specific technical skillset or background (Though technical skills are often very helpful when trying to automate things).

The prototypical operations role in a small organization

Ops roles can vary widely on both seniority (responsibility and autonomy, skill and experience required), and specialization. In my thinking, the most central ops role is the “operations generalist” or “operations manager” at a small organization (10-20 people).

  • High autonomy: they are the main admin staff for the entire organization, and the buck stops with them. They are likely to know more than any other staff member about the various details of their role, and thus will need to mostly set their own deadlines and priorities, as well as plan ahead and anticipate problems.
  • They are involved with many, and sometimes all, of the following duties:
    • Finances and accounting
    • Payroll
    • Paying bills
    • Filing
    • Legal compliance and writing internal policies
    • HR and onboarding
    • Responding to questions and concerns from inside and outside the org about any of the above
    • Admin on software systems used internally (e.g. email provider, Slack, Asana)
    • External communications with e.g. donors or customers
    • Supporting specific projects as they set up systems
    • Coordinating projects and people
    • Fundraising
  • They are often working at an organization that is growing, and so need to set up new systems to meet changing needs. This is particularly true for someone hired as the first dedicated operations staff member at a very new organization e.g. an early startup, which may have few to no existing systems, with processes happening ad-hoc.

Not operations

My knowledge about this area is limited, but my sense from talking to others is that some software jobs (devops, sysadmin, internal tech support, etc) perform similar functions, in terms of helping to support and enable other staff and maximise their productivity. However, in this sequence, I’m not including these roles in the “ops” cluster I’m trying to point at, since they require specific technical skills.

Skills required: systematization, planning, prioritization, attention to detail, patience

80,000 Hours: “operations staff are especially good at optimising systems, anticipating problems, making plans, having attention to detail, staying calm in the face of urgent tasks, prioritising among a large number of tasks, and communicating with the rest of the team.”

Of course, the skills described here are useful in almost any job, not just operations roles, and can tend to sound like “just being generally competent.” I do think that jobs vary widely in terms of what skills are most load-bearing, though, and “ops” is a cluster that relies especially heavily on these skills as opposed to others such as technical ability, writing talent, aptitude for deep work, etc.

My sense is that many of the skills being gestured at when describing someone as “good at ops” fall out of a certain type of attention pattern, which I describe below. I am particularly trying to contrast this style of thinking with the “deep work” attention pattern that is most useful for, e.g., research.

  • Concrete and detail-oriented: ops tends to be messy, dealing with a lot of exceptions and one-off tasks, frequently interfacing with opaque outside systems that have precise and not-especially-elegant requirements.
    • Doing the work to a high level does require some level of zooming-out, to be able to look at a given task in the context of the “bigger picture” of the organization’s priorities, and to see where systemic improvements can be made, but for the overall breakdown of work hours spent, these roles involve more “in the weeds” work than big-picture work.
    • The way that various external systems, such as banks and the IRS, behave in practice is a lot more relevant than the way they would work in an ideal world.
    • Creating and optimizing systems and processes to make future work easier is important, but it needs to stay grounded in the details and what other staff will actually use.
    • Relevant concept: the virtue of narrowness.
  • Broad and shallow focus: more often than not, ops work involves juggling a large number of small tasks, individually straightforward, rather than deep dives on complex projects. Operations staff need to be extremely organized and able to track all of these, and prioritize them against each other, without becoming tunnel-visioned on any one task.
  • Thinking in tradeoffs: in these types of roles, perfect is the enemy of the good.
    • It’s almost never possible to catch up with all the tasks or systemic improvements that would ideally be done, and ops staff need to ruthlessly prioritize and 80/20 tasks where possible.
    • In particular, there is often a tradeoff between the urgency and long-term importance of tasks. It can be very high-value to spend some time building long-term infrastructure in advance of when it is needed, or change over to a new system that will be better in the long run e.g. switching to a better accounting software, but usually not at the cost of missing short-term deadlines.
    • Many time-sensitive decisions will involve taking on some amount of potential risk, whether legal, financial, reputational, etc, and often the time and resources available to investigate all possible risks are limited, especially for small organizations. Ops staff need to be able to consider and compare different low-likelihood risks, prioritize the time spent digging into potential issues, and pick the best option available even if it’s not ideal.
    • Professional services such as lawyers, auditors, accountants, etc, often push for the most conservative, “perfect” version of a process without quantifying the risk of choosing the less-than-perfectly-safe option. Having an eye on the actual risk involved is key.
    • Overall, it’s important to focus on maximizing progress towards the goals, not checking off your to-do list.

There are some other skills that might or might not fall into the same cluster, but that I think are also particularly key.

  • Noticing confusion: since these roles involve frequent reprioritizing and troubleshooting, it’s very important that ops staff develop a sense of how things should look, allowing them to flag unexpected issues, e.g., human error in the accounting.
    • It is especially valuable to train intuitive, gut-level judgement on this, so that the noticing can happen even when distracted by hectic deadlines.
  • Comfort with the unknown and with making mistakes: ops involves a large number of weird one-off problems and tasks, and there isn’t a standardized degree or training program, so most of these roles will involve learning how to do particular tasks on-the-job. Added to the time pressure, this means that sometimes tasks will get dropped and the wrong judgement calls will get made. In addition, when under a heavy workload, ops staff may have to deal with criticism and complaints from staff and others outside the organization, even when they make what they think is the best tradeoff. Almost all mistakes are recoverable from for the organization, but even more than in most roles, operations staff need to be able to take this criticism from within and without the organization, and learn from their dropped balls without becoming demoralized. People don’t tend to notice ops work when things are going well, which can cause feedback to be disproportionately negative.
  • Multitasking and interruptions: this is more true of some roles, like event logistics, than others, but most ops roles require frequently switching tasks and shifting priorities in response to new information, as well as being interruptible for time-sensitive requests.
    • A subskill here is the ability to stay calm when confronted with emergencies or urgent decisions.
  • Murphyjitsu: excellent ops staff with automatically run mental models of tasks, situations, and new systems, try to anticipate what will go wrong, and troubleshoot or make contingency plans beforehand. This requires having a solid understanding of both the overall systems and priorities, the big picture, and also of the specific details in each case.
  • Communication skills and people-modeling: ops work involves a lot of coordinating with other people, internal and external to the organization, and predicting how people will interact with systems that are being built.

Outline of the operations sequence

The rest of the sequence will go into various aspects of this summary in more detail. Future posts will cover the following topics:

  • Describing the various operations roles and job titles, with my attempt to categorize and compare them.
  • Exploring the factors that can make someone a good fit for operations roles, in terms of skills, aptitude, and personality traits.
  • A more detailed breakdown of various skills that I think are especially relevant.
    • Developing judgement and “taste”
    • Dealing with interruptions and time management
    • Principles of building good organizational systems
    • Delegating tasks and accepting delegation

99