80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

#36 - Tanya Singh on ending the operations management bottleneck in effective altruism

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin

Almost nobody is able to do groundbreaking physics research themselves, and by the time his brilliance was appreciated, Einstein was hardly limited by funding. But what if you could find a way to unlock the secrets of the universe like Einstein nonetheless?

Today’s guest, Tanya Singh, sees herself as doing something like that every day. She’s Executive Assistant to one of her intellectual heroes who she believes is making a huge contribution to improving the world: Professor Bostrom at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute (FHI).

She couldn’t get more work out of Bostrom with extra donations, as his salary is already easily covered. But with her superior abilities as an Executive Assistant, Tanya frees up hours of his time every week, essentially ‘buying’ more Bostrom in a way nobody else can. She also help manage FHI more generally, in so doing freeing up more than an hour of other staff time for each hour she works. This gives her the leverage to do more good than other people or other positions.

In our previous episode, Tara Mac Aulay objected to viewing operations work as predominately a way of freeing up other people's time:

“A good ops person doesn’t just allow you to scale linearly, but also can help figure out bottlenecks and solve problems such that the organization is able to do qualitatively different work, rather than just increase the total quantity”, Tara said.

Full transcript, summary and links to learn more.

Tara’s right that buying time for people at the top of their field is just one path to impact, though it’s one Tanya says she finds highly motivating. Other paths include enabling complex projects that would otherwise be impossible, allowing you to hire and grow much faster, and preventing disasters that could bring down a whole organisation - all things that Tanya does at FHI as well.

In today’s episode we discuss all of those approaches, as we dive deeper into the broad class of roles we refer to as ‘operations management’. We cover the arguments we made in ‘Why operations management is one of the biggest bottlenecks in effective altruism’, as well as:

* Does one really need to hire people aligned with an org’s mission to work in ops?
* The most notable operations successes in the 20th Century.
* What’s it like being the only operations person in an org?
* The role of a COO as compared to a CEO, and the options for career progression.
* How do good operation teams allow orgs to scale quickly?
* How much do operations staff get to set their org’s strategy?
* Which personal weaknesses aren’t a huge problem in operations?
* How do you automate processes? Why don’t most people do this?
* Cultural differences between Britain and India where Tanya grew up.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris.

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