I've been the Content Specialist on the Online Team at CEA since early 2022. People often don’t know what “Content Specialist” means and it seems useful to have more “about my job” posts, so here’s mine.
This got long, so I encourage you to skip to whatever you want to see. I include my background, what I actually work on, and some quick reflections (what I value about the role, what’s been hard, and the skills that I develop).
My background & how I got here
This ended up longer than expected, so tl;dr: math and comparative literature double major, helping to organize 3 summers of Canada/USA Mathcamp, getting into EA, research fellowship at Rethink Priorities, “Events Generalist” at CEA, and then being invited to apply to Aaron’s job and ending up here. Non-tl;dr:
I studied math and comparative literature in college (and graduated in 2021). I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after college, and was somewhat defaulting to math academia or something education-related. I was spending my summers doing ~math research, working at Canada/USA Mathcamp (in a mostly non-academic role where we ran events, helped make camp run, and more — I think this made me better at making-things-happen and made me a lot more confident), and teaching math to excited kids.
Meanwhile, a friend introduced me to EA, which clicked pretty quickly. The issue was that I didn’t see myself contributing; I didn’t want to do CS, didn’t particularly want to study economics, didn’t think I would last long earning-to-give, and didn’t think I had other real skills. But I read a bunch, listened to the 80K Podcast, went to the 2020 Student Summit, and had a call with 80,000 Hours, where they told me to apply to Rethink Priorities (and defer graduate school). I followed that advice.
I wrote about my experience at RP here. This experience was great. It made me feel that fairly generalist research was actually a viable/useful path. It also got me over my Forum-intimidation and got me to post my first Forum post (and some others).
While I was at Rethink Priorities, I had applied to an “Events Generalist” role at CEA — largely because it seemed relatively interesting, CEA had “effective altruism” in its name (so I thought it was going to be at least somewhat useful), I wanted to test out something like ops, and I really wanted to have a job. I got and took the job, which I was expecting to be pretty low-responsibility since I was so junior.
I got more responsibility than I expected, which was both scary and very motivating. On my second week, I ended up being one of two(?) people from the Events Team at the Coordination Forum (I was there to help make it go smoothly and to take notes in some sessions), during which we also made the decision to double the size of EA Global London 2021 (happening in around a month). It felt like a lot of the work that I was doing just wouldn’t get done if I wasn’t there (or maybe something else important wouldn’t get done). After EA Global: London 2021, things calmed down a bit. I was still writing sometimes, and I sometimes contributed a bit to side-projects, some of which grew out a bit.
Then Aaron reached out to say that he was leaving, and he was wondering if it would be ok to send me the job application. Skimming Aaron’s messages from the time, it looks like Aaron reached out because of a combination of my Forum writing, my performance on the Events Team, and encouragement from Linch when Aaron checked with him. I checked with my then-manager Amy to see if she would be ok with me applying. I was very stressed about this, but Amy was very supportive. I went into the application pretty confident that I wouldn’t get far (and I cried after the interview). That’s the role I have now!
What I actually work on
A wide variety of things. My work is a mix of writing/curation/draft-feedback, strategy/prioritization/brainstorming, input on product changes, and coordination (reaching out to people about events, supporting the contractors I work with, etc.) This includes running two newsletters (the EA Newsletter and the EA Forum Digest), moderation-related work, helping prioritize features and improve how the Forum is set up, hiring, writing assorted posts, etc. It’s a blend that’s hard to describe in a single sentence (when asked, I sometimes say that I run the content side of the EA Forum and some newsletters). To try and give a better sense of what this looks like, I’ll show snippets of my work life across different time periods:
Here’s a sketch of what I might work on during one day (in random order):
- One or two meetings (e.g. a 1-1 with a colleague or a sprint planning meeting) and responding to emails, Slack messages, etc.
- “Doc review” — this ranges from taking 30 minutes to give a bunch of feedback on some planned feature updates to brainstorming ways we could improve on a certain problem to suggesting a reframing for someone’s draft post
- Some functional writing — an update, announcement, instructions for something, explanations of an idea I would like to pitch to the team, etc.
- “Content” writing — summaries for the Newsletter, my own posts, etc.
- Reading and skimming content (on the Forum and elsewhere) to decide what to feature — sometimes asking others for input on my choices
I can also use our team’s weekly “sprints” to show what I worked on in 3 weeks from the past (the weeks are in reverse chronological order, the tasks are not organized):
- August 30 - September 6 (the week during which I drafted this post):
- Hiring: wrapping up grading for the previous task and deciding which applications to pass, finalizing the next task, sending out decisions and the next task, and working on the next stage of the application (this took up a lot of my time)
- Meetings with people I wanted to connect with or discuss something with in Berkeley
- Drafting this post and its companion, encouraging and giving feedback to some others who are writing something for the Career Conversations Week & other outreach
- Giving input/feedback on some product changes we’re working on (what content to feature and how on a page that might replace the current “Library” page)
- Supporting an upcoming AI-related event on the Forum
- Supporting an upcoming effective-giving-themed event on the Forum, starting to think more about it
- Supporting moderation
- Working a bit on a quick writeup about cause prioritization among CEA staff, which I hope to share when I have a moment
- July 12 - 19
- Interviewing some applicants for the moderator role (hiring has since wrapped up!)
- Choosing content for the July EA Newsletter, drafting it, getting feedback on it, and sending it
- Outreach to people to invite them to apply for the Content Specialist role
- Reviewing some documents that people wanted feedback on + collaborating on a post with Ben
- Working on what would become this
- December 28 (2022) - January 4
- Posting in the Forecasting Subforum to see if we can get it off the ground (we’ve since closed it)
- Updating the Guide to Norms to be clearer about something (I don’t remember what this was, although I could check)
- Other moderation improvements, including setting up processes for some special situations
- Seeing if we can split up the New? Start here post to make it clearer
- Writing a brief about a potential project I wanted us to try (an AI safety site — we were thinking of preparing for GPT-4 attention)
- Working on an active moderation incident
And in case it helps to zoom out, over the last year and a half some of my bigger projects/responsibilities have included:
- The EA Newsletter and the Forum Digest (and curation)
- Moderation the Forum and Improving moderator/Forum support processes, policies, and team setup (e.g. by working with contractors or hiring)
- Running/supporting events like this one, the EA Criticism and Red Teaming Contest, Draft Amnesty Day, threads (e.g. “where are you donating” and “ask everyone anything”), the Decade Review, and holidays like Smallpox Eradication Day and April Fools’ Day.
- Generally encouraging good engagement and content on the Forum (e.g. by asking people who are telling me about their interesting ideas to post them on the Forum and helping them do that)
- Writing lots of content/announcements/etc. on behalf of the Forum team
- Helping the team decide what to work on (by brainstorming, sharing feedback, sometimes interviewing users, etc.), and how we should work on it — including on a meta (strategy) level
- Helping with assorted things that are CEA-specific but not Forum-team-specific
Reflecting on the role
There’s a lot to love, although it does get stressful sometimes.
Some of the things I value about this role:
- I think I actually help, which is super motivating for me. (I wrote about why I think this role is valuable here, for instance.)
- I really like my coworkers; I work with kind and smart people who share a lot of my interests. I love a lot of CEA’s values, and I see them in practice.
- I get to engage with a lot of content and people across different cause areas, which I also really like; I learn new things about different projects in EA or fields of study on a daily basis, I meet interesting people working on a wide variety of things, etc.
- I feel like I’ve grown a fair amount in the past ~2 years, which is also very satisfying.
- I have a lot of freedom to set my own priorities, do what seems useful, try things and see if they work, etc.
- I get to write a fair bit.
Some things that have been hard:
- Moderation can get really unpleasant and stressful for me sometimes (although it can also be very satisfying). I’ve been doing less of it, in part for this reason (also part of why I hired new moderators <3). (You can probably imagine that some periods over the past year have been worse than others.)
- We’ve gotten better at working around this, but some of my projects (e.g. newsletters, moderation) have felt like they needed to happen even when I really wanted a break, which was stressful.
- Sometimes I feel like I need to keep up with too many things at the same time, and can’t focus very well as a result.
- Relatedly, there are some projects that I know I could improve if I took the time, and it can be frustrating to come back to projects when it’s their turn, knowing that I only have time to keep them up, not to actually give them serious attention. (This is sometimes an impulse that comes from perfectionism — I really shouldn’t prioritize overhauling the project, although it’s messy and could be improved, and my brain is unhappy with this — and sometimes my feelings are right and I just haven’t managed to drop the other thing that I should have dropped instead.)
- Although I do feel like I really help, it can sometimes feel like I’m too far removed from the real results of my work, which can worry me (this worsens my feedback loops) and which feels somewhat less gratifying.
- Being very public-facing has some real downsides.
Some skills I develop in this job:
- Writing & communication skills
- Project management skills (coordinating people, making sure timelines make sense, prioritizing, etc.)
- EA knowledge + thinking skills
- Product skills & thinking styles
Thanks to Ben, my team, the Events Team, Linch & Michael, & Aaron!
There might be two of us soon!
JP and I briefly tried to brainstorm more informative titles at some point (for hiring). The list included "Editorial organizer," "Forum community and content manager," "Forum Gardener," etc., but we didn't find something that we liked better than "Content Specialist," so here we are.
I can talk about my choice of major (and which skills I developed, what I wish I did differently in college, etc.) at some point, but won’t go into it here.
I thought he was pretty wrong about AI existential risk in the near future (I didn't like that he was citing "AI safety experts" when I thought that they were probably selected for already believing that this was a problem), and didn’t buy improving the long-term future in a predictable way was possible. I was also pretty skeptical that it could make sense to prioritize helping chickens when there were real humans suffering, but arguments about operating under (moral) uncertainty made sense, so I was on board with at least being vegetarian. (I’ve since updated pretty significantly on AI and animals, and also significantly on a narrower version of longtermism than was presented to me at the time.)
(The first thing that I really remember totally clicking was “Four Ideas You Already Agree With (That Mean You're Probably on Board with Effective Altruism).” I had been arguing that many things are simply incomparable, so I remember seeing the argument that we’re already making tradeoffs and feeling like something very important in my worldview was shifting.)
I should say; the Events Team has grown and changed a fair bit since that time — I think this was a somewhat hectic period and my impression is that things are less hectic now. I should also say that I’m really grateful for this experience; it was much more and better than I was expecting.
Aaron’s first message was:
This may seem like an odd thing to float, but I want to mention it just in case:
I think you'd be a strong candidate to take over as CEA's Content Specialist when I'm gone. I like your writing, and I suspect you'd also be unusually good at juggling the various balls that come with the role (some of which you'd be free to drop -- we wouldn't expect a candidate to take over every single thing I do).
I expect it's a slim chance given your current position, but [...]
Would you like me to let you know when we finalize a job description and open applications? No worries if not, of course!
Amy’s response: "I think you should absolutely apply!"
Also, what Aaron said here rings very true, although the role has changed a fair bit over time:
Mostly, my work feels like handling a constant stream of input/people wanting things, while trying to carve out time to work on larger projects + think about strategy. There are many small fires that demand focused attention, and I'm not as good as I want to be at pushing those aside to work on longer-term but more impactful things. I'm constantly beset by the thought that some "perfect version" of myself would have had enormously more impact during their tenure.
That said, I'm also constantly engaged with all the different streams of EA thought + action and get to talk to lots of different people about what they do. I get to spend a lot of time complimenting people's work and helping them feel a sense of belonging in a community I love. That sort of thing never gets old. And CEA is a terrifically supportive place to work; I genuinely like all of my coworkers (at least the ones I know well; being remote means I haven't gotten to know everyone yet).