#ResearchOpsLife
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#ResearchOpsLife

How to hire for ResearchOps: skills, experience and potential

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One of the most common questions I get from research leaders is this: I want to build Research Operations into my team, who should I hire?

The promise of a research practice that is efficient, scalable and impactful is strong, and it’s compelling leaders to invest in this burgeoning space. But there’s little formal ResearchOps training, even less literature, and only a handful of people with ResearchOps (leadership level) experience.

In this context, hiring for ResearchOps can be tricky — if you don’t know how to approach it and you’re not clear on what you’re looking for.

I’m seeing more and more ResearchOps job descriptions, which is great to see, but who do you hire? And once you’ve hired, how do you guide them in doing the best job possible when you’re not an operations expert yourself? How do you know what you want and what’s realistic to expect? This hiring question sits in front of several other important (more foundational) questions, too.

When I look through ResearchOps job descriptions, I’m often befuddled by the expectations hirers have set and the specificity of the job descriptions. The thing that concerns me most, is they’re often wildly optimistic as to what one (even very experienced) operations person can offer.

In this post, I hope to encourage you to take the time to learn more about the fundamentals of ResearchOps before you hire so that (as a research leader) you’re clear on what you want and can expect. I also hope to give you clarity on how you might go about hiring your first, second, third and more Ops team members.

I’ve got a lot to cover.

Getting ResearchOps off the ground

The Wright Brothers Aeroplane Company — A Virtual Museum of Pioneer Aviation

Three hiring challenges that can become opportunities

The first challenge is that you need to know what you want and what’s realistic to expect from an Operations role. This means you need to have at least a fundamental knowledge of ResearchOps — it’s elements, what’s tried-and-tested, what’s more experimental, appropriate resourcing, and common pitfalls. My sense is there’s still a fair bit of confusion about what ResearchOps does and does not do; you want to make sure you’re ultra clear on that before investing in the role. Shameless pitch: I give clarity to research leaders and managers in my one-day workshops around the world.

The second challenge is this: as of early 2020, there’s just a small crowd of people in the world who can call themselves a ResearchOps expert or professional — someone who’s been there, done that, still doing it. If you’re looking for a ResearchOps expert, you’ll be fishing from a small pond. It’s not impossible to hire an expert, I just wouldn’t make it my only hiring tactic.

The third challenge is that ResearchOps is a multi- and highly-specialist practice and a big job, so trying to find someone who is a Swiss Army knife — someone who can do it all — is bound to lead to either disappointment (when you discover one person can’t expertly deliver it all) and/or one very overwhelmed Ops employee (who didn’t have the experience to know they couldn’t deliver it all).

With the right approach, these challenges are an encouragement to hire a team of diverse specialist non-research skills and viewpoints into your research team. This is an enormously valuable opportunity.

Know what ResearchOps is and is not

I have a fairly strong opinion on what ResearchOps is and is not, which is based on my own experience as a ResearchOps specialist and on conversations with people who have years of experience growing and managing ResearchOps teams for global enterprises. Still, there are lots of variations on team structure, role descriptions and job titles and while being pedantic is rarely helpful, I’m continually compelled to share my view, so here it is.

ResearchOps Managers or Leads aren’t craft leads. We typically don’t make decisions about research strategy — research team structure, who to hire, methodology, ethos etc. — we are however well-informed citizens of the research world. We know a lot about how researchers, and research teams, operate.

As such, a ResearchOps Manager does not have to be an excellent researcher — or even a researcher at all. I know top-notch ResearchOps professionals who’ve learned enough about research craft to do their job but haven’t done a day of research in their life. They’re brilliant at organising the research world around them and they don’t have the desire to be a researcher. Their interest lies in helping researchers and their teams do their best work and helping organisations make the most of their unique skills.

Remember this when you’re hiring: you’re not necessarily looking for a researcher who wants to do Ops, though that does happen, and you’re not looking for a research (craft) leader who will deliver Ops either. You’re looking for someone who is pragmatic, service-oriented, gets shit done and understands researchers. You’re looking for an arch collaborator who has leadership qualities and can work hand-in-hand with the research leader (maybe that’s you) to bring their/your vision to life.

Craft and Ops must dovetail. But they’re not the same thing. This will fundamentally change what you ask for in your job description, who you look for, who piques your interest in an interview, who you’ll hire and what they’ll give you — operations that truly does help make your research team and their outputs more efficient, scalable, impactful and ethical.

Know that ResearchOps is a BIG job that takes time

I see so many job descriptions that say they want one person to deliver participant recruiting for a team of researchers while delivering an insights library, managing vendors, getting the team up to scratch on data governance, and-and-and….

Wow, that’s an unachievable demand for one person to deliver.

Even if your research team is just five people, each of these elements is potentially a fulltime job. I learned this lesson the hard way when I set up a participant recruitment function for Atlassian in 2018 and hired one recruiter (who thankfully stuck it out with me) to deliver it.

I had no idea participant recruitment took so much time. One participant recruiter can, on average, deliver 20-25 participants a month, and that’s highly dependent on the complexity of each project. If you’ve got five researchers each doing one research project per month, your one Ops person will be working flat out to recruit for them. They’ll have time for nothing else. It’s a reality check. They won’t have time to manage the finances, thank you gifts and myriad other things that touch on participant recruiting alone, never mind a research library or vendors.

In a future post, I’ll share more about why we abandoned the participant recruitment service I first set up and have had much greater success delivering what I’m calling ‘highly supported self-service’ systems for researchers to use whether for participant recruiting or otherwise.

As a further reality check, I’ve been working at Atlassian for one and a half years and it’s taken me that long to build up my team, understand the operational needs and get a decent long-term strategy in place. It’s taken my very capable team of five a year of focused and consistent work (under a solid strategy) to deliver a research participant panel, A/V asset management platform, a suite of recruitment and technology vendors, operations handbook, and an informed consent and data governance process that we’ll soon be proud of. And we’re just getting the fundamentals in place, there’s much more work to do.

Proper Ops takes time…

… and it takes more resources than you think. But, when the fundamentals are in place and being maintained, you’ll be functioning in a wholly different, more efficient, scalable and ethical research world. Patience makes good on promises.

Keep this in mind when you write your job description. Make sure you have realistic expectations for your new hire/s. Unless you’re hiring a unicorn senior ResearchOps person, you’ll need to have an Ops strategy for someone to deliver on.

A final note regarding the big-ness of the job: there are opportunities for quick fixes in Ops, until your team scales. At this point, most quick fixes will break. Proper, scaleable Ops takes time to deliver. Whatever you build should be built to withstand change and growth.

Also, Ops is not, at the start, an administrative job. It’s first a service design job, then a service administration job. Depending on your context, it would be remiss to hire an administrator to design and deliver your operations. Hire designers first, then specialist people to design and deliver, then hire administrators.

I could write a whole blog post on service design versus service delivery in an Ops strategy. It’s that important.

So you’ve done your research, you’ve got clarity — and perhaps an operational strategy or at least a few key pain points that need solving in mind, and they’re not service-related, they’re service design related. Now, who and how to hire?

Tips on who and how to hire

The attributes to look for in any potential Ops hire

These are the attributes that come to mind when I think of the best Ops people, including the people I’ve hired:

They like helping others, they’re service-oriented and organised, methodical, love to deliver, they’re pragmatic, grounded, patient, curious, enthusiastic, collaborative and have a knack for getting people on side.

They’re obsessives, they get into the details, they’re thinkers, they’re keen learners and push for “faster, better, smaller, more efficient, more economic and good enough”. They’re Wardley’s settlers, but especially his town planners. They’re a mix of service designers and service givers, depending on where you are in your delivery strategy.

Think about the future vision for the research team

You need to get clarity on the future vision and growth plans for your research team. Yup, your research team. The Ops team’s growth should follow the growth of your research team and your first operational hire should suit your growth strategy, too.

I’ve got a measure of one Ops person to every five researchers, and that’s held true in other organisations too. It’s a bit more fiddly than that, but it’s a good enough yardstick to keep real by.

If you’ve got a team of five researchers and it’s only ever going to be five researchers, you’d do fine to get in one Ops person who’s given the time and budget to deliver highly-supported self-service pathways for your researchers. This person will work hard and you’ll need to make sure they feel like they’re progressing professionally (a challenge we have in Ops land), but they needn’t be senior leadership material.

But if your research team is at or is going to grow into the dozens, you’ll need to be more strategic about your first operational hire. You’ll want someone who has experience across multiple disciplines — privacy, recruitment, procurement, for instance — and you’ll want them to be future people leader material, too.

Find a tried-and-true expert

You could look for someone like me. I have a decade of firsthand experience in delivering nearly all of the ResearchOps elements and in building and managing an international Research Ops team for Atlassian. While a handful of people like me do exist, we are in short supply.

Still, the experienced Operations managers I know do look for new work on occasion so it’s worth your while to go headhunting. I’ll share more tips on where to look in a moment.

Hire 2, 3, 4 and more

First, you need a generalist team leader, then every person you hire going forward should be a specialist who can design services.

Once your first hire has figured out and started to deliver on your core operational needs, you’ll want to, and will need to, support those core needs with dedicated specialist skills — someone who knows about delivering IT stacks, a data archivist, a comms person, a research recruiter etc.

Here’s where your hiring gets fun. And your wider research team gets some really strong and diverse skills. It’s potent.

Again, if your medium-term outlook is to hire only one person into your Ops team and you’re hiring a newcomer to ResearchOps, you’ll need to be a strong strategic fulcrum for their work.

At some point, if you grow, you’ll need to hire people who don’t design services but deliver services and offer support — people who answer questions and are there to lend a helping hand to researchers using your services.

As with all things, hiring is nuanced depending on your needs, budget, outlook and who you can access in your context. These guidelines are generalised, but they’ll stand you in good stead.

If you can get someone with experience, that’s great, otherwise, I suggest you get yourself some strategic operational knowledge and cast wide.

Think outside the box. Cast wide.

Casting the Net, by Iraqi photographer Murad al-Daghistani, 1930s

If you can’t hire by ResearchOps experience, and sometimes even if you can, cast your net wider and look for relevant experience, skills and potential instead.

This is worth repeating: you don’t need a researcher to do a great job at ResearchOps.

If you’re in the States, and especially the Bay Area, you’ll have more luck hiring someone with ResearchOps specific experience. But you’ll shrink your pool of potentially excellent candidates, too. Cast your net wide.

Many of the best Ops people I know come from marketing, HR, sales, hospitality, project management, research operations for the medical sector, and straight-out operations. I’ve hired very successfully from these sectors.

I wasn’t a researcher when I got involved in ResearchOps many years ago, I was a content strategist with a background in project management and yet here I am. Many very competent Ops leaders and coordinators will tell you the same. They don’t identify as being a researcher.

Reach out to existing communities

The ResearchOps Community (which I started in 2018 but no longer admin) is large (it’s 4000+ people), so it worth posting your job listing in their #jobs channel.

I run a small, invite-only community called the Cha Cha Club of which the entry criteria are that you work in a full-time, dedicated ResearchOps role. We’re now 45 people and growing slowly, by design. Some of us have years of experience, both in managing and building ResearchOps teams, while others are brand new to the field and are growing their skills (fast, out of necessity).

Join the Rosenfeld Advancing Research and DesignOps communities, which are strong.

Tweet me your ResearchOps job description and I’ll post it in our Cha Cha Club #jobs channel. I tend to know who’s looking for something new.

The lovely folk at EnjoyHQ have built and curate a jobs board for ResearchOps professionals. It’s a new resource, so I don’t know how well referenced it is and it includes research roles too, but it‘s free and worth your while posting on it along with other jobs boards.

Last but not least, the #ResearchOps hashtag on Twitter is now lively and watched, so get Twittering.

A case study: The Atlassian Research Operations team

My ResearchOps team at Atlassian is six people, I was number one. When I started hiring, I hired specialists. But I still thought (and advertised) outside the box to find the best talent, not the most obvious talent, and I’ve done very well indeed. It’s an ace team.

Here’s who’s on my team:

  • 1 x research recruitment lead with several years of experience in recruiting participants for user researchers at Google. I lucked out.
  • 1 x research recruiter and procurement coordinator who came with HR experience but had no experience in either research or research recruiting. Over the past year, she’s become a veritable asset in both areas.
  • 1 x research technology lead with no experience in user research environments but top-notch experience in marketing technology and plenty of passion and drive. She’s awesome.
  • 1 x communications and events person with loads of experience in both, but no experience in user research. Another go-getting character who loves a challenge and has a passion for learning more about research. Win.
  • 1 x researcher who joined the team to help us understand how we might manage research knowledge, and deliver on ethics and privacy in research. She’s shown rock star skills in getting legal and privacy onside.

To wrap it up

ResearchOps can offer research teams and their organisation's significant gains.

It’s amazing to me that research leaders around the world believe in that vision when so few research leaders, or researchers, have ever experienced an established, high-functioning ResearchOps team and know so little (real, done stuff) about it. Still, many leaders are invested in the vision, and I’m glad because they’re not misguided.

The work for ResearchOps now, I believe, is to show our work and share what we are actually delivering — not theory or philosophy, but practical get-shit-done stuff — so that you can have a greater chance of putting together a cogent operational strategy, which includes who to hire.

Aside from me, there are plenty of people who are experienced in doing this work day in, day out, and I hope to give you ample opportunity to see their work over the coming year via various forums. I’ll share more here as the year progresses and projects shape up.

My call to you: if you’ve got a team of five or more researchers, you’d be swimming in the winning late if you were to include Operations as part of your team. But before you hire with great expectations, pause. Become familiar with what Operations entails, come to one of my ground-up workshops, do some reading and connecting, have conversations. There’s much for us all to explore, define, undefine, redefine!, and learn as we continue to build out the practice of ResearchOps together.

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Kate Towsey

Kate Towsey

Research Operations Manager at Atlassian. Writing Research at Scale for Rosenfeld Media. Cha Cha Club (Research Ops Club) founder.