Elon Musk Cover

Elon Musk - By Ashlee Vance

Date read: 
January 31, 2017
See My Collection of 50+ Book Notes

My Thoughts

Unbelievably inspiring biography on one of the most interesting and effective entrepreneurs ever. A treat to read, if a tad outdated given that the book came out in 2015.

Summary Notes

After the DotCom Bubble, the goal in Silicon Valley went from taking huge risks to create new industries and grand new ideas, to chasing easier money by entertaining consumers and pumping out simple apps and advertisements. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” said Jeff Hammerbacher.

Where Mark Zuckerberg wants to help you share baby photos, Musk wants to . . . well . . . save the human race from self-imposed or accidental annihilation.

At the heart of this transformation are Musk’s skills as a software maker and his ability to apply them to machines. He’s merged atoms and bits in ways that few people thought possible

As his ex-wife, Justine, put it, “He does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.”

Musk came to see man’s fate in the universe as a personal obligation. If that meant pursuing cleaner energy technology or building spaceships to extend the human species’s reach, then so be it. Musk would find a way to make these things happen.

The most striking part of Elon’s character as a young boy was his compulsion to read. From a very young age, he seemed to have a book in his hands at all times. “It was not unusual for him to read ten hours a day,” said Kimbal. “If it was the weekend, he could go through two books in a day.”

You always knew it was Elon because the phone would never stop ringing. The man does not take no for an answer. You can’t blow him off. I do think of him as the Terminator. He locks his gaze on to something and says, ‘It shall be mine.’ Bit by bit, he won me over.

“This was a group of fairly high achievers, and Elon stood way outside of the bell curve,” Farooq said. Musk’s intensity has continued to be a constant in their long relationship. “When Elon gets into something, he develops just this different level of interest in it than other people. That is what differentiates Elon from the rest of humanity.”

“Anyone else would have quit or walked up their bike. As I watched him climb that final hundred feet with suffering all over his face, I thought, That’s Elon. Do or die but don’t give up.”

PayPal came to represent one of the greatest assemblages of business and engineering talent in Silicon Valley history. Both Musk and Thiel had a keen eye for young, brilliant engineers. The founders of start-ups as varied as YouTube, Palantir Technologies, and Yelp all worked at PayPal. Another set of people—including Reid Hoffman, Thiel, and Botha—emerged as some of the technology industry’s top investors.

This collection of super-bright employees has become known as the PayPal Mafia—more or less the current ruling class of Silicon Valley—and Musk is its most famous and successful member.

Elon Musk turned thirty in June 2001, and the birthday hit him hard. “I’m no longer a child prodigy,” he told Justine, only half joking.

While Musk didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do in space, he realized that just by being in Los Angeles he would be surrounded by the world’s top aeronautics thinkers.

Musk had spent months studying the aerospace industry and the physics behind it. From Cantrell and others, he’d borrowed Rocket Propulsion Elements, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion, along with several more seminal texts. Musk had reverted to his childhood state as a devourer of information and had emerged from this meditative process with the realization that rockets could and should be made much cheaper than what the Russians were offering.

“How much would that big engine cost?” Musk asked. Mueller told him TRW built it for about $12 million. Musk shot back, “Yeah, but how much could you really do it for?”

This was Musk the logical, naïve optimist tabulating how long it should take people physically to perform all of this work. It’s the baseline he expects of himself and one that his employees, with their human foibles, are in a never-ending struggle to match.

The rank-and-file engineers at SpaceX tended to be young, male overachievers. Musk would personally reach out to the aerospace departments of top colleges and inquire about the students who had finished with the best marks on their exams. It was not unusual for him to call the students in their dorm rooms and recruit them over the phone.

Some of the guys from XCOR who had been helping out urged the SpaceX engineers to take it easy and wait until the next day to run another test. Instead, Buzza a strong leader ready to put SpaceX’s relentless ethos into play, coordinated a couple of trucks to pick up more fuel, talked the airport manager down, and got the test stand ready for another fire. In the days that followed, SpaceX’s engineers perfected a routine that let them do multiple tests a day—an unheard-of practice at the airport—and had the gas generator tuned to their liking after two weeks of work.

“Kestrel started out as a real dog, and one of my proudest moments was taking it from terrible to great performance with stuff we bought online and did in the machine shop,” Mueller said. Some members of the Texas crew honed their skills to the point that they could build a test-worthy engine in three days. These same people were required to be adept at software. They’d pull an all-nighter building a turbo pump for the engine and then dig in the next night to retool a suite of applications used to control the engines.

In late 2002, the company had an empty warehouse. One year later, the facility looked like a real rocket factory. Working Merlin engines were arriving back from Texas, and being fed into an assembly line where machinists could connect them to the main body, or first stage, of the rocket. More stations were set up to link the first stage with the upper stage of the rocket. Cranes were placed on the floor to handle the heavy lifting of components, and blue metal transport tracks were positioned to guide the rocket’s body through the factory from station to station. SpaceX had also started to build the fairing, or case, that protects payloads atop the rocket during launch and then opens up like a clam in space to let out the cargo.

With this goal looming, twelve-hour days, six days a week were considered the norm, although many people worked longer than that for extended periods of time.

Elon can be very demanding, but he’ll make sure the obstacles in your way are removed

The engineers were running demanding software and rendering large graphics files and needed high-speed connections between all of these offices. But SpaceX had neighbors who were blocking an initiative to connect all of its buildings via fiber optic lines. Instead of taking the time to haggle with the other companies for right of way, the IT chief Branden Spikes, who had worked with Musk at Zip2 and PayPal, came up with a quicker, more devious solution. A friend of his worked for the phone company and drew a diagram that demonstrated a way to squeeze a networking cable safely between the electricity, cable, and phone wires on a telephone pole. At 2 A.M., an off-the-books crew showed up with a cherry picker and ran fiber to the telephone poles and then ran cables straight to the SpaceX buildings. “We did that over a weekend instead of taking months to get permits,” Spikes said. “There was always this feeling that we were facing a sort of insurmountable challenge and that we had to band together to fight the good fight.” SpaceX’s landlord, Alex Lidow, chuckled when thinking back to all of the antics of Musk’s team. “I know they did a lot of hanky stuff at night,” he said. “They were smart, needed to get things done, and didn’t always have time to wait for things like city permits."

“The longer you wait to fire someone the longer it has been since you should have fired them”

Rarely did Tesla get hung up overanalyzing a situation. The company would pick a plan of attack, and when it failed at something, it failed fast and then tried a new approach.

Working at Tesla back then was like being Kurtz in Apocalypse Now,” Lyons said. “Don’t worry about the methods or if they’re unsound. Just get the job done. It comes from Elon. He listens, asks good questions, is fast on his feet, and gets to the bottom of things.

Both Musk and Stark were the type of men, according to Downey, who “had seized an idea to live by and something to dedicate themselves to” and were not going to waste a moment.

The press had picked up on the fact that Musk tended to talk a huge game and then struggle to deliver on his promises in time, but they didn’t much care. The game he talked was so much bigger than anyone else’s that reporters were comfortable giving Musk leeway.

All Musk had to do was eventually bring some of these wondrous things he’d been funding to market.

“There’s no such thing as a well-adjusted public figure. If they were well adjusted they wouldn’t try to be a public figure.”

“He has the ability to work harder and endure more stress than anyone I’ve ever met,” Gracias said. “What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused.”

“Most people who are under that sort of pressure fray,” Gracias said. “Their decisions go bad. Elon gets hyperrational. He’s still able to make very clear, long-term decisions. The harder it gets, the better he gets. Anyone who saw what he went through firsthand came away with more respect for the guy. I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.”

Zip2, PayPal, Tesla, SolarCity—they are all expressions of Musk. SpaceX is Musk. Its foibles emanate directly from him, as do its successes. Part of this comes from Musk’s maniacal attention to detail and involvement in every SpaceX endeavor. He’s hands-on to a degree that would make Hugh Hefner feel inadequate. Part of it stems from SpaceX being the apotheosis of the Cult of Musk. Employees fear Musk. They adore Musk. The give up their lives for Musk, and they usually do all of this simultaneously.

The SpaceX hiring model places some emphasis on getting top marks at top schools. But most of the attention goes toward spotting engineers who have exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives. The company’s recruiters look for people who might excel at robot-building competitions or who are car-racing hobbyists who have built unusual vehicles. The object is to find individuals who ooze passion, can work well as part of a team, and have real-world experience bending metal. “Even if you’re someone who writes code for your job, you need to understand how mechanical things work,” said Dolly Singh, who spent five years as the head of talent acquisition at SpaceX. “We were looking for people that had been building things since they were little.”

Musk interviewed almost every one of SpaceX’s first one thousand hires, including the janitors and technicians, and has continued to interview the engineers as the company’s workforce swelled.

“The recruiting pitch was SpaceX is special forces,” she said. “If you want as hard as it gets, then great. If not, then you shouldn’t come here.” ”

Numerous people interviewed for this book decried the work hours, Musk’s blunt style, and his sometimes ludicrous expectations. Yet almost every person—even those who had been fired—still worshipped Musk and talked about him in terms usually reserved for superheroes or deities.

He would trap an engineer in the SpaceX factory and set to work grilling him about a type of valve or specialized material. “I thought at first that he was challenging me to see if I knew my stuff,” said Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers. “Then I realized he was trying to learn things. He would quiz you until he learned ninety percent of what you know.” People who have spent significant time with Musk will attest to his abilities to absorb incredible quantities of information with near-flawless recall. It’s one of his most impressive and intimidating skills and seems to work just as well in the present day as it did when he was a child vacuuming books into his brain. After a couple of years running SpaceX, Musk had turned into an aerospace expert on a level that few technology CEOs ever approach in their respective fields.

“Elon has always been optimistic,” Brogan said. “That’s the nice word. He can be a downright liar about when things need to get done. He will pick the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”

“Everything he does is fast,” Brogan said. “He pees fast. It’s like a fire hose—three seconds and out. He’s authentically in a hurry.”

Musk guides his engineers into taking ownership of their own delivery dates. “He doesn’t say, ‘You have to do this by Friday at two P.M.,’” Brogan said. “He says, ‘I need the impossible done by Friday at two P.M. Can you do it?’ Then, when you say yes, you are not working hard because he told you to. You’re working hard for yourself. It’s a distinction you can feel. You have signed up to do your own work.”

“One of my favorite things about Elon is his ability to make enormous decisions very quickly. That is still how it works today.”

Watson continued:

"Elon is brilliant. He’s involved in just about everything. He understands everything. If he asks you a question, you learn very quickly not to go give him a gut reaction. He wants answers that get down to the fundamental laws of physics. One thing he understands really well is the physics of the rockets. He understands that like nobody else.”

“I don’t want to be the person who ever has to compete with Elon. You might as well leave the business and find something else fun to do. He will outmaneuver you, outthink you, and out-execute you.”

“We’re trying to have a really big impact on the space industry. If the rules are such that you can’t make progress, then you have to fight the rules.”

Tesla would make up for its lack of R&D money by hiring smart people who could outwork and outthink the third parties relied on by the rest of the automakers. “The mantra was that one great engineer will replace three medium ones/"

"You have to ask whether his success is an indictment on the rest of us who have been working on much more incremental things. To the extent that the world still doubts Elon, I think it’s a reflection on the insanity of the world and not on the supposed insanity of Elon.”

SolarCity, like the rest of Musk’s ventures, did not represent a business opportunity so much as it represented a worldview. Musk had decided long ago—in his very rational manner—that solar made sense. ”

If solar is destined to be mankind’s preferred energy source in the future, then this future ought to be brought about as quickly as possible.

Each facet of Musk’s life might be an attempt to soothe a type of existential depression that seems to gnaw at his every fiber. He sees man as self-limiting and in peril and wants to fix the situation. The people who suggest bad ideas during meetings or make mistakes at work are getting in the way of all of this and slowing Musk down. He does not dislike them as people. It’s more that he feels pained by their mistakes, which have consigned man to peril that much longer. The perceived lack of emotion is a symptom of Musk sometimes feeling like he’s the only one who really grasps the urgency of his mission. He’s less sensitive and less tolerant than other people because the stakes are so high. Employees need to help solve the problems to the absolute best of their ability or they need to get out of the way.

He wants people to make and buy electric cars. Man’s future, as he sees it, depends on this. If open-sourcing Tesla’s patents means other companies can build electric cars more easily, then that is good for mankind, and the ideas should be free.

“Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.” ”

The way Elon talks about this is that you always need to start with the first principles of a problem. What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.

“I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do,” Page said. “I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. ”

Related Notes

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