Book Review: Elon Musk

Elon Musk is a titan in Silicon Valley and is world-renowned as an incredible engineer, CEO, and visionary.  I wanted to dive into his background and personality in a way that is  much deeper than one can read on TechCrunch and Twitter, or watch on the various soundbites.  In Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, the author Ashlee Vance explains how Elon’s childhood influenced his view of the world, how he succeeded in industries where no one had done so in years (or ever), and how he takes a vision that many say impossible and makes it possible, and much more.

Below are my favorite excerpts:

On recruiting at SpaceX:

“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 excibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives.  The company’s recruiters look for people who 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 the 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.””

On personal money struggles and company cash management:

“As 2007 rolled into 2008, Musk’s life became more tumultuous.  Tesla basically had to start over on much of the Roadster, and SpaceX still had dozens of people living in Kwajalein awaiting the next launch of the Falcon 1.  Both endeavors were vacuuming up Musk’s money.  He started selling off prized possessions like the McLaren to generate extra cash.  Musk tended to shield employee from the gravity of his fiscal situation by always encouraging them to do their best work.  At the same time, personally oversaw all significant purchases at both companies.  Musk also trained employees to make the right trade-offs between spending money and productivity.  This struck many of the SpaceX employees as a novel idea, since they were used to traditional aerospace companies that had huge, multiyear government contracts and no day-to-day survival pressure.  “Elon would always be at work on Sunday, and we had some chats where he laid out his philosophy,” said Kevin Brogan, the early SpaceX employee.  “He would say that everything we did was a function of our burn rate and that we were burning through a hundred thousand dollars per day.  It was this very entrepreneurial, Silicon Vally way of thinking that none of the aerospace engineers in Los Angeles were dialed into.  Sometimes he wouldn’t let you buy a part for two thousand dollars because he expected you to find it cheaper or invent something cheaper.  Other times, he wouldn’t flinch at renting a plane for ninety thousand dollars to get something to Kwaj because it saved an entire workday, so it was worth it.  He would place this urgency that he expected the revenue in ten years to be ten million dollars a day and that every day we were slower to achieve our goals was a day of missing out on that money.””

The book does an incredible job of portraying the good, bad, and ugly of Elon Musk’s personality and character and the author had the full cooperation of Elon to write the book.  I highly recommend it and the only area I would have liked the author to go into more detail was how Elon learned to build rocket and electric cars (he touched on this only briefly).

Also, a book review from The Economist for more.

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