Elon Musk biography notes

January 2024

Some of my favorite parts of the “Elon Musk" biography by @WalterIsaacson. The whole book is basically characterized by no one believing in Elon Musk (when he says we can do thing X in 2 days), everyone shitting on him, thinking that he was incompetent, dumb, overly optimistic, a bad leader, whatever. And throughout the book you see the progression of people starting to believe in him when turns out that they got thing X done in 2 days. Sometimes they didn’t get it done before the deadline, sometimes setting the crazy deadlines and ordering surges was totally unnecessary. But what I feel like the most important thing was that people and the team started believing in themselves, and actually believing (because of anecdotal evidence) that they can do things previously deemed impossible.

The Algorithm

The Algorithm is Elon's processes and principles used when operating his businesses. The steps are largely inspired by lessons learned through a trial of fire at the Fremont and Nevada factories when he was trying to save Tesla from bankruptcy.

The operating principals following The Algorithm reflect his cutthroat, hands-on leadership style.

1. Question every requirement

Each [requirement] should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from "the legal department" or "the safety department." You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.

2. Delete any part or process you can

Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you simply didn't delete enough.

3. Simplify and optimize

This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.

4. Accelerate cycle time

Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.

5. Automate

Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.

Elon's operating principles

  • — All technical managers must have hands-on experience. For example, managers of software teams must spend at least 20% of their time coding. Solar roof managers must spend time on the roofs doing installations. Otherwise, they are like a cavarly leader who can't ride a horse or a general who can't use a sword.

  • — Comradery is dangerous. It makes it hard for people to challenge each other's work. There is a tendency to not want to throw a colleague under the bus. That needs to be avoided.

  • — It's OK to be wrong. Just don't be confident and wrong.

  • — Never ask your troops to do something you're not willing to do.

  • — Whenever there are problems to solve, don't just meet with your managers. Do a skip level, where you meet with the level right below your managers.

  • — When hiring, look for people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant.

  • — A maniacal sense of urgency is our operating principle.

  • — The only rules are the ones dictated by the laws of physics. Everything else is a recommendation.

Building a world-class team

When Steve Jobs was asked which product Apple built was his favorite, he answered with "you know, making a product is hard but making a team that can continually make products is even harder. The product I'm most proud of is Apple and the team I built at Apple."[1] I feel like his quote reflects the reality of how hard it is to create a world-class team, and pushing them to the limits.

I think it's one of the things that Elon has done best. Being able to gather a lot of smart people, and (for better or for worse) instill such values of hard work, creative solutions, questioning requirements, believing in the team and yourself is hard and takes a long time, but when done successfully, will result in a team capable of fundamentally changing the world.

I think building a great team is like building a great product. If you change your product whenever a customer (who doesn't exactly match your ICP) requests something, your product will end up serving no-one perfectly. In the same way, if you change your leadership style every time an employee get's upset, you will be a leader who serves & pushes none of your employees to their fullest potential.

The bottom-line from the whole book is that Elon was the leader who we was, and he never changed for anyone. People who didn't like his leadership style should work somewhere else.

The tiki-bar break-in

The tiki-bar break-in is a great story that displays the kind of team that works at Tesla & SpaceX.

Musk arrived to Starbase, straight from a shareholders meeting. With him, his son X, who was running around the meeting room screaming "Rockets!" He wanted to the get a booster on the launchpad so they could test it and see if they could get rid of the heat shields around the engines (Step 2 of The Algorithm). The 10 days he was told it would take was too long.

At some point, Musk decended into his trance, where he's processing the information of the meeting.

At this point it was after 1am, and the engineers started to gradually drift away, and gather in the parking lot around Mark Juncosa. Juncosa knew that the “troops were unnerved by the personnel shake-up that was brewing and could use some rallying", and he proposed that they break into the nearby employee tiki bar and throw a party. Using a credit card to shimmy the lock, he led a dozen followers into the bar, and designated one of them to start pouring beer and Macallan Scotch.

Juncosa lightened up the mood, and also roasted his fellow employees who had not had the courage to inform Musk about the timeline of the testing facility. The engineers shared adventures of extreme skiing, and Juncosa showed a video of him skiing away from an avalance in Alaska. He said "You got to take risks. You got to love taking risks."

That same night, at 3.24am, Musk had reached a conclusion, that the B7 booster would be tested in one day, instead of ten.[2]

I like this story so much because it really shows the kind of amazing people Elon and the rest of the team managed to gather to work on SpaceX and Tesla. Leaders like Mark Juncosa, who are able to understand the emotions of people working in the team, understand their worries, and let loose, and have fun to heighten the mood. I truly wish I will some day get to work with such a great team of people.