Book Review: “Elon Musk How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future” by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk has a Samurai Sword hanging in his office and although it represents his advances in Space, it is hard not see him as the leader of a most formidable, new sort of technological Army.

Sword & Prize

For those hankering for rapid uptake of clean technologies to defeat global warming, this book shines a torch on one way to get there, and instructs on what hardship must be endured and what depths of courage may be required. It’s also a breathtaking read – a story of the great highs and lows that accompany grand missions. For example, on the day Elon seals a crucial business deal with Ebay,  which gives him the funds for Space exploration projects, his son dies from cot-death.

The Mission

Musk’s mission is to save humankind. Firstly, he has a dire sense of urgency about establishing a human colony on Mars – a life line so that the human species will not perish. Secondly, to counter global warming, he wishes to introduce renewable energy technologies as fast as possible.

The mission overrides shorter-term business financial practicalities; provides the courage for all or nothing enormous risk taking and guides on how employees are managed. For example:

  • Telsa electric car vehicle technology has been made publicly available so that other companies can use it. Normally companies seek to protect their intellectual property, but this would go against the mission of rapid transition to renewable energy – so the technology is open-source.
  • When employees say some aspect of their task “can’t be done,” Musk personally takes over their job, achieves the task and fires the person. Such a grand and extremely difficult mission cannot be hindered by one person’s weakness, lack of imagination or ability. Poop you’re gone.

The Technological Army

One comes away from this book with great admiration for Musk’s technological soldiers. They are the suffering, sacrificing, brilliant heroes of the story as much as Musk. Who are they? Who dared to join what Musk describes as the “Special Forces” of technology – a place as hard as it gets? Broadly, there were two groups Musk recruited:

  • Young, brilliant engineers.  The smartest engineers, who had a passion for building things were hunted whilst still at University. “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.” (p. 120)
  • Disillusioned, gifted people from old aerospace and car manufacturing sectors.  Musk’s mission and the chance to really utilise their talents saw many very gifted people leave the older established industries:
    •  Kevin Brogan came from TRW, where he’d been used to various internal policies blocking him from doing work. “I called it the country club” he said, “no one did anything.”
    • Jeremy Hollman came from Boeing. “His first day on the job came right as Boeing completed its merger with McDonnell Douglas. The resultant mammoth government contractor held a picnic to boost morale but ended up failing at even this simple exercise. “The head of one of the Department’s gave a speech about it being one company with one vision and then added that the company was very cost constrained… he asked that everyone limit themselves to one piece of chicken.” Things didn’t improve much from there. Every project at Boeing felt large, cumbersome and costly.” p.122-3
    • “As word of SpacxeX’s ambitions spread, top engineers from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Orbital Sciences with a high tolerance for risk fled to the upstart, too.”  p120

Talent was the priority; there was a mantra that one excellent engineer was better than three average engineers. Another reality was that Musk’s industries didn’t have the money to match the salaries paid in the larger more established industries:

“Tesla had done a decent job of keeping its employee costs down. It hired the kid fresh out of Stanford for $45,000 rather than the proven guy who probably didn’t want to work that hard anyway for $120,000.” (p. 169)

Yet there is a sad part of this story. Some of the stars of Musk’s workforce had to be content to be the steady hands working wonders in the shadows, with Musk taking the public glory. Also, Vance notes that at times these brilliant, dedicated people were treated like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and then discarded. (p. 340)

The Battlefield

It was a no frills, hard working environment, where people were expected to work on Sundays, frequently pulled “all-nighters” and slept under their desks. The story of the motley crew of software engineers; avionics and propulsion specialists who lived for years on remote Kwajalein Island  (Kwaj) building space rockets tells of their dedication to the task, over comfort.

The ‘technological and business’ battlefield involved complicated barriers about sign-off of technologies by NASA; difficulties in being awarded Government contracts; huge financial risks and so on, but perhaps what was hardest was the psychological fight.

This involved believing in the long term mission despite incredible failures and start-up difficulties, plus extreme negativity towards the “upstart” innovators. For example, there was the “Tesla death watch” blog and one day 50 media articles were released about how Tesla was going to fail. Disillusioned ex-employees and Musk’s first wife also had blogs deriding Musk, while others took continuous legal action against him.

“What he went through in 2008 would have broken anyone else. He didn’t just survive. He kept working and stayed focused…I’ve just never seen anything like his ability to take pain.” (p.211)

Reflection

I read this book while on holiday in Bali. Most memorable of the trip was discussions with local people, the taxi drivers, the trinket sellers, the painters of toes. Siting on the beach, one local told me he sensed World War III was coming, probably nuclear war. Another said she wished Bali could go back to how it had been before technology arrived. As my nose twitched breathing the car-based pollution, and ears flinched at the traffic noise, I could only quietly nod in agreement. Others worried about the growth of terrorism. I heard fear and sadness in their voices.

Given the perils the modern world faces, despite his harshness, the drive and determination of Musk, and the way he mobilised such a dedicated and brilliant technological Army to fight for a better world is a little humbling, a little reassuring. It offers a glimmer of hope.

 

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