Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

One chapter in Peopleware that always resonates in my mind is the chapter on "Spanish Theory Management":
Some years ago I was swapping war stories with the manager of a large project in southern California. He began to relate the effect that his project and its crazy hours had had on his staff. There were two divorces that he could trace directly to the overtime his people were putting in, and one of his worker's kids had gotten into some kind of trouble with drugs, probably because his father had been too busy for parenting during the past years. Finally, there had been the nervous breakdown of the test team leader. As he continued through these horrors, I began to realize that in his own strange way, the man was bragging. You might suspect that with another divorce or two and a suicide, the project would have been a complete success, at least in his eyes.
Elon Musk is a biography of the man, and if you weren't aware of the era that both books were written in, you might well suspect that Elon Musk was the manager Tom DeMarco was referring to. Consider this: in this book alone, he scolded an employee for attending the birth of his child instead of attending a work event. He repeatedly set impossible schedules, and then push employees past the breaking point and then discards them:
“Elon’s worst trait by far, in my opinion, is a complete lack of loyalty or human connection,” said one former employee. “Many of us worked tirelessly for him for years and were tossed to the curb like a piece of litter without a second thought. Maybe it was calculated to keep the rest of the workforce on their toes and scared; maybe he was just able to detach from human connection to a remarkable degree. What was clear is that people who worked for him were like ammunition: used for a specific purpose until exhausted and discarded.”  (Loc. 4911-15)
At one point, he even fires his administrator who'd been with him for more than 10 years:
Brown often felt like an extension of Musk—the one being who crossed over into all of his worlds. For more than a decade, she gave up her life for Musk, traipsing back and forth between Los Angeles and Silicon Valley every week, while working late into the night and on weekends. Brown went to Musk and asked that she be compensated on par with SpaceX’s top executives, since she was handling so much of Musk’s scheduling across two companies, doing public relations work and often making business decisions. Musk replied that Brown should take a couple of weeks off, and he would take on her duties and gauge how hard they were. When Brown returned, Musk let her know that he didn’t need her anymore, and he asked Shotwell’s assistant to begin scheduling his meetings. Brown, still loyal and hurt, didn’t want to discuss any of this with me. Musk said that she had become too comfortable speaking on his behalf and that, frankly, she needed a life. (Loc 4926-32)
There's also a section where Jeff Bezos poaches one of SpaceX's employees by doubling his salary. Characteristically, Musk, rather than consider whether he underpaid that employee, thinks that Bezos and the employee betrayed him.

Keep in mind that I'm sympathetic to Elon Musk's goals and background. Not only was Musk a huge science nerd and programmer, he also played D&D in his youth, and of course, if electric cars replace the internal combustion engine, the world would be a much better place. I also enjoyed the section on Musk bringing startup-style mentality to the aerospace, which apparently needs a huge kick in the pants and massive cost-cutting.

What's unfortunate about this book is that Ashlee Vance treats Musk's approach to engineering, scheduling, and design as being par for the course: that abusing employees, creating impossible schedules through optimistic CEO-level views on how long something ought to take was the only way for Elon Musk to achieve his goals and get his results.

Imagine an alternate world in which Musk was a better leader: it could be that instead of having a large number of rocket failures and massive amounts of drama, his rockets could have had fewer test cycles, and finished in approximately the same amount of time. Of course, maybe launching something without drama and having it work properly the first time wouldn't merit a book.

In any case, it's worth reading the book, as it does provide a behind the scenes look at Tesla and SpaceX that's entertaining and interesting. But you do have to read between the lines to see a few interesting underlying principles:

  • Certain non-tech related fields like Space/Aerospace and Cars are ripe for disruption by Silicon Valley startups. In particular, fields that have fossilized and gotten used to fat margins and inefficiency workflows are vulnerable to attacks from Silicon Valley.
  • Ironically, part of this attack is due to the ease of exploitation of the underlying workforce: nobody who's actually a good mechanical or aerospace engineer enjoys working under the bureaucracy of the entrenched businesses. You can therefore lure such people to work for you at below market pay and work them hard for an extended period because you offer effectively more responsibility and freedom of action than the bureaucracy. When those people burn out, replace them with more fresh graduates. This is known as the EA model of HR management.
  • If you succeed, you'll get lauded in the business press, and then have books written about you.
This is obviously excessively cynical, and as noted above, I do agree with Elon Musk's goals, and think that in the coming battle between Silicon Valley and Detroit, there's no question Detroit is going to lose. But it's still sad to see obnoxious business practices praised and lauded as though there aren't better alternatives.

Nevertheless, read the book, and see if you agree with me. Recommended.

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