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EDINBURGH — I’ve had a few scary bosses in my time. The scariest one was a ruthless young woman who played “shuffle the humans” with yellow sticky notes on a company organogram. Most employees would comment behind this MD’s back that each day they wondered if today would be the day they were fired, while booking off for “stress” became a common complaint among her “direct reports”. Still, the PLC bosses were happy with her, because she ensured that the quarterly finances looked rosy. Also not caring much about how people are treated are Tesla fans. Behind the scenes of the car company developed to make the world a better place by cutting carbon emissions, Elon Musk has been creating havoc in people’s lives. Wired magazine has an in-depth feature on what life is like working for a man who is undoubtedly pioneering on a grand scale, but some would say is a bully. – Jackie Cameron
By Thulasizwe Sithole
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was brilliant, with his pedantic attention to detail ensuring Apple products have been sought-after luxuries, but he wasn’t likeable as an individual. Elon Musk, according to Wired, is the new Steve Jobs – a clever inventor, but an unpleasant person to work for.
In a lengthy feature piece, Wired tells how the South Africa-born businessman behind PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX is the modern-day equivalent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
First, the insights into Musk’s mind:
The Unstoppable Alien Dreadnought
In the summer of 2016, however—soon after customers began reserving Model 3s—Musk called a meeting that changed everything, according to multiple people who attended or were briefed on the gathering. The company had to move faster, Musk told his senior executives. He wanted to start production in July 2017, almost four months ahead of plan. Musk was excited by a particular notion: He had recently had a dream, people in the room recall him saying, in which he had seen the factory of the future, a fully automated manufacturing plant where robots built everything at high speed and parts moved along conveyor belts that delivered each piece, just in time, to exactly the right place. He said he had been working on such ideas for a while. “This thing will be an unstoppable alien dreadnought,” he told his colleagues, causing some of them to pull out their phones and Google the phrase. (It returned disturbing images of sci-fi armoured spaceships that looked like copulating squids.)
To make the dreadnought a reality, Musk said, departments would need to redesign their manufacturing plans. The familiar pattern kicked in: Executives told Musk what he was proposing was unrealistic. Tesla was already building the most advanced factory in auto manufacturing, and there would be plenty of time to make incremental improvements and add automation once everything was running smoothly. Overhauling all the lines would cost so much time and money that it might be impossible to meet his expectations.
No such thing as ‘no can do’
Musk has said that nearly anything is possible unless it violates the laws of physics. We’re going to build the machine that builds the machine, he told the room. But they had to move fast. A fully automated factory, he said, was an investment in Tesla’s future that would help the company compete in the coming decades.
Over the next few weeks, executives kept arguing with Musk. A steady stream of engineers began giving notice. And a troubling trend emerged, according to former executives: If someone raised concerns or objections, Musk would sometimes pull the person’s manager aside and order that the offender be reassigned, or potentially terminated, or no longer invited to meetings.
Some executives began excluding skeptics out of self-preservation. “If you were the kind of person who was likely to push back, you got disinvited, because VPs didn’t want anyone pissing off Elon,” one former executive who reported to Musk told me. “People were scared that someone would question something.
Musk himself would later estimate that Tesla was burning through up to $100 million a week as thousands of employees tried to build Musk’s dreadnought. The threat of firing became a drumbeat. One former employee recalled hearing about a colleague who was eating breakfast at his desk when he was called away. His banana went brown and the milk in the cereal bowl formed a film before his officemates realized he’d been fired and cleaned up the mess. Musk “would say ‘I’ve got to fire someone today,’ and I’d say, ‘No you don’t,’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, I just do. I’ve got to fire somebody,’ ” one former high-ranking executive told me. (A Tesla spokesperson disputed this but added that Musk makes “difficult but necessary decisions.”) At one meeting Musk, agitated, broke a phone. During another, he noticed that an executive was missing and called him. The man’s wife had recently given birth, and he explained that he was taking time off as she recuperated. Musk was angry. At a minimum, you should be on phone calls, Musk told the man. Having a kid doesn’t prevent you from being on the phone. (A Tesla spokesperson said that while Musk “was once upset that a particular executive did not dial into an important conference call several days after his child was born,” the company would not penalize an employee for taking paternity leave.)
And, a glimpse into Elon Musk’s ambitions:
Humanity is important, but humans are disposable
“Everyone came to work each day wondering if that was going to be their last day,” another former executive told me. A previous employee remembered Musk saying that Tesla’s goal was to save the world. “He would get really emotional,” this person told me—and that’s why he sometimes seemed callous, “because what’s one person’s feelings compared to the fate of billions? Elon cares a lot about humanity, but he doesn’t really care about individual people all that much.” (A Tesla spokesperson said Musk “very much cares about individual people.”)
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