Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Elon Musk Biography

I finally got around to reading Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk and I must say, I have a new view of him and his companies. If you are looking for details about his personal life, you won't find much here. The book doesn’t go into too much detail about that, other than to give basic background on his youth in South Africa and touch briefly on his marriages. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be those about Space X and Tesla and how they were built and how they operate. (Solar City was just briefly touched on, as you would expect since Musk doesn’t actually run that company and is only on its board of directors.)

The image the book gives of Musk is of a very driven man who is in pursuit of fantastic goals. He is incredibly smart and doesn’t suffer fools. He drives his employees hard and expects the absolute best work of them. That results in fabulous products like the Model S, but I can only image the toll it takes on his employees. I’m not sure I would want to work for him. He takes a very hands on approach in both companies and the amount of detail he knows about both the Space X rockets and the Tesla vehicles is amazing. Watch this video of him giving a tour of Space X and stop to consider how many parts of the rocket he calls out and explains the use of. I don’t think there is a single component in a Space X rocket he isn’t intimately familiar with. He is obviously incredibly intelligent and has an amazing memory.

The book does a fairly good job explaining Musk’s quest to colonize Mars and his reasons for it, although I think I got a better sense of it from Wait But Why’s posts about their interview with him.

You do start to get a sense of just how drastically he has shaken up both the rocket and auto manufacturing worlds. He literally started Space X and Tesla from a blank piece of paper. Each step in the product manufacturing process was designed from scratch and nothing was done simply because “that’s how it’s always been done.” I think that’s a huge reason for the success of those companies. Existing rocket and auto manufacturers simply can’t do that now. They have become so big that they are risk-adverse and have no incentive to change their processes.  I’ve written about this before and I believe it’s completely true. We will never see revolutionary change from large companies that have been around for decades, especially if they get most of their business from government contracts.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the book’s second appendix, where Musk talks in depth about PayPal, why it succeeded and how it is struggling now. As a PayPal user, I have to agree with just about everything Musk says regarding what end users want from a PayPal-like service. The appendix provides a great example of how Musk focuses on the end product and how businesses need to design products that will make life easier for people who use whatever it is the business is providing.

The biography paints a picture of a man who is difficult to completely admire. On the one hand, I have huge admiration for what he has done with Tesla and Space X and his goals for those companies. He truly wants to make the world (and Mars) a better place for humankind and he’s willing to put up huge amounts of his own money and effort towards that goal. On the other hand, he can be something of a jerk. He seems to lack social graces and his singular drive for perfection can result in what seems to be a complete lack of empathy for his employees. There are several aspects of his personality that I identify with, but there are others that just make me want to shake my head. I suppose that, just like everyone, he is a person full of contradictions, but because he is in the spotlight and upsetting the status quo in so many fields, those contradictions seem to be more scrutinized than they might be if they were present in someone else.


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