How Elon Musk Hires: 9-to-5ers Need Not Apply

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is one of the most intense and ambitious people on earth. And it shows in his hiring process. Credit: Wikipedia CommonsElon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is one of the most intense and ambitious people on earth. And it shows in his hiring process. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

While taking a shower in college in the early 90s, Elon Musk determined the three things that would “most affect the future in a positive way” were the Internet, renewable energy and “making life multi-planetary.”

Since his revelation, he’s dedicated his life to those three goals. He’s already created and sold two companies that improved the way the Internet works – PayPal and Zip2 – to build his fortune. Since, he’s been working on renewable energy, through his electric car company Tesla and his work at Solar City, and colonizing planets, through his aerospace company SpaceX.

Pretty ambitious stuff.

All told, he’s perhaps earth’s biggest thinker, which has rightfully earned him the title of the “world’s most interesting man.” After all, how many people spend their days figuring out ways for people to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes via reduced pressure tube, while concurrently determining what crops would grow best on Mars?

But here’s a fascinating question: what type of people does this man pay to help make his ambitions reality? What does he look for when bringing on someone to one of his companies, whose aspirations are so large, they literally cannot be contained on this planet?

A lot of things. First and foremost, though, he’s looking for someone who cares about the mission as much as he does, and isn’t worried about losing a decade of sleep and family time to do it.

Understanding The Musk Culture

To understand how Musk hires, you first have to understand the culture at the companies Musk runs. The one word that pretty much sums that culture up?


For evidence, look no further than the SpaceX career page. The headline of the page is “Road to the Red Planet,” obviously referring to Mars, an ambitious message if there ever was one. Beneath that is a quote by the company’s CEO, again appealing to big thinkers who want to change the world:

SpaceX is like Special Forces… we do the missions that others think are impossible. We have goals that are absurdly ambitious by any reasonable standard, but we’re going to make them happen. We have the potential here at SpaceX to have an incredible effect on the future of humanity and life itself.

–Elon Musk

Tesla’s job portal has similar branding. On each job posting is a section describing the culture at the car company, and it doesn’t appear to be for someone who wants to work 9-to-5. The end of the section reads:

You will be expected to challenge and to be challenged, to create, and to innovate. These jobs are not for everyone, you must have a genuine passion for producing the best vehicles in the world. Without passion, you will find what we're trying to do too difficult.

Clearly, Musk is searching for people who are as pumped up as he is to put people in space or build electric cars. And that shows itself in the working conditions, as employees at both Tesla and SpaceX said they are often expected to work long hours, are given little structure, little training and the motto at both places seems to be “figure it out on your own.”

On the flip side, workers also reported that employees at both companies are incredibly smart, the work is consistently meaningful and challenging and there is great opportunity to move up. It sounds like the kind of place Ayn Rand would like to work at, a libertarian’s dream where rules are sparse and success or failure is completely dependent the individual, and no one else.

Dolly Singh spent five years working at SpaceX as the company’s head of talent acquisition. In a post she wrote after leaving the company, she perfectly summarized the culture Musk creates:

Working with him isn’t a comfortable experience. He is never satisfied with himself so he is never really satisfied with anyone around him. He pushes himself harder and harder and he pushes others around him the exact same way. The challenge is that he is a machine and the rest of us aren’t. So if you work for Elon you have to accept the discomfort. But in that discomfort is the kind of growth you can’t get anywhere else, and worth every ounce of blood and sweat.

So How Does He Hire?

Clearly, Musk is looking for some pretty ambitious and intense people. So how does he find them?

Well, the interviewing process at Tesla and SpaceX are both similar, and they both can be described by that same word again: intense. One candidate wrote on Glassdoor that he was given a six-hour – six hours! – coding test as part of the screening process, just as one example.

Truth be told, the beginning of the hiring process at both companies is pretty standard. Candidates submit resumes and take a phone interview with recruiters, with the best people getting interviews with their respective teams.

That’s when the pressure gets dialed up a notch. Candidates are forced to endure marathon interviews with multiple assessors who ask highly-specific questions about their past experience to gage the depth of their knowledge and riddles to determine their intellectual capability.

What sort of riddles, you ask? Well, here are three, as reported via GlassDoor:

  • If you had to build a mass-efficient bridge from one building to another, how would you make it?
  • You are in a canoe in a kiddy pool. You mark the water level on the side. You have a rock in the canoe. You throw it overboard and it sinks to the bottom. What happens to the water level?
  • You have a beam attached to a wall by a weld. Where will it break? If you know what forces will be exerted on the beam, what information do you need to determine if the beam will fail?

If candidates pass that, the last hurdle is to get through Musk himself. At Tesla, candidates have to write something up – for example, their role in three successful projects they worked on – that is reviewed by Musk.

At SpaceX, Musk interviews each candidate personally; pretty impressive considering the company has more than 500 employees. In he interview, he looks for a “positive attitude” (SpaceX has a strict “no-a$$hole policy”), while also drilling into the projects candidates said they worked on, to see if they really solved problems along the way or relied on other people.

He explains:

If someone was really the person who solved it, they’ll be able to answer multiple levels. They’ll be able to go down to the brass tax. And, if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck. And then you can say, ‘Oh, this person was not really the person who solved it.’ Because anyone who troubled hard with a problem never forgets it.


Because Musk is famous, his company pays well and his goals are so ambitious, both Tesla and SpaceX get overwhelmed by resumes. But that doesn’t stop him from going out and recruiting as well, to ensure he’s getting the very best people.

Where does he look for passive candidates? Why, no further than another company once ran by an incredibly demanding, incredibly ambitious and famous man: Apple. In fact, at least 150 of Tesla’s employees previously worked at Apple, more than any other company, including carmakers.

Musk isn’t afraid to use his own celebrity and his large twitter following – he has over 1.6 million followers – to help recruit as well. For example, when he was looking for engineers at Tesla for a critical project, he Tweeted:

Wow, more than 3,000 retweets on those two posts. How many engineers saw those tweets? And how many of those engineers are salivating at the idea of working directly for Musk?

Probably quite a few.


A lot of people are going to say that the way Musk hires or the culture he creates wouldn’t work at most companies. That sort of pressure, that sort of intensity is going to cause high turnover at a lot of organizations that don’t provide the same sort of meaningful work that Tesla and SpaceX offer.

I say rubbish. Steve Jobs got people to believe in making cellphones and tablets – hardly world-changing stuff. And while building spaceships sounds cool, most of the work is probably frustrating, tedious engineering that isn’t particularly fun.

No, Musk is able to get people to live-and-breathe for his company because he has laid out a compelling vision for them to believe in. It makes the work meaningful, which motivates people beyond any compensation plan or trust fall excursion ever could.

In Musk’s own words:

You have to have a very compelling goal for the company. If you put yourself in the shoes of someone who's talented at a world level, they have to believe that there’s potential for a great outcome and believe in the leader of the company, that you’re the right guy to work with.

That’s a goal that all companies should look to achieve. Companies need to lay out meaningful visions people can believe in, not only to lure investors and increase sales, but also to get the best talent.

So dream big and share your vision. Your talent pool depends on it.

About VoiceGlance

VoiceGlance is a cloud-based hiring tool used by forward-thinking companies to hire smarter, instead of harder. Learn more here.

Views: 2251

Comment by Nicholas Meyler on February 26, 2015 at 5:44pm

Makes perfect sense.  Anyone who really loves their work doesn't want to be constrained to a 9 to 5 mentality anyway.  Musk is obviously smart enough to understand that he needs to hire the best -- i.e. people who love their work and their jobs... you can't do that by picking people who want to only work 9 to 5.  Ovid had a great quote, which appears in Michel de Montaigne's Essays:  "When Death comes, let it take me at my work."  The passion for one's work is what really gives Life meaning, in many ways, and Musk understands that those are the kind of people he should hire.  100% agreement.


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