What It’s Like Interviewing for a Job With Elon Musk

Pro tip: Don't freak out when he ignores you.
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Pro tip: Don't freak out when he ignores you.
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So, you want to work for billionaire Elon Musk, one of our generation’s greatest and most ambitious innovators, the man who is simultaneously attempting to change the way we travel on our planet and to others? You should know this: It won’t be easy. Musk is a very focused, very particular, very obsessive boss.

Ashlee Vance’s new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (out May 19), is an intimate and comprehensive portrait of the man and the companies he’s built. And about midway through the book, Vance spells out what recruitment was like as he grew SpaceX, the aeronautics company that today sends rockets into space and, Musk says, will one day help colonize Mars.

Here’s what recruits have been in for:

Step 1: If you’re aggressive enough, they’ll find you

The SpaceX team went searching for engineers who “exhibited type A personality traits over the course of their lives,” Vance writes.

Step 2: They’ll lure you somewhere secret

SpaceX recruiter Dolly Singh dug through academic papers to identify super-smart engineers. Sometimes she’d call them. Other times, this would happen: “At trade shows and conferences, SpaceX recruiters wooed interesting candidates they had spotted with a cloak-and-dagger shtick. They would hand out blank envelopes that contained invitations to meet at a specific time and place, usually a bar or restaurant near the event, for the initial interview,” Vance writes. Few would be invited. Egos would be stroked.

Step 3: It’s test time!

Applicants go through a long, rigorous process of interviews and quizzes. “Companies will typically challenge software developers on the spot by asking them to solve problems that require a couple of dozen lines of code,” Vance writes. “The standard SpaceX problem requires five hundred or more lines of code.” For those who pass that test, they’re asked to write an essay—which Musk will read—about why they want to work at SpaceX.

Step 4: You’re off to see the wizard

Finally, finally, star candidates get facetime with Musk. He interviews nearly all SpaceX employees, from the folks sweeping the floors to the ones building rockets. The interview might be 30 seconds; it might be 15 minutes. And subjects are all given this bit of advice before the sit-down: “Elon will likely keep on writing emails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal. In due course, he will speak to you.”

Step 5: Can you solve Musk’s riddle?

Musk’s interviews are totally unpredictable; some days he’s chatty, some days he’s a brick wall. But he will almost always hit applicants with this: “You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?” Common answer: You’re in the North Pole. But Musk wants applicants to reason through the less-common answer: “somewhere close to the South Pole where, if you walk one mile south, the circumference of the earth becomes one mile. … [Musk] tends to care less about whether or not the person gets the answer than about how they describe the problem and their approach to solving it.”

Step 6: Got the job? Congrats, and good luck.

SpaceX workweeks can be 90 hours long, and Musk expects you to be on your A game at all times. Otherwise, he’ll shoot you down in front of your peers. Singh’s advice, told to Vance: “Elon doesn’t know about you and he hasn’t thought through whether or not something is going to hurt your feelings. He just knows what the fuck he wants done. People who did not normalize to his communication style did not do well there.”

At least the paycheck is good.