09 February 2021

Wired: “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life inside Tesla’s Production Hell”

Elon Musk illustration by Mike McQuade
Unfettered genius. Unpredictable rages. Here’s what it was like to work at Tesla as Model 3 manufacturing ramped up and the company’s leader melted down. Illustration by Mike McQuade

Some company executives say they began reading celebrity tabloids. If the magazines reported turmoil in Musk’s love life, they knew to wait to deliver bad news. And executives followed his tweets and retweets closely. We called it management by Twitter, a former Solar City employee said. Some customer would tweet some random complaint, and then we would be ordered to drop everything and spend a week on some problem affecting one loudmouth in Pasadena, rather than all the work we’re supposed to do to support the thousands of customers who didn’t tweet that day.

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.

Whether it was because of Musk’s management style or in spite of it, progress continued. And that was the weird part, a high-­ranking engineering executive said, because we were doing amazing work. I don’t want it to seem like the whole experience was negative, because when people were shielded from Elon, Tesla was amazing. We did incredible things.

Charles Duhigg

An article providing a lot of insight into the difficult working environment at Tesla while ramping up production at their factory in Fremont. ‘Management by Twitter’ and randomly firing people for the slightest misstep sounds an awful lot like Donald Trump.

Not a terribly original observation, but internal processes would work more smoothly if Musk would be less involved in micromanagement. He is certainly garnering a lot of attention and press coverage with his Twitter persona, fueling Tesla’s brand awareness, but creating an erratic and tense atmosphere with his presence and unreasonable demands seems to be dragging down morale.

Employees knew about such rampages. Sometimes Musk would terminate people; other times he would simply intimidate them. One manager had a name for these outbursts—Elon’s rage firings—and had forbidden subordinates from walking too close to Musk’s desk at the Gigafactory out of concern that a chance encounter, an unexpected question answered incorrectly, might endanger a career.

After Musk had patrolled the factory floor for a while, executives pulled him into a conference room. I think we can fix this, one of his top lieutenants, Jon McNeill, told him, according to someone who heard the conversation. McNeill tried to calm Musk down, and repeated a proverb he had once heard: No man comes up with a good idea when being chased by a tiger. At that moment, Musk was the tiger.

Some of these manufacturing deficiencies continue to have repercussions, as is the nature of the car business – a product that most people expect to use up to a decade, or more. Earlier this month, Tesla agreed to recall 135,000 Model S and X vehicles over older touch screen failures, and reports of various other failures abound. To close on another unoriginal remark, the electric cars race is whether Tesla can figure out how to make reliable cars at scale faster than the traditional car manufacturers figure out how to transition to electric propulsion.

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