Book review: Elon Musk

Walter Isaacson’s recent book on Elon Musk is an interesting look into a complex character who is shaping technology today. Walter shadowed Elon for two years, sitting in on meetings and personal conversations. He also talked with many people (both personal and business) Elon has interacted with over his life.

This review is not an endorsement of all things Elon, but rather an attempt to learn. Elon’s approach has elements that are similar to others. Tesla’s “you design it, you manufacture it” reminds me of Amazon’s “you build it, you run it” philosophy. Elon’s conclusion that automation should be introduced late in the process reminds me of Toyota’s approach.

Quotes from the book:

  • As Max Levchin drily puts it, “One of Elon’s greatest skills is the ability to pass off his vision as a mandate from heaven.”
  • One of the most important decisions that Elon Musk made about Tesla – the defining imprint that led to its success and its impact on the auto industry – was that it should make its own key components, rather than piecing together a car with hundreds of components from independent suppliers. Tesla would control its own destiny-and quality and costs and supply chain-by being vertically integrated. Creating a good car was important. Even more important was creating the manufacturing processes and factories that could mass-produce them, from the battery cells to the body. But that’s not the way the company began. Just the opposite.
  • He learned one very big lesson from these ventures: “It’s not the product that leads to success. It’s the ability to make the product efficiently. It’s about building the machine that builds the machine. In other words, how do you design the factory?” It was a guiding principle that Musk would make his own.
  • Tesla was getting started. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. lost one-third of its manufacturing jobs. By sending their factories abroad, American companies saved labor costs, but they lost the daily feel for ways to improve their products.
  • Musk bucked this trend, largely because he wanted to have tight control of the manufacturing process. He believed that designing the factory to build a car-“the machine that builds the machine”-was as important as designing the car itself. Tesla’s design-manufacturing feedback loop gave it a competitive advantage, allowing it to innovate on a daily basis.
  • Ellison says. “Elon took on the manufacturing, the materials, the huge factories.” Jobs loved to walk through Apple’s design studio on a daily basis, but he never visited his factories in China. Musk, in contrast, spent more time walking assembly lines than he did walking around the design studio. “The brain strain of designing the car is tiny compared to the brain strain of designing the factory,” he says.
  • Musk flipped from being an apostle of automation to a new mission he pursued with similar zeal: find any part of the line where there was a holdup and see if de-automation would make it go faster. “We began sawing robots out of the production line and throwing them into the parking lot,” Straubel says. On one weekend, they marched through the factory painting marks on machinery to be jettisoned. “We put a hole in the side of the building just to remove all that equipment,” Musk says.
  • The experience became a lesson that would become part of Musk’s production algorithm. Always wait until the end of designing a process-after you have questioned all the requirements and deleted unnecessary parts- before you introduce automation.
  • The Musk Algorithm
    • Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
    • Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.
    • Simplify and optimize. This should come after step two. common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.
    • Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.
    • Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.
  • The biggest change Musk wrought was to put the design engineers in charge of production, like he had done for a while at Tesla. “I created separate design and production groups a long time ago, and that was a ******* mistake,” he said at one of the first meetings that McKenzie led. “You are responsible for the production process. You can’t hand it off to someone else. If the design is expensive to produce, you change the design.” McKenzie and his engineering team moved their seventy-five desks to be next to the assembly lines.
  • His Autopilot team at Tesla had two hundred software engineers, so why did Twitter have twenty-five hundred?
  • He said that when he visits China, he is often asked how that country can be more innovative. “The answer I give is to challenge authority.”
  • that you could not separate engineering from product design. In fact, product design should be driven by engineers. The company, like Tesla and SpaceX, should be engineering-led at all levels.
  • “Yes, but people should still have kids,” Musk replied. “We want human consciousness to survive.”
  • as Musk poked through cabinets filled with stashes of Twitter-branded merchandise, he found T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Stay woke,” which he waved around as an example of the mindset that he believed had infected the company. In the second-floor conference facilities, which Musk commandeered as his base camp, there were long wooden tables filled with earthy snacks and five types of water, including bottles from Norway and cans of Liquid Death. “I drink tap water,” Musk said when offered one.
  • Musk made it a rule to be wary of anyone whose confidence was greater than their competence.
  • During the discussion, Musk latched on to a key fact the team had discovered: the neural network did not work well until it had been trained on at least a million video clips, and it started getting really good after one-and-a-half million clips. This gave Tesla a huge advantage over other car and AI companies. It had a fleet of almost two million Teslas around the world collecting billions of video frames per day. “We are uniquely positioned to do this,” Elluswamy said at the meeting.
  • “This is how civilizations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and fewer doers.” That’s why America could no longer build things like high-speed rail or rockets that go to the moon. “When you’ve had success for too long, you lose the desire to take risks.”

Nice summary, I think it has few good lessons