When Elon first called me in 2001 I didn’t know who he was, I had never heard of PayPal. At the time, I was working as part of the space engineering team at Utah State University.
He explained over the phone that he was an Internet billionaire and wanted to prove that humans could be an interplanetary species.
Elon wanted to buy Russian rockets because they were cheaper than US rockets and I was told I was the guy to ask why I had worked with the Russians.
We, with future NASA administrator Mike Griffin, went to Moscow and were mocked from there
Elon was in his early 20s, poorly dressed and rather clumsy. He was very bright and very determined, but even people in the United States thought he was just a rich guy who wanted to dabble in space.
We were on the return plane and Elon turned to us and said, “I think we can build this rocket ourselves.”
We were incredulous, but he showed us a spreadsheet he had worked on with Tom Mueller and Chris Thompson, engineers who were also part of the SpaceX co-founding team. Those were the initial plans for the Falcon 1, SpaceX’s first vehicle, and I was impressed.
I was tired of facing the inefficiency of the government. The plans Elon showed me were exciting.
I had planned to see where it would take me for a year or so. I was SpaceX’s vice president of business development from December 2001 until I left in September 2002. Elon and I fought too much. He yelled at me a couple of times and I would have to change who I was to continue working there.
Working with Elon was like working with two different people: good Elon and bad Elon, and you never knew which one you would get
Good Elon is very funny and charming. He brought you with his great ideas and you have to be a part of it.
Bad Elon would scold you and get frustrated. Nobody was good enough for him; nothing was good enough for him.
Once, he called me at 3am asking me to know where I was because he was in the office. I told him “I went to bed three hours ago, I need more sleep.” He wanted me to go there because there was work to be done.
Elon wouldn’t expect you to do something he wouldn’t do, but the lengths he’s willing to do are unusual for most people. I suspect the same thing will happen on Twitter: by sheer willpower I think it will increase productivity there.
Another feature of working with Elon was that he always had a vision. With SpaceX he had to have people on Mars. He expected you to be 100% aligned with that goal. It was always clear in his mind, but it didn’t always make it clear to his employees. There was a lot of guesswork.
I remember when we were building rocket tanks and we had a fight. I made him a quote for the tanks, with the knowledge that we would build them ourselves, and he thought it was too expensive. He yelled at me and was really angry.
It made me go to Salt Lake City and look at truck tanks on the freeway and at a local steel mill to look for these tanks and see if we could outsource them. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust my judgment; he only knew that there was another way to deal with the problem.
I learned a lot, but I felt disrespectful. I didn’t need to get paid to be scolded, so I left.
There are people on Twitter who will have to decide if they are 100% aligned with Musk’s mission for this.
If there are employees who are not aligned with that vision, he will chew them and do it in a vicious way, which is his right as an owner. If you are aligned with his vision and are immune to a very strong boss who is very demanding with your time and thoughts, then it will be a very fun ride.
It depends on what people want in life – not everyone sees their career as the most important thing.
Those talks are useful to keep you going. This is good Elon. Bad Elon fired all executives. He can be vicious, he is very capable of it.