70-hour work weeks and tasked with doing the impossible, these are some of the things employees revealed about working at Tesla under their cult-like enigmatic leader Elon Musk.
Business Insider spoke with 42 Tesla employees about what it is like to work at one of the world’s most ambitious companies. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, is considered a visionary, as well as unpredictably demanding according to employees. Long hours and an intense work environment which they call “the Tesla life” are part and parcel of working for Tesla. Some say the attitude of worship some of their colleagues have toward Musk, is something like a “cult”.
The 5.3-million-square-foot Fremont factory, where Tesla’s all-electric cars are made is one of the world’s most advanced automotive production facilities, employing around 10,000 people. However, it is also home to the unfolding drama as Tesla struggles to meet demands for its vehicles as investors grow skeptical with each passing day.
However, for the famous CEO, it is his personal kingdom where boundaries of home and work are blurred. The method to his deepening madness never seems clear. “Elon basically does what he wants, whenever he wants,” says an unnamed employee. At 47, Musk is at the forefront of an electric revolution as he uses his force of will, grit, and stubbornness to make this vision a reality. Musk’s loyal following of employees believe if he asks them to do the impossible, they can do it. Some liken Musk to a drug.
“My favorite thing about the job is to take that thing that seemed impossible and blow it up,” said Marco Batra, a six-year Tesla veteran and the global sales delivery operations manager. Tesla employees said they love the company’s mission of making beautiful electric cars and solar products, supposedly healing the earth, and disrupting the old world along the way. To many, it’s a noble cause that inspires them to give it their all.
“This is the future,” said Branton Phillips, a material handler for Tesla Production Control at the Fremont facility. “I like the whole image, what we’re doing, the mission. We’re making history.” This is exactly the type of “startup culture” many larger established corporations strive for.
However, it may also be Tesla’s biggest weakness. The scrappy, feel-good company, built in Musk’s image, also bears many of his flaws — a place where long hours, chaos, callousness, and contradictions can grind workers down, many employees reported. Tesla burned through $3.4 billion in 2017, and another $1.05 billion in the first quarter of this year, while posing record loses. Many fear the rate of spending will result in the company running out of money by year’s end.
“There’s a big cult-like following for Elon,” said one software engineer said. “[At] no company have I worked for, in our quarterly meetings, do you clap when a CEO walks into the podium. So that’s just something that people do at Tesla.” At 6-foot-2, with broad shoulders, Musk is an imposing man. “I ran into him a couple times. He’s like this force field,” a former internal communications employee said. “You could almost see the air parting.”
Employees describe Musk as everything from aloof and intimidating to friendly and emotional. Discussions with him are littered with f-bombs, and yet he is also known to give production workers bear hugs when the company reaches a milestone. Musk works so many hours at Tesla’s 24/7 production world that virtually everyone interviewed had a story about finding him with a pillow and blanket asleep somewhere, including the factory floor, under a desk, and in a conference room. Musk has admitted he even uses the sleep-aiding machine Ambien to get rest sometimes.
But Musk’s deadlines can also seem random, even mean-spirited, to those tasked with achieving them. “He’d order a project and we’d say, ‘We need 10 weeks,’ and he’d say, ‘You get six.’ And then two weeks later, ‘We need it two weeks earlier than that,’ so you end up with four, just to hit a number. It’s an impossible workload. They’re burning people out like crazy,” one mechanical engineer said.
Tesla’s work-life balance scored 2.6 out of 5, according to Glassdoor user reviews, which was far lower than other car companies. The average employee tenure at Tesla is 2.1 years, which is at the low end when compared to other tech companies such as Apple, where the average tenure is five years, based on data gathered by LinkedIn. “You’re not there to be creative. You’re there to fulfill his mission,” a software engineer said. “If you don’t understand that and you’re talking about your feelings, you’re probably going to get fired.”
A former VP who reported to Musk said, “He is terrible, terrible at execution and terrible at management. The entire management structure at Tesla is impotent and terrible. There are exceptions, but, on average, most managers at Tesla have no idea what they’re doing.”
Now, as pressure mounts, Musk’s management style is under scrutiny, and a growing number of employees and investors are wondering whether it’s time for the company to grow up. When asked about Musk’s management style, Tesla pointed to its mission. “What Tesla is doing is incredibly difficult, as evidenced by the fact that Ford is the only other US car company to never have gone bankrupt,” a Tesla representative said.
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