World-saving Ambition. Bitter Rants. Unfettered Genius. Unpredictable Rages
Here's What It Was Like To Work At Tesla As Model 3 Production Ramped Up And The Company's Leader Melted Down.
The young Tesla engineer was excited. Ecstatic, in fact. It was a Saturday in October 2017, and he was working at the Gigafactory, Tesla’s enormous battery manufacturing plant in Nevada. Over the previous year, he had been living out of a suitcase, putting in 13-hour days, seven days a week. This was his first real job. And now a colleague had tracked him down to say that Elon Musk—Elon Musk!—needed his personal help.
The previous year, Musk had made an audacious announcement: His company, which was known—fetishized, actually—for its luxurious electric vehicles, would soon begin manufacturing a new sedan that it planned to sell for just $35,000, putting it within reach of the middle class. The Model 3, Tesla hoped, would transform the auto industry by proving that a mass-produced, emissions-free vehicle was not only feasible but profitable. If successful, the vehicle would help end humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels, slow climate change, and show that ingenuity and ambition could accomplish nearly anything. Within a year of that announcement, however, work on the car was behind schedule. There were problems in battery manufacturing, parts construction, development of assembly lines. Tesla’s goal was to build 5,000 vehicles a week; recently the company had been producing roughly three cars a day. Many inside the Gigafactory—not to mention at the Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto and the assembly factory in Fremont, California—had been working hard for months, trying to get things on track.
Musk was spending the weekend in the Gigafactory, attempting to discover why machines weren’t functioning, why parts kept misaligning, why the software was crashing. Musk had demanded that his factories be automated as much as possible. But among the consequences of this extreme roboticization were delays and malfunctions. Tesla had spent more than $1 billion building the Gigafactory, and almost nothing was going as planned.
At about 10 o’clock on Saturday evening, an angry Musk was examining one of the production line’s mechanized modules, trying to figure out what was wrong, when the young, excited engineer was brought over to assist him.
“Hey, buddy, this doesn’t work!” Musk shouted at the engineer, according to someone who heard the conversation. “Did you do this?”
The engineer was taken aback. He had never met Musk before. Musk didn’t even know the engineer’s name. The young man wasn’t certain what, exactly, Musk was asking him or why he sounded so angry.
“You mean, program the robot?” the engineer said. “Or design that tool?”
“Did you fucking do this?” Musk asked him.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to?” the engineer replied apologetically.
“You’re a fucking idiot!” Musk shouted back. “Get the fuck out and don’t come back!”
The young engineer climbed over a low safety barrier and walked away. He was bewildered by what had just happened. The entire conversation had lasted less than a minute. A few moments later, his manager came over to say that he had been fired on Musk’s orders, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. The engineer was shocked. He’d been working so hard. He was set to get a review from his manager the next week and had been hearing only positive things. Instead, two days later, he signed his separation papers.
On a Wednesday morning a few weeks later, Musk returned to the Gigafactory on his private plane. Tesla had started firing hundreds of other employees for performance reasons—more than 700 would eventually be let go. Musk was scheduled to talk to the plant’s workers, to inspire them to push through what Musk had forecast would be a “manufacturing hell.” The Gigafactory needed widespread fixes; there was no way the plant would produce 5,000 batteries a week anytime soon.
When he arrived, Musk began marching through the factory. He walked along the assembly line, red-faced and urgent, interrogating workers he encountered, telling them that at Tesla excellence was a passing grade, and they were failing; that they weren’t smart enough to be working on these problems; that they were endangering the company, according to someone who observed him.
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. (A spokesperson for McNeill said he did not want to participate in this story.)
Musk, though, had other concerns. “What’s that smell?” he asked. Everyone went silent. They knew Musk was so sensitive to odors that job candidates were told not to wear cologne or perfume when they met him. They had seen him become upset over small issues like this, had observed him attack executives for their incompetence and inabilities. One person explained that there were vats of liquid silicon nearby. When heated, it sometimes smelled like burning plastic.
These vapors were going to kill people, Musk said. They were going to kill him.
The group got back to solving the Gigafactory’s problems. Eventually it was time for Musk to give his speech. He left the room and walked onto a makeshift stage. The Model 3 was always going to be difficult, he told workers. But it was turning out to be even harder than anyone anticipated. He thanked employees for their work—and then warned them that more was coming. Tesla had to have high standards to succeed. It was not a 9 to 5 company. People were already working hard; now Musk was implying they needed to do more. He was at turns complimentary, awkward, and intense. The Model 3 was a bet-the-company decision, he said. Everybody needed to work hard and smarter.
Then Musk walked off the stage. The remaining executives decamped to a conference room to continue working through a list of the Gigafactory’s problems. Musk, according to one participant, was gone—on to the next task.
Eight months later, Tesla would announce that it had managed to hit its target and produce 5,000 Model 3s in one week. Three months after that, it would report profits of $312 million, well beyond Wall Street’s expectations. Musk seemed, once again, to have snatched victory from the maw of catastrophe, proving his critics wrong through ambition and sheer force of will. But the path to that triumph would be more turbulent than almost anyone anticipated. Over the past year, Musk has fascinated, delighted, and horrified his fans and detractors alike by attacking strangers on Twitter, berating analysts on earnings calls, calling a man he had never met a pedophile, and, most consequentially, tweeting that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share with “funding secured,” when in fact there was no such funding secured. That tweet would cause the Securities and Exchange Commission to sue Musk for securities fraud and, in a settlement, to compel him to pay $20 million and abandon his company’s chairmanship. None of that, however, has chastened Musk, who tweeted in October that the tweet that cost him $20 million was “worth it.” The tiger was on the loose.
If it has been strange to watch Musk’s wild ride via news reports and social media, it’s been even weirder inside the company. Over the past six months I’ve communicated with dozens of current and former Tesla employees, from nearly every division. They describe a thrilling and tumultuous workplace, where talented engineers and designers have done some of their proudest work but where, as one former executive put it, “everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon.” Almost all these employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements or fears of being sued or fired by Musk. (Even those with positive things to say asked for anonymity.) Most wanted the best for Tesla and said the recent profit report made them hopeful that the company is finally climbing onto firmer ground.
But experience gives them pause. A large number of high-ranking executives have left in the past two years, and Tesla has stumbled over basic tasks like delivering its cars. Working at the firm has been an agony and ecstasy, some say— sometimes toggling between both extremes in a single day.
Tesla, which was given extensive summaries of the reporting in this article, including what took place during Musk’s Gigafactory visits and the engineer’s dismissal, said through a spokesperson that some aspects were “overly dramatized,” “abbreviated,” and “ultimately misleading anecdotes that completely lack essential context.” The company added that “Elon cares very deeply about the people who work at his companies. That is why, although it is painful, he sometimes takes the difficult step of firing people who are underperforming and putting the success of the entire company” at risk. Tesla also noted that Musk was worried about the comfort and safety of workers when he complained about the vapors in the Gigafactory.
Tesla declined to make Musk, any board members, or any executives except the company’s general counsel available for on-the-record interviews. WIRED did hear from an outside law firm representing Tesla and Musk, which objected to the reporting and how questions were being asked, and suggested that WIRED might be sued.
On the day in 2017 that Musk gave his speech at the Gigafactory, he was both despot and savior. There were grand pronouncements, searing interrogations, and a laser-like focus on doing what no one had accomplished before. His speech deflated some and inspired others. “That was a pretty typical Wednesday, actually,” one senior executive told me. “That’s what it was like until I quit.”
Elon Musk didn’t start Tesla. But he did, in the most important ways, create it. When Musk invested $6.3 million in Tesla in 2004 and became the firm’s chairman, he found a pulpit worthy of his ambitions. Soon he would become chief executive and turn Tesla as much into a cause as a company. “The overarching purpose of Tesla Motors (and the reason I am funding the company) is to help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy toward a solar electric economy,” Musk wrote in a 2006 document he called “The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan.” “We will not stop until every car on the road is electric,” he said at one point. It was a lesson in his approach to life. “Optimism, pessimism, fuck that,” he once told WIRED about his other company, SpaceX. “We’re going to make it happen. As God is my bloody witness, I’m hell-bent on making it work.”
Silicon Valley was built on such audaciousness. Musk’s story, in particular, has been embraced as proof that believing in the impossible can sometimes make it real. He was born in South Africa in 1971 and moved to Canada as soon as he completed high school. He didn’t have much of a plan— he had only $2,000 when he arrived—but after working odd jobs and enrolling in a local college he eventually made it to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied economics and physics. After graduating, he founded a company with his brother and a friend and worked constantly, sometimes sleeping under his desk and showering at a local YMCA.
They eventually sold their company, earning Musk $22 million. That funded his next startup, which became PayPal, a venture eBay bought for $1.5 billion in 2002. Musk was fantastically rich at the age of 31. Such good fortune wasn’t all that unusual in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. “I could go and buy one of the islands in the Bahamas and, uh, turn it into my personal fiefdom,” he told reporters in 1999 as they observed him taking delivery of a $1 million McLaren F1 sports car. “But I’m much more interested in trying to build and create a new company.” (Musk later crashed the car.)
These new companies of Musk’s imagination would not make ephemeral, digital chaff but, rather, reshape the physical world through struts, thrusters, rocket engines, and steel. Musk started SpaceX; bought Solar City, an alternative energy company; and created the Boring Company to dig a network of high-speed transportation tunnels. But it was Tesla that first demonstrated his world-changing ambitions.
As a leader, Musk managed by example—by working hard, demanding perfection, thinking in unconventional ways, and insisting the inconceivable could be accomplished if it was simply reduced to logical steps. “He’s someone who empowers you to be better than you think you can be,” said Todd Maron, who was Tesla’s general counsel for five years until the company said in December that he would be leaving. “He has extraordinarily high standards, and so he pushes you to be your absolute best.” Similar sentiments were expressed by other executives and managers. “He is the smartest person I have ever met,” said a former executive at Solar City. “I can’t tell you how many times I prepared a report for him and he asked a question that made us realize we were looking at the problem completely wrong.”
Many Tesla executives have stories about how Musk reset their concept of the possible, but the classic tale is about retractable door handles. In the mid-2000s, the company was designing the luxury Model S when Musk insisted the car needed handles that would lie flush against its body. They would glide out, as if by magic, just as the owner reached the vehicle, by responding to a signal from an electronic key. “It was unanimous among the executive staff that the complex door handle idea was crazy,” said a former executive. It required incredibly complicated engineering, and it solved a problem that no one else thought was actually a problem. But no matter how forcefully executives objected, Musk wouldn’t yield. Even once the car was released, the handles sometimes proved troublesome. When Consumer Reports wanted to review a Model S in 2015, it had to postpone the analysis because “the fancy retractable door handles refused to let us in.”
But Musk was right. Those door handles quickly became a signature feature. A flush handle is now standard on every new Tesla. “It creates this almost emotional connection with the car, this sense that you’re part of the future,” the former executive said. “And that’s Elon’s genius. He knows what people want before they know.” This is the familiar pattern: Musk demands something impossible. Colleagues push back. Musk insists. And then innovation occurs at a speed hardly anyone thought possible. When Consumer Reports reviewed the Model S, it said the sedan “performed better in our tests than any other car ever has.” More important, Tesla helped prod the rest of the auto industry to begin developing electric cars of their own. Today, General Motors, Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, and Nissan are among the many automakers offering electric vehicles.
As CEO, Musk was often an emotional leader, colleagues say, sometimes tearing up in front of employees when overcome by frustrations or the importance of the firm’s mission. He could also be socially awkward, prickly when others failed to show deference, defensive when corrected. To some he seemed to have a robotic lack of empathy and odd interpersonal mannerisms. “People used to tell me to hunch down lower in my seat during meetings,” one former highranking executive told me. “Elon reacted better to people when he was sitting higher than them.”
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