Hiring Lessons from Elon Musk

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Elon Musk is revered as one of the greatest visionaries of our time. Most entrepreneurs strive to capitalize on small opportunities that exist in the world but Musk has grand ideas that can drastically change mankind.

He has founded or been heavily involved in innovative companies like PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, and Neuralink. According to people who have worked closely with Musk, he keeps a hand in the day-to-day operations of every company he leads, including being involved in hiring. Word is he strives to interview everyone who SpaceX brings onboard and had a similar approach during his time at PayPal.

That begs the questions, what does one of the world’s smartest people look for when hiring. We searched the internet to find interviews and anecdotes that lend insight into Elon Musk’s hiring philosophy.

What problems has the candidate solved

In a 2014 interview with AutoBild.tv, Musk gave the following answer when asked what skills he looks for when hiring:

“What I’m really looking for is evidence of exceptional ability. Did they face really difficult problems and overcome them? And of course you want to make sure if there was some significant accomplishment, were they really responsible or was someone else more responsible. Usually, someone who really had to struggle with a problem, they really understand it and they don’t forget.”

Given the complex challenges Musk’s companies take on it, it should come as no surprise that he seeks people with strong problem-solving abilities. What’s interesting, however, is he goes one step deeper to ensure the candidate was truly the one who found solutions in past jobs. He goes on to say that he asks detailed questions that help him learn about the problem that was encountered and how the solution remedied it.

It can seem impressive when people talk about major achievements in job interviews. However, it’s even more impressive when they can tell you the hurdle they were facing, the idea they came up with to overcome it, and the positive outcome that ensued.

A college degree doesn’t necessarily matter

In the same interview, Musk gave the following response when asked about the importance of a college degree.

There is no need to even have a college degree…If you look at people like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, or Steve Jobs, these guys didn’t graduate from college.”

He reiterates that he is looking for people with “exceptional ability.” While achievements that happened in college can be evidence of it, life experiences can be as well.

An anecdote on Quora from a former SpaceX intern further proves that Musk does care much for a person’s academic accomplishments. The young man was meeting with Musk about extending his internship and was seconding-guessing himself for listing his community college background on his resume. Musk never noticed it and eventually told the intern, “you’ve been here a while and you wouldn’t have been if you weren’t any good. You’ve had a lot of people vouch for you.”

Don’t hire jerks

During an interview with The Henry Ford, Musk gave a light-hearted insight into what he looks for when meeting a candidate:

“Generally, I look for a positive attitude…It’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise, your job is going to be quite miserable.”

He goes on to say that people have been fired from SpaceX for being difficult to work with. Being a good team player is a common job requirement but it’s interesting that a company that seeks the brightest minds has a no-jerks policy. You can literally be a rocket scientist but Musk will have no interest in hiring you if he senses you might be rude to colleagues. That goes to show that a collaborative work environment is present in even the most successful companies.

Give the candidate an opportunity to prove their value

Even though Musk strives to hire friendly people, he’s known for being an intimidating person to interview with. People say he’ll appear disinterested and ask short, pointed questions.

Marissa Peretz interviewed with him for a recruiting position at Tesla and said his questions are meant to give the candidate an opportunity to prove their value. In an interview with Business Insider, she said Musk asked her, “what makes you the right person to build my company? Why should I trust you?”

Peretz didn’t interpret the question to mean the interview had taken a turn for the worst. She saw it as an opportunity to pitch herself and give an overarching statement on her ability to do the job.

Musk asks the controversial brain-teaser question

For a short period of time, riddle-like brain teasers were popular in job interviews. They were popularized by Google but the company eventually stopped asking them after learning they were ineffective.

Even though this type of question has fallen out of favor, Musk is still known for asking this brain-teaser question during interviews:

You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?

According to Popular Mechanics, the north pole is the common answer but the south pole is also a solution.

The purpose of these type of questions is not necessarily to measure the candidate’s intelligence by seeing if they give the right answer. Instead, you can get a sense for their problem-solving abilities by observing how they arrive at a solution. But Musk is doing a little of both when he asks this question. He wants to see if the candidate thinks about the problem from every angle and comes up with both the obvious and obscure answer.

While there is a lot to learn from Musk about hiring, we recommend having a good reason for including brain teasers in your company’s interviews. They might have some benefit if you’re looking for an analytical person. But for other roles, it’s best to stick to questions about experience, skills, and job responsibilities.