By ROSHAN THIRAN
“A PhD is definitely not required” … “don’t care if you even graduated high school”.
These words were tweeted by one of today’s most iconic visionaries as part of a recruitment drive. SpaceX and Tesla Founder and CEO, Elon Musk, recently put the word out for potential candidates to join Tesla’s AI team to build its self-driving car technology.
And ahead of a career day at SpaceX – Musk’s super-innovative aerospace company – the enigmatic leader posted that people needed to have “a super hardcore work ethic, talent for building things, common sense and trustworthiness.” He added, “The rest we can train.”
Musk – who has revolutionised the car industry and space travel over the past 20 years – is on the hunt for production staff as well as engineers, supervisors and support personnel to work on the Starship spacecraft.
According to SpaceX, the fully reusable rocket system is designed to carry astronauts and cargo to “Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.” It’s safe to say that working for Elon Musk is no free ride – the billionaire boss is known to push his teams hard in the pursuit of the seemingly impossible.
With an IQ of 155, Musk holds degrees in Economics and Physics, and dropped out of his Stanford Ph.D. in Physics to explore opportunities during the Internet boom of the mid-1990s. While it might seem bizarre that someone with Musk’s genius would appear indifferent to prospective candidates’ levels of formal education, it’s a long-held attitude for a leader who prizes aptitude, curiosity and trust above all else.
In a 2014 interview, the SpaceX chief was asked about the importance of having a degree before attempting to join his team. He replied:
“There’s no need even to have a college degree at all, or even (to go to) high school. It’s about looking for evidence of exceptional ability, and if there’s a track record of exceptional achievement then there’s a likelihood that will continue into the future.”
In the past, SpaceX interns have revealed the kinds of interview questions posed before you can enter the aerospace dream factory where grand and original ideas are born. Like any other company, questions include asking candidates why they are a good fit, what have they learned from past failures, and what kinds of challenges they’ve faced.
The interview gets trickier after the candidates settle in and include brainteasers such as:
- How would you design a hammock stand?
- You’re on a small rowboat in a lake with a rock in the boat. You throw the rock overboard, does the water level in the lake rise or fall?
- You have a hot mug of coffee, controlled room-temperature air, and a small volume of creamer in the fridge. If you only have one hour to get your coffee as cool as possible, when do you add the creamer?
- Where in the world can you walk 1 mile north, 1 mile east, then 1 mile south and end up where you started?
When it comes to standard job interviews (which can sometimes be pretty unstructured), research studies have indicated that the usual hiring practices don’t necessarily lead to the best-suited candidate being hired for the role. Especially with Google at their fingertips, prospective candidates prepare themselves to the point of delivering a perfectly rehearsed performance. In the end, an organisation might end up with the best actor rather than the right person for the job.
To help ensure he bags the best candidates, Elon Musk goes deep during his interviews. As candidates talk about their work history or project experience, he’ll ask them detailed questions about how they solved difficult problems. This helps the Tesla boss to separate those candidates who really know their stuff from those who know their way around a search engine.
Looking at the continuing ambition of both SpaceX and Tesla, it’s not difficult to see why Elon Musk places little value on where someone obtained their degree, or even if they have one. As he’s said in the past, although a degree from a prestigious university can give an indication of a person’s quality, it’s not a guarantee.
Last year, researchers at Florida State University went further, suggesting that even a person’s past experience wouldn’t guarantee their success in a new role. While it’s useful to have knowledge of a person’s background, they advised that it’s much better to look at a person’s knowledge, skills and traits as better indicators than experience or education.
Personally, even though I spent some time in the human resource (HR) function, I tend to get into fights with many HR leaders. Part of the issue is that they believe in standards and guidelines. Having a degree and fitting a box enables standards to be executed. The problem, however, is that the world keeps changing and these standards need to be updated daily.
While education is now a daily process – a personal ritual that the best in the world inculcate in their lives – most education institutions that confer degrees have not been able to keep up with this VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world. And so, while degrees and certifications may have worked in the past, today, like Musk, I believe it is no more the same yardstick to determine the capability of a person.
An insight into Musk’s scope of vision was perhaps best demonstrated when he said, “The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” As a leader, his first thought isn’t to start from the impossible and work from there: it’s to completely disregard the notion that anything’s impossible to begin with.
Possessing that kind of attitude – a will-do rather than can-do mindset – is one that Elon Musk looks out for in those who want to join his companies. Formal education is important, but it’s usually taught within a limited framework. Having the hunger and perseverance to chase possibilities that stretch and excite the imagination is what counts. The rest can be trained.
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