The Elon Musk Interview Question That’ll Make or Break You

There’s one Elon Musk interview question that can make or break your job interview, and pretending you’re something you’re not won’t cut it.

In this social media-driven world, folks from all walks of life try to seem bigger than they really are. But when push comes to shove, the truth has a funny way of coming out.

The Elon Musk interview question

“What were the most difficult problems you faced and how did you solve them?”

Hands down, it’s one of the heaviest questions I’ve come across. Just by asking this, a hiring manager can decide if they want you on their team or not.

Let me break down the two crucial parts of this question for you.

Part #1: What were the most difficult problems you faced?

This part lets the interviewer gauge your problem-solving skills and what kind of person you are. They can figure out if you’re the type who does paperwork in the back office or if you’re out there on the front lines, wrestling with technical problems and getting your hands dirty.

Now, I know not all engineering gigs are the same. Some engineers count screws all day, while others are out there saving the world (well, maybe just a small chunk of it). So, it’s totally okay if not all engineers have jaw-dropping problems to share. Just apply for jobs that match your background. Think of it like an NBA team roster.

You’ve got your star player like Lebron James, playing 40-plus minutes a game. Then, further down the bench, some players only see 40 minutes of playtime the whole season. But at the end of the day, they’re all NBA players. Same goes for engineers.

Comparing the work experience of 2 different engineers 

Let’s look at the work experiences of two wildly different engineers that a hiring manager might hear about.

Engineer A’s problem:

Figuring out how to mount a conduit on a wall.

Engineer B’s problem:

Protecting power transformers from intense coronal mass ejections by designing a device to block quasi Direct Current (DC) flow in the neutral-to-ground connection of the power transformers. This prevents the saturation of the transformer’s magnetic core, reducing damage.

This is particularly crucial for power transformers installed in high resistive soil and regions vulnerable to Earth’s changing magnetosphere.

The device must not mess with the transformer’s ground fault detection, cause ferroresonance, or voltage transients. Plus, it’s gotta work automatically, without needing any humans to step in.

It’s obvious that Engineer B’s work seems way more complicated than Engineer A’s. Or at least, that’s what Engineer B wants you to think. But don’t sweat it, because Part #2 of the Elon Musk interview question can catch any potential bluffs.

For now, let’s break down what makes Engineer B’s response so awesome:

  • Clearly defined problem with solid technical language
  • Explains why solving the problem matters
  • Lists design challenges

Part #2: How did you solve the problems?

This part really puts your honesty from Part #1 to the test. If you genuinely solved a problem on your own, you’d know every single detail of the solution. But if you just hitched a ride on your teammates’ coattails, the truth will reveal itself pretty quickly. I like to call this question the great purge.

In engineering, problem-solving is a multi-layered process, including:

  • Understanding problems: Identifying all the mini-issues that make up the big problem. You gotta tackle these little problems before taking on the main one. Are you familiar with all the smaller problems?
  • Solutions: Listing every possible solution. You’ll usually brainstorm a bunch before picking a winner. Can you discuss the other options?
  • Cost: Weighing the practicality and cost of each possible solution. How did you factor cost into your problem-solving?
  • Unique challenges: Each type of engineering comes with its own set of hurdles. Challenges can range from material selection to real-world physics and weather factors. For example, you can design a super sturdy and safe plane, but if it’s too heavy, it isn’t gonna fly. What unique challenges did you face?
  • Project timeline: Pretty much every project is on a schedule. Your solutions need to take these timelines into account. How did you plan out the various stages of your project?

If you’re a genuine candidate, you can easily answer each point. You’ve already cracked the problems, and the solutions are etched in your mind!

Think of it like solving puzzles in video games

To make it even clearer, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Remember playing video games as a kid? You’d spend hours trying to solve just one puzzle.

You’d yell at your TV screen and pound the floor in frustration as you played. But once you cracked that puzzle, it was pure joy.

Now, if I asked you about that same puzzle today, you’d remember every detail. You’d mention:

  • The different ways you tried to solve the puzzle
  • What solutions came close to working
  • What clues finally led you to the solution
  • The biggest challenges you faced while trying to solve the puzzle

And you know what? If you started playing the game again after 20 years, you’d know exactly how to solve that puzzle.

Elon Musk’s thoughts on this question

Elon Musk and Chris Anderson at TED 2017
Photo Credit: Jurvetson

“People [who] really solved the problem, they know exactly how they solved it,” Musk explained. “They know the little details.”

Musk added that a problem solver can answer the question on “multiple levels.” On the other hand, those who just pretend they solved a problem can “maybe go one level and then they get stuck,” according to Elon.

Most importantly, Elon points out that “anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.” What he’s saying is that a solution might get fuzzy over time, but if you’re faced with the problem again, everything will come flooding back. It’s just like the video game example I mentioned earlier.

The takeaway from the most important Elon Musk interview question

#1) Embrace tough challenges

Tackling difficult problems is like a power-up for your engineering skills. With each challenge you conquer, you’ll be ready for even bigger ones.

Sure, it’ll push you out of your comfort zone, but that’s the only way to grow as an engineer. Plus, difficult problems give you the perfect ammo to answer Elon Musk’s top interview question. It’s a win-win!

#2) Don’t fake it or stretch the truth

Many engineers just follow the lead of a few 10x engineers. As a result, they don’t do much critical thinking on their own. Instead, they do cookie-cutter work without any real problem-solving. But afterward, they claim they solved the problem, when in fact, they were just a sidekick to the solution.

You can’t coast on cookie-cutter work your entire career. What happens when life throws you a curveball, like:

  • The scope of work changes and you’re put in charge of leading the project
  • A project limitation pops up, requiring a unique design
  • The lead engineer you followed calls it quits
  • A client catches you on the phone and wants to know more about the design
  • You’re ready to level up your career

To handle each of these scenarios, you need to step out of your comfort zone and think for yourself. Because you can only fake it for so long before you’re busted.

And trust me, getting caught pretending to know something you don’t in front of an interviewer is never a good look. So, if you don’t know an answer, it’s better to own up to it and say, “I don’t know.”

#3) How to prepare for the Elon Musk interview question

Step #1: Reflect on the problems you’ve directly solved as an engineer.

Step #2: Choose the most complex problem that’s also relevant to the employer’s line of work.

Step #3: Recall how you cracked the problem and all the nitty-gritty details.

Step #4: Consider edge cases to your problem to stretch your mind far beyond the original work scope.

Step #5: Do a mock interview. Find someone who can grill you with the make-or-break Elon Musk interview question.

Dominate your next interview

Are you eager to become an interview champ? Start by gearing up for that legendary Elon Musk question. Even if they don’t ask it, getting ready for it will only work in your favor.

For a bonus move, step up and tackle problem-solving in projects at your current gig. Doing this will not only give you extra experience but also provide you with more awesome stories to share at your next job interview.

So, do you think this Elon Musk interview question is the ultimate way to screen job candidates? Which interview question has ever thrown you for a loop?

Featured Image Photo Credit: Jurvetson (head cropped from original image)


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