The Elon Musk interview question that’ll make or break you

One Elon Musk interview question will make or break your job interview. And the mantra of fake it until you make it won’t cut it either.

In today’s social media age, people of all backgrounds try to be more than who they really are. But when the rubber hits the road, the truth always comes out.

The Elon Musk interview question

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

Without a doubt, one of the most loaded questions I’ve come across. By asking this question alone, a hiring manager can determine if they want to hire you or not.

This question has two important parts I’m going to go over.

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

This question will let the interviewer know the type of work you do as an engineer. In other words, the type of problems you commonly face and solve in your work.

Keep in mind, the work of some engineers defaults to counting screws in the back office all day.

For this reason, not all engineers will have problems worth sharing. I compare this to an NBA team roster.

You have a star player like Lebron James who plays 40 plus minutes a game. Then down the bench, some players only play 40 minutes the entire season.

At the end of the day, we call all these athletes ‘NBA players’. The same idea applies to engineers.

On that note, a hiring manager can understand a lot about you from your answer to this question. For example, they’ll better grasp your skillset as an engineer.

To put it another way, they can determine if you do paperwork in the back office. Or, if you’re on the front lines tackling technical problems getting your hands dirty.

Comparing the work experience of 2 different engineers 

Let’s compare two extreme engineer responses a hiring manager could hear.

Engineer A’s problem:

How to mount a conduit on a wall. 

Engineer B’s problem:

How to safeguard power transformers from powerful coronal mass ejections.  Thus, designing a device to block quasi Direct Current (DC) flow in the neutral to ground connection of power transformers.

This will prevent the saturation of the magnetic core of transformers. Thus, preventing transformer failure.

This is especially important for power transformers installed in high resistive soil. Even worse, if they’re installed in regions prone to Earth’s changing magnetosphere. 

All the while, the device can’t interfere with the transformer’s ground fault detection. Also, it can’t cause ferroresonance and voltage transients.

To top it off, the device needs to instantly operate automatically. All without human intervention. 

Clearly, Engineer B works on more complex projects than Engineer A. At least, that’s what this engineer wants you to believe.

But no worries, Part #2 of the Elon Musk interview question can catch this person’s bluff.

To that end, let’s dissect Engineer B’s response below. I want to show what makes it so great.

  • The problem is clearly defined with supporting technical language
  • The importance of solving the problem is discussed
  • Design challenges are listed

Part #2: how did you solve the problems?

This part of the question uncovers your level of honesty from Part #1. If an applicant solved a problem on their own, they’d know every detail of the solution.

But, if they rode the coattail of their team members, the truth will come out fast. That’s why this question is sometimes called the great purge.

In engineering especially, solving difficult problems includes many layers. These layers include the following:

  • Understanding problems: identifying all parts of a problem. Most problems include many smaller issues tied together. So, you need to tackle the small issues first before you can address the main problem. Are you familiar with all the smaller problems?
  • Solutions: listing all possible solutions. Almost always you’ll brainstorm many solutions before you decide on one.  Can you discuss the other solutions that were on the table?
  • Cost: some solutions aren’t practical to implement due to cost. You need to factor cost with all possible solutions. How did you factor cost in your problem-solving?
  • Unique challenges: every type of engineering will have its own unique challenges. These challenges you need to consider as you solve problems. Challenges can range from material selection to real-world physics and weather elements. For example, you can design a sturdy and safe plane but if it’s too heavy it can’t take off. What unique challenges did you face?
  • Project timeline: in most instances, you don’t have endless years to solve problems. Your solutions need to consider timelines. How did your project timeline affect your work?

An honest candidate could easily discuss each of these bullets. The solutions to the problems you’ve solved will be woven into your mind in detail.

Solving puzzles in video games

To further drive the point home, think back to when you were a kid. If you played video games, you’ll remember spending hours on end trying to solve a single puzzle.

You’d curse at your TV screen and pound the ground in frustration as you played. But, once you solved the puzzle, it was a moment of euphoria.

Now, if I ask you about the puzzle from that game today, you’d remember every detail. You’d list off the following:

  • The different ways you approached trying to solve the puzzle
  • What solutions came near to working
  • What clues helped direct you to finally solve the puzzle
  • The biggest challenges you faced as you tried to solve the puzzle

Not only that, if you start playing the game today, I know everything will come back to you fast. Even after 15 plus years.

Elon Musk’s thoughts over 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 went on to say that a problem solver can answer the question on “multiple levels.” On the flip side, those who fake saying they solved a problem, can “maybe go one level and then they get stuck,” Elon said.

Most importantly Elon states, “anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.” What Elon is pointing out, is that a solution may become fuzzy over time.

But if you’re reintroduced to the problem, everything will soon come back to you. No different than the video game example I discussed in the earlier section.

At first, the details may seem hazy. But, after you get several reps in with the game, everything will rush back to you.

The takeaway from the most important Elon Musk interview question

#1) Don’t shy away from difficult problems

Difficult problems will level up your engineering skills. With each problem you solve, you can tackle larger problems.

Sure, you’ll be out of your comfort zone, but this is the only way to grow as an engineer.

Plus, difficult problems give you ammo to answer Elon Musk’s favorite interview question. A win-win!

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

Many engineers follow the lead of a few superstar engineers. Thus, these other engineers don’t do much critical thinking on their own.

Rather, they do cookie-cutter work without any problem-solving.

Afterward, though, they state they solved the problem. Where in fact, they were only an accessory to the solution.

Plus, you can’t rely on doing cookie-cutter work your entire career. What happens when a curve ball comes your way. Let’s go over some scenarios:

  • The scope of work changes and you’re directed to lead the project
  • A project limitation comes up, preventing a cookie-cutter design
  • The lead engineer you followed quits
  • A client catches you on the phone and asks you to explain edge case design options
  • You want to advance in your career

With all these scenarios, you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone. You’ll need to think on your own. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself stuck and sinking in quicksand.

All in all, you can maybe fake it on your social media accounts and resume. But, when the situation becomes real, you’ll be scratching your head in embarrassment.

To that end, you don’t want an interviewer to expose you as a fake. If you don’t have an answer, it’s always best to say “you don’t know”.

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

Step #1: Think back on the problems you’ve solved as an engineer. Be sure you were directly involved in solving these problems.

Step #2: Choose a complex problem you solved. Also, a problem that’s relevant to the employer’s line of work where you’re interviewing.

Step #3: Think back to how you solved the problem and all the details involved. Some people become nervous in interviews. Especially if someone like Elon Musk is asking the questions.

So exercise your mind. Get yourself back up to speed over past problems you’ve solved.

Step #4: Think of edge cases to your problem. This will stretch your mind far and beyond the original work you did.

It’ll force you to learn even more about your subject. You may even need to research to learn how the edge cases impact your solution.

Step #5: Do a mock interview. Find someone and have them ask you the Elon Musk interview question that can make or break you.

Dominate your next interview

Focus on this Elon Musk interview question in your interview preparation. Even if you’re not asked the question in an interview, preparation for it will only help you.

Reflecting on problems you’ve solved, will stimulate your mind. You’ll remember details of interesting issues you may have forgotten about too.

On that note, problem solvers all have innate leadership qualities. This is another reason why employers love problem solvers.

Plus, you’ll gain more respect from your peers. This question will show if you’ve been in the engineering trenches or not.

Do you agree this Elon Musk interview question is the best way to screen a job candidate? Which interview question has given you the most difficult time? 

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


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