Elon Musk’s 15 Qualities of Good Engineering Culture

A good engineering culture attracts engineers and increases their productivity. The best example is with  Elon Musk companies.

Elon’s success with SpaceX and Tesla makes a great case study for my discussion. I’m going to discuss 15 good engineering culture qualities of his companies.

1. No asshole policy

Without respect, people become uncomfortable. You can have a one-million-dollar salary and be at the top of the food chain in your company. But if your boss repeatedly calls you “worthless” for no reason, you’ll feel like shit. Then, your productivity will sink and you’ll soon quit.

On the same token, the workplace should be a judge-free zone. A company should never tolerate people jokingly throwing around racial slurs. This is why Elon Musk famously said the following:

“We have a strict ‘no-assholes policy’ at SpaceX.”

Respect needs to be the cornerstone of EVERY engineering company. Especially since bad behavior can spread like a nasty virus.

2. Engineers sit at the head of the table

space x falcon heavy demo mission
SpaceX Falcon Heavy Demo Mission (Photo Credit: SpaceX)

Along the same vein as Tip #1, a company needs to respect the work of its engineers. Because in engineering-centric companies, the technical work is the product. Imagine a software company calling its software engineers code monkeys. It’d be insane!

Just think about it. What would our beloved Google be without software engineers? Absolutely nothing!

So when companies trivialize technical work, engineer morale takes a big hit. Because engineers question their belonging and value in a company. For this reason, Elon Musk holds the following stance on engineers:

“The path to the CEO’s office should not be through the CFO’s office, and it should not be through the marketing department. It needs to be through engineering and design.”

In short, when engineers speak, companies need to listen.

3. Deeply connected teams

A team environment where engineers can comfortably work together is extremely powerful. It’s like in team sports where a superstar athlete can NEVER win alone. Teams need role players who feel they belong before they contribute.

Promoting teamwork while keeping morale high is no small feat though. Companies need to recognize entire engineering teams, not just individuals. Because not everyone is a 10x engineer, but every engineer plays a role.

Even more, higher-ups should involve themselves in the day-to-day grind. Elon Musk said the following with his move to Texas:

 “If you think about war…do you want the general in some like ivory tower or on the front lines? The troops are going to fight a lot harder if they see the general on the front lines.”

If this wasn’t enough, team environments help build deep relationships. Relationships then build trust. Next thing you know, you feel you belong to a special community and there’s nowhere better to be.

4. Questions asked without fear

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

Approachability is critical in the workplace. You need to feel comfortable asking your questions, no matter how stupid they may seem. Because not everyone has the same skillset.

For example, say you’ve been stuck on a problem for over a week. To quickly find a solution, help from another engineer would be ideal. Hence why Elon Musk emphasizes the importance of working with awesome people. He stated the following:

“It’s very important to like the people you work with, otherwise life [and] your job is gonna be quite miserable.”

When I was a young engineer, I would constantly ask for help from senior engineers. Because I had the imposter syndrome, and I needed hand-holding. I remember other engineers would put their own work aside, to explain subjects to me. This meant the world to me and it limited my mistakes.

5. Library of learning resources 

Accessible learning resources help reduce engineer anxiety without added social pressure. Because many engineers have a lot of pride and are introverts. So, they may not always ask for help.

For example, Tesla has a learning program called ‘Tesla START.’ The program gives engineers a kickstart to be productive at Tesla. It allows engineers to hack the steep technical learning curve.

So I wholeheartedly believe learning resources are must-haves at companies. Especially in high-stress workplaces, where every decision is impactful.

6. Less talk and more real work

An endless stream of pointless meetings will drive most engineers crazy. Especially since more than half the people in meetings are just spectators. I’ve sat in a 2-hour long meeting with ten plus engineers before. The entire time, I and two other engineers only spoke. Absurd!

Even more absurd, I find you can squeeze most hour-plus meetings into several emails.

Next, just as painful, are political hoops in the workplace. This is when you need to do five meaningless tasks before doing any meaningful work. Instead, you want a culture, which promotes real work. Elon Musk strongly believes in productivity and he stated the following:

“Are CEOs from corporate America focused enough on product improvement? I think the answer is no.”

Musk also stated, “I just honestly would recommend to anyone listening…just spend less time in meeting[s], less time on PowerPoint presentations, less time on spreadsheets and more time on the factory floor or time with customers.”

7. Equal opportunity for advancement

Everyone should have an equal opportunity to climb company ranks. So if you’re good at what you do, imaginary requirements shouldn’t exist.

For example, the requirement of working at a company for 2 years before any promotion. Elon Musk believes if you’re good at what you do, you should get paid accordingly. He said the following:

“You get paid in direct proportion to the difficulty of problems you solve.”

What’s more, companies should make the career paths for their employees transparent. This way, there’s no guesswork and anxiety won’t brew.

8. Challenges create learning opportunities

Environments, where engineers are constantly encouraged to learn, are powerful. Because most engineers want to continue learning to some capacity. So, challenges can be like a drug for many engineers.

In fact, one big reason engineers switch jobs is because they’re no longer learning. They do the same repetitive task over and over again.

If companies provide extra learning opportunities though, they can retain more engineers. And this begins with driving engineers to never settle with their work. Elon Musk stated the following on the subject:

“Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

9. The lifeblood of engineers is intellectual stimulation

Once you feel you’re no longer motivated, your mind begins to wander. Then soon thereafter, you’ll look for the company exit to find a new job.

I believe almost all engineers want to feel mentally stimulated to some capacity. Because who doesn’t want to work on challenging world-changing projects?!

To no one’s surprise, Elon Musk is a HUGE advocate for tackling bold challenges head-on. He stated the following:

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”

It’s important a company finds what motivates its engineers, to set them up for success. Then, to follow up with regular check-ins to learn about any concerns.

10. Ownership of work

Greater transparency almost always never hurts. In fact, it can strengthen the bond between an engineer and a company. As an example, a company should increase transparency over the following project elements:

  • The full work scope
  • Budget
  • Customer concerns and questions

This level of transparency creates a sense of ownership for engineers. Elon Musk stated the following on company goals and workers:

“People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working.”

I know, some engineers could care less about a company’s mission. They just want to race through their 8 to 5 and collect a paycheck. Nothing more!

But, transparency is HUGE when companies want to attract top-tier talent. Because top-level engineers have choices beyond the influence of money. They want to know their work is woven into the heart of a company.

11. High-quality work is contagious

A senior engineer told me long ago:

“If you have endless opportunities to fix a problem, then why not do it right the first go-around?”

Workplace environments, which encourage high-quality work, make everyone better. Because when an engineer half-asses their work, the entire team suffers. Elon Musk states the following on this subject:

“You shouldn’t do things differently just because they’re different. They need to be… better.”

What’s more, poor-quality work is a one-way street to losing millions of dollars. Even worse, people can get hurt and die from negligence. To point out though, high-quality work isn’t driven by bonuses and promotions. Rather, it’s baked into a company’s culture, where people fear becoming the weakest link.

12. Business politics are kryptonite 

matt henry tesla vehicle
Tesla vehicle (Photo Credit: Matt Henry)

Everyone hates workplace politics. The imaginary walls, which make work progress extremely sluggish.

So, the fewer barriers in a workplace, the happier engineers will be. Because asking for permission from 5 plus people to do a simple task is mindnumbing. Plus, it wastes A LOT of time and strips engineers of their freedom.

This is why Tesla doesn’t have layers of bureaucracy. Tesla is a major auto company yet it operates as a lean tech start-up. Even more, engineering leads decision-making at Tesla. Elon Musk highlights this in the following statement:

“I don’t spend my time pontificating about high-concept things; I spend my time solving engineering and manufacturing problems.”

13. More risk-taking and less covering your ass

It’s never conducive to shut the creative door on engineers. It’s like telling a basketball player they can only dribble one way. You’d have A LOT of pissed-off players, and the game would badly suffer.

Creativity is even more important when you’re a pioneer in your industry. So, management needs to not only encourage creativity but to inspire engineers. Show engineers what they can accomplish by working in a limitless environment. Elon Musk has the following strong words on this matter:

“There’s a tremendous bias against taking risks. Everyone is trying to optimize their ass-covering.”

Companies need to allow their engineers to test their ideas, no matter how farfetched. Of course, as budget allows.

A great example is Netflix. They give their engineers the freedom to be creative without added politics. In fact, they encourage their engineers to take responsibility for their creations. Because personal ownership drives high-quality work.

14. A deeply inspiring and magnetic mission

Mars true color
The true color of Mars (Photo Credit: European Space Agency)

Companies need clear transparent missions. I’m talking about a deeply entrenched mission, which touches engineers at their core. Such powerful missions create a purpose, beyond just collecting a paycheck.

As a result, engineers will work relentlessly and long hours. Because in their heart of hearts, they believe their work makes a difference. At SpaceX, Elon Musk stated the following:

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

Now, how awesome and downright inspiring are these words? Making humans a multi-planetary species will be the most transformative event for humanity.

15. No person is above facts and logic

No one person should EVER be above questioning. Even if it’s an intern calling out a technical bust in a Chief Engineer’s work. Because we’re all human, and ALL humans make mistakes.

So it’s important every work environment circles around product improvements, not egos. Even more, open debates should be commonplace. Elon Musk weighs heavily on this subject by stating the following:

“Anyone at Tesla can and should email/talk to anyone else according to what they think is the fastest way to solve a problem for the benefit of the whole company. You can talk to your manager’s manager without his permission, you can talk directly to a VP in another dept, you can talk to me, you can talk to anyone without anyone else’s permission. Moreover, you should consider yourself obligated to do so until the right thing happens.”

“What makes a good engineering culture” wrap up

These 15 Elon-centric cultural qualities all tie together creating one awesome company. And this all starts with amazing leadership. Because leadership qualities set the foundation for a company.

What do you think makes a good engineering culture? How important do you find a good engineering culture to be?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Priscilla Du Preez (image cropped)

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