Elon Musk’s 15 Qualities of Good Engineering Culture

What makes a good engineering culture? There are 15 important qualities job-seeking engineers look for, supported by Elon Musk.

These cultural qualities heavily influence an engineer’s decision to accept a job offer. Even more, they help increase an engineer’s productivity. So, it goes without saying, engineering culture is SUPER important!

What’s more, I’ve been inside many engineering companies and spoken with countless engineers. At the top of almost every engineer’s job criteria, is engineering culture. Right along with salary

Not surprisingly, this is why Elon Musk HEAVILY believes in certain work cultures. And given Elon’s success and his ability to rope in top talent, we can learn the most from him. I’m going to discuss 15 good engineering culture qualities supported by Elon Musk.

1. No asshole policy

Without respect, people become overly uncomfortable. Heck, 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” and for no reason, you’ll feel like shit.

Plus, your work productivity will drop fast. Because you’ll constantly have your eye on the company door to leave.

To add to this, the workplace should be a judge-free zone. For example, a company shouldn’t tolerate people jokingly throwing around racial slurs. Better yet, follow the lead of Elon Musk who said the following:

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

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

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!

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

So when companies trivialize technical work, engineer morale sinks fast. Engineers then question their priorities in a company. Because they know their worth and the value they bring to the table.

And this is why 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 people can comfortably work together is extremely powerful. Especially since a single engineer can never complete an engineering project alone.

This is why companies need to recognize entire engineering teams, not just individuals. Because not everyone is a 10x engineer. But every engineer plays a role.

It’s like in team sports. A superstar athlete no matter how good can NEVER win alone. Teams need solid role players to contribute.

And this team atmosphere all starts from high up in a company. Higher-ups need to involve themselves in the day-to-day grind to build camaraderie. Elon Musk highlighted the importance of camaraderie, with his move to Texas. He said the following:

 “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. This is human psychology 101.

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 a question may seem. Because not everyone has the same skillset.

Maybe you’ve been stuck on a problem for over a week. So, you need a second set of eyes to help you solve the problem. The best outcome is to be able to quickly ask your question and get an answer and move on.

This ties to Elon Musk’s view on 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. I had the imposter syndrome, and I had no idea what I was doing a lot of the time.

So when people helped me, it meant the world to me. Other engineers would put their own work aside, to explain subjects to me in detail. This made me feel I belonged and limited the mistakes I made.

5. Library of learning resources 

Google has invested a lot in learning resources for its new engineers. Also, for engineers who are switching over to new specialties in the company.

These resources help reduce engineer anxiety. Because many engineers have a lot of pride and are introverts. So, they may not always ask for help.

So by having accessible learning resources, engineers can learn without any social pressure. For example, Tesla has a learning program called ‘Tesla START.’ You gain valuable training skills to help you confidently work at Tesla.

I’d go as far as to say learning resources are must haves for all new engineers. Especially in high-stress workplaces, where you deal with multi-million dollar projects.

6. Less talk and more real work

An endless stream of pointless meetings will drive most engineers crazy. Especially when most meetings are pointless. The content of most hour-plus meetings you can condense into several emails.

Even more, more than half the people in meetings don’t even need to attend. They’re just spectators wasting their time because it’s the “thing to do.”

I’ve sat in meetings with ten plus engineers. And myself, and two other engineers only spoke the entire 2-hours. Talk about inefficient!

What’s worse, is a bunch of political hoops you need to jump through to do any meaningful work. And most meetings are just that, a bunch of political nonsense. Instead, you want a culture promoting getting hands dirty doing technical work. Elon Musk stated the following on this subject:

“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 the same opportunity to climb company ranks. If you’re good at what you do, there shouldn’t be any imaginary requirements.

For example, you need to work 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 guessing on where you can be in 5 years at a company. This soothes anxiety-filled minds, as you eliminate future unknowns.

8. Challenges brew learning opportunities

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

And one big reason engineers switch jobs is because they can no longer learn. All they do is crunch the same numbers over and over again. But if companies provide extra learning opportunities, they could retain more engineers.

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: intellectual stimulation

Once you feel you’re no longer motivated, you quickly become bored. Your mind begins to wander a little too much. Then soon after, you’ll be looking for the exit to bounce out and find a new job.

I believe almost all engineers want to feel mentally stimulated to some capacity. I’m talking about feeling motivated by work you resonate with. Because who doesn’t want to work on cool world-changing projects?!

To no one’s surprise, Elon Musk is a HUGE advocate for tackling 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 for a company to find what motivates each engineer. Then, set employees up for success through proper position placement. This includes checking the progress of engineers to see if they have any special requests.

10. Ownership of work

Greater transparency almost always never hurts. In fact, it can strengthen the bond between an engineer and a company. So, companies should increase the transparency of the following project items for their engineers:

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

This level of transparency creates a sense of ownership for engineers. And this is why Elon Musk wants all his employees to know his company’s goals. He stated the following:

“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. And usually, these engineers want more than just money. They want to leave a dent in the world and become difference makers for 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 encouraging high-quality engineering work make everyone better. Because let me tell you, it’s easy to cut corners in engineering. So when engineers become complacent and half-ass their work, it affects everyone. For this reason, Elon Musk encourages engineers to always do better. He stated the following:

“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, high-quality work isn’t driven by bonuses, promotions, or ego. It’s baked into a company’s culture where it’s contagious, as no one wants to be the weak link.

12. Business politics is kryptonite 

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

Everyone hates workplace politics. These are imaginary walls preventing you from running at full speed. I’d go as far as to say they make you crawl.

So, the fewer barriers engineers have in their work, the happier they’ll be. Because getting permission from 5 plus people to do a simple task is mindnumbing. This wastes A LOT of time and strips engineers of their freedom.

Not surprisingly, the lack of bureaucracy is a huge reason for Tesla’s success. Tesla is a major auto company yet it operates like it’s 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.”

What’s more, autonomy excites engineers to continue working, as they build up momentum.

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 suffer.

This is even more important when you’re aiming to be at the forefront of 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.

I personally hate how some companies discourage out-of-the-box thinking. Elon Musk has strong words on this subject too. He stated the following:

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

Its important engineers can test drive their ideas. No matter how farfetched an idea may sound. 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 want 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 missions. I’m talking about a deeply entrenched mission connecting with all employees at their core.

Because powerful missions are one of the best ways to create strong bonds among employees. Even more, they give employees a purpose to relentlessly work. And then, working to ONLY collect a paycheck takes a backseat.

This is the cheat code Elon Musk uses to have an army of amazing engineers work long hours for him. The engineers in their heart of hearts believe they’re driving humanity forward. 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, discouraging open debates will only hurt a company’s end product. One step higher, the work atmosphere won’t circle around product improvements, but egos. Now, how ridiculous does this sound for an engineering company? It’s utterly insane!

Egos should never factor into product development. This is why Elon Musk states 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 cultural qualities all tie together creating one awesome company to work for.

And to find such a company, ask around and research online. Then, always remember, good engineering culture always starts with amazing leadership. From up top, culture bleeds down into all parts of 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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