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

The Elon Musk interview question that will make or break your job interview. The mantra of fake it until you make it won’t cut it.

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 will always come 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.

That said, this question has two important parts. Let’s go over the two parts of this question to see why it carries such a heavy punch.

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 then solve in your work.

Now, the work of some engineers defaults to counting screws in the back office all day. It’s a reality of the field.

For this reason, not all engineers will have many 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 philosophy applies to engineers.

On that note, a hiring manager can pull a lot of truth from your answer to this question. For example, they can get a good idea over your skillset as an engineer.

In short, they can determine if you do paperwork in the back office. Or, if you’re on the front line tackling technical problems getting your hands dirty.

Comparing the work experience of 2 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, to design a device to block quasi Direct Current (DC) flow in the neutral to ground connection of power transformers.

As a result, prevent transformer failure. The failure would come from the saturation of the magnetic core of a transformer.

This is especially important for power transformers installed in high resistive soil. Also, 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. And, it can’t cause ferroresonance and voltage transients.

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

You can probably guess Engineer B works on more complex projects compared to Engineer A. At least, that’s what this engineer wants you to believe. But no worries, Part #2 of the Elon Musk interview question will attempt to call this person’s bluff.

To that end, let’s dissect Engineer B’s response, finding what makes it so great:

  • The problem is clearly explained
  • The cause of the problem is concisely detailed with supporting technical language
  • Listed are pitfalls to avoid in design solutions

Part #2: how did you solve the problems?

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

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

To that end, in engineering especially, solving a difficult problem includes many layers. Let’s go over some of these layers:

  • Understanding a problem: identify 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 even address the main problem.
  • Solutions: list all possible solutions. Almost always you’ll brainstorm many solutions before deciding on one.
  • Cost: some solutions are not practical to implement due to cost. You need to factor cost with all possible solutions.
  • Unique challenges: every type of engineering will have its own unique challenges. These challenges you need to consider as you solve a problem. Challenges can include material type, weather elements, human safety, real-world physics, reliability, and so on. For example, you can design a very sturdy and safe plane, but if it’s too heavy it can never take off.
  • Project timeline: in most instances, you don’t have endless years to solve a problem. Your solution needs to consider the variable of time.

An honest candidate could easily discuss each of these bullets. The solution to the problem they solved will be woven into their mind detail by detail.

Video game example

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 in a game.

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

Now, if I ask you about the puzzle from that game today, you’d still be able to discuss every detail on it:

  • 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 very fast. Even after 15 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 made 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’ll then be able to tackle even 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 will 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 go through the motions of cookie-cutter work. In other words, they don’t do any novel or unique work themselves in solving a problem.

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

Now, staying in the shadows works when you do the same work over and over again. But, 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, that prevents 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

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. So, if you don’t have an answer, it’s always best to say “you don’t know”.

#3) Preparation before an interview

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 problem you solved that was complex. 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 question.

So exercise your mind, to 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 to go far and beyond the original work you did.

It will force you to learn even more about the subject matter. You may even need to go research to learn how the edge cases would 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 can only help you.

Reflecting over problems you’ve solved, will stimulate your mind. It’ll bring back details to interesting issues you may have forgotten about. This exercise will only help sharpen your mind and help you stand out among other candidates.

On that note, problem solvers all have innate leadership qualities. For this reason, employers all strive to hire these types of employees.

In summary, properly answer this question to increase your chance of landing a job. Further, you’ll gain more respect from your peers.

In other words, this question can showcase your success in the engineering trenches.

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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