Elon Musk has his hands full these days. He’s the full-time CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Neuralink, runs OpenAI and Boring Company, and promotes futuristic projects like the Hyperloop. Even thought it might not seem so at times, Musk is only human, and he needs large teams for his grand visions to come to life. That means interviewing people — lots and lots of people.
Musk is a prolific interviewer. In the early days of SpaceX, he’d interviewed each one of its initial hires, including the janitors and the technicians. He still continues to interview many of the new engineers at his companies. But interviewing with Musk isn’t like interviewing with anyone else. “Each (prospective) employee receives a warning before going to meet with Musk,” says Ashlee Vance, his biographer. “The interview, he or she is told, could last anywhere from thirty seconds to fifteen minutes.”
There are further instructions. “Elon will likely keep on writing e-mails and working during the initial part of the interview and not speak much. Don’t panic. That’s normal. Eventually, he will turn around in his chair to face you. Even then, though, he might not make actual eye contact with you or fully acknowledge your presence. Don’t panic. That’s normal,” candidates are told. “In due course, he will speak to you.”
This is exactly what seems to have happened to James Knox, who was an intern at SpaceX and was interviewing for a permanent position as a Launch Engineer. He was escorted into Musk’s office at 8pm on a Friday. “His back is turned toward me and he’s looking at his computer… I think. He’s not typing a damn thing,” he describes on Quora. A couple of minutes passed until Musk finally turned around. He shook Knox’s hand, glanced at his resume, and asked him: “What do you know that’s useful to SpaceX?”
Musk, for his part, says he relies more on gut feel than anything while choosing candidates. He wants to know the stories of the lives of the candidates, and the decisions they made, and why they made them. He also has a clever trick to know how capable people really are. “I ask candidates, tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on, and how they solved them. The people that really solved the problem, they know exactly how they solved it. They know the little details,” he says. “The people who pretended to solve the problem, they can maybe go one level (deep), but then they get stuck.”
Whatever Musk’s doing seems to be working. While he does make it a point to devote some time each week to each of his companies, his trusted lieutenants seem to be carrying the mantle just fine — his many companies are humming away, trying to change the world in their own ways.