Wired recently published a stunning longform expose on what it has been like to work for Tesla over the last few years. The piece dives into life at the company's Nevada Gigafactory and the seemingly abusive management style of CEO Elon Musk.
The piece opens with a story about an engineer at the company's Nevada plant who "had been living out of a suitcase, putting in 13-hour days, seven days a week," and who one day was excited to hear that Elon Musk himself needed his help on the production line. When the engineer was asked about one of the mechanized modules on the company‘s production line, instead of Elon seeking his assistance, he was berated and fired within a minute.
“Hey, buddy, this doesn’t work!” Musk shouted at the engineer, according to someone who heard the conversation. “Did you do this?”
“You mean, program the robot?” the engineer said. “Or design that tool?”
“Did you fucking do this?” Musk asked him.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to?” the engineer replied apologetically.
“You’re a fucking idiot!” Musk shouted back. “Get the fuck out and don’t come back!”
Instead of his performance review, which the engineer was expecting in the next week, he wound up signing separation papers. This type of volatility and abuse from Musk was rampant throughout the article.
For instance, the piece also tells the story about Musk flying in several weeks later, marching through the factory and telling employees that “Tesla excellence wasn’t a passing grade, and that they were failing". Musk also reportedly told people "they weren’t smart enough to be working on these problems".
This feeling of superiority seemed to be a constant. One senior executive told Wired: “We called it ‘the idiot bit’. If you said something wrong or made one mistake or rubbed him the wrong way, he would decide you’re an idiot and there was nothing that could change his mind.”
However, these types of rampages were supposedly well-known throughout the company. Sometimes Musk would instantly fire people, other times simply intimidate them. It had gotten so bad that people were afraid to walk too close to Musk's desk at the Gigafactory for fear of coming in contact with him. Musk wound deride people in meetings, insult workers' competence and bully those below him, sometimes demoting them on the spot.
Then, during a meeting with one of his right hand men about fixing the production issues at the Gigafactory, Musk – known to be sensitive to odors - caught the smell of nearby liquid silicone vats. Musk reportedly said, "These vapors [are] going to kill people. They're going to kill me."
As a reminder, in a recent 60 Minutes interview, Musk was asked about potential toxic fumes in his factories, a notion he laughed off and joked about:
Lesley Stahl: Well, there are several investigations by the press and by regulators in California about injuries on the job. Breathing toxic fumes, stress injuries, over 100 ambulance calls.
Elon Musk: I don't think that's correct.
Elon Musk: I was literally living in the factory. If these-- if there's, like, toxic fumes, I'm breathing them. Okay?
During the trip, Musk was tasked with motivating workers at the plant. After thanking them, he informed them that it wasn’t a 9-to-5 company and that more work was on its way. He told the employees that the Model 3 was a "bet the company decision" and that everybody needed to work harder and smarter.
Wired spoke to dozens of current and former Tesla employees from nearly every division of the company. While some called the company a thrilling place to work, one executive stated “everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon”. Musk was described in the piece as socially awkward and defensive when corrected.
“People used to tell me to hunch down lower in my seat during meetings. Elon reacted better to people when he was sitting higher than them,” a former high ranking Tesla executive stated.
Many employees and executives also said that they monitored Musk's Twitter account often, and that complaints on Twitter would cause people to "drop everything" to address the situation.
A former SolarCity employee stated: “We called it management by Twitter. Some customer would tweet some random complaint, and then we would be ordered to drop everything and spend a week on some problem affecting one loudmouth in Pasadena, rather than all the work we’re supposed to do to support the thousands of customers who didn’t tweet that day.”
The piece also highlighted what appeared to be a precise and conservative method to beginning production of the Model 3 that de facto COO Doug Field had put into place. Instead of following his idea of beginning production in October 2017, Musk upended these plans in Summer of 2016, claiming he wanted to move the start date up four months because of a dream he had, where "he had seen the factory of the future, a fully automated manufacturing plant where robots built everything at high speed and parts moved along conveyor belts that delivered each piece, just in time, to exactly the right place."
A former high ranking executive told Wired that Musk would walk around on days when the company was trying to build his vision of the alien dreadnaught - sometimes burning $100 million per week - and would say to him "I’ve got to fire someone today. I just do. I’ve got to fire somebody".
“Everyone came to work each day wondering if that was going to be their last day,” another former executive at the company stated.
As production and manufacturing hell continued, Musk went from mad genius to simply mad, according to the report. He would occasionally interrupt meetings and insist that coworkers watch clips of Monty Python movies on his laptop. He'd play these clips more than once, laughing each time. When he split up with Amber Heard, Musk would reportedly miss meetings or cancel at the last minute.
Other times, Musk simply seemed angry. “There was this constant feeling of dread,” one employee said.
Almost all of the employees (even the ones with positive things to say) spoke to Wired on the condition of anonymity because of fears of being sued by the company.
The company, when presented with what was going to be reported by Wired, seemed to corroborate many of the stories, opting to try and defend Musk's actions rather than dispute the content:
Tesla, which was given extensive summaries of the reporting in this article, including what took place during Musk’s Gigafactory visits and the engineer’s dismissal, said through a spokesperson that some aspects were “overly dramatized,” “abbreviated,” and “ultimately misleading anecdotes that completely lack essential context.”
The company added that “Elon cares very deeply about the people who work at his companies. That is why, although it is painful, he sometimes takes the difficult step of firing people who are underperforming and putting the success of the entire company” at risk. Tesla also noted that Musk was worried about the comfort and safety of workers when he complained about the vapors in the Gigafactory.
And maybe next time Musk looks to place the blame at his company, he should go back and reference what his former and present coworkers said to Wired:
Among the biggest obstacles, they believed, was Musk himself.
You can read the full Wired piece here.