Opinion | When Elon Musk Dreams, His Employees Have Nightmares

 

Elon Musk’s repeated wavering on his deal to purchase Twitter has roiled markets and raised contemporary questions on his seriousness. His guarantees to protect free speech, ban spam bots and dramatically enhance income could have earned the blessing of the corporate’s founder, Jack Dorsey, however with Twitter’s inventory falling effectively under his provide value, Mr. Musk seems to be reneging on a deal that has made even Wall Street develop skeptical.

For these of us who’ve adopted Mr. Musk’s antics for a while, the latest twist in his bid for the social media platform is solely in character. The means that he has managed and marketed his companies from Tesla’s early days reveals a dysfunction behind the automaker’s veneer of technofuturism and previous inventory market successes. Often saying new options with out session together with his crew, he forces his staff to bridge the big hole between technological actuality and his goals. This disconnect fosters a negligent and generally merciless office, to disastrous impact.

In 2016, Mr. Musk promised that newly made Teslas would be capable to drive themselves with nothing greater than a future software program replace that Tesla homeowners may purchase prematurely for 1000’s of {dollars}.

That totally self-driving announcement that so delighted his followers got here as a much more jarring revelation to the undertaking’s engineers, who discovered about their staggering new mission when Mr. Musk tweeted about it. Tesla patrons by no means received the promised software program replace. The automobiles nonetheless can not drive themselves with out people. But yearly since then, he has repeated totally different variations of this declare. His means to repeatedly promote such science fiction fantasies to a credulous public is the muse for an unlimited empire and fortune.

Tesla’s manufacturing engineers had been aghast when, additionally in 2016, Mr. Musk publicly dedicated to growing a totally automated manufacturing facility that required no human employees. Tesla constructed two meeting strains that tried to automate duties requiring ranges of dexterity and adaptability that trendy robotics remains to be removed from attaining. He in the end gave up and cobbled collectively a manual-labor-intensive manufacturing line in an open-air tent.

Mr. Musk took this as a brand new alternative to construct his legend, and he reported that he had slept in Tesla’s factories throughout this era, which he referred to as “production hell.” What he disregarded of his self-aggrandizing was the fact for his staff. His presence introduced no actual manufacturing experience to bear, simply the overbearing stress of a boss whose public shaming was punctuated by declarations like “I might be alone non-public island with bare supermodels, consuming mai tais — however I’m not.”

In my reporting on Tesla, interviewing staff at occasions felt extra as if I had been a therapist than a journalist, as they sought to untangle the pleasure and satisfaction they felt about their work from the trauma of working for Mr. Musk. Surviving 10 years of the grind at Tesla is a uncommon achievement, and it is not uncommon for expertise to be squeezed dry or pushed out earlier than the tip of the corporate’s four-year inventory vesting interval.

This grim atmosphere is all of the extra pronounced for ladies and racial minorities. Lawsuits by employees and California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing allege that Black employees had been tasked with menial bodily labor in components of the manufacturing facility nicknamed “the plantation,” the place they had been subjected to racist slurs and graffiti. Female employees have sued, alleging a pervasive tradition of sexual harassment and groping by supervisors. Mr. Musk was detached, emailing workers who skilled abuse that “you will need to be thick-skinned.”

Mr. Musk’s curiosity lies in supervising entrepreneurial initiatives that end in flashy new elements. In extra prosaic areas of the enterprise like manufacturing, service and gross sales, he tends to get entangled solely with a purpose to put out the fires that repeatedly threaten the corporate’s speedy future (although not the literal fires which have repeatedly ravaged its Fremont, Calif., manufacturing facility over the years).

This is the basic weak spot of each group run as a cult of persona: The expensive chief can’t be all over the place or make each resolution however usually fails to supply the clear code of values that enables managers to independently form their selections round widespread objectives. When the success of the corporate is tied to 1 man’s whims, you get weird phenomena like managers deciding whether or not or to not take points to Mr. Musk based mostly on the shade of blond of his wife’s hair that day (with platinum shades being correlated with higher moods).

When the boss occurs to run tunneling, rocket and brain-implant corporations along with a high-profile automotive firm, even essentially the most sensible minds will sometimes be too disconnected from the realities of the choices that they have to make. After the collapses of Theranos and WeWork — corporations with equally assured founders who insisted that they might obtain their hovering ambitions if given extra money and time — Mr. Musk’s reliance on hype is very jarring.

Indeed, the principle distinction between Mr. Musk and Silicon Valley’s fallen heroes is that he has been in a position to ship on some guarantees: Tesla does make automobiles, and SpaceX does land rockets. But as quite a few outdated guarantees like totally self-driving automobiles look like extra aspirational and fewer believable, the excellence between him and people fallen heroes is beginning to lose its which means. His lengthy checklist of unfulfilled commitments — a fully solar-powered electric vehicle charging network, a totally automated manufacturing system, an autonomous minibus and even a rocket-powered flying automotive — wildly exceed his achievements.

By transferring to purchase Twitter, Mr. Musk has not solely added one other distraction to his lengthy checklist however has additionally already proven the identical drive to announce sweeping selections in public. While he had some success in realizing person options at Tesla, his contradictory goals of increasing algorithmic transparency and eliminating spam bots on Twitter are the obvious signal that he intends to impose his will on the service with out drawing on the experience of employees who’ve been wrestling with Twitter’s thorniest challenges.

Ultimately Mr. Musk’s objectives for Twitter, as they’re for Tesla, should not about making the suitable selections for his corporations or the individuals who make them attainable. They are about enjoying to the gang and burnishing the legend that retains contemporary our bodies and minds transferring by the companies that chew them up and spit them out. Now if Twitter falls into his management, Mr. Musk can have seized the means of constructing the product he has at all times cared about most: his personal fantasy making.

Edward Niedermeyer (@Tweetermeyer) is the writer of “Ludicrous: The Unvarnished Story of Tesla Motors” and a co-host of “The Autonocast,” a podcast about driving automation know-how and the way forward for mobility.

The Times is dedicated to publishing a range of letters to the editor. We’d like to listen to what you concentrate on this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And right here’s our e-mail: [email protected].

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