I’ve got issues with some of the stuff Elon Musk’s been doing at Twitter, and some of the non-Twitter tweets he’s sent, including ones pushing wild and harmful conspiracy theories. But for all the potentially valid critiques and criticisms, I also see many mixed in that are completely incorrect and misguided — and those can only hurt the more legitimate complaints and concerns people are raising.
One common one is that Elon Musk isn’t an engineer. Similarly, it’s common to say that he just bought his way into Tesla and isn’t a true founder (a judge determined he was indeed one of five core founders, and a basic historical account of how Tesla got off the ground indicates as much). The implication with both claims is that Elon was not at all responsible for the success of Tesla (or SpaceX, or PayPal). People who have followed the Tesla story closely know this is all nonsense, and when someone throws one of these javelins at Elon’s identity, reputation, and history, they immediately look like fools. Elon and Tesla followers quickly write off such people, because they know these critiques are absurd. It’s the best way to make sure any legitimate complaints or concerns these people have are scoffed at and ignored.
A handful of tweets triggered this article, but the issue has irritated and disappointed me for a long time. Top, top, top engineers in the automotive industry, in the space industry, and in the computer industry have given Elon the highest respects in terms of his engineering know-how and abilities. I spent a bit of time trading DMs with Elon on Twitter over the course of several years. One of the core takeaways I got from him about himself was that he was an engineer more than anything else (career wise), and I agree with that. Probably the #1 message he provided in recent years was that Tesla would lead on manufacturing, thanks to its engineering prowess. Here are a few tweets from people who know:
“rebranded himself as an engineer”
Let’s see what engineers have to say about thathttps://t.co/Vej3JR2zyR
— SraM 🔋 (@SraMYaguchi) November 10, 2022
Lol, totally inane statement. https://t.co/cGXH5xw58z
— Techgnostik (@Techgnostik) November 10, 2022
There are plenty more from well established leading chip engineers, rocket engineers, and automotive executives.
Here’s a good one from someone who has just followed the story well:
No he’s an actual engineer. Coded Zip2 by himself. PayPal too. And is lead engineer on starship.
He’s just not the best people person to put it mildly and needs to be stop being surrounded by yes people
— C🔋ri⚡(Chris) (@Falcon__3) November 10, 2022
That’s a basic tweet, but it’s a rare one, because it acknowledges that Elon has had tremendous success due to his abilities as an engineer, but then also offers two key critiques. These days, most people chiming in on these topics seem to be 100% all-in on supporting Elon and everything he says or does or 100% all-in on trashing him. The latter make big mistakes by not knowing that Elon’s success isn’t due to entitlement, luck, or screwing people over. It is indeed due to hard, smart work — and inspiring tens of thousands of people to also engaged in hard, smart work.
By and large, I see what’s happening at Twitter as a disaster. I see the whole Twitter purchase as a financially stupid and misguided shitshow. I see that Elon has been surrounded more and more by “yes men” (for reasons I could write a book about) and that many of the people he listens to are giving him really bad misinformation on a variety of topics. Twitter used to be a problem for Elon because he’d put his foot in his mouth there, and earlier this year even, he laughed about that and seemed to indicate that he was trying to do better. Going and buying the platform, at a ridiculously high price, has been him going 10,000 times further in the wrong direction. It’s too bad he’s surrounded far too much now by people who egg on his most counterproductive and unkind instincts. It’s too bad so many people around him are using him for their own misguided and selfish motives. At the end of the day, of course, he’s a fully grown man with ample ability to set up the atmosphere around himself that’s best for learning and progress. Indeed, once being the wealthiest man on Earth, he could have pursued greater understanding with essentially limitless funding. Instead, it appears that he surrounds himself with people who agree with almost every assumption he makes.
As an engineer, I’m sure he’s still top notch. That’s in large part what made him the richest man/human on Earth. I’m not sure he has the right background to understand Twitter’s architecture well or to know how to lead Twitter, but I have far less technical expertise, so I can’t provide a good judgement on the technical side of that. All of the other stuff, and some of the technical stuff shared by Twitter people, make this episode of the Elon story something like a train wrecking into a burning building falling off a cliff. So it’s hard to watch and yet difficult to turn away. I’ve seen enough from Elon about Covid-19, transportation planning, and various political topics to know that he often steps into a topic with wrong assumptions and can be stubborn about letting go of them. However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t brilliant in other ways and one of the most knowledgeable people on earth about a variety of technical and engineering topics. In fact, that’s partly the point. People who think he doesn’t know engineering don’t know what they’re talking about. He has spent so many hours for so many years learning about technology and engineering related building cars, building rockets, and building software for them that he really hasn’t had much time for other matters. So much success combined with so little time to become more well rounded on other topics is bound to lead a person astray in those other realms, and then increasingly being surrounded by people who think he’s either infallible or someone to be manipulated for their cause makes the matter that much worse.
I’m critiquing both Elon critics and Elon superfans here, so I don’t expect to be pleasing many people or making many fans with this article, but for those of you who are with me, a tip of the hat to you.
And the core message for anyone trying to influence him or his supporters: don’t say stupid stuff about his engineering skills, his personal background, or his role at Tesla and SpaceX if you don’t want to be quickly categorized as a fool. Look for the truth and how to persuade, not an even bigger food fight of misinformation.
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