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  • Writer's pictureTim Burns

What if Elon Musk is Right?

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Elon Musk embodies the worst aspects of the tech bro spirit. He has no moral compass. He lacks compassion. He elevates the vilest voices in our world. He is not the kind of person I would want to have as my boss.

He also knows that effectiveness comes from hard work. He understands that remote work is less effective. He understands that technology teams can do more with less. Finally, he understands that many tech teams underperform because they are overstaffed.

What if Elon Musk is right about his leadership on Twitter and the rest of the world is wrong?

The fact that software companies face is that their management models are in crisis, and we are having a reckoning in terms of how startups and established tech companies manage their engineering talent.

Here are three trends in software management that Elon may be right about.

  • Effective remote working is unsustainable.

  • Senior engineers are not as valuable as they think they are

  • Management is about leadership, not consensus

I work remotely now, and from a personal point of view, I like it very much. I run a very effective team that combines US and offshore developers. However, I've also done specific things to make that team effective that won't scale.

I leveraged close working relationships from previous companies to build my team. Unfortunately, that isn't sustainable because I only have a limited number of contacts and close associates with the skills needed for my team. To grow beyond a small group, I need to hire people I don't know from previous jobs.

College graduates and interns are the main losers in the move to remote work because they don't have these existing relationships to leverage. Additionally, if they are hired, they will be isolated from members of other teams. They won't have the benefit of whiteboarding meetings. Without attention and guidance to make them successful, junior developers often fall through the cracks and get fired for poor performance, even though they may be talented.

Offshore work and remote work are not interchangeable. Offshore work assumes an offshore office and a cohesive offshore team. On or off shore, building genuine relationships is an in-person experience. In the past, I would bring offshore leads locally for month-long stints working locally in the office before sending them back to their offshore office to build working relationships with their teams.

I do agree with the precepts of this article.

Here is a Tweet a group of senior engineers made as they resigned from Twitter.

Senior engineers are precious. They know the history and crucial system details because they built it. But, unfortunately, they also believe they are much more valuable than they are. Managers often also defer much power to senior engineers because they don't want to examine the effectiveness of the systems those engineers built.

However, what if Elon is right about the importance of these engineers to Twitter as a company, and having them resign is short-term pain for long-term gain?

What if clearing the legacy engineers at Twitter is precisely what the company needs? As a veteran engineering manager, it has also been my experience that senior engineers suppress innovation because they cling to the power their legacy systems give them. Their work quality declines over time as they become entitled and complacent.

This is an exciting video. As a software engineer, I am envious. This looks like a lot of fun. One-on-one with a famous entrepreneur and founder, whiteboarding the architecture and working deep into the night —  the camaraderie and excitement of the engineers are palpable.

Elon Musk isn't looking for consensus here. He summoned all the engineers into the office and promised long hours and rigid deadlines. He demanded a pledge of loyalty and commitment to "hardcore."

Most managers and most companies could not implement this sort of leadership. It takes charisma and conviction to gather talented engineers and convince them of your vision. Likewise, most governance boards would freak out if a tech leader game into an operating company with a burn it all down and rebuild it mentality.

Here is what I see in this video. The engineers in the picture are young men, many of whom are likely H1B or OPT VISA holders, all of whom are filled with the drive to excel, to the detriment of developing other parts of their lives. Yet, they are the engineers I would hire to rebirth a flagging technology company.

One aspect of Elon Musk's character that makes him so compelling is that he despises mediocrity and lives his life in defiance of it. Grand purges, such as the one at Twitter, undoubtedly purge plenty of mediocre employees at the cost of purging excellent ones additionally. However, he has a lot of money and a willingness to burn it in search of success. Few leaders have this kind of courage.

Twitter could occupy a niche in the technology market that rivals only Apple - that of a comprehensive application. If that is the goal, then purging the engineers, rattling the advertisers, and making big national headlines is the right strategy.

Right now, the Vox Populi is relishing the demise of Twitter because all previous successes and courage aside, he is a jerk. However, if he succeeds, other companies that find themselves in a growth rut should take note: Current ideas about remote work, engineer retention, and servant leadership will need serious re-examination.

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