Elon Musk, by Walter Isaacson. Part I

“When Musk gets stressed, he often looks for shelter in the future”

I divide in two parts the review of this book by Walter Isaacson “Elon Musk” (2023, Buenos Aires, Editorial Debate) , and I leave for the second part Musk’s political positions, his acquisition of Tesla, and of Twitter, which is almost half of the book. I will describe here the author’s biographycal style and why he chose Musk.

To begin with, the book not only positions the figure of Elon Musk, but also, Walter Isaacson as the official biographer of this century’s science and technology advances.

In this blog I posted a review in 2022 of Isaacson’s book on Jennifer Doudna and CRISPR, which the author wrote when we were still going through the COVID pandemic, and it was key to understand how ARN vaccines were developed. Also, Isaacson interviewed Steve Jobs when his cancer was advanced and when Apple was the most valuable company in the world. With Musk he made something similar, in the midst of his controversial acquisiton of Twitter, and when his companies where among the most valuables in the world, Isaacson started to write the book. So we could argue that there is a lack of perspective or distance from the personality, or object of the book, what can make his work biased, or not rigourous, at least in academic terms. Of course, this has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that he author publishes the most updated biographies and with an accesst to the crucial people who will tell s about the main character’s personality.

You also need to know that Isaacson has different resources for his biographies. For instance, he always connects the main character’s childhood with his story as an innovator, and with his business decisions. He also plays with the nemesis of the innovator, the cooperation and competition between rivals, As he makes explicit in the book about CRISPR Jennifer Doudna and Eric Lander, or in the book about Jobs with his (so funny) rivalry with Bill Gates.

In this case Musk’s main rivalry will be with Jeff Bezos regarding his space project, although we could might say that in each project he is somebody’s rival. And here we understand why he chose Musk and not Zuckerberg, or Sam Altman, or anybody else: the book allows him to tell about a new stage in scientific and technological developments lead by the private sector. In particular, we can see the privatization of the space race. Hence, NASA outsources with contractos all the processes it was leading, that involved a huge amount and spending in resources and experimentation. SpaceX, as you will see later, has been relevant in building reusable rockets, and at the same time did the first commercial private flights with non-astronauts crew

(Foto vía SpaceX en Facebook)

This entire part remined me of the beginnings of the Internet as a result of the scientific military and defense structure known as the DARPA Project in the United States, which later became ARPANET; and later, the world wide web, or the Internet. It was first financed by the US government, and then, it opened to the private sector, to risk capital. But in the beginning it was a model between universities, companies and public sector. In this case we see the reverse process.

Musk obtained capital and invested his own money to obtain a product that would allow him to disrupt an existing, and regulated, market mainly controlled by governments. States are not going to compete for taking civilians to space just for fun, and they can’t neither burn public funds in order to test new materials -without knowing the why in each change- as Musk did. Thus, the competition with Bezos, and with Richard Branson, from Virgin Galactic, makes space technology in general advance. This is also why Musk has political influence, one that he searched for thoroughly and to which he pays a lot of attention.

Meaning, is very different his profile to an innovator such as Jobs, who was obsessed with a product, or with creating something that would trascend him, but without looking beyond to the political lobby. But, of course, Musk beginnings are similar, with his interest in learning to code, in order to build something of his own, with the creativity of a hacker which dedicates night and day to make something out of his passion.

Imagen vía Teslarati

Life in South Africa, family with love for risk, development of his passion and talent

It all starts with one of Musk’s grandfathers, who was an aviator amateur, and moved from Canada to Southafric. Elon is born in 1971. The familiy motto was “live dangerously with caution” (p. 24). The conflicted relationship of Musk’s parents, who separate when he is young, influence a lot in his closeness with his brother Kimbal, with whom he still works in some of his companies, and with his cousins, with whom he started some of his initial projects around videogames. Elon has Asperger, and suffers bullying during his years at the primary school in Southafrica. His life alternates between Pretoria and Johannesburgo

Actually, I was not going to go deep into things that, for me, had no sense –he explains-. I rather read or played videogames”. He was good at math and physics. And he read a lot, mainly science fiction,. and from that time he was interested in sending a rocket to space, and in possibilites of life beyonf planet Earth

His love for videogames and role games made him buy a computer with the money he made from the gigs he did with his cousins and brother. So he bought at Commodore VIC-20, one of the first personal computers,in which he played games such as Galaxian and Alpha. As the book states, the computer included a programming course in BASIC, with 60 hours lessons. He later bought an IBM PC/XT in which he learn to code and made his first videogame called “Blastar”, which he sent to the PC and Office Technology magazine, in 1984. The magazine payed him 500 dollars, and he later did two more videogames.

After high school, in 1989, he emigrates to Canadá, and he first study at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario), and as he gets bored he moves to Penn University, in Philadelfia, where he studies from 1992 to 1994. He works as an intern in research institutes (believe it or not he was thinking in doing a phd after graduating, and of course, he saw better opportunities starting a business haha) He was very interested in researching about materials innovation (product engineering) and he was also interested in ways of saving fosil energy (or its alternatives)

“My goal was to design products and never having to work for a boss with a business degree”

Silicon Valley

In 1994 he arrives at Palo Alto, it was his last year in Penn, so he obtains summer internships in the valley. In the mornings he worked in the Pinnacle Institute, which had modest contracts with the Defense Department, which had small contracts with the Department of Defense, studying a ““supercondenser” (what Musk described as an innovative technology). In the nights, he worked at Rocket Science, a videogames company where he saw that he could solve problems fast and that he had opportunities to make money. His arrogance also starts there as he saw that he could do things that senior engineers couldn’t do.

In 1995 he founded with his brother KimbalZip2 software, a sort of directory and search engine, for which he gets three million dollars, and where he starts developing his “omnimanager” profile. In this stage is where he decides that if he doesn’t control technology, he can’t direct a company. Zip2 is sold 4 years later to AOL, what gives him 22 dollars to start hinking in his next companies. He is removed from the company’s management, and an interim director in elected.

With Peter Thiel from Paypal, when they joined his X.com and Thiel/Levchin’s company for a hit

Between 1999-2000 in Palo Alto, hi starts X.com, where he wanted to do the same think as Paypal, from Max Levchin and Peter Thiel. But they end up joining Musk and Paypal survives the dotcom bubble crash. A rivalry between Levchin and Musk emerged in terms of decisions about technology, an area in which Levchin was in charge, but where Musk mingled constantly. Here is also modelled his management style in which he unites the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) function with that of Chief of Technology (CTO).

[I’m going to develop on X vin the secondo post, because it says a lot about Musk: he named like that his son with Grimes, and the acquired Twitter]

His obsessive style and his confrontation with Levchin promptes his destitution from Paypal, but he says that the others conspired against him, as Levchin and Thiel go to one of Sequoia’s investors -behind Musk’s back- for him to be out as CEO, an offense that will payback a decade later when Thiel gives him moneyfor his other ventures.

In 2001, when he leaves Paypal, he decides to start SpaceX with the 250 millions that he got for e-bay’s buying Paypal

Isaacson asks: Why? (why does Musk decides to start SpaceX)

Among Musk’s many motivations for colonizing Mars there was “To guarantee the colonization survival and human conscious in the case of something happening to our planet”.

This purpose is quite paradoxical, because as we advance the reading of the chapters, the insatiable need of Musk for buying companies, replacing directives, changing ways of production, and his personal chaos are overshadowed by his “assuring multiplanetary life”. It’s really annoying, and in this pioint Isaacson has 0 critic regarding the character he is describing. Also, in some passages of the book, for example, he mentions how in some launching in which was Grimes (the singer with whom he had his son X) she made a “spell”, or similar, which unfortunalety take away the seriousness that the book could have if we understand that few authors can be so close of characters like these and their environment.

(Crew of SpaceX commercial flights. Photo by SpaceX)

(Image of one of Musk’s private spaceports) via SpaceX

Another quote: “Having a base in Mars would incredibly difficult, and maybe a lot of people along the way will die, just as happened with the colonization of the United States. But it will be extraordinarily inspiring, and in the world we’ve done inspiring things”.

There’s no doubt that Musk’s achievement is amazing, as well as his leadership. But that doesn’t avoid that these quotes show that he rather work to colonize a planet far away, that improving his way of working with humans in planet Earth.

<<There are few big milestones: unicellular life, pluricellular life, the differentiation between vegetals and animals, life’s extension from oceans to earth, mammals, consciousness –affirms-. In that scale, the next important step is eveident: to make life multiplanetary>>. Although it sounds super interesting, we’ll have to analyze later the real chances of this colonizing intent will not create new conflicts for the human race. Something that we won’t analyze here.

Musk’s rules for building rockets

Musk was specially focused in decreasing costs in the construction of rockets, firstly, because he started using hiw own money, but also, because he also thought that the cost-effectivity relation was crucial in order to colonize Mars. When he started SpaceX he travelled to Russia with one of his partners, and the main ideas was buying Dnper Rockets, two old missils, for which the russians asked him 18 million dollar, each. Musk thought that his was very expensive, and thanks to the problems that he found in the buying process, he decided to innovate and create his own.

“He questioned the prices of aerospatial providers charged for the supplies, which were ten times more than similar pieces in the automovile industry”. Also, for mantaining control he wanted to produce a greater amount of components instead of having to buy them to suppliers, also a normal practice in aerospatial and automovile industries. All that he learned in SpaceX he later applied it to Tesla, when he finally is chosen as its CEO (as it was a project from other entrepreneurs in which he invested). Here we can see Jobs’ style of trying to produce something beautiful, well done, that will amuse the buyer.

SpaceX bases in Florida/California) Vía SpaceX

For Musk, the costs of supplies were expensive because they were tide to the thousands of requirements and specifications established by the military and the NASA. That’s were he started to question such specifications, and he encouraged his employees to find out who had wrote those requirements (from the NASA or other agency), to question it, and to think that only the principles of physics were unquestionable. At the same time, he adds executives and key professionals, for their work capacity and training, and for their ability to deal with Musk’s character. One of these is Gwynne Shotwell, named SpaceX’s Vicepresident for commercial development who obtained the first contracts with NASA (for 3.5 million dollars).

Musk’s stubbornness makes him innovating in the production of valves, and aluminum domes, etc. He challenged engineers of both companies (SpaceX and Tesla) to produce cheaper, or smaller. All that innovation in materials implies experimentation, failed attempts (like installing a launching space in a pacific island -Kwaj- which was a bust), which are part of what private capital can allow. The state, every time less.

During the first months of 2022, says Isaacson, SpaceX launched to the space more than double of “mass” (meaning rockets, satellites, and other devices) that all the other companies, together. In april 2022 he sent the fourth mission destined to the International Space Station (three austronauts), and he points that the NASA, by that time, still lacked of any capacity for their own launchings. Starlink was also involved in the war of Ucraine through SpaceX (what I’ll tell you about in Part II of this review). There was no competitor for Musk in this realm, no other company could land orbital rockets nor re use them, that was the essence of Musk’s innovation in the construction of space ships. In particular, the Falcon 9.

In 2022, Musk was among the world’s richest men and the value of the four companies he owned was: Tesla, 1 billion dollars, SpaceX, one hundred thousand dollars, The Boring Company, 5.600 million dollars, Neuralink, one thousand million dollars.

Therefore, we have here a very interesting management and innovation style, but also, a very important amount of political lobby. In all of the special episodes he is caught up with a president, that first he finds admirable, and later, a stupid. From Obama to Trump. As long as they challenge his ideas, or his business, Musk goes from love to hate very fast in politics. But, as the book highlights, even with Musk’s reservations for Biden’s administration, in 2022, he received a recognition by the Pentagon. In words of the Chief of Staff, Marl Milley, Musk symbolizes ” the combination of cooperation and work between the civilian and military team that makes the United States the most powerful country in space”.

Later, in the brief parts dedicated to war in Ucraine, Musk’s incoherences are evident. Such is his initial support with Internet connection to the task forces fighting the russians (Starlink, vía SpaceX), and when that, obviously, allows them to use satellite connections for ther military strategies, Musk cuts such support.

The book is very long like I told you. Is more than the double length than Jobs’, and longer than CRISPR’s (which sums up 20 years of science, imagine). I think that he tries to include ALL of Musk’s subjects (his wives,his children, SpaceX, Tesla, Startlink, Neuralink, Twitter) and for this Isaacson can’t go deeper into an analysis of the innovation at sight. I mean, in the book about Doudna and CRISPR the guy researched a lot about CRISPR; DNA, RNA, how that scientific community worked, etc. I see a lack of depth of what could’ve been a thorough analysis of the innovation in materials and construction that Musk did. If I enter SpaceX’s website, or Starlink’s I find a great amount of rockets, devices of which we could’ve learned a lot more. Another issue is translation: in one part they write “Peter Field” (¿?), and terms in the spanish from Spain which make me think ¿”which word do we even use for this´?

All that I said above changes a little he perception about Musk, because when he starts buying companies already doing business (Paypal, Tesla)), I see him more as an expert negotiation, or like Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel said in the book, “a force of nature”.

In summary, the first part of the book shows how an inmigrant who settles in Silicon Valley with an ovewhelming talent and personality, and once he gets capital and makes his character known, he has few restrictions to make his multiplanetary goal real. Beyond my reservations and not standing some parts of the book, watching some videos and images of what he has done is incredible.

References

On ARPANET “Short History of the Internet”, Internet Society https://www.internetsociety.org/internet/history-internet/?gclid=Cj0KCQiAqsitBhDlARIsAGMR1RjZipwtDRDLlSi_vIQjO_ZXh7r9f59w7DAS-Gf9dJfGFuKfapfSMlMaAo9wEALw_wcB In spanish in Wikipediando also (my doctoral dissertation)

Isaacson, W. (2022) The codebreaker”. DEBATE

Isaacson, W. (2015). Steve Jobs. Buenos Aires: DEBOLSILLO

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