Op-ed | 3 things to know if you want to work for SpaceX
SpaceX is arguably one of the coolest companies you can dream of working for. Elon Musk’s team now consists of over 4,000 employees spread across the United States, from its headquarters in California to its launch facility in Florida, rocket-development facility in Texas, and additional offices in Virginia and Washington.
With a busy launch manifest and big backlog, SpaceX is the fastest growing provider of launch services and one the hardest places to land a job.
Here are three things you should know if you’re bold enough to throw your name into the ring.
1. The hiring bar is the top 1 percent of the human population. And then gets higher
Head to the top ranked engineering universities in the nation and then eliminate the bottom 90 percent of the bell curve. That’s square one for where SpaceX begins aggressively recruiting candidates. From there, they look for soon-to-be graduates who have won engineering competitions, have stellar GPAs and standardized test scores, and have demonstrated real grit when dealing with hardware and software development issues. They use elite universities’ strict acceptance requirements as a pre-screen and then look for students who have already proved they are truly exceptional.
But what if you didn’t get into one of the top engineering programs? Dolly Singh, SpaceX’s former head of talent acquisition, says there’s still hope. Your goal should be to gain exposure by killing it at a major competition like Formula SAE in Michigan, where teams compete to build an open-wheel race car. Focus your energies on building real things, joining networks of top engineers, and seeking out opportunities in geospatial programming, propulsion, or mechatronics. If you’re low on money and experience, a great way to do this is to dive into open-source scientific computing software. Identify what makes you tick the most, and then do everything you can to be the ultimate best at it.
2. There are a lot of backdoor entry points
Good news. If you never gave up on your childhood dreams to go to space, but you really don’t have an engineering bone in your body, you can still get close to the action. As long as you follow the advice in the previous point. When SpaceX needed someone to man the frozen yogurt counter, Musk directed Dolly Singh to “‘go to Pinkberry and find me the employee of the month, and I want to hire the employee of the month.’” For every single position, Musk wants to “find the single best person on the freaking planet” and then be convinced “why out of how many billion people on the planet that this is the guy.”
Currently, job openings are as varied as Welding Supervisor and Environmental Health and Safety Engineer. They hire spacesuit designers and baristas. Graphic designers and line cooks. The only thing that ties together this oddball list of jobs is a singular focus on finding the person in each field who can prove they are the one in 7 billion who is the most exceptional at executing the job.
3. Work/life balance means work is your life
It’s often said that working for Musk can be a grind. He has said himself, “SpaceX is like Special Forces… we do the missions that others think are impossible. We have goals that are absurdly ambitious by any reasonable standard, but we’re going to make them happen.” How? Oftentimes by demanding the impossible of SpaceX employees. It’s not unheard of for SpaceX engineers to work 80-120-hour weeks, although some current SpaceXers say such marathon work weeks are not the norm. In his 2015 best seller Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashley Vance wrote that Musk tends to set “the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate[s] it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”
Benjamin Klein, a mechanical engineer from Georgia Tech, accepted a job as a test engineer last summer, explaining that the thrill of SpaceX’s fast-paced work culture is what made the job so much more appealing than working for NASA. “NASA has so many rules and regulations now, because it’s so government-owned, that they don’t get to move as fast as they want to,” he told The Gainesville Times, his local paper. But at SpaceX, Musk is “trying to move this company as fast as he possibly can. So he is always doing launches, trying to find new contracts and move the company fast.” Klein joked about how much he’d be working as a rocket scientist for Musk, noting he’d heard a saying that “if you don’t come to work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”
Not surprisingly, demanding work schedules create some labor pains. Those are flaring up right now. In October, a former SpaceX technician named Stan Saprito filed a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of not properly accounting for overtime and failing to allow workers their state-mandated 30-minute meal break after five hours of work.
Still, SpaceX must be doing something right on the HR front. A survey of 18 big tech employers released in March by Seattle-based PayScale found that SpaceX employees find their jobs stressful but meaningful, with 92 percent saying the work they’re doing is making the world a better place. A similar attitude was found at Tesla, Musk’s electric car company.
Drew Hendricks is a freelance writer and social media strategist who has written for Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Huffington Post and others.