Elon Musk's 5-Step Process of Successful Engineering

How does it come that Elon Musk has been so successful in those various technological fields he is in? Why don’t we ask him? I will introduce you to Elon Musk’s 5-Step Process to Successful Engineering. Those steps apply to all kinds of engineering, be it software 👩🏻‍💻, requirements 📄 or mechanical engineering ⚙. Musk explains his simple but effective protocol for engineering success while being interviewed on an on-site tour at the Starbase facility. You will find a link to the video at the end.

Step 1: Make your requirements less dumb 🧠

Let’s be honest - we all make mistakes. This is not a problem as long as we admit it to ourselves and act accordingly. As Elon Musk says,

“your requirements are definitely dumb […] - no matter who you are.”

We should actually take care as “requirements are particularly dangerous when they come from a smart person - because you might not question them enough”.

He comes up with another tip: “Every requirement must come with a name - not a department. Because you can’t ask a department, you have to ask a person.”

Step 2: Try very hard to delete parts of the process 🚮

“If you are not occasionally adding things back in, you are not deleting enough.”

Elon Musk enforces being lean all the time - to keep things as simple as possible, all the time. You have to set priorities in all matters. Or in the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. This becomes clearer when we look at the next step:

Step 3: Simplify or optimize 📈

… but only, and only(!) as the third step. As Musk says, “possibly the most common error of a smart engineer” is:

“To optimize the thing that should not exist.”

So, the third step actually enforces and implies the second one: Before thinking of optimizing something, take a deep dive into your requirements and consider yourself if you actually and absolutely need that part of the system.

Step 4: Accelerate cycle time ⏭

Musk advises you:

“If you are moving too slowly, move faster”.

As an engineer or project manager, you will probably be familiar with agile methods like SCRUM. You know how to break things down into smaller cycles to be focused and get things done more efficiently. But he also advises you to “not go faster until you worked on the other three things first”. Again, order matters. If you do the wrong things, stop.

“If you’re digging your grave, don’t dig it faster”.

Step 5: Automate ⚙

The last step is quite self-explaining. But to complete the idea, let’s think of the synergetic power of humans and machines working together. When people join their powers and add machines to it, their efficiency multiplies. This effect is called emergence.

👉 Conclusion:

Never do these steps in the wrong direction. Even Elon Musk admits that he has made that mistake quite a few times:

“I have personally made the mistake of going backward on all five steps multiple times. I literally automated, accelerated, simplified and then deleted”.

💡 I hope this approach may help you in becoming a better engineer, designer or manager, or a better engineering company. Sticking to this process, you may build and ship better products and experience the growth you want.

Here is the video of Elon Musk explaining his steps (from 13:32 to 28:24) and more:

Starbase build site tour with Elon Musk

Do you want to read more content like this? You can find me on LinkedIn. Let’s connect or follow me there so you will not miss out on any content on software engineering and product management: https://www.linkedin.com/in/konradchristian/

Written by
Christian Konrad
Product Manager, UI/UX Designer and Web Developer in Frankfurt a. Main, Germany. T-shaped, focused on building experiences by forming habits.