Is Elon Musk Just a Sales Guy?

Does Elon Musk actually do engineering work, or is he more of a sales guy?

Erik Engheim
7 min readDec 21, 2021

A lot of people seem to think that Elon Musk is just some kind of economics and marketing guy. However Elon Musk has been involved in science and engineering most of his life.

The taught himself programming at a young age:

Around age 10, Musk developed an interest in computing and video games and acquired a Commodore VIC-20. He learned computer programmingusing a manual and, by age 12, sold the code of a BASIC-based video game he created called Blastar to PC and Office Technology magazine for approximately $500.

He has the following education from University of Pensylvania:

  • Economics — Bachelor of Science.
  • Physics — Bachelor of Arts.

Elon Musk showed enough talent for Physics to get accepted for a Ph.D. program in energy Physics at the Stanford University of Calefornia, which he dropped out of to found Zip2.

However Elon Musk did actually do real scientific work as an intern at energy storage startup Pinnacle Research Institute.

Later before starting SpaceX Elon Musk taught himself rocket science, and has since been deeply involved in the engineering decisions taken. No that doesn’t mean an empty suit just signing off on papers. That means being deeply involved in discussing and figuring out complex engineering questions. How do we know this? We get it confirmed by numerous rocket engineers who have worked with Elon Musk such as Jim Cantrell.

Jim Cantrell on Elon Musk

Jim details in this Quora answer how Musk learned rocket science and how deep that knowledge ran.

He is by far the single smartest person that I have ever worked with … period. I can’t estimate his IQ but he is very very intelligent. And not the typical egg head kind of smart. He has a real applied mind. He literally sucks the knowledge and experience out of people that he is around. He borrowed all of my college texts on rocket propulsion when we first started working together in 2001.

It is also important to note how Elon Musk had will power and determination to succeed that few others possess. Many dismiss Elon Musk as some kind of billionaire who just threw money at the problem and other people made the problem magically go away. Reality was that without his relentless leadership, SpaceX could never have succeeded. This is how Jim Cantrell describes giving up on SpaceX in the early years:

I sat there and looked around at our merry band of misfit engineers and designers, all of us refugees from Corporate America, none of us dressed better the average beach goer, and thought to myself “and we are going to revolutionize the space transportation business ???”. I could not conceive of success at that point. So I thought about why I was staying there in this job in Los Angeles, which I had escaped from some 25 years earlier on purpose, and what I might expect out of it. I soon came to realize that the only reason that I might stay was to make money and I frankly could not see us succeeding technically nor financially. So I left

Garrett Reisman on Elon Musk

Garett Reisman is an American engineer and former NASA austronout. In an interview with Joe Rogan about what it is like to work for Elon Musk he remarks on how Elon Musk does not simply have deep knowledge about one technical field, but about multiple:

What’s really remarkable to me is the breadth of his knowledge. I mean I’ve met a lot of super super smart people but they’re usually super super smart on one thing and he’s able to have conversations with our top engineers about the software, and the most arcane aspects of that and then he’ll turn to our manufacturing engineers and have discussions about some really esoteric welding process for some crazy alloy and he’ll just go back and forth and his ability to do that across the different technologies that go into rockets cars and everything else he does.

Joshua Boehm on Elon Musk

Joshua Boehm is the former Head of Software Quality Assurance at SpaceX. This is what he said when asked about whether Elon Musk does very technical work at SpaceX.

Elon is both the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Technology Officer of SpaceX, so of course he does more than just ‘some very technical work’. He is integrally involved in the actual design and engineering of the rocket, and at least touches every other aspect of the business (but I would say the former takes up much more of his mental real estate). Elon is an engineer at heart, and that’s where and how he works best.

John Carmack on Elon Musk

If you grew up playing Doom on LAN parties like me, you know very well id Software and John Carmack. He is a legendary software developer, well known for his talent in creating highly realistic high performance 3D graphics. Like Elon Musk, he is also a razor sharp guy who can get into almost any technology. This is what he has tweeted about Elon Musk:

Elon Musk Explaining His Own Role

An important part of showing other people comment one what Elon Musk does, is that it lends credibility to what Elon Musk says himself about his role at SpaceX. What he states is nothing out of the ordinary based on what current and former colleagues have said about his technical expertise.

This is from an interview with Elon Musk back in 2007, where he talks about the design and process around the Falcon 1 rocket. This is the first rocket launched by SpaceX. It was rocket made before Falcon 9.

You know the Falcon 1, I could redraw substantial portions of the rocket from memory without the blueprints.

Tim Dodd, host of the Youtube channel The Everyday Astronaut, interviewed Elon Musk at the site of the Starship construction. In one segment they get talking about Elon Musk’s role as Chief Engineer.

Tim Dodd: “What people don’t understand is that you’re the lead engineer. You’re literally sitting”

Musk: “Literally. This is a… I’ve actually had a dinner with some, with a, with a friend and he was like ‘well who’s the chief engineer of SpaceX?’ I was like it’s me. He was like ‘it’s not you, who is it?’ Look it’s either someone with a very low ego or I don’t know.”

A Y Combinator interview also touches upon his role in more detail:

Interviewer: What do you do when you’re at SpaceX and Tesla? What does your time look like there?

Elon: Yes, it’s a good question. I think a lot of people think I must spend a lot of time with media or on businessy things*. But actually almost all my time, like 80% of it, is spent on engineering and design.* Engineering and design, so it’s developing next-generation product. That’s 80% of it.

Interviewer: You probably don’t remember this. A very long time ago, many, many, years, you took me on a tour of SpaceX. And the most impressive thing was that you knew every detail of the rocket and every piece of engineering that went into it. And I don’t think many people get that about you.

Elon: Yeah. I think a lot of people think I’m kind of a business person or something, which is fine. Business is fine. But really it’s like at SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell is Chief Operating Officer. She manages legal, finance, sales, and general business activity. And then my time is almost entirely with the engineering team, working on improving the Falcon 9 and our Dragon spacecraft and developing the Mars Colonial architecture. At Tesla, it’s working on the Model 3 and, yeah, so I’m in the design studio, take up a half a day a week, dealing with aesthetics and look-and-feel things. And then most of the rest of the week is just going through engineering of the car itself as well as engineering of the factory. Because the biggest epiphany I’ve had this year is that what really matters is the machine that builds the machine, the factory. And that is at least two orders of magnitude harder than the vehicle itself.

What is the Purpose of This Story?

Personally I don’t’ think this story onto itself is all that interesting, so why write it? The misconceptions about Elon Musk is simply so frequent that it is useful for people to have a link to a source which can set the record straight. That also applies if I write any story about anything Elon Musk or SpaceX related.

I don’t want to be sucked into endless debates with people claiming Elon Musk is a fraud, charlatan, clever sales guy or similar rather than an actual technical person. It can get distracting to spend energy on such basics. Thus it is better to have a page properly documenting who Elon Musk is.

Of course you will never be able to convince everyone. There are people who have dedicate a lot of resources into having whole websites tracking anything Elon Musk has every said which has been proven wrong on inaccurate. For some reason, there are many people who see it as important to “get” Elon Musk for something.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Elon Musk actually writes a fair amount of stupid stuff on twitter. For instance a lot of the nutty stuff he said about COIVD19. However being wrong on COVID19 doesn’t mean Elon Musk is clueless about rockets. Even very smart people can make grave mistakes. Anyone having problems grasping that may be interested in reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. It talks about how we humans have two different systems for thinking.

Other Stories about Space Exploration and Elon Musk

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Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.