SpaceX’s Strategy: Recruit the Best, Keep the Parking Lots Full at Night

Falcon 9 takes off on its first flight. (Credit: Chris Thompson SpaceX)

Aviation Week has an essay by an administrator of the University of Michigan’s space engineering graduate programs. The writer surprised to find that five of the top ten students from his school over the past decade now work for SpaceX.

I also noticed that SpaceX recruited only two of them directly from the university. The others were drawn to the company after some years of experience elsewhere—joining SpaceX despite lower salaries and longer work hours. Why do they leave successful jobs in big companies to join a risky space startup? A former student told me, “This is a place where I am the limiting factor, not my work environment.” At SpaceX, he considers himself to be in an entrepreneurial environment in which great young people collaborate to do amazing things. He never felt like this in his previous job with an aerospace company.

My colleagues in universities around the U.S. say they have had similar experiences. SpaceX is winning the battle for the best and most entrepreneurial young talent in the aerospace industry. And with this talent, SpaceX has built a work environment that is very different from those at most aerospace companies, one that values people with an entrepreneurial mind-set. Musk says the company is continuing to look for people who think and act like entrepreneurs. In fact, he considers this entrepreneurial mind-set to be even more important than the smarts of his new employees, opposing the more traditional hiring practices of his competitors.

McDivitt recently spoke about the culture during the early days of NASA and the Apollo program. He said, “The key difference between NASA then and now are the parking lots at night!” McDivitt was talking about the personal dedication, commitment and perseverance of the early NASA employees and contractors, which led to one of the U.S.’s biggest successes.

Today, the SpaceX parking lots are full at night, not because people are forced to put in extra hours, but just like at the early NASA, SpaceX is working in young teams, on the toughest challenges, and realizing that risk is an important aspect of any entrepreneurial activity. That’s why SpaceX attracts the best of the best to join its team.

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