Elon Musk has been credited with bringing Silicon Valleyesque practices to the rocket industry: the 60 to 80 hour weeks, frequent hardware as software upgrades, multi-tasking, free coffee, vested stock options, gala holiday parties each more extravagant than the last, and the other things.
The recent problems the company has experienced — two destroyed launchers and payloads in 14 months — has got me wondering whether Musk has pushed things too far. Every time the company has tried to increase the launch cadence, it has run into major problems (helium leaks in 2014, catastrophic failures in 2015 and 2016).
It’s not that these setbacks have been specifically tied to errors by overworked employees (at least not publicly, anyway). But, given the thin line between success and failure in the rocket business, and SpaceX having just destroy a rocket in a manner so rare it’s not seen in decades, you have to wonder if the company should rethink its famous ‘you’re free to work any 80 hours a week you want’ work ethic.
Obviously some people can work those kinds of crazy hours. Musk seems to be among them. There are always going to be workaholics who thrive in that type of environment and know no other way to live.
However, studies have shown that productivity tends to drop off for most people after a certain point. They become careless. They start making mistakes. They become vulnerable to depression and other health problems. They get burned out in a couple of years, leading to departures that deprive a company of experienced employees. [Why Working 6 Days A Week Is A Terrible Idea]
There’s another aspect of Silicon Valley life that Musk seems to have imported into the rocket business: multi-tasking. It appears that a number of the employees assigned to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program are also working on other projects as well.
This practice raises a couple of issues. One is whether SpaceX is short changing NASA, which is paying the company billions of dollars to develop the vehicle and fly crews to the International Space Station. Given the size and importance of the program, and the additional risks that come with flying crew rather than cargo, Crew Dragon should have SpaceX’s full attention.
The other problem is that studies have also shown that multi-tasking is not good for most employees. It tends to kill productivity and may even damage people’s brains by overloading them with too much information. [Multitasking Damages Your Brain and Your Career, New Studies Suggest]
Aside from the negative impacts on workers spending 60 to 80 hours weeks multitasking, the studies raise another question. Is Silicon Valley’s work ethic really that effective? Does it really help tech companies turn out good products?
On the surface, the answer appears to be yes. Silicon Valley produces amazing software, apps, phones, etc. The companies there create products that are essential to our daily lives.
However, it’s also true that the software and gadgets Silicon Valley produces are usually full of bugs. The software and systems seem to be ridiculously hackable. [Yahoo says 500 million accounts stolen] Companies rush products to market without insufficient testing. When things go wrong, it doesn’t seem like people are always held accountable. Some of them end up richer than the dreams of Avarice regardless of the results. (I’m looking at you, Marissa Mayer.)
The question is how much better software could be if they not were not produced by people working exceedingly long hours. Or, in the case of Chinese phone factories, assembling phones in awful conditions while working crazy hours for obscenely low pay. (If there’s any justice in the world, Steve Jobs is spending eternity working on an assembly line at Foxconn’s Hades division.)
This is not just a matter of hacked email accounts and stolen credit card numbers. It’s possible that in a war, hackers could take down the power grid, communications — everything that society needs to function and the military needs to fight. The very thing we have built an enormous amount of wealth and power on thus becomes our greatest vulnerability.
That hasn’t happened (yet), and hopefully never will. In the meantime, we’re left with a stark reality. Bugs in software can be fixed. Errors in hardware lead to spectacular failures like the one we saw on Sept. 1. Another accident like that and SpaceX is going to have a serious credibility problem with NASA, the U.S. Air Force and its commercial customers.
SpaceX will, by necessity, have to rethink how it approaches the issue of reliability. At the AIAA Space conference, SpaceX employees were very proud of their ability to recover Falcon 9 first stages. They were quick to stress that recovering the boosters will greatly improve reliability.
That’s all true enough. However, it does SpaceX little good to have a hangar full of first stages when the second stage seems to be failing on a regular basis. Did SpaceX become so obsessed with landing the first stage that it ignored quality control on the rest of the vehicle?
There are other ways of ensuring reliability. United Launch Alliance has reeled off 111 successful launches in a row with three different launch vehicles — Delta II, Delta IV and Atlas V — without once recovering a stage for reuse. Atlas V and Delta IV have flown in multiple configurations. That’s no mean feat. Yes, ULA is expensive, but it has been reliable.
Perhaps SpaceX needs to slow down, cut back on the hours, and hire some more people to pick up the slack. This would, of course, raise costs and probably require the company to raise its low, low prices. But, if it avoids another accident, then it will be worth the cost.
I’m not really betting on that happening. Perhaps there will be some minor changes. But, I’m not sure Musk knows how to run a company any other way.
Update: I got an email from a SpaceX flack saying that SpaceX’s data show SpaceX employees are working an average of 50 to 57 hours per week.