Are SpaceX’s 60 to 80 Hour Work Weeks Really Such a Good Idea?

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

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.

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  • Bob Smith

    This is a very odd situation. First off, “human resources” hired a bunch of people that couldn’t engineer rockets so NASA had to give space x the DRAWING S for the Saturn 5. Only 2 launch failures is miraculous. The whole deal stinks.

  • mike_shupp

    You jest. SpaceX is located in Hawthorne, California — off in the southwest corner of Los Angeles, over by LAX, That’s the area frequented by Northrop Aircraft, TRW, Rockwell’s B-1 Division, Hughes Aircraft, USAF;s Space and Missiles Command Center, the Rand Corporation, and dozens of smaller aerospace and defense firms. It’d be bizarre if Musk couldn’t find machinists and engineers and programmers and managers in that area with a great deal of experience in rocket building.

  • DJN

    Congrats Doug! Looks like you’ve found yourself another billionaire to rail against.

  • Hug Doug

    Wot?

    So many things wrong with this comment. SpaceX basically started off as Elon Musk collaborating with some rocket engine designers. The Merlin 1A engine design was heavily based off of NASA’s FASTRAC rocket engine, but with a clean-sheet turbopump design. The FASTRAC engine had a pintle type fuel injector very similar to the fuel injector used on the Apollo lunar lander.

    So maybe the FASTRAC was what you were thinking of, because NASA doesn’t have any one set of drawings for the Saturn V. Each part of it was divided up between the contractors, who each had their own set of drawings for each part they built. Additionally, each Saturn V was slightly different due to incremental improvements being made to them.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thank you. Coming from an anonymous Elon Musketeer fan boy, that is high praise. High praise, indeed!

  • Geo Dav

    yes working long hours has issues which should be well known by now, personnally i don’t approve of 40+ hrs a week, it’s also nice that everyone points the finger at SX when things go wrong, which has never happened to the other rocket companies !!!!
    the fact that SX is trying to lower the price is worth note. all those nay sayer here should look at what they buy. Can you honestly say that everything you have bought was made by people who only work 38 hrs a week !!!!

  • Terry Stetler

    I’m not anonymous, and being a retired medical type put in at least the stated number of hours a week for decades. As do a great many of my brethren across the world. Moreover, farmers etc. often start before dawn and go until dusk. I was raised in a farm and kept that schedule until college.

    One of this country’s problems is that too many gen-x and millennials protesteth too much about hard work.

  • Richard Malcolm

    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.

    I do wonder how those hours are distributed. Who gets counted in that stat?

  • Richard Malcolm

    I don’t know if the hours really are a problem. But I do wonder if Messier doesn’t indeed have a point about the multi-tasking practice. He’s far from the first to raise the concern about it at SpaceX, as Eric Berger noted earlier this month.

  • Terry Stetler

    Go to a trauma center ER, NICU, radiology special procedures unit or surgical department and you’ll observe 60-80+ hour/week multitasking at Olympic levels – with lives in the line in real time. 24/7/365. And they take on-call when not in duty, as in 0300 phone calls. And not just the MD’s.

  • Richard Malcolm

    I don’t doubt if for a second, Terry.

    The question is how comparable advanced engineering projects like this are to the tasks in an ER. I’m sure I’m not the best person to answer that. But it’s something that, again, people in the industry have expressed concerns about.

    Again, back to the Eric Berger piece at Ars Technica from three weeks ago:

    One person I spoke to recently who is intimately familiar with NASA’s commercial crew dealings with SpaceX and Boeing said both companies face major technical challenges. And while this source wasn’t particularly complimentary of Boeing, noting its interest in maximizing revenue from NASA, that company at least had dedicated a team of engineers to the project. When this person meets with SpaceX engineers, however, the team members are invariably working on several different projects in addition to commercial crew. “If we could only get them to focus,” this source told me.

    http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/09/we-love-spacex-and-we-hope-it-reaches-mars-but-we-spacex-to-focus/

    The truth is, most of us just don’t know how exactly the engineering departments are operating on the ground there. Lots of speculation. But if knowledgeable sources are expressing the concern, it’s at least worth reporting on – and for the relevant parties at NASA et al to press for some detailed answers.

  • Douglas Messier

    Without seeing the full data, it’s hard to really evaluate that claim. Is that everyone? Most people? How do you define most? I think it’s possible they have reduced hours from crazy to merely long.

    The majority of the Glass Door reviews mention long hours under “cons” of working at SpaceX. Some comments say that hours surge before deadlines and that SpaceX is continually setting unrealistic goals and deadlines for projects.

  • Douglas Messier

    SpaceX has always taken pride in working its employees to the bone. Musk himself has pointed to the parking lot being full on the weekends as evidence of the dedication of his employees. So, when things go wrong, people point fingers at SpaceX’s work practices.

  • Richard Malcolm

    I can’t disagree with any of that, Doug.

    It’s an answer that deserves more unpacking by SpaceX, if they really want to address this concern.

  • Geo Dav

    i agree that way is wrong 40hr should be the legal max, but untill the fault is found and re-produced (Q&A) nobody can point any fingers, one thing they do need to learn is that cheap rocket still need to be reliable, you wouldn’t buy a cheap new car if you knew it broke down every year.

  • redneck

    If you think it should be illegal to work over 40 hours, you are part of one of the problems.

  • numbers_guy101

    What were the work weeks like during Apollo?

  • windbourne

    look, most likely the average person works 50 hours.
    However, there will always be ppl that love their jobs and will put in a LOT MORE EFFORT.
    Prior to 6 years ago, I used to put in 50-80 because I enjoyed the work.
    And if I did not enjoy, then it was 40 hrs since I would start making mistakes.
    So, I would not worry to awefully much about their hours.

  • windbourne

    every high-tech company sets unrealistic goals and deadlines. That is just the norm.
    And it is no different than what it was back in the 50s,60s with 1 major exception. Back then, most of the engineers and workers were married and had their wives to take care of the home front. Now, we are split with men and women working these jobs and not as much pay per hr as we used to make.

  • windbourne

    Is it SX working their employees to the bone, OR employees choosing to do this work?
    There is a HUGE difference.

  • windbourne

    good luck pointing fingers at hard working ppl and claiming that they are the problem.
    Rarely is that the case, UNLESS it is the company forcing it.

  • windbourne

    Actually, I think that Doug is doing a great job. A great reporter will find stories and keep digging into it.
    SX is NOT perfect, and most everybody here will tell you that Im generally an SX fan.

  • windbourne

    In fact, many in the ER will work 32-40 hrs in a row.
    Personally, I never liked having the doc do that, but, even I have to admit that it is easy to stay awake when the Adrenalin rush hits.

  • windbourne

    oh boy.
    THAT IS A PROBLEM. Most engineers like to have 2-3 projects on-going at all times. However, they are almost always the same project. Having 2 or more with no relation can produce a lot of mind wandering, much more so than the long hours will.

  • windbourne

    huh?

  • Terry Stetler

    I’ve lost count of how many 30-40 hour stretches I put in, not counting going in on a Friday evening and not going home until sometime Monday because a ‘plane hit a train & they hit a bus.’ 24/7 for the entire weekend.

    As to the tech level, very high. Everything from superconducting magnets, radiation and biohazard environments, additive manufacturing (custom implants), you name it. Medical centers today are extremely high tech, and extremely high stress.

  • Terry Stetler

    ” The question is how comparable advanced engineering projects like this are to the tasks in an ER. I’m sure I’m not the best person to answer that. But it’s something that, again, people in the industry have expressed concerns about.,

    See my reply to windbourne. Very high tech, high risk (radiation, pathogens & combative patients, prisoners or visitors – our ER was no stranger to gunfire & knife fights), long hours stretching to days, and stress up the wazoo.

  • Geo Dav

    uhm, flameing nice, as ex-forces (10 years) at times you worked till it was finished even if that ment 24-48 hrs, later i’ve worked 38.5 then 45 and hopefully soon back to 38.5 , it depends on the job, if you want quality then the workers need to concentrate and trust me you can’t do that non-stop for 12 hours a day, been there done that got the t-shirt

  • windbourne

    Oh, decades ago, I used to be an EMT. LOVED IT. Loved the rush and the winning. Hated losing, esp. when younger (thankfully, I never had a child, which is why I turned down going to med school).

    BUT, one thing about work in the hospital, is that you did the shift and then had several days off, typically 4. That allowed you to catch up.

    With the tech, it is none-stop and even when you go home, you still dream about what to do.
    Some of my best solutions came either in sleep, driving the 1.5 hrs to work, or in the shower.

  • redneck

    Your statement was not employee burnout or focus, but making it illegal to work over 40. As such, words are not strong enough.

  • Flatley

    The question isn’t “Do people in field X work longer/harder hours.” The question is “when designing and building flight hardware, are 50+ hour weeks optimal?” In the Marines, we “worked” 120 hour work weeks from time to time. Yee-haw. Doesn’t mean that’s any way to build a rocket. For me personally, the answer to my second question is “no,” which is why I never bothered to even apply to SpaceX, much as I would have loved to work there.

    For the organization as a whole, I agree with Doug that any short-term savings gained from having your salaried employees work long hours are easily going to get wiped out by mistakes — even mistakes which don’t lead to hardware loss will lead to lost time — and employee burnout. Elon has such a long-term vision in other areas that I’m surprised he can’t see the long-term costs associated with his company’s workaholic culture.

  • patb2009

    ” 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.”

    That may even be true but, 52*40 =2080 Standard work Hours in a year..
    Subtract 10 days ( Federal Holidays) -80
    Subtract 10 days ( Standard Leave) -80
    Subtract 10 days ( Standard sick leave) -80
    Subtract 3 days ( Personal time ) -24

    Gives you 1816 Available work hours per year…
    Device by 52 and you have 35 Hours/week.

    If you assume the SpaceX employees are working 50-57, it means they are putting in 15-22 hours per week of effective overtime…

    45 Weeks * 57 means that SpaceX employees can be putting up to 2575 hours per year. That’s 20% more time at work then most workers,

  • patb2009

    Lots of Overtime and gee people missed stuff like the
    “Checklist item on Apollo 11, that overloaded the master computer”,
    “The 72 VDC Compatibility on the Oxygen tanks on Apollo 13″
    ” Docking probe lubrication on apollo 14″.

    Lots of close calls on that

  • patb2009

    Every year for a breakdown on a car is tolerable.
    Every week is not.

  • patb2009

    yes and there is a serious push to limit that. Too many medical errors. Aerospace has noted that when too many hours are worked, pilots and mechanics miss simple stuff and kill people

  • patb2009

    well FWIW, The taxpayers paid for the Saturn V, so licensing the drawing to industry isn’t a bad idea.

  • LA Julian

    I take it your job didn’t involve good grammar or correct spelling. I hope you weren’t working at a newspaper or magazine publisher!

  • patb2009

    ” 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.”

    That may even be true but, 52*40 =2080 Standard work Hours in a year..
    Subtract 10 days ( Federal Holidays) -80
    Subtract 10 days ( Standard Leave) -80
    Subtract 10 days ( Standard sick leave) -80
    Subtract 3 days ( Personal time ) -24

    Gives you 1816 Available work hours per year…
    Device by 52 and you have 35 Hours/week.

    If you assume the SpaceX employees are working 50-57, it means they are putting in 15-22 hours per week of effective overtime…

    45 Weeks * 57 means that SpaceX employees can be putting up to 2575 hours per year. That’s 40%% more time at work then most workers,

  • windbourne

    no, software engineer.
    I take it that your job does not involve any thinking or logic.

  • Geo Dav

    tbh if you want to work 60-80 hrs a week go for it, personnaly i don’t want to, been there it’s not funny, and depending on what job your doing can be deadly for you or by-standers, can’t say i’ve heard of a Boss who dead because one of his workers was worked to the bone !!
    but lets leave it at that and hope SpaceX manages things a bit better.

  • Patrick Wright

    Overtime works in the short term, but its always compensated for eventually by undertime where people need to catch up with their non-work lives.