- Parabolic Arc
- June 2, 2023
SpaceX HR Guy Sets Up, Knocks Down Strawman
SpaceX Vice President of Human Resources Brian Bjelde was on Reddit doing an Ask Me Anything session yesterday. He provided a textbook example of how to avoid answering an awkward question by simply answering another one.
Q: Historically, SpaceX has had a reputation for overworking (50+ hours/week), setting aggressive(unrealistic) goals/projects, and a well above industry average turnover rate. As VP of HR, how have/are you working on fixing this reputation?
Bjelde: We recruit people who are incredibly driven by our mission, but it’s a myth that most of our employees are working 100 or even 80 hour weeks on a regular basis. Sometimes you have incredibly tight schedules that you need to keep, and that just goes along with launching rockets. But we want our employees to be productive over the long term and that means working at a pace that’s sustainable. We encourage employees to pace themselves, and our managers pay close attention to whether people are driving themselves too hard for long periods. This is one of the biggest myths I hear about working at SpaceX, so I always want to knock this idea down!
Now, note what the questioner asked (50+ hours/week) and how Bjelde chose to answer it (80-100/week). I know that the former is accurate; I’ve heard work weeks ranging from a low of 50 or 60 hours to a high of 80 hours per week. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain about 80 to 100 hours per week. Also, note how he qualified the “myth” as being that “most of our employees” work those types of hours.
Bjelde 1, Strawman 0.
Not everyone on Reddit was buying this explanation, either. Here’s a couple of more questions on the subject that Bjelde chose not to answer. The second one appears to have come from someone inside SpaceX.
Q: 7 days a week seem pretty typical answers when I’ve asked employees how much they work. Is 70 hours a week a “myth” as well? Is everyone I talk to lying?
FYI, I dont think working your employees like this is wrong necessarily. They are changing the world and paying to do it with their free time. Perfectly acceptable IMO
Q: So then….60-70 hours a week? Sure any one week up to a huge deadline and fine. But I’m still regularly seeing 50-60hrs as the de facto norm every week reported around here. That is burnout city as far as I’m concerned.
I would also note that SpaceX has been sued by former workers who say they were denied breaks required by laws by the very managers whom Bjelde says pay close attention to their subordinates.
Bjelde also answered the question about turnover.
23 responses to “SpaceX HR Guy Sets Up, Knocks Down Strawman”
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Asking for a straight forward honest, probably unflattering answer to a question in a public forum from an executive of… any company, is um… yeah….
“Our employees are overworked, underpaid and burned out. And our approach to labor laws is oh….how can I put this….highly selective.”
— said No HR Representative, Ever
Something like that.
Burned out at work SpaceX staff, steel, however, it is very desirable for other companies, including competitors SpaceX. Not so bad.
Jim Cantrell, CEO and Co-Founder
Jim Cantrell is a well known entrepreneur and expert in space systems and has 30 years of experience in the aerospace and high technology industries. Jim was part of the SpaceX founding team and served as the company’s first Vice President of Business Development.
John Garvey, CTO and Co-Founder
John is a 30 year space veteran who was deeply involved with the early development of SpaceX, has developed launch vehicles and launch operations for the McDonnell Douglas Delta III and Delta IV, the DCX-A single stage to orbit vehicle for BMDO, Sea Launch and micro satellite launch vehicles for Garvey Spacecraft Corporation.
Note that work in SpaceX listed at the beginning of rezume.
I don’t doubt that the hours are long and the work pace brisk at SpaceX. For the company to have accomplished what it has, matters could hardly be otherwise. What I don’t see is how this is viewed as a pathology. SpaceX is a heavy industrial manufacturing company. My experience of such places is that the shop floor rank and file tend to like lots of overtime. That was certainly true in the blue collar town I grew up in, the GM factory town I went to school in and in the big aerospace plants that used to be rather thicker on the ground out here in SoCal when I first arrived in the mid-70’s than they are now. I still see want ads for blue collar specialties, such as machinists, that specifically mention overtime is routine. Companies don’t put things in their want ads that aren’t calculated to attract applicants.
A sizable cottage industry has grown up to crank out unflattering rumors about SpaceX. You seem inclined to believe them all. Mr. Bjelde’s answer may have been a bit of a dodge, but the question he was asked was, itself, basically a minor variation on, “Are you still beating your wife?” I don’t think that class of question deserves much of an answer, on Reddit or elsewhere.
As for those lawsuits alleging violation of labor laws, this is America. Anyone can file suit against a ham sandwich. A great many Americans have unreasonable senses of entitlement and California seems to lead the nation in this as in so much else. If SpaceX loses any of these lawsuits, then you’ll have a legitimate talking point – not before.
I’ve heard a lot of things from reliable sources about working conditions at SpaceX. They confirm what Ashlee Vance wrote in his biography of Elon Musk. If anything, Vance understated some of the negative aspects.
“Mr. Bjelde’s answer may have been a bit of a dodge, but the question he
was asked was, itself, basically a minor variation on, ‘Are you still
beating your wife?’ I don’t think that class of question deserves much
of an answer, on Reddit or elsewhere.”
Yeah, well about that….Musk has bragged about how the parking lot is filled on the weekend because workers are so devoted. Interns have publicly talked about how they are free to work any 80 hours per week they want. This has been written about and publicized. It seems to be a source a pride with Musk and at least some of the workers.
So, when the head of HR for SpaceX does a Reddit Ask Me Anything, you really think he’s not expecting questions on the hours people are working? And that any questions he gets about it are inappropriate? And that any suggestion that this practice wears down workers is wrong.
An AMA is a great recruitment tool for SpaceX. People considering working for the company are going to be on there. They’re going to be curious as to whether SpaceX has pulled back on required hours. If you can’t ask the head of HR for SpaceX about that, then who? And if you can’t do it during an AMA, then when?
In my own early 20’s I worked for a software startup that ultimately failed, but I often put in over 40 hours a week while also going to school part-time. If I could have worked more, I would have. Long hours are de rigeur in Silicon Valley-type start-ups – of which SpaceX is certainly one – and often remain part of the corporate culture even after such firms are well-established.
The main reasons businesses can sustainably demand this of employees are two: money and glamour. Often, it’s both. Nor is software development the only field where this combination is normative. At least up until recently, large law firms had also had such a culture for decades. The same is true of show business.
Something else these industries tend to have in common is that there are more people with the requisite talent and desire to participate than there are jobs at any given point. Aerospace was glamorous and fast-growing 50 years ago. Then there was a huge collapse in the late 60’s and early 70’s. SpaceX and other NewSpace firms are in the early stages of making aerospace sexy again. Combine that with the continuing downsizings of legacy aerospace payrolls in recent years and SpaceX has a sizable local recruitment pool and can afford to be picky. It can also afford to turf anyone who can’t adapt.
Those who have been so turfed are understandably where most of the public complaining comes from. But this is hardly an unbiased or disinterested demographic.
I appreciate that the SpaceX culture of hustle probably does come as quite a shock to people who have come to regard the somnolent pace of legacy aerospace as normative. But a lot of those firms were just as demanding of their workforces in their own early days as SpaceX is now. It’s just that the “early days” of the legacy aerospace majors were mostly in the teens, 20’s and 30’s of the 20th century and there is hardly any living memory of those times remaining. Even people active in the glory days of Apollo are getting pretty thin on the ground.
So, when the head of HR for SpaceX does a Reddit Ask Me Anything, you really think he’s not expecting questions on the hours people are working?
The first question wasn’t a question, it was a declarative accusation followed by – as noted – the, ‘Are you still beating your wife?’ “question.” HR people are understandably inclined toward happy talk about their employers and fielding hostile “questions” on public forums is not their specialty.
And that any questions he gets about it are inappropriate?
Q: Historically, Parabolic Arc has had a reputation for reporting industry gossip and rumor as fact and denigrating NewSpace companies. As the sole proprietor of Parabolic Arc, how have/are you working on
fixing this reputation?
Would you find that an appropriate “question?” I don’t. YMMV
And that any suggestion that this practice wears down workers is wrong.
Not exactly “suggestions.” More like declarative accusations.
I don’t do Reddit or any other members-only social media platform so I’m not privy to what gets said there except when it’s excerpted elsewhere. But Elon Musk, himself, did a Reddit AMA back in Jan. 2015. In looking at coverage of that event on public sites I can’t find any mention of hostile exchanges about SpaceX working conditions. It seems that “asking” the boss man these things would have been more instructive than asking one of his underlings. It’s not like SpaceX never demanded long hours nor fired anyone before early last year.
On the other hand, I have also read that Reddit, in line with seemingly most of the rest of social media, has been increasingly dominated by so-called “social justice warriors” in the last year or two. Perhaps all of this brouhaha is simply SpaceX having become a new left-wing punching bag like Wal-Mart has been for years.
Bottom line? Employers get to set conditions of employment within legal limits. California has tighter such legal limits than most places. Anyone who currently works for SpaceX and doesn’t like it is always free to leave – chaining workers to their benches is definitely not allowed under California labor law. If working conditions one initially found tolerable are now intolerable, the same applies – get thee elsewhere, posthaste.
If you think you’re entitled to a nice, cushy job with good pay, few duties, limited performance expectations and life tenure, you would be better advised to go seek employment with some government agency.
>Q: Historically, Parabolic Arc has had a reputation for reporting
industry gossip and rumor as fact and denigrating NewSpace companies.
As the sole proprietor of Parabolic Arc, how have/are you working on
fixing this reputation?
>Would you find that an appropriate “question?” I don’t. YMMV
Ha! You clearly haven’t been reading these comments sections closely enough. You’d hardly be the first to make that claim — or the last.
I usually respond with facts, as I’ve done here to you. My information is good, my sources are reliable, and I usually get it right. Gossip and rumor? No. Sorry.
As for the rest of your long stream of consciousness response, I wouldn’t even know where to start to respond. Social justice warriors? Left wing punching bags? Wal-Mart? Chaining people to their desks?
The guy was asked a legitimate question. He dodged it. I called him on it. This is really not that complicated.
The thing about you was intended ironically, as satire, and not literally.
My point was that the “questioner” first made a declarative accusation, then asked a “question” that obviously assumed the correctness of the accusation. The guy wasn’t looking for an answer, he was looking for a soapbox. It really isn’t that complicated.
I wholly agree. Something that is uttered at least as a frequently as “the hours are ridiculous” about SpaceX is that the feeling one actually gets inside their workplaces is that the workers are generally happy to be there, highly motivated, and highly professional. I would love to see some hard data on the turnover rates there, but that is about all I could ask for.
“Is 70 hours a week a “myth” as well?”
Not for those in trauma medicine, and not just physicians. Many of us would kill for no more 30+ hour shifts due to being called out at 0200 to work a plane-hit-a-train-hit-a-bus incident. And the stakes are much higher.
70 hours massaging an inanimate object? Bring it on.
Being on-call isn’t the same as having to be at a machine/computer or running wire for 12 hrs. a day 7 days a week.
Who said it was mostly just being on call?
At urban trauma centers on call is a synonym for don’t make any plans for this month, and many of us are on every month or are on 2-3 different call lists. Meanwhile, you have to be sharper than sharp because lives are at stake. Sleep is optoonal, and often in a break room couch or an empty exam room. True for first responders as well.
There are much harder ways to put in 80 hours/week than manufacturing.
Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?
I think it’s pretty clear that Terry’s point was that all the gasping and pearl-clutching in evidence here about life under the lash in the fields of Elon Musk’s Hawthorne plantation are maybe just a wee bit overwrought. A point with which I entirely concur.
Rockets are much more than inanimate objects and the notion that lives aren’t at stake when working in rocketry is a HUGE (pardon the Trump impression) misnomer. Sure, if you mess up an operation or give an incorrect dosage to a person, they may die, but if you mess up during an ordnance installation or someone behind a computer messes up a calculation and that ends up steering the rocket toward civilization, you’ve got multiple casualties.
If I’m still alive by then, you be sure to give me a call if this ever happens – other than to the Russians or Chinese, I mean.
You strengthen my point even more @duheagle… We in the American rocketry business care greatly about our work and the inherent risk that goes along with it. This, along with our general passion for space, fuels us to make sure we get it right the first time, every time.
Spacex means startup mode. Long hours.
For the blue-collar work, loads of overtime, stock in a company that will be worth a great deal, and the satisfaction of knowing that you changed the world.
For white-collar, it means 50+ hours week( 60-70 being regularly needed ), the ability to move all over and learn; the ability to work with cutting edge equipment; along with lots of stock and great satisfaction that you are opening the future for mankind.
Will you possibly give up a chunk of your life to do this? Yup, but it is your choice.
Will the pay be great? Hourly/salary will be so-so, but with 5-10 years of work and assuming you hang on to it, you should be able to retire early and comfortably.
That assumes that spacex makes the moon and Mars.
Any other perk? OTJ education not seen since the 70s.
Is it worth it? Depends on who you are and what you value.
I turned down an offer to work at SpaceX in 2004 after Elon cold contacted me due to this very concern.
Most of the jobs at the Texas testing facility list 50 hours as a standard week and can be longer during test evolutions. Several people I know that have since left SpaceX have told me that if you aren’t putting in at least 60 hours/week, you will receive comments questioning your commitment to the company. All verbal and all off the record.
SpaceX is long past the start up phase. With its very flat organizational chart and meddling by it’s CEO on the factory floor, an outsider could see how inefficiencies will build up and massive hours by the staff will be required. Many of those asked to sacrifice their personal lives are salaried employees exempt from overtime rules on pay. That can turn a $60k/year job into a $40k equivalent elsewhere if you are effectively required to work an extra 20hours/week.
The settling into a forty hour work week has come about from many sides. One of the most important is that the quality of complex work degrades considerably after an eight hour day/ forty hour week. Work quality is also seriously degraded when worries about family life, pressure from a spouse feeling abandoned and not being able to participate in raising ones children are two examples. For single employees, the only contact with potential dates is at work and these days, that can lead to sexual harassment complaints as often as a pleasant evening out.
From what I have been lead to believe, SpaceX may be under financial pressure to provide services to companies that have contracted for launch services and have paid deposits that have already been spent. This would in turn have them fostering a work culture that bullies people into working above and beyond so the company doesn’t have to increase their staffing levels.
SpaceX needs to get out of California. It’s an expensive state to do business and the bulk of their launches are in Florida. Why does it make sense to build the rockets in CA, ship engines to TX for testing, ship them back to CA for integration, ship the whole thing to FL, reintegrate and launch, recover the first stage and possibly return it to CA for refurbishment and then ship to TX for recertification, ship back to CA………… These components are not being shipping via UPS ground, they have to be shipped very carefully by specialized carriers.