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Elon Musk's Uncompromising First-Principles Approach Validated by Legendary Chipmaker Jim Keller

by Claribelle Deveza February 08, 2020

Elon Musk's Uncompromising First-Principles Approach Validated by Legendary Chipmaker Jim Keller

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is an inspiring figure, but he is also known to be a proponent of first-principles thinking. He is also known for being a tough boss, and one who expects only the best and hardest work from his employees. This has given both Tesla and SpaceX the reputation of being challenging companies to work for as employees. 

Yet despite this, Musk's companies rank as two of the top companies that the younger generation aspire to get into and work. Last year alone, a study by Universum, an employer branding specialist, indicated that SpaceX and Tesla were dubbed by engineering students as the No.1 employer they would like to work for in the future. This was despite Musk's reputation as a tough boss, and the companies' reputations for Silicon Valley-style hours. 

Perhaps it's SpaceX and Tesla's missions, both of which are ambitious to the point that critics deem them impossible. Perhaps it's Musk's first-principles approach that allows his companies to take on and eventually succeed in endeavors that are incredibly challenging. But either way, those who strive for challenges and excellence seek Musk's companies. This was related by legendary chip designer Jim Keller, who recently appeared as a guest at Lex Fridman's AI Podcast

Keller has a long background in the tech industry, and his innovations have helped multiple companies such as AMD and Tesla. During his time with the electric car maker, Keller helped the company develop its Hardware 3 computer, which Musk considers as the company's key to achieving full self-driving. According to Keller, Musk's first-principles approach is something that he really liked about the CEO. 

"I really like the way he thought. You think you have an understanding of what first principles of something is, and then you talk to Elon about it, and realize you haven't even scratched the surface. He has a deep belief that no matter what you do, it's a local maximum…Elon was good at taking everything apart and what's the deep first principle. That ability to look at it without assumptions and how constraints. And that's super fun and he's into it," he said.  

First-principles thinking is pretty much a fancy way of saying "think like a scientist," and it is one of the best strategies one can employ when breaking down complicated problems. First-principles thinking was used by several notable individuals in the past, including the philosopher Aristotle. Elon Musk's approach on SpaceX and Tesla is a modern example of this, and it allowed the companies to achieve their greatest feats, such as coming up with an out-of-the-box electric car like the Model S or landing the Falcon 9 rocket on an autonomous barge at the middle of the ocean. 

While speaking about his time at Tesla, Keller related an experience he had when SpaceX landed the two Falcon 9 cores from the maiden Falcon Heavy launch. The chipmaking legend noted that when the two rockets landed, some people were in tears, and it was probably because the feat was something that was almost deemed impossible. It was because such a feat was accomplished through hard work that was painful at times, but worth it in the end. 

"When they first landed two SpaceX rockets, at Tesla, we had a video projector in the big room, and 500 people came down. And when they landed, everybody cheered and some people cried. It was so cool. But how did they do that? Well, it was super hard. And then people say, 'Well, it's chaotic.' Really? To get out of all your assumptions, you think that's not going to be unbelievably painful?" he said.  

Watch Keller's interview with Lex Fridman in the video below.  

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Featured Image credit: Tesla




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