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An Example of Conflating Credentials with Competence: SpaceX Hiring

One of the important, though largely ignored, changes in the last thirty years involves the increasing degree to which societies have begun conflating credentials with actual ability and competence. This trend is now at all levels of society from who gets hired and promoted at some mediocre corporation to who can run for elected office such as the presidency.

Here is a recent example: Can I get a job at SpaceX after graduating from a low-ranked engineering program? I have quoted the most important and relevant parts below.

I ran recruiting at SpaceX for almost 6 years; everything about how they recruit is part of the footprint myself and my team created – so hopefully you’ll find this input helpful, though it will only magnify the challenge that lies before you. SpaceX aggressively pursues top collegiate talent; but because the hiring bar (mandate per Elon) is top 1% of the human population – we focus on top ranked engineering programs because their strict acceptance requirements are a good prefilter and remove 90% of the bell curve, thereby automatically bringing us to about top 10% of the college population; making our haystack much smaller and thus easier to find the proverbial needles.

The rest of that answer is full of the usual crap that almost all of you must have encountered in any basic interaction with HR personal in pretty much every single corporation. FYI- this particular piece caught my attention because I know a thing or two about rocket engine and launcher technology etc.

Here is what you should know: Modern rocket engine and launcher technology was mostly developed and perfected between 1939 and late-1970s. There has been no breakthrough in the area of chemical rocket engine (fuel or mechanics) in the last forty years. SpaceX is basically trying to build what both the Russians and the Americans perfected over four decades ago. The business model of SpaceX can be best summarized as building relatively inexpensive medium-large LOX-kerosene fueled rocket launchers and accessories in the USA.

The funny wrinkle in their vision of low-cost rocketry is that the ESA, RFSA and the CNSA already offer dollars-per-kg rates that are comparable to those promised by SpaceX.

I should also point out that ESA, the RFSA and its soviet-era predecessor, the CNSA and ISRO were able to develop to develop all that technology and hardware without hiring ivy-league graduates. There is also the troublesome question of why would you want to hire so called “top level” talent to copy 40-year old technology. Well.. actually that is not quite true. SpaceX currently does not even have the technology found in older russian LOX/Kerosene engines such as the RD-180, which itself is a half-sized version the 1970s-era RD-170.

So what is going on? Why can’t SpaceX achieve what the Russians did without much fanfare (and electronic computers) four decades ago? Is it the lack of resources? Is it the lack of government help- both technical and financial? Or is it a basic conflict between their corporate ideology and reality? In my opinion, the problem is largely due to the unbridgeable gap between corporate thinking and reality. Let me explain..

American corporations have for the last few decades been increasingly run by managers, lawyers and other assorted CONartists. The people who make decisions, policy and control money in american corporations have therefore little or no understanding of either the underlying technologies or what it takes to makes things work in the real world. They are mentally incapable of grasping the world that lies beyond PowerPoint presentations, Excel sheets, frequent meetings, committees and subcommittees, buzzwords and endless political scheming.

But what does any of this have to do with the inability of american companies to even properly copy 40-year old technology?

Well.. it comes down to who they hire. People who do not understand the technology behind the products made by the corporations they lead try to cover up their ignorance by going for impressive sounding names, brands and ideas. They therefore hire people who graduated from institution with impressive sounding names and believe that doing so will magically result in some new product or breakthrough. So, why does it not work like that? Why are the graduates of ivy-league and other “prestigious” institutions almost always inferior to their more “common” counterparts at actual innovation or even just getting things done?

Let me answer that question by posing another question- Who is admitted into “prestigious” educational institutions and on what criteria? Here is my answer.. Such institutions admit people who are 1] good at taking tests 2] good at self promotion and 3] good at social interactions. Do you see the problem? Well, if you did not.. here it is.

“Prestigious” universities discriminate against those with technical ability and competence.

Therefore the graduates of such institutions tend to be less than competent and yet simultaneously full of belief in their innate superiority. It does not help that the “prestige” of their institutions allows them to shift blame for their incompetence onto the people who work for them. They are mostly driven by fads, trends, buzzwords and delusions of grandeur rather than anything approximating reality. The end result of hiring a lot of such people is that your research and development programs don’t progress as expected and you cannot even replicate what the soviet space program achieved four decades ago.

But none of this matters to the people in charge of companies like SpaceX, because breaking out their familiar thinking patterns would shatter the fragile (yet internally self-consistent) bubble of lies they inhabit- and nobody wants to rock the boat.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. May 10, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    so did the mofo’s who didn’t see the O-rings on the Challenger have Havard degree’s???

    on another note I like high gain amplifiers with tubes (old technology) though sometimes solid state shit sounds okay before you crank it…

    it’s one of the few luxuries I spend my cash on, if you knew me IRL, I’m sure you’d say with a condescending snicker that I could’ve fucked 15 prostitutes for what I spent on one amp. Yer boi Chuck Rudd would say, gee, I’m soooo much higher on the HBD scale, how come that loser can buy shit like that. Funny how you are both of a higher pedigree and more educated. I bet I have more fun though.

  2. P Ray
    May 11, 2014 at 1:55 am

    There is also the troublesome question of why would you want to hire so called “top level” talent to copy 40-year old technology. Well.. actually that is not quite true. SpaceX currently does not even have the technology found in older russian LOX/Kerosene engines such as the RD-180, which itself is a half-sized version the 1970s-era RD-170.

    The reality is, they want to be seen as a hip, up and coming company with the know how and the talent, while not having the leadership that can actually assess talent … and don’t want to be challenged on their assumptions or answer that question “if you’re my leader, maybe you can talk me through this problem?” …
    expect them to hire a lot of corner-cutting new graduates with a slick diplomatic reply to all the problems … who don’t actually perform implementation.
    And I will knowingly snigger if they end up over-time and over-budget, like SAP with its US Army inventory project, or Google with its memory-leaking AdWords that still hasn’t been fixed, or the UK and the defunct NHS project with too many managers and VERY few developers that were listened to.

  3. Wilson
    May 11, 2014 at 3:08 am

    Don’t think you can socially bluff your way into MIT. It could be that risk aversion, equalization, trivial distractions, in other words, feminization, has diluted education, but the best of the mediocre are still the best that you can get.

  4. webe
    May 11, 2014 at 6:11 am

    Within modern society I would say it is almost axiomatic that the more an institution thinks of itself in terms being of guardians of hard-core reality, the more stultified and ritualized they tend to be. Think about the political intuitions of the intelligence community, the creativity of the military, the flexibility of banker culture or how much practical acquaintance with down and dirty realities businessmen tend to have. Within the governing structures everybody hires other people to get to know their customers or project markets forward, but all they get are quasi-objective reports with lots of graphs and statistics that foster the illusion of control and overview. It’s all looking though the window of a fly-by drive without getting out, crawling in the mud, and getting the actual smell of things.

  5. Ben Reytblat
    May 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    AD, I agree with you on general principles.

    But I have the feeling that you don’t know who Elon Musk is and what kind of a company he’s built in SpaceX. Please let me know if it’s otherwise.

    If you’ve ever a chance at a technical conversation with him, as I have on several occasions, you would know that he’s precisely the opposite of the type of manager that you, quite rightly, describe.

    My experience with him has been that for most rooms the average level of technical competence rises significantly when he walks into it. That includes rooms with significant numbers of other technical folks already present.

    As for 40 year old technology and Roscosmos, ESA, Jaxa, ISRO, etc, you’re pretty far off the mark. ESA is in a panic over not being competitive with SpaceX. China and Russia have both admitted that they can’t come close to his pricing. And that’s before he gets F9R(eusable) fully into production.

    All of those agencies can (and will) undercut SpaceX because they do not have to make a profit. National pride and strategic calculations will always triumph over economic considerations. As far as engine technology goes.. let me know when SpaceX can build staged combustion cycle engines.

    What Elon has done is created a company run by very technically competent people (Gwynn, Tom M, etc). If you look at the top two tiers of the management structures, there’s not a dolt in the bunch. And he set for them the goal of drastically lowering the cost of access to LEO. And they are getting there, and doing so much faster than anyone else.

    My real issue is not with SpaceX or Elon Musk. I am talking about credentialism corrupts and eventually destroy companies.

    I’m not saying that this is caused by the credentialism of the HR team. I’m familiar with the resumes of a significant number of employees of SpaceX (they are in my LinkedIn connections list, so I get to see at least the highlights). I think there are so many exceptions in that HR policy that I don’t think it’s useful as career guidance.

    But I think that SpaceX and Tesla are in fact exceptions that validate the general rule that you describe above.

  6. hoipolloi
    May 11, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    @AD: “Therefore the graduates of such institutions tend to be less than competent and yet simultaneously full of belief in their innate superiority.”

    I would like to use this quote.

  7. May 12, 2014 at 1:54 am

    Reblogged this on oogenhand.

  8. ClaudeCleburne
    May 12, 2014 at 3:26 am

    Makes sense. Good post.

  9. ClaudeCleburne
    May 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    I’m in the humanities. I have to say; I’m pretty damn good. Really more due an intrinsic obsession with learning than anything else.

    But I share space with the kings and queens (mostly queens) of credentialed fluff. Some people look at these ” critical race theory” class tangents as primarily the products of conspiracy. I think at least half the time these exist due to their being easy distractions from an academic’s incompetence.

    For example, some students come out of a world civ class with some idea of a reductionist model of white privilege. My students leave knowing that the zero was invented in the Indian subcontinent, and that Iberian Muslims were the first to systematically condition faith with reason. They learn that the first university was built in China instead of a shitty pop culture discussion of Jet Li’s sexuality. Discussing theses things means possessing some diversity and depth of actual knowledge.

    But we have the same credentials. Just amazing. I know this sounds like bragging, but really I’m the inferior idiot. I obsessed over this field for a decade and a half when I should have known cute chicks and skilled schmoozers would get all the prime tenure track slots.

    Also it’s 12:10 on a weeknight, so obviously I’m a little sloshed.

    • Fuck Ya
      May 14, 2014 at 3:30 am

      “I’m in the humanities.”

      No you’re not. You’re a tax dollar moocher, a parasite given the life of sticking his head in a history book, at the expense of the tax payers you ‘grant-rape’. That you are forced to spend the next few decades in the company of insufferable feminazi libtard cunts who will subject you to endless committee meetings and ‘guidelines’ training, is the sole consolation the people you’re fleecing have. That’s the students you’re fleecing with high cost / zero reward humanities degrees, and the tax payers that prop you up. You could easily be replaced with the wikipedia articles on ‘zero’ and ‘Iberian Muslims’. The sooner voters cut off all government funding to the college monopoly system the better. And you think you deserve ‘tenure’. Oh my fucking God.

      • ClaudeCleburne
        May 15, 2014 at 7:57 pm

        Look at this bitter nonsense. If there were more men like me, we’d have a less idiotic society.

        If you think historians aren’t necessary, then you’re a fool.

        And I’m not ” fleecing ” anyone. I provide a pretty damn good service for these students, of whom virtually none graduate with ” worthless humanities degrees.” And trust me, I provide a lot more than Wikipedia articles.

        I’ve tangled with your ass before though. Same asinine shit as always.

        I don’t know why this blog attracts so many bitter schlubs. If it isn’t height, athleticism, money, it’s gotta be something with these jaded fools.

        I heard your mama caught aids from magic Johnson, while your daddy was tied up in the closet.

        How’s that for fine literature?

      • ClaudeCleburne
        May 15, 2014 at 8:05 pm

        And I don’t have to go to any meetings, or do any of that bs. Life is actually pretty sweet.

        Go back to your cubicle, short whiny monkey. I need your tax dollars to fund my passion. Maybe I can keep your kids from being as ignorant as your aids infected greasy granny ( more classic literature there).
        Only an abject idiot would dismiss the value of knowing history. And ” Wikipedia is free” is the excuse of failures.

      • Fuck Ya
        May 21, 2014 at 8:14 am

        “If there were more men like me, we’d have a less idiotic society.

        If you think historians aren’t necessary, then you’re a fool.”

        I simply said historians funded by tax violence are not necessary. Learn to compete in the market like a man. You are fleecing people.

        “And I’m not ” fleecing ” anyone. I provide a pretty damn good service for these students”

        And from your earlier post…

        “I’m in the humanities. I have to say; I’m pretty damn good.”

        “I know this sounds like bragging”

        “Also it’s 12:10 on a weeknight, so obviously I’m a little sloshed.”

        I hope your liver dies, and then you die on a waiting list. Finally fucked in the ass by your government worship. Government gives you tax violence funded grants, and then taketh away. creating artificial scarcity in liver donations for the lifetime of 12:10 sloshed-ness.

        That’s what I hope happens to you.

        “I don’t know why this blog attracts so many bitter schlubs. If it isn’t height, athleticism, money, it’s gotta be something with these jaded fools.”

        I don’t give a fuck about anybody’s height, athleticism or money. I care about whether what you’ve got was violently appropriated from others. Your tax funded grants, most certainly were.

        If you don’t want “bitterness”, it’s simple. Stop taking money taken by force to fund your lifestyle choice.

        As it stands, like any thug, you can just be thankful that the people you fleece are weaker than your criminal government benefactors and can’t at this moment in time retaliate effectively. Always know that they’d very much like to, and if they get edged into a position where they have nothing left to lose, could easily retaliate, for it would be just.

        You finished with

        “Go back to your cubicle, short whiny monkey. I need your tax dollars to fund my passion”

        You certainly do need them. And I’ll pay those tax dollars for as long as those threatening me with prison are stronger than me. The second that noose is loosened, I could end you and sleep soundly the night of the action. The sole reason you parasites are breathing, is because you’ve currently collectively got the boot on our faces. Move that boot an inch, and you’ll see how we really feel one day. Enjoy those tax dollars obtained with violence, I know the tax victims would enjoy using violence to reclaim them.

        Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

      • ClaudeCleburne
        June 1, 2014 at 5:21 am

        I’m loving the envy on here. Also the assumptions. I’m running a successful business right now, and have worked in private industry before. You’re just mad your cubicle job doesn’t get you any glamour, Dilberf.

        I’m loving how your calling out for me to have liver failure like a bitter rat lord so that I can be cured of ” government worship.” You don’t know anything about what I ” worship.” I’ve never received a taxpayer funded grant, and I’ve never worked for a secular university. I think my liver will be just fine.

        Look at this little sissy language. You are talking to someone who survived two tours in Afghanistan. I am not worried about a bunch of Dilberts doing ” violence” to me. I am the guy who wedgied you in high school, not some lefty douche doing ” violence” by collecting your taxes.
        Only an abject loser gets online and starts ish with his betters. U mad I am living the dream? just got back from the U.K. For a conference- I’m going to go ti bed and sleep until early afternoon. You can do that when you’ve got the game in lock. It’s about time for you to get back in your cubicle though, Dexter.

        Just start ish with somebody not even addressing you. Talk about resentful and bitter. SMH.

      • ClaudeCleburne
        June 1, 2014 at 5:25 am

        Oh and as far as my being supported by ” tax violence,” – if you really wanted to keep me from shining you should have spoken up when they were spending $5,000 a day to make me into a warrior.

        ” Those who have personality and are athletic can do anything, those who don’t, end up in STEM.”

  10. Marlon
    May 15, 2014 at 6:40 am

    “As for 40 year old technology and Roscosmos, ESA, Jaxa, ISRO, etc, you’re pretty far off the mark. ESA is in a panic over not being competitive with SpaceX. China and Russia have both admitted that they can’t come close to his pricing. And that’s before he gets F9R(eusable) fully into production.”

    No. AD is on the mark.
    They have not done it yet.
    They look good, look smart, but still have not copied the 40 year old tech at a cheaper price.
    Why? Because they can’t.
    Material costs have gone up etc. economic problems not technical ones.

    Thus, they are trying to build the full-flow staged combustion engine.
    (So he can get in business; SpaceX is on the gov’t tit, sucking hard).
    http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/08/24/Solyndra-in-Space

    Plus, he wants it to be re-usable.
    (So he can stay in business).

    Mere speculation here, but my first hires would be Russian engineers and their understudies who worked on their rockets.
    Then, let them set the hiring criteria for other graduates.

  11. Marlon
    May 15, 2014 at 6:54 am

    Correction: so he can stay in business and be less dependent on the gov’t for money

  12. Marlon
    May 22, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    Something for you AD:

    The system is broken.

    http://www.vincelewis.net/unsoldcars.html

    • P Ray
      May 22, 2014 at 10:56 pm

      That is such a lovely site with wonderful pictures that perfectly capture the coming shitstorm the greedy have to deal with.
      Thanks for the link!

  13. YMKAS
    May 23, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Most startups only hire from ivies, but that is for new grads. My husband went to a public university but is in the top 1% in his field and has an impressive background, as do many of the middle to experienced engineers they hire. Entry-level engineers will have that additional barrier right out of college which is perfectly acceptable as a pre-req. She was not talking about experienced engineers in her blog post.

  14. YMKAS
    May 23, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    Sorry, I should clarify a bit more. My husband is an engineer at SpaceX and works on the falcon 9 rockets, and was hired *with* experience on his resume, he is in the top 1% in his field, but did his undergrad at a public university. For new grads, expect the added filter of a top ten school, if you don’t have that you better have something else that stands out if you absolutely have to work for SpaceX. Otherwise, get experience somewhere else and stand out there, then apply later.

    • P Ray
      May 24, 2014 at 5:33 pm

      Unfortunately, if your husband isn’t *doing* (i.e. actual implementation not just design) anything while at SpaceX, he’s merely “adding credentials” with no real output.
      That may also lead to early burnout or a dearth of innovative ideas.
      Enron had people with Ph.D’s in it.

      • YMKAS
        May 28, 2014 at 7:42 am

        He is a “doer” as you put it. Not a designer, a hands on engineer, a problem solver. He is working on a falcon 9 right now that will go into space in a few months. He loves working there.

  15. Marlon
    May 24, 2014 at 6:06 am

    Well, YMKAS, your husband had better advise Elon to play the game better; tweeting/whining about losing contracts and having made only 2 launches of a projected 12 is not cutting it.

    http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/05/elon-musk-tweets-about-10-billion-no.html

    • YMKAS
      May 28, 2014 at 7:45 am

      He is not in a position to tell Elon to do anything unless it has something to do with falcon 9; Elon is in charge. But he has worked in defense before and knows how to play the game and could give some tips on how to win defense contracts. Elon doesn’t want to play the game, I wouldn’t either… it’s “evil” and he can tweet about whatever he wants, he likes the attention.

  16. Marlon
    May 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Its the game Musk has chosen, so he had better play it. and play it well.

    Tweeting/whining about losing contracts and having made only 2 launches of a projected 12 is not cutting it.

    This is the big boy club; they aren’t impressed by tweets.

  17. P Ray
    November 24, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Elon is now doing the rounds on Twitter:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2847103/Elon-Musk-unveils-Star-Wars-style-X-wing-rocket-offshore-drone-ship-landing-pad-Twitter.html

    Let’s hold the enthusiasm until there’s a launch date though.

    Remember, the product is only ready … when it’s RELEASED.

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