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Elon Musk: the Iron Man stars in Back to the Future

A quick look at the SA-born billionaire mega-techpreneur’s aspirations.

The South African born, billionaire mega-techpreneur is actually human – but you might not think so after reading Ashlee Vance’s superb biography.

We often think we know someone better after we read a book about them; Elon Musk’s multi-industry disruption, highly complex persona and unbelievable tech smarts destroy this theory. He is incredibly difficult to compare; he has streaks of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson but philosophically I thought him much closer to Ayn Rand’s Hank Rearden in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged.

A sweeping story of industrialism taking on the establishment, Hank Rearden is a tragic hero; the last defender of a free market and a fearless innovator much like Musk – disrupting big business and vested interests to save the world. 

From student days in Canada he [Musk] knew exactly how he wanted to change the world; specifically in three areas that he felt were ripe for disruption: the internet, space travel and the automotive industry. The latter two have clearly been turned upside down. Tesla’s cars have made clean-tech vehicles a reality – exponential organisation Uber might be the world’s favourite transport service app but Musk’s electric cars are the app itself (and fast becoming California’s favourite mode of transport). Space travel for Musk is not just about firing off physics-defying rockets that can also land in one piece, he wants to make humans the first multi-planetary species by colonising Mars. Never mind just changing the world, he is creating a new one. 

Along the way he picked up the legendary association of being the real life Iron Man; the Tony Stark of Silicon Valley – indestructible superhero and off-the-charts tech genius. Although Musk himself played down these comparisons, there is no doubt it fuelled a celebrity persona around the products he created and the organisations he built (not that his shareholders are complaining).

Much like Steve Jobs was god-like to Apple employees and genuinely feared in the industries he dominated, Musk is also a contradiction; modern day tech hero on the outside, Victor Frankenstein tendencies on the inside.

He is also an agile evangelist at heart (and exponentially so). He understands the need to fail fast, learn and scale while keeping production cycles as short and iterative as possible. His rocket factories feature the co-location principles of self-organising and multi-functional teams;he insists his top engineers have their desks right next to the production lines on the factory floor. A top NASA executive once remarked; “He’s taken the best things from the tech industry like open-floor office plans and having all this human interaction.”

Some of his latest headline-grabbing ideas are the 1200km/h hyperloop between LA and San Francisco and an orbiting matrix of satellites beaming down free internet to every corner of the globe. It is tempting to dismiss these projects as fanciful dreams but Musk has consistently proved his critics wrong and it would be advisable not to bet against him.

Perhaps he is more like Marty McFly from Back to the Future and is actually trying to build a rocket to get home; after all Elon Musk did say “I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.”

This article was first published on IT Leadership Insights here, and republished with permission.

Peter Alkema is the CIO of Business Banking at FNB

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You go Elon- you will probably be getting quite a bit of company soon from SA expats- difficult to spread one’s wings here with a communist government and BBEEE restraints.

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