“Take it down to the physics” – A Book Review

In these “severe circumstances” 😉 🙂 (i.e. camping with my family on an island in Croatia) I’ve somehow managed to finish the reading of Elon Musk’s biography, written by Ashlee Vance.

I am quite sure that you all know who is Elon Musk – he is the MAN behind several most recognizable companies on the planet – PayPal, SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Company and SolarCity. And this book provides a clear insight about his personality, vision and operation. Definitively he is not insane, as some think, since his ideas have already prove to work, either in battery-powered cars, reusable rockets or profitable solar energy acquisition. So he actually managed to succeed in domains, where all previous attempts were domed to failure. How?

Modus Operandi

“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”  [Colin Powell]

Elon’s primary objective for working so hard is definitively not to earn as much money as he can, but he is well aware that he will not be able to fulfill his (childhood) dreams without a solid business model. And how did he succeed? While for the complete picture you should read the book, I will try to highlight three of the principles which are associated with the engineering methodology, especially in IT and BPM domains.

The development from ‘scratch’

“The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.” [Oren Harari]

The development from scratch means that when you develop a new version of a product you think about rewriting from the beginning instead of refactoring and adding new functionality. While both approaches have benefits and drawbacks, the development from scratch may result in more clean and efficient products, since the product doesn’t take the burden of legacy with himself. The development from scratch is commonly applied in software engineering and BPM domains (e.g. product based design of process models).

Excerpt from my BPM slides

By applying the ‘development from scratch’ approach, SpaceX rockers are a magnitude cheaper when compared to the governmental ones, which still rely on solutions (and subcontractors) from the glorious Apollo era. Similar, Tesla cars do not have a serious competitor in the electric cars market. The traditional car manufactures attempt to design electric vehicles on the basis of their fossil fuel cars are so mainly doomed of being nice-looking prototypes.

Work faster, work smarter ….. reuse!

In software engineering, three basic strategies can improve the productivity – either you work harder, smarter or you ‘avoid work’. And the last approach, which is associated with the reuse, demonstrated to be the most effective (Boehm 1999).

Musk argues that if Columbus and other explorers of his era had been forced to throw away their ships after every voyage not much would have been accomplished. So, SpaceX builds the only operational rockets which are capable of being reused. And so, the costly rocket engines and other components may be used several times instead of being operational only once, for seconds.

SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket side boosters landing

Digital transformation

The digital transformation impacts our lives in every aspect, i.e. where we live (Airbnb), how we buy (Aliexpress), how we move (Uber), how we socialize (Facebook), etc; with the smart phone being at the center of a user’s experience.

Digital transformation is the profound and accelerating transformation of business  processes and models to fully leverage the opportunities of emerging IT and their impact across society in a strategic and prioritized way.

Tesla’s business processes differ from traditional car manufactures ones in several ways. The core processes are much more “light-weight” when compared to the traditional car manufactures. So, he is able to apply changes into his cars much faster. Besides, the improvements are not combined into packages (as a new version of a car) but are released immediately when available (similar to “continuous beta” pattern in software engineering). Tesla also sells cars more directly without intermediate sellers, applying more an Apple alike approach. And finally users may interact with plenty of Tesla’s car functions via a smart phone.

Tesla Android App
The Tesla app puts owners in direct communication with their vehicles and Power-walls.

Future forecast

Here are some of my future forecasts (could be also names as wishes) and I will try to explain them.

Several established automotive brands will become just subcontractors for battery-powered cars like Tesla.

There are so many innovations build in Tesla’s cars as well in the ecosystem around the car whereas the traditional car companies (at least from my standpoint of view) just add new cosmetic changes and infotainment improvements to their nice-looking cars. When it comes to efficiency, simplicity and CO2 impact, electric cars are just light-years better. I really hope that in the following years, you won’t be cool anymore if driving a heavy and complex SUV consuming enormous amount of fossil fuel in an inefficient internal combustion engine.

Government supported agencies for space transportation will not be able to compete with the reusable SpaceX rockets.

Just compare the development and design of NASA’s Space Launch System  in comparison to SpaceX rockets. SpaceX came in 15 years from “the cave” to the most powerful rocket on the planet – Falcon Heavy. It is twice as powerful as the second available commercial rocket, a magnitude cheaper and nevertheless reusable. And SpaceX has even more ambitious planes – BFR. NASA and its traditional contractors just won’t be able to compete with SpaceX in light of effectiveness and efficiency. In respect to space transportation government space agencies will act just like founding agencies.

“Take it down to the physics!”

This Elon’s quote actually means that nothing is impossible unless it is in contradiction with the laws of the physics. It is a quote Elon uses when somebody argues that the discussed idea is not feasible.

Buy the book at Amazon here.

  1. Boehm, B. 1999, “Managing software productivity and reuse”, Computer, vol. 32, no. 9, pp. 111-113.

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