Elon Musk’s Favorite Job Interview Question Is Key for Job Seekers

Even if you’re not interested in working for Tesla or SpaceX, CEO Elon Musk’s favorite interview question is an important one to think about. If you come up with a good answer, it could help you land your next gig at wherever you want to work.

Back in 2017, Musk told the World Government Summit that he asked every candidate: 

“Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.”

Musk interviews quite a few engineers for both Tesla and SpaceX, so the question makes sense: He wants to see how they worked through a thorny issue, step by step. “The people who really solved the problem, they know exactly how they solved it, they know the little details,” he added at the time.  

According to a recent column in Inc., there’s sound scientific reasoning behind Musk’s question: Those who actually know what they’re talking about are inclined to go into detail (exhaustive detail, sometimes), while those who have to rely on BS will often gloss over the finer points (which they don’t know).  

Wherever you’re interviewing, and for whatever type of job, one thing should be clear: providing as much detail as possible can only help you, whether you’re dealing with a recruiter during the initial stages or you’re in the final round with the hiring manager. Most of all, you’ll want to leverage all that detail to show how you added value to your previous companies, overcame incredible challenges, and/or ultimately left a project better than you found it. 

At the same time, you must also explain (in detail) how you’ll use all that experience and expertise in order to help your prospective employer achieve its goals. That requires doing your research about the company, position, and the skills they’re looking for. Remember, one of the biggest ways that technologists flub interviews is through failing to understand the hiring manager’s needs and pain points

Before heading into the interview, make sure to review a few relevant stories from your professional background. If you can, ask a friend or trusted colleague to hear you out; they can tell you if you’re skimping on necessary detail. If you know ahead of time that the interview will involve a whiteboard or keyboard test, run through a few sample coding problems to get into the right mindset. 

Back to Musk for a moment: That’s not the only question he’s infamous for asking potential employees. Back in 2015, technology journalist Ashlee Vance’s excellent biography of the CEO revealed that he asked prospective SpaceX engineers a particularly perplexing riddle:

“You’re standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?”

The easy answer: the North Pole. However, as you can tell from the comments when we posted the question on Dice, there are lots of creative responses (“still on Earth,” “anywhere with a broken compass,” and so on). It’s not clear whether Musk still asks candidates that question, but landing a job at SpaceX requires running a whole battery of interviews designed to test your skills and knowledge. After all, you’re helping build, launch, and return rockets to Earth—you really have to know your stuff. 

18 Responses to “Elon Musk’s Favorite Job Interview Question Is Key for Job Seekers”

  1. If you build your thoughts on layers and form shapes , you can see the inside and how it builds the outer layers. If you start from the top you break down the layers to see the beginning. Everything starts as something smaller then we. Evolution is a Duplication of a smaller entity. The sun is a continuous light bulb. A power source using the same solar power that is free energy to you, if you can harness the energy and use all resources to keep it on a continuous loop without batteries.

  2. While I understand his point there are also many interviewers who want to see if a candidate can frame a response succinctly, this is where exhaustive details hurt a candidate. I suppose it depends on the role.

    In the future if this question is posed I will start with, “do you want an in depth response to prove I’m not BS’ing or would you prefer high level and succinct answer”

    • Love your question!!! I would love to work with you. You seem smart. The problem is that usually the person interviewing is not as smart as you and so you lose your opportunity to get the job because he or she fails to see how smart you are just by asking that question. The problem is that most interviewers are not Elon Musk. Therefore, your first objective to get the job is to match the interviewer’s intellect!

  3. I would have failed the “standing on the surface of the earth” question. I would think to walk a mile south, a mile west and a mile north only to end up at the place where you started you would have to be on the equator.

  4. North Pole is the obvious answer. Another answer is:

    The southern latitude (A) that is 1 mile North of the latitude (B), such that the circumference of the circle at latitude B is 1 mile in length. That’s somewhere pretty close to the South Pole for B, and A is a mile north of that.

    It means when we walk west 1 mile, we end up at the same point. The North and South walking are then walking the same line.

    Another answer:

    If you consider locations in the universe to be a 3D space with x, y and z co-ordinates. There is nowhere in these universe co-ordinates that you would end up at the same x, y and z co-ordinates, unless you wait for a year for the orbit of the earth to get back to the same location.

    • I don’t think it’s obvious it’s the North Pole. It’s ok to ask clarification questions, even in an interview. Is it possible to take this walks and end up in the same spot? One thing that strikes me in this “equation” is, there is no reference to time. If I’m walking my miles in 10 minutes and someone else walks there’s in 20 minutes. Do we still end up in the same spot? Answer me that, then I’ll be able to provide a better answer.

      • If I’m walking my miles in 10 minutes and someone else walks there’s in 20 minutes. Do we still end up in the same spot?

        Yes because you are walking same amount of miles you may be walking faster

  5. JORGE L. BRITO

    Why don’t use hydrogen instead electric batteries into Tesla cars? I think Hydrogen would be the future of the energy and it’s healthier for the planet, also it is easier to get.

  6. Michael Mather

    Knowing the starting point that I walk 1 mile south, 1 mile west, then 1 mile north, means that I am back to my starting point if my walk 1 mile in any direction stays the same and brings me back to the same starting point if at the north pole having performed walking the sides of an isosceles triangle due to magnetic north pointing back to the north pole. In actuality the north and south walk is a straight line, the westward mile is actually a curving line due to magnetic pole from the end of the southward 1 mile line and walking west to the beginning of the northward 1 mile line leading back to the north pole.

    Time is inconsequential as the length of the walks has been detailed as 1 mile each and does not affect the length or location of starting and/or ending points of the walk.

  7. At some very technical interviews, I get the question, Do you mind if we ask you some technical questions? My reply has always been, Not at all. Do you mind if I ask you some technical questions afterward?

    The interviewer always seems to squirm because they know that they’ve been working on an issue for quite a while and they’d like me to solve it for them in a few minutes. I want to gauge who I’m dealing with. Since we’ve already talked about basic technical things, and they already have a good sense of who I am, the interviewer has always steered clear of pursuing their original question…if I’d mind answering technical questions. And I’ve always been offered THAT position.

  8. Robert Sturnfield

    For the “standing on the surface of the earth” question, a more cost effective and warmer solution that saves on a trip to the poles is to do a simulation.
    Point your treadmill south and walk a mile south, turn it 90 degrees to the west and walk a mile west, turn it another 90 degrees to the north and walk a mile north, and anywhere “on surface of the Earth” you end up exactly where you started.