What’s it like working with Tesla Founder Elon Musk

Hear it from Tesla ex-CIO and now unicorn founder Jay Vijayan of Tekion, who worked closely with Elon Musk for four years. The first time the Chennai boy was approached by Tesla, he turned down Elon Musk’s offer. A year later Elon called again!
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Tesla and SpaceX Founder Elon Musk has over the years become quite the phenomenon. Some call him an eccentric genius, others consider him the real-life Tony Stark (the alter-ego of Marvel superhero Ironman).  He’s almost always in the news, pretty much everything he does creates headlines across the internet. Elon Musk is as much an inspiration as he’s an enigma for his many fans and followers (63.1 million Twitter followers and counting) across the world.

Chennai boy, Jay Vijayan, Founder of US-based unicorn (startups valued at/over $1 billion) Tekion, who was the Chief Information Officer (CIO) at Tesla, has had the rare opportunity to understand the enigma that is Elon Musk, having worked with him closely for four years.

As the Tesla CIO, he was directly reporting to Elon Musk and was “responsible for building all digital and information technology systems ground-up, during the company's growth and ramp-up phase from when Tesla had nearly no revenue to when it reached an annual revenue run rate of over $5 billion with a market capitalisation of over $35 billion,” according to Jay’s LinkedIn profile. Last month, Tesla’s market value briefly hit an unprecedented $1 trillion.

We caught up with Jay at YourStory’s flagship startup-tech summit, TechSparks 2021, and we couldn’t help but ask him about his up close and personal experience with Elon Musk.

We started by asking him if he was bored or tired of people asking him about Elon Musk — ‘the man, the myth, legend’?

In his usual calm and humble demeanour, Jay smiled and said, “Not so much because he’s such an inspiration to me and to everyone, the whole world...the amount of things he’s accomplishing, so I am always proud to talk about the time I had in working with him. [sic]”

Encouraged by his go ahead, we just had to ask about the Tesla Founder’s eccentric personality and how difficult it is to cope with that while working with him closely. 

This is what Jay said:

“It was a phenomenal experience. Definitely it was intense, I think in a good way. It took some time for me to understand and align with his vision and some people survive, some people don’t. I am lucky I survived that initial time of getting to know and understanding his vision. He comes up with such world changing ideas and works really hard to bring them to life. That said, the ideas are so big and the amount of effort that is required to bring that to life is also massive. So for him to kind of spend on minutious is very difficult. [sic]” 

We also asked Jay to corroborate the stories around Elon Musk making people slog their rears off and expecting the same amount of genius as him. 
“The point is, I don’t think Elon specifically focuses on making people slog. My understanding is he sets a very high bar for him(self) and he works really really hard and he just expects his team to get as close as they can to his level of operations and many times unfortunately because the goals are so big and so complex it becomes a thing that people have to slog to get there.” 

Jay revealed that Elon does not care very much for fancy Ivy League degrees, although the Tesla and SpaceX founder himself is an Ivy League graduate (University of Pennsylvania aka UPenn). Elon believes that “ordinary people can choose to be extraordinary,” Jay said, something that greatly inspired the University of Madras graduate. 

“You don’t need to be born with stripes, you don’t need to go to an MIT or a Harvard all the time for you to say ‘I have done some big things and I need to go accomplish something’. You can come from anywhere and as long as you focus your energy in creating things that are of value for others.”

Summing up his experience at Tesla, reporting directly to Elon Musk, Jay said, “I think he pushed me to see where my capability is. I was able to continue to learn and gain more confidence, overall it was a phenomenal experience.”

Turning down Elon Musk

The first time Tesla approached Jay, he was at VMware where “things were going great” for him. He was “well taken care of”, had stock options and was among the top 0.5 percent of the employees at the California-based cloud computing and virtualisation technology company. 

“I got a call from Tesla and went and spoke to all of the execs through the interview process and the final discussion was with Elon. It was an hour’s discussion, a very good discussion. He asked me a lot of questions from my resume, about what I have accomplished and I had a patent that I had filed through Oracle, so he asked me ‘what did you invent through that patent?’, things like that. Tesla came up with an offer for me, it was a VP position.

However, the pay was nowhere close to what he was making and the stock options were not “attractive enough”. 

“I was definitely interested in Tesla the more and more I came to know about them. I felt like they were on to something, in changing the world towards EV (electric vehicles) but I never thought in my wildest dreams that it would be as big as it is today. I had to politely decline, it was not an easy thing but I went in person to say ‘sorry, this is the reason I couldn’t make it’ and they appreciated it. But, of course, they were a bit disappointed.”

Elon calls again

A year later, the same recruitment executive from Tesla who had called Jay the first time approached him again and said Elon wanted to meet him.

“So, I went again to meet him. I was impressed that he even remembered some of the points I had mentioned during my previous discussion. It went well and he said ‘we need someone like you (as of) yesterday because the company has these many goals. We want someone like you to build the central nervous system of Tesla’. That’s exactly what he called it and he outlined his vision.”

Jay had to take a “big pay cut” but this time, he was able to negotiate and get better stock options. “I am glad I did as you could imagine how great the stock is doing. [sic]”

The initial days were intense at Tesla where Jay even had him questioning himself as to how long he’d survive there.

“It was a phenomenal experience, very intense experience. The first six months were the toughest, I thought ‘I don’t know how long I am going to survive’. The big goals were literally ‘Mission Impossible’ goals. But we pulled off things. Elon set some targets which became a very valuable thing for the company as well, really gratifying to see how well everything is doing. [sic]”

Leaving Tesla

Five years at VMware and four years at Tesla without a breather had left Jay hankering for a break “badly”, the seeds of wanting to start up, which were sown in his head from his time at Oracle (where he worked for over seven years prior to VMware), were also starting to grow its roots.

“I decided to take a break from Tesla for a few months; it was not an easy thing to announce to someone like Elon that I need a break. It took some time, it was also flattering that he did talk to me very nicely to see if I could continue and I said ‘I badly need a break because I was there at VMware for five years and Tesla for four years, didn’t take a break, no break in between jobs, my vacations were almost nil. I told him I need at least a couple of months' break before what I am going to do. Then eventually I told him that I am going to start my own business. [sic]”

Jay admits that most people thought he was “crazy” to leave a company like Tesla especially after having built “great trust” with Elon Musk.

But he clearly knew what he was doing. In 2016 he left Tesla and started Tekion Corp which is now valued at $3.5 billion, having entered the coveted unicorn club last year. “It was a good sense of validation.” 

The bug of entrepreneurship had bit him when he saw his Oracle colleagues break away from the multinational computer technology giant and achieve great success.

“At Oracle, we saw Marc Benioff leaving and starting Salesforce and then we had Dave (David) Duffield and others start Workday and all of these companies, some of these SaaS (software-as-a-service) companies, were just forming at that time. And I always thought there is a better way to deliver software because Oracle was still back then an on-premise software, cloud was not in the picture. I felt there was an opportunity...I had this bug, of course, of starting a business.”

Jay’s startup Tekion offers a SaaS platform for the automotive industry, connecting customers, car makers and dealers on its cloud-based platform. It is backed by several automotive giants such as General Motors, BMW, and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance.

Last month, the company raised $250 million in its latest funding round, which took its valuation up to $3.5 billion. The round was led by Alkeon Capital and Durable Capital. Other investors included Hyundai Motor, Advent Capital and Index Ventures.

As a private company, Tekion does not disclose its revenue numbers, however, its $3.5 billion valuation is more than 3X of what it was a year back when it raised $150 million, a clear testimony to the fact that the company is doing well.

Tekion currently caters to the US, Canada markets and is about to enter Europe via France. Asia is next on the expansion agenda and Jay hopes to be in the Indian market by 2022.


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Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta