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Brian Bjelde
Brian Bjelde, vice president of human resources at SpaceX, sent along this picture of himself in front of a launch photo to verify his identity for a Reddit AMA session. (Credit: Brian Bjelde via Reddit)

SpaceX’s engineers are pursuing the high-flying goal of getting people to Mars, and by some accounts, the workload can lead to high levels of stress and even lawsuits. Today, the company’s vice president of human resources addressed the issue directly during an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit.

Brian Bjelde, who was trained as an aerospace engineer and is No. 14 on SpaceX’s employee list, also explained why the California-based company isn’t hiring astronauts right now. He shed light on the corporate culture that billionaire founder Elon Musk has created – and urged Redditors to apply for jobs, including positions available in Seattle.

The workload question was the one most likely to put Bjelde on guard: In his biography of Musk, Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Ashlee Vance refers to stressed-out employees at SpaceX and Tesla Motors – including a Tesla employee who supposedly received an angry email from Musk when he missed a company meeting to witness the birth of his child. (Musk said that claim was “total BS and hurtful … I would never do that.”)

On the flip side, Seattle-based PayScale reports that SpaceX employees see their jobs as extraordinarily meaningful (and yes, extraordinarily stressful). The company ranked No. 1 among 18 well-known tech companies in both those categories, with Tesla at No. 2.

When Bjelde was asked about SpaceX’s reputation, here’s what the HR guy said:

What about the working hours at SpaceX? “We recruit people who are incredibly driven by our mission, but it’s a myth that most of our employees are working 100 or even 80 hour weeks on a regular basis. Sometimes you have incredibly tight schedules that you need to keep, and that just goes along with launching rockets. But we want our employees to be productive over the long term, and that means working at a pace that’s sustainable. We encourage employees to pace themselves, and our managers pay close attention to whether people are driving themselves too hard for long periods. This is one of the biggest myths I hear about working at SpaceX, so I always want to knock this idea down!”

Here are other nuggets from Bjelde’s AMA:

When will SpaceX start hiring astronauts? “In the near term we’re focused on NASA’s commercial crew program where we will be flying NASA astronauts. The long-term goal is to open up space travel to everyone. One day we all could be calling the Red Planet home.”

Do you still have issues with retention rates for employees? “Our turnover rates are below average for the industry. We have lots of employees, like me, who have been here more than 10 years and have made a fantastic career with SpaceX! Getting to Mars is a long term mission so we seek to attract employees, and retain them, for the long term.”

What has SpaceX done to influence its culture? “First, people are really mission driven. Our goal is to help humanity become a multi-planetary species. Every day, we face short-term challenges, different internal and external customers and shifting priorities, but we always want to stay focused on the end goal. That’s how we cut through the noise. We try not to limit our thinking except by the limits imposed by physics. If someone says something can’t be done, whether it’s a business decision or an engineering one, they better have Einstein and Newton backing them up. Otherwise it’s ripe for discussion. …” (Check out Bjelde’s full answer.)

How does SpaceX as a company treat failure? “One of my most bittersweet memories is of the early Falcon 1 failure and the team picking rocket parts up off the beach after the maiden launch. Every failure hurts, but this felt personal since Falcon 1 was everything to me. Bittersweet, as the successes today are built on the shoulders of lessons learned from those early failures. We have enhanced processes, hardware design standards, test standards and more that fell out of lessons learned there. We embrace that the key to any good hardware development is to fail early and fail often so you can iterate to the more robust solution faster. …”

What’s it like to work with Elon Musk? “I’ve been working with Elon for a long time and he’s awesome to work with … always impressed with how he can dig into the smallest of details and make the tough decisions.”

What’s the one thing that I can do to get an interview for an internship at SpaceX? “The one thing to do is keep applying with an updated resume and to not limit yourself to only one site or one term. Last year we received over 39,000 applications for our internship positions and this number continues to exponentially grow! Keep putting yourself out there and your resume will get noticed.”

Bjelde made sure to point to SpaceX’s job openings, which include more than 50 positions at the company’s offices in Seattle and Redmond, Wash. But if you’re an engineer, don’t expect a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job. Bjelde’s comments about the “myth” of long working hours sparked a flurry of responses from employees, ex-employees and friends of employees, debating whether or not SpaceX was Burnout City.

This observation pretty much summed up the consensus: “SpaceX doesn’t hire people that want to work 40 hours a week.”

Check out the full AMA transcript to get the complete picture.

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