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Gwynne Shotwell: The Genius Behind SpaceX

Justice is a business owner. He has been running multiple online businesses for the past 5 years.


Elon Musk is the CEO of two significant companies: Tesla and SpaceX. But what if I told you that he doesn't actually operate SpaceX on a daily basis, and that I have evidence to prove it? The flight records from Elon's private jet show that Tesla is his top priority, but we'll get into that later.

Gwynne Shotwell is the true Leader of SpaceX, and she is the sole reason that the company continues to achieve such incredible feats. But I'm not here to bash Elon. Hiring a great operator to assist execute a large idea is one of the best things an entrepreneur can do, and Gwynne is without a doubt the best operator in the entire tech business, yet no one talks about her. I have several theories as to why this is, but let me show you how Gwynne operates SpaceX.

Elon is known for setting high targets, but Gwynne is the one who makes those goals a reality. When their companies reach a certain size, many founders hire "adult supervision." Sheryl Sandberg was hired as Facebook's Chief Operating Officer in 2008, when the firm was just a few years old. Gwynne is SpaceX's Chief Operating Officer, but she is also the company's President. That additional title is quite significant. The title of President might indicate a variety of things depending on the firm, but what I'm about to show you will demonstrate that she is much more than a second in charge.

Without her, SpaceX would not exist. When Elon Musk issues a bizarre tweet implying that a new SpaceX rocket may explode, Gwynne Shotwell travels the world to reassure crucial business partners that the launch will proceed as planned. She's a steadying force in the company, but that doesn't mean she doesn't fully support Elon's objectives. She shares Elon's desire to establish a Mars colony, but unlike Elon, she has a financially realistic plan for doing so.

Because there hasn't been much written about Gwynne Shotwell, I had to sift through interviews and podcasts to find out how she's been able to scale SpaceX so effectively. The space sector is highly regulated, capital expensive, and simply impossible to prosper in. After all, it is essentially rocket science. But I believe I've nailed down Gwynne's business mindset, so let me summarize it in sections.

Her Background

Gwynne spent decades becoming an expert in the key skill sets required to thrive in the aerospace sector before becoming President of SpaceX. There are other startup concepts that do not need highly technical expertise; consider all of the social networks created in dorm rooms by college dropouts that are now worth billions of dollars. Rocket technology, on the other hand, is a little different. Gwynne had no idea as a child that she wanted to work in the aircraft sector. She's actually stated that she never saw herself as an astronaut as a child, which is strange because I assumed everyone did. But she was drawn to engineering at a young age and pursued it.

In a Ted Talk interview she said: “I don’t think I was nerdy, but I was definitely doing the things that the girls weren’t doing. I asked my mom, who was an artist, when I was in the third grade, how a car worked. She had no idea, so she gave me a book, and I read it, and sure enough, my first job out of my mechanical engineering degree was with Chrysler Motors in the automotive industry.” This is one of the most appealing aspects of technical fields. Few people are willing to simply open a book and begin learning. But if you can focus and learn the science, you'll have a huge advantage over your competitors.

Elon Musk did not put her in charge of SpaceX simply because she was a skilled engineer. Gwynne had been in the aerospace sector for nearly a decade when she joined SpaceX. And I cannot emphasize how critical this is. Many people consider themselves to be their work title. A typical engineer might move from an advertising firm to a bank, then to a car company, and that can be a terrific career, but if you want to be a leader like Gwynne, it's far better to focus on building a variety of talents that are important to your specific industry. Because she had so much aerospace knowledge, Gwynne was able to wear numerous hats at SpaceX instead of being stuck in one division.

She was hired as the head of business development, which is effectively a sales position, but because she knew the industry so well, Elon kept calling on her for more and bigger initiatives. Taking on new positions in a growing company might be intimidating, but Gwynne recognizes that developing a wide skill set is critical to successful leadership, and you'll never develop new skills if you don't take chances.

When opportunity knocks, you must answer it. Gwynne took a major risk by joining a company as employee number seven, but by doing so, she put herself in the best position to enhance her technical skills and become a true leader in the aerospace sector. But her ambition and experience would be meaningless if she didn't follow through. After all, this was over 20 years ago, and SpaceX had a long path ahead of it. To become a successful rocket firm, an altogether new way of thinking about the business would be required, and fortunately for SpaceX, Gwynne had discovered something remarkable.

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Residual Capability

It's perfectly fine if you've never heard the term "residual capability." It's certainly jargon-heavy, but it's actually rather straightforward in practice. Residual capability simply means creating viable business lines around existing technology to support longer-term projects. This is Gywnne's second critical success component.

She's an expert at leveraging SpaceX's leftover capability. There are a few fantastic examples of leftover capability that have significantly changed the game for SpaceX.

The first is their satellite internet network, Starlink. SpaceX did not intend to build an internet service provider. After all, their primary objective is to make human life multi-planetary. In truth, when he founded SpaceX, Elon Musk most likely had no intention of delivering internet access from space. The internet is cool, but it has little to do with traveling to Mars. At least, that's what everyone assumed before Gwynne devised SpaceX's business model. Getting to Mars would not be cheap. The rocket needed to transport a crew of people on the months-long mission will be enormous. So Gwynne began breaking down Elon's idea into actionable tasks that could eventually lead to a Mars colony.

We've all seen SpaceX launch satellites for other firms, but Gwynne learned along the line that by launching their own satellites, they could build a viable business here on Earth while also contributing to the development of technology that will be required on Mars. As you can see, the cost of each additional SpaceX launch is reducing with time. Each time they launch a rocket, they gain valuable lessons and become a more efficient organization. Starlink's satellite network would cost billions of dollars to get into space, but once there, it would generate revenue for decades. Furthermore, a future Mars colony will require its own communications network, and all of the experience building satellite networks on Earth will translate rather directly.

Gwynne was the ideal candidate to lead SpaceX's Starlink effort because she had closed a deal with Iridium back in 2010. SpaceX had excellent ties with government customers, but conducting business with private companies was also crucial, so Gwynne secured a $492 million contract to deploy 75 Iridium satellites into space using Falcon 9 rockets.

Gwynne learned how to bring in more revenue for SpaceX back in 2010, and she used that expertise to launch a brand new business line with Starlink in 2015. But this isn't the first time Gwynne has advocated for the concept of "residual capability" at SpaceX. In fact, SpaceX's Big Falcon Rocket's whole design philosophy is centered on the concept of Residual Capability.

SpaceX intends to provide point-to-point travel on Earth, allowing passengers to fly from New York to Shanghai in about 30 minutes. Creating this firm from the ground up would be nearly difficult, but because Gwynne has successfully executed on so many other SpaceX projects, they now have a real chance of making this a reality, but it won't happen for years.

Elon Musk's Unrealistic Timelines

Elon is known for being overly optimistic about deadlines, which Gwynne admits while maintaining big ambitions. Too many people hear Elon mention an aggressive timeline and immediately dismiss him as unattainable. Gwynne recognizes that Elon's timetables may be overly ambitious, but he is still on the right track in terms of where technology is headed in the future, and she fully supports his vision.

Elon is well-known for being a demanding employer, but Gwynne has been working alongside Elon for nearly 20 years, and she wouldn't stay if they didn't agree on the future. This is Gwynne's third essential trait that contributes to her success as a Space leader.

She Loves Absurd Goals

The idea of setting absurd goals is extremely powerful, mostly because of human psychology. See, this relates to something called Parkinson's Law, which is the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. To put it simply, the amount of work required to complete a given task typically scales to the time available for its completion. So if the SpaceX team said something like: “getting to Mars will be really hard and will probably take 50 years” - they would almost certainly spend 50 years on the project! However, the danger of setting an unreasonable aim is relatively low. People may make fun of you, but that is irrelevant. Simply keep working toward your goal, and you will eventually achieve amazing things.

Elon is known to set particularly absurd goals, and Gwynne is typically a bit more realistic in her estimations. She has to keep the company alive after all. But the key thing to note here is that she is still 100% aligned with Elon on the goal. She has the same ability as Elon to think long-term and imagine what’s possible for humanity over decades instead of just years. She’s made plenty of money at this point, but I think what keeps her going really is a desire to improve the life of future generations. She already has children and has said she wants grandchildren. So even if SpaceX can’t accomplish every single goal within her lifetime, I think she’ll be remembered for hundreds of years as someone who helped change the course of humanity forever. And that’s incredibly powerful.

© 2022 Justice Ndlovu

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