I was a “hardcore” Principal Engineer at SpaceX, achieving performance goals and working longer hours than most of my colleagues—yet I saw my work roles gradually transferred to younger engineers who fit the company’s “frat bro” mold.
By John Johnson, former Principal Engineer at SpaceX
I have watched the recent news about the takeover at Twitter without much surprise. I was an employee of one of Elon Musk’s other companies; for many months, I’ve refrained from speaking about my experience there. As an older white male, I hadn’t confronted the impediments to success that many people face—until I started at SpaceX. But as we move into this new era of wealthy industrialists taking the helm of the largest tech firms, I feel compelled to tell my story, as I believe it is essential that their workforces reflect all the demographics of our pluralistic society, not just the male-dominant youth culture that saturated my former workplace.
In 2018, at age 58, I was hired at SpaceX for my deep expertise in a niche sector called optics engineering that is key to diverse applications, such as the spaceborne instruments used to acquire and send satellite images to Earth. During my job interview, a person much younger than me commented about the youthfulness of the other engineering staff, and asked whether I’d “be okay” working with young colleagues. I thought it was a strange question; having spent my career in age-diverse companies, I hadn’t even considered that this could be an issue. I knew mentors and colleagues 20 years older than me who were still actively employed, valued, and high contributors at their jobs.
Both my manager and vice president (who is also a Tesla VP) were enthused to have me onboard and were encouraging from the start, saying things like, “You’re the only expert we have in optics manufacturing,” and “SpaceX needs you to tell us when we’re fucking up.” I was truly excited to be among the few high-level Principal Engineers at SpaceX, bringing decades of acquired knowledge in my field to achieve the company’s lofty goals. Ad astra!
At SpaceX and now at Twitter, Musk requires employees to be “hardcore.” Contrary to stereotypes about older workers being less capable or unwilling to perform hard work, I was actually up for the challenge. My life has been spent working long days, nights, and weekends, putting in whatever effort was required to get the job done. My wife resided in Northern California while I was based in Los Angeles; with no children at home and very little social life, I often spent seven days a week onsite at SpaceX, putting in 10-12 hours almost daily. I knew no one there who worked more hours than I did. Later, during Covid, I was still working onsite and traveling for business while many other engineers worked remotely. I was quite hardcore.
My performance reviews were consistently solid. For my 2019 year-end review (18 months after hire), my manager’s comments included: “Pretty much single-handedly set up an entire optical supply chain,” “Built an optics metrology and assembly lab,” and “Relentless desire to contribute and do what is right for the company.” Given all the positive feedback, I aspired to a leadership role in the fledgling program that would become known as space lasers.
During early 2019, I injured my back and was in physical therapy for many weeks, but without missing any work. When my back failed to improve, two surgeons recommended surgery. I was responsible for reaching a major SpaceX milestone (involving international travel) in December 2019, so I delayed the surgery until early February 2020, notifying my manager and others I was working with well in advance. I said I expected to be out for only a few days, but made a list of tasks I was working on, as requested by my manager, who said I should have “some help.”
By that time, I had a diverse array of high-level responsibilities. But in the weeks preceding my surgery, SpaceX—behind my back—recruited an engineer to permanently take over my supplier development role, and internally reassigned a buyer to take over my procurement role. These young men in their twenties and thirties descended upon me right before my surgery, scheduling meetings for a download on everything I was doing in those areas. Then they arranged a tour to become acquainted with the suppliers; despite my months of supplier contact as well as being the bridge between internal requirements and external supplier capabilities, I was not even invited to accompany them.
I returned to work after missing only a few days, as expected. But my roles and duties were not restored. A few weeks later, I was shocked to witness the newly assigned team members present my previously outlined plan for suppliers to upper management, unabashedly, as their own plan. And in the weeks after my surgery, the erosion of my responsibilities accelerated. A third engineer, who also appeared to be in his twenties, was hired into my metrology role. A fourth engineer was transferred from a completely unrelated “rocket” area to the optical system mechanical design and assembly process. Another twenty-something manufacturing engineer was assigned ownership of the machining and assembly area I had set up.
The employees taking over my roles weren’t hitting the road running and leaving me in the dust—each had a long learning curve ahead. The metrology engineer confided he had only operated one of the most basic instruments a couple of times in a lab class, and asked me for training. The manufacturing engineer had no experience with the basic machining process being used. The buyer had utterly no experience with the commodities and couldn’t even guess ballpark costs or market prices. How was it efficient and scrappy to hire or reassign a handful of people to do the work I had been managing just fine by myself?
None of them had decided on their own to grab my job duties. Who was directing them, and why? It wasn’t coming from my manager—he seemed genuinely confused by these reassignments, and had encouraged me to take on a leadership role at the time of my performance review. It wasn’t because of limited scope in my job description as a principal engineer, which was formally defined as having wide latitude to choose areas in which to work. It seemed the decimation of my role through the assignments of others to my tasks was coming from managers in the Starlink organization, being run by Musk favorite Mark Juncosa.
All the men taking on my job piecemeal were decades younger than me, with much less or no experience in the relevant technical areas. I hadn’t even been told that people were being hired, nor was I invited to sit in on interviews—though I was the most qualified to discern candidates’ qualifications and experience. By mid-2020, more than half of my job had been permanently reassigned, contrary to standard employment laws in the United States protecting those who take medical leave or have disabilities (I had a work modification on how much I could lift, although lifting was not a requirement for my position). And as a result, I was having to mentor a roster of engineers who didn’t report to me and didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Before my hire, I had been told that I was to be key in establishing a high-volume factory. But when the factory planning began in 2020, I wasn’t included in the team doing the planning. Shockingly, though I was the only principal manufacturing engineer in this technology at SpaceX—in a position empowered to provide strategic, cross-functional influence—I wasn’t being asked or even allowed to contribute. When I pushed to participate, I was told, “You’re too busy,” and was not invited to any meetings.
I told my boss that I was perceiving age discrimination, and he reported this to HR. When I met with them, they suggested that everything had stemmed from simple “misunderstandings” and recommended that I monitor internal job board postings. I was encouraged by my manager as well as a manager on the Starlink team to create a job description outlining the greater role I desired. I included many aspects of what I’d been responsible for a year earlier, along with having some of the new incumbents matrixed in and reporting to me. The plan was presented to Starlink managers, who expressed reluctance to yield control.
A few weeks later in January 2021, I and most of the other engineers working on the program relocated to Redmond, Washington, where the factory was being installed. About a month later, my boss left SpaceX. My new manager seemed initially supportive and said I should be proud of the team’s feedback in my annual 360 reviews. But when I told her about my issues with my roles being taken away and lack of career advancement despite my successes, good reviews, and performance bonuses, she told me that I had been hired into a non-management track.
A few weeks later, the aforementioned manufacturing engineer said he’d now been assigned to “shadow me” to learn all aspects of optical metrology over the following two weeks. When I asked why, he answered that his Starlink manager had said I “might retire or die.” I was 61, with six more years to the standard retirement age, even if I was considering retiring—which I was not. I wasn’t sick or overweight, and am generally quite healthy. I responded that surely my age couldn’t be a legal reason for a job assignment. The engineer, realizing the egregiousness of the situation, reported it to HR just minutes later. I discussed the incident with my manager, and in a phone meeting, HR said an investigation would be performed. But nothing was done to remedy my situation or restore my job duties; and a few months later, that Starlink manager was promoted! When I told my VP about the incident, he said, “Well, you might retire…” <chuckle, chuckle>
At the end of 2021, engineer Ashley Kosak spoke out about her own experience at SpaceX. After the press coverage inspired by that essay, I decided to reach out directly to the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell. I told her about the several, and ongoing, assignments of younger engineers to my job responsibilities, and that I suspected it was due to my age. I specifically described the “retire or die” incident, and noted that I’d seen a similar role reduction happen to another SpaceX engineer in his 50s. She emailed me back and thanked me for coming to her, assuring me that she’d investigate—but asked that I keep my concerns between her, myself, and the head of HR.
By early 2022, I’d heard nothing back from Shotwell. I was then invited to a meeting with HR and informed, tersely, that business conditions had changed and that SpaceX no longer had work for me in my technology area, but that my boss would try to identify work for me—in other areas where I had no experience or knowledge. At the time, however, I knew that SpaceX had quite a few open requisitions and were actively hiring in the Starlink optics technology area, where my expertise would have been highly valuable.
It became clear that the company was pushing me to leave. In June 2022, after the promised alternative work did not materialize, and I was subjected to the public humiliation of being questioned about my very presence in a meeting I was invited to, as well as my ability to “deliver,” I submitted my resignation.
Musk is now 51. As Chief Technology Officer of SpaceX, Technoking of Tesla, and Chief Twit of Twitter, he apparently assumes that his ideas and engineering leadership are exactly what his companies need. And yet, the very few older engineers hired by SpaceX are marginalized or “quiet fired”... Musk is now closer in age to Social Security eligibility than to the sea of fresh-faced recent graduates his company employs. At what age will he be when this predominantly young staff become concerned that he might “retire or die”?
As of the time of publication, SpaceX did not respond to our request for comment.