‘Don’t let them hack us’: Here’s what it’s like working as the CIO for Elon Musk at SpaceX

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images.

From Zip2 to Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s businesses have revolutionised their industries.

He has established a name for himself as a visionary, known for taking on big, complicated projects.

His success has been credited to his drive and tremendous self-confidence — which, in turn, has also been described by others as exhausting.

So what do you learn from working for someone like that?

According to Branden Spikes, who served as Musk’s right hand of technology for more than 15 years at Zip2, PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, it was Musk’s determination and bravery that was the most inspiring part of his leadership.

“He’s a great entrepreneur and leader. Because of that I kept repeatedly joining,” Spikes told Business Insider.

Branden Spikes. Photo: Supplied.

Spikes first started working for Musk at Zip2 in 1997 where he led the IT operations teams.

“Each time was a little more challenging than the last. The move to aerospace was quite a bit of a departure from online banking, and so was online banking from Internet web portal.

“These were big challenges, but I think that the SpaceX one was by far the most audacious, just unbelievably difficult, practically impossible, type of thing.

“Even in the formational areas starting the company, and many people don’t realise that we were in business for over six years before even flying a rocket, you had people telling you what you were doing could not be done, should not be done, and that we were fools to try. These were loud voices.

“What a brave man to just, in the face of all of that, steam right ahead forward and keep motivating everybody, and leading the charge to victory, and then managing somehow to achieve victory, proving all the naysayers wrong, and validating and vindicating.”

And despite working towards such monumental goals as trying to get humans not only in space but on Mars, Spike said Musk took the time to understand the pressure points of his businesses, one of which was IT and cybersecurity.

That meant Spikes had to bring his A-game. Protecting the system from being hacked, and “making sure everything with a wire or blinky light functioned and communicated perfectly,” as he puts it.

“I think he’s taken pride in not having been hacked at the companies he’s started,” said Spike, “and I take credit for that.

“I like that Elon gets cybersecurity and he gets IT. It wasn’t difficult for me to get, as they say in the industry, board-level interest in tech systems and in cybersecurity and the value of it. It wasn’t hard. He got it.

“In fact, on day one of creating the network at SpaceX, he’s like, ‘Don’t let them hack us.’

No pressure.

“That’s really a powerful message, and just exemplifies the fact that we saw eye to eye on the value of a well-crafted network and on a secure system.”

He says it was this attitude from his leader that encouraged Spikes to keep working with Musk and taking on each new challenge.

“That encouragement and that environment is really how I got to the unique perspective and the ability to start my own cybersecurity business,” he said.

Image: SpaceX/ YouTube.

In 2012, Spikes went on to found his own cyber security business, Spikes Security. It was acquired by Aurionpro’s Security division in 2016 to form Cyberinc, where he is now the technology evangelist.

Spikes says knowledge and background in engineering and computer systems makes Musk “unique and different from your traditional business leader”.

“I’ve rarely seen other business leaders that can get a grasp of the technology and the importance of it being resilient and secure. They look to others to help them.”

He says it has taken huge, costly security breaches in some of the world’s biggest companies for business leaders to wake up to the importance of high-level IT protect.

“Now, fortunately, I think we are starting to see some board-level awareness of these things, maybe because of the just incredibly scary and enormously successful hacks that have happened and made the news, Sony Pictures and Target and so on and so forth. That probably helped some business leaders, forced them to become more savvy.

“Elon benefits from a lifetime of working in computer tech to get that, but not all business leaders do.”

*The author traveled to Melbourne as a guest of Pause Fest.