from Guide to the Job Hunt on Mar 19, 2023

Why (and why not) work at Tesla

I did a short 4-month internship with the vision team at Tesla AutoPilot, under Andrej Karpathy. Despite being a part of an insanely productive and impactful team, I didn't return for full-time. Here are reasons why I regret leaving Tesla AutoPilot — as well as reasons why I don't.

Tesla is well-known for grueling work hours, and it's for good reason: Through a combination of high expectations and company culture, long hours are the norm. However, it's not all doom and gloom. These long hours make the team as productive and impactful as it is.

This post is written for several possible categories of readers — effectively, anyone with an avid interest in working culture at Tesla, in particular for the Autopilot team:

Just like with Why (and why not) work at Meta, the focus is on everyday concerns, but I'll briefly mention two common objections to working at Tesla Autopilot:

With that said, these objections aren't the focus of this post. Instead, our focus is on practical on-the-job concerns for working at Tesla, beyond the principle of joining.

As I discussed in How to make big decisions., discussions for major decisions should be broken up into a) criteria and b) rankings. For each of the major points below, I'll a) lead with the criteria and b) present information that will help you rank Tesla for that criteria.

The work is the main pro.

The main pros for Tesla generally relate to the actual work you're doing — both the impact and your own productivity.

Pro #1. Highly-focused work environment. The office is plain, team meetings are sparse, and company activities — be it all-hands or happy hours — do not exist.

Pro #2. Highly-focused team. The team had its eyes on the prize at all times — the next model drop. This meant that all projects, and even experimental runs, were all candidates for the next dropped model.

Pro #3. Fast-paced team. The Autopilot team moved quickly and efficiently, making a nimble and highly-productive team. This was partly driven by senior scientists who had dual strengths in management and technical skills.

Pro #4. World-class tools. Tooling was very mature, with centralized experiment management, customized visualization tools, and a mature data pipeline.

Pro #5. Real impact on lives, daily. The team constantly reviews incoming data for mistakes and successes alike. For the vision team, missing or false detections are immediately triaged, cleaned, and pushed into our validation or training sets.

On a side note, it was additionally a pro that Tesla Autopilot was transitioning to a vision-only and radar-less system during my stint there. This was reflective of a general principle at Tesla, that vision is enough to achieve full self-driving. Whether or not this is true, it made sense for me — as a computer vision researcher — to go to a workplace that prioritized computer vision. This meant my work had the most impact at Tesla; at another company such as Waymo, which uses LiDAR, my work would not have as great an impact, for a LiDAR-centric sensory pipeline.


Con #1. There is no "life" in "work-life balance". This is taken to the extreme — the company and culture dictate that you spend every waking hour on Tesla work1, usually just on weekdays.

Con #2. There is no job security. At a high level, the more exposure you have to Elon, the more likely you are to be fired. Even without E-exposure, the lowest performing members of each team are periodically let go.

Con #3. The job is unpredictable. In short, direction can be dictated and changed by Elon in a moment's notice. This makes it difficult to plan too far in advance, which is partly why the team plans for the near-term only.

As a result of all the above, staying at Tesla AutoPilot for 1 year is considered a huge milestone. A good half of the scientists had been at Tesla Autopilot for less than a year. Another quarter for less than 2 years.

Join for the work, not for the workplace.

With 20-20 hindsight, I now would say that Tesla Autopilot is worth joining for the work and the team — not necessarily the workplace. The culture is ideal for anyone looking to learn how to hustle. Quite simply, the culture brings out the most productive you, you've ever seen.

I'm really happy I got to experience the Tesla AutoPilot working environment, but I'm also glad that experience was limited to an internship. I don't believe this stress is sustainable in the long-term, certainly not for myself as a full-timer.

The long hours are not the problem so much; even at my current job with Apple, I'm more than happy spending every waking hour on work. However, the unpredictability and lack of job security make those hours unnecessarily stressful. Furthermore, the expectation of around-the-work clock is too much: If I'm burning out, there's no outlet. At any other job, I can simply scale back to a normal 8-hour workday for a week or so. Take a few vacation days to relax.

I also would want around-the-clock work to be recognized as above and beyond. This is for a simple reason: If I can spend 14 hours working every day, I would rather spend those hours at a team that isn't expecting this at all. Rather than putting in exceptional work just to keep up, I'd rather it exceed expectations.

In short, I'm really happy I worked at Tesla Autopilot — for the team and the work, but the stress is a big challenge for long-term careers at the company. If you do join, maximize your time there by learning all you can about how your team is so productive.

Why I worked at Tesla

Here's a brief addendum summarizing my own experiences at Tesla. In late 2020, I wasn't actually too interesting in pursuing an internship. However, recruiters from Amazon, Nvidia, and Tesla reached out, so I decided to interview and learn more.

In February 2021, I was committed to interning that summer. It had been 11 months since the start of COVID lockdown, and I was looking for an internship to kick me out of my lazy stupor. Being at home for nearly a year, for the third year of my PhD, had really sucked the joy out of the program.

For these reasons, I was looking specifically for an in-person internship. This ended up being a very effective criteria for deciding where to intern: Amazon and Nvidia were remote, without a certain future date for in-person work. Tesla was fully in-person. I committed to Tesla.

I loved the team at Tesla, and I really do think the internship opened my eyes to how productive I can be — when I'm focused and grinding. However, when searching for a full-time job in 2022, I simply decided I wanted to focus on computer vision applications in augmented reality instead of self-driving cars.

back to Guide to the Job Hunt

  1. Granted, hours are much more insane elsewhere. — for example, in investment banking. Goldman Sachs found its first-year analysts working 98-hour works on average — albeit with a small sample size of 13, using self-reported hours. Tesla AutoPilot was somewhere between Goldman Sachs and the other tech companies, with 10-12 hours in the office per weekday and residual work done at home in the evenings, making a 60-70 hour workweek.