Meet Tesla's unicorn

This article is drawn from the Transport Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Tuesdays.

Startups that are valued at $1 billion are often referred to as unicorns. But there’s another kind of unicorn in the tech world — an employee who is an ultra-valuable, jack of all trades — and Tesla’s got one who has been going to bat for it for the past eight years.

Meet Jerome Guillen. He’s an engineer, salesperson, manager, product developer and, as of late, the creator of Tesla’s pop-up factory.

On Tesla’s earnings call early this month, Guillen was the person Tesla CEO Elon Musk credited with creating the Model 3 general assembly line that Tesla built from scratch in a tent (yes, a tent) next to its Fremont, California, factory. Guillen said on the earnings call that he designed the line to be, quite literally, just one straight line, and also on a slight slope (thank you, gravity) to make assembling Model 3’s as simple and efficient as possible.

That’s just not how traditional auto assembly works. Before Guillen — as Musk put it — "was pulling some pretty incredible rabbits out of a hat" with the tent, he created Tesla’s electric semi-truck division, led Tesla’s worldwide sales and helped lead Model S development.

He’s a magical unicorn, someone Musk can move around across divisions as he sees fit to help bust through seemingly impossible tasks as Tesla evolves. That Guillen can lead disparate duties such as sales, product and factory design is pretty rare. It requires an unusual mix of engineering chops, interpersonal skills, creativity and design empathy. He’s also just an all-around nice guy. (I’ve interviewed him a handful of times over the years.)  

These types of employees are crucial for the survival of tech startups. The same goes for a hybrid tech-company-meets-auto-industry firm such as Tesla. While Tesla is going head-to-head with Detroit, it’s got its pick of Silicon Valley’s top talent for its executive ranks. That’s arguably one of Tesla’s greatest — although undersung — assets.

Gaining access to this type of core (and occasional unicorn) talent is one reason that the big automakers such as General Motors and Ford acquired hot Silicon Valley autonomous vehicle startups. They also, of course, have Silicon Valley R&D centers, but sometimes those offer mixed results.

With such a profound transformation happening in transportation and mobility, unicorns such as Guillen could play a key role helping companies survive and outmaneuver the competition. It’s going to be a battle out there for quite a while.