The Scoop: Turmoil at Twitter

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On Wednesday, 26 October, Elon Musk entered Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco with a sink, marking his arrival at the company he’d just bought. Obviously – given Musk is a heavy user of Twitter – the sink was an unsubtle reference to a popular Twitter meme, “let that sink in.”

On Thursday, 27 October, an all-hands meeting was announced for all staff, but then canceled a few hours later, Platformer reported. This was likely because Musk was in the process of firing CEO Parag Agrawal, CFO Ned Segal, and Vijaya Gadde, the company's head of legal policy.

That evening, Musk tweeted “the bird is freed.”

From that moment on, things sped up for many software engineers at Twitter.

On Friday, they were told to print out their code for Musk and Tesla engineers to review it. Tech journalist Casey Newton – who is also a fellow Substack writer – reported how events panned out, in Platformer:

“On Friday, though, some engineers began to receive requests from Musk’s intermediaries. He would like to see the most recent software code that they had written, the engineers were told. And he would like them to print the code out and show it to him.

According to four current employees, engineers spent Friday afternoon at Twitter dutifully printing out their code in anticipation of meetings with Musk and some of his senior engineers from Tesla. Other engineers were told to prepare for “code pairing” with Musk, in which they would sit with him and review code together.”

Employees dutifully – and no doubt incredulously – printed out reams of code. Any software engineer knows printing code makes no sense at all. Reviewing code is done on the computer because it’s more efficient, because you can jump between revisions, see who made which change, and so on. Printing it loses all this metadata. Anyway, here’s a Twitter employee with a printed selection of her code written over the preceding 30 days:

Then, a few hours later, new instructions came from the top: stop printing and shred all documents with the code!

I have since talked with several software engineers. Not one of them had their printed out code reviewed, not by Musk himself nor anyone else.

On 29 Oct, Saturday morning, a new project kicked off, with the first demo due on Monday morning. Engineers tell me they woke up on Saturday to find a new, company-wide initiative of the highest priority: shipping a feature for anyone to be able to pay for verification – the high-status ‘blue tick.’ The launch date was set for Monday, 7 November, with more granular demos and milestones slated in. The first demo was scheduled for Monday, 31 October, in the morning: only two days later.

The deadline of Monday for the demo clearly implied people had to work the whole weekend to make it happen. Although engineers report nobody was told that this overtime was required, the feeling was that failing to work all weekend carried the high risk of getting fired, in the context of employees already fearing large layoffs lay ahead.

I talked with several software engineers who all volunteered immediately to help and cleared their whole weekend diary in order to have any hope of making the Monday demo.

Building the verification functionality requires work on the backend, web, iOS and Android apps. While Twitter currently supports full-remote work, it was clear the only way to get a demo shipped by Monday was to collaborate faster – which meant doing so in the office. While most engineers showed up in the San Francisco headquarters, colleagues in other regions also joined in remotely, including from London.

Several engineers slept in the office Saturday night in order to work more and hit the deadline. There was so much to do that several slept on couches and at least one engineer used a sleeping bag they’d had the foresight to bring along.

Over the weekend, very good progress was made. I’m told all streams closed dozens of tickets, and the pace of work was fast. Some of the changes have already been shipped to the App Store, sitting behind a feature flag. Software engineer Jane Manchun Wong has uncovered some of these feature flags, including how the Verified tab will likely be introduced on Twitter.

A week after Musk’s acquisition, employees have still not heard anything official from leadership. There has been no email, no town hall and no official communication on what is next for the social media giant. What are Musk’s plans; will there be layoffs, will stock vesting or compensation change in some way? I talked with several software engineers at Twitter who all told me the same thing: people are following the news for leaks.

Software engineers are expecting large layoffs to happen, very soon. Although people have received no official news, Elon Musk has previously told employees that he plans to cut 75% of Twitter’s workforce - then denied it. On Monday, 31 October, The Washington post reported layoffs are expected to be at 25%.

Within internal employee groups, speculation is rampant about the size of these layoffs. Here’s what some current software engineers say are popular speculations. All are unconfirmed, but I want to share them to give a sense of the uncertainty for people inside the company:

  • There’s a screenshot circulating of a layoff list with 3,738 names on it, from circa 7,500 employees.
  • It’s being treated as fact by employees that the Goldbird organization, which includes lots of software engineers and also builds ads products, will be cut from ~700 people to about 150. There’s a rumor the Goldbird org could be cut down to as few as 10 people, when negotiations started.
  • Many engineers in the US were expecting layoffs to begin early this week, which didn’t happen. Now, engineers fear the layoffs might start on Friday, or early next week.

It’s rumored Twitter is targeting not just a 50% headcount cut, but a 50% operational expenditure (OPEX) cut as well. Several engineers are tasked with investigating which systems can be scaled back or turned off completely, to reduce cloud operations costs.

I’m told Twitter is spending more on Google Cloud than it has previously committed, and the goal is to get this spend down to the very fewest commitments, and then some. All vendors with whom the company is spending a lot, are expected to be reviewed. I reveal later in this issue that this is happening at LinkedIn, too. It should be a warning sign for software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies.

Several software engineers have been fired on the spot in the US, including those who worked all last weekend. Senior Director of Engineering, Taylor Leese, was summarily let go on Sunday. Likewise software engineer Manu Cornet – described as ‘the most productive web engineer at Twitter’ by someone I talked with. Both announced this fact on Twitter.

To give a sense of how these layoffs went, Manu shared his side of the story. Without prior warning, he received an email from HR stating “your recent behavior has violated multiple policies.” The policies were not shared, and he was cut off from all systems, and terminated. The termination email:

The termination email software engineer Manu Cornet received from Twitter. Source: Manu Cornet’s blog.
The termination email software engineer Manu Cornet received from Twitter. Source: Manu Cornet’s blog.

The mood inside Twitter went from generally hopeful to generally bad, in just a few days. I talked with several software engineers before Musk took over. I got the sense people felt that Twitter was missing leadership and direction, and many hoped that Musk would bring them both.

However, no one expected the immediate, forced crunch Musk imposed on parts of the company. Still, with the heat on – and the immediate threat of layoffs – plenty of people rose to the challenge; hoping to prove they’re valuable enough to keep on, and embracing the new urgent pace which was previously absent.

The presence of Tesla engineers is unnerving for some. I’m told Musk brought more than 60 with him to Twitter, most from Tesla. These engineers are actively involved in building the verification feature. Some engineers told me they fear it will be the feedback of the Tesla engineers which decides who is let go and who gets to stay.

Several very senior-and-above engineers I talked with, have decided to quit; the question is timing. These people have decided the culture has changed irreversibly. They don’t want to be part of a Twitter with a similar engineering culture to Tesla.

Why is Musk doing so many things considered to be toxic, in a working environment? Let’s take a step back and consider what’s happened so far:

  • Elon Musk bought the company on Thursday.
  • He immediately fired the CEO and CFO.
  • He did not communicate via official channels with employees; no email, no town hall.
  • He is publicly mocking Twitter’s existing processes, including the new manager training.
  • He’s brought in external advisors and external software engineers, whom current Twitter employees feel are calling the shorts.
  • He said he’d fire 75% of staff, then walked back on this.
  • He put artificial, very aggressive, deadlines in place.
  • He indirectly mandated working over the weekend by setting a Monday morning demo deadline, on a Saturday.

Elon Musk is the world’s richest person based on his wealth accumulated in businesses like Tesla, SpaceX and The Boring Company. Therefore, we can assume he is purposeful and deliberate in doing business. On this basis, the hostility towards employees is surely intentional as well.

My view is that he’s doing it for a few reasons:

  • To transform Twitter’s culture to be like that of his other companies. A software engineer who formerly worked at Tesla summarized the culture at Tesla, as: “When Elon says ‘jump’, you say ‘how high?’ You don’t ask if you should jump at all. This is the culture.”
  • He’s already decided to lay off a large part of the workforce. Twitter is losing money and Musk has previously publicly stated he feels the company is bloated. On Twitter, he wrote on Sunday: “There seem to be 10 people “managing” for every one person coding”
  • He can kill several birds with one stone, this way. By setting a seemingly impossible deadline to build a complex feature – verification for anyone who pays – Musk gets several things done, at the same time. First, he’ll score a publicity win by shipping faster than Twitter has shipped before. On the way, he gets to identify the hardest working and most dedicated employees who don’t complain. Several people will quit. He has some criteria to base the layoffs on. And he’s now permanently changed the culture, so that going forward, sudden “impossible” projects can be expected, as will working weekends to fulfill them.
  • Because this is how his other companies work. Working weekends and sleeping in the office might be strange to hear for us in tech: but this is how Musk’s companies commonly operate. Musk has led by example in working very long hours and expecting others to follow. The only difference is that thanks to Twitter employees being more public about what is happening, we’re getting more details about this working style.

The working culture Musk is putting in place is more toxic than at any other well-known tech company. My view is that what Musk’s doing is unnecessarily harsh. He could get similar results with a more considerate, less aggressive, approach. Twitter is not some startup fighting for its life while running out of money. It’s an established company that has operated in a stable way, making modest losses.

Toxic workplaces are things I happen to have some experience with, as I joined Uber in a comparable situation in 2016. The CEO Travis Kalanick set an arbitrary deadline to rewrite the full Uber app, which gave most engineering teams about 3 months to do this epic undertaking. I wrote about this story in-depth in Uber's Crazy YOLO App Rewrite, From the Front Seat.

However, there were important differences. While several of us also worked weekends, we never feared being fired if we did not. Also, Travis told the company at the end of 2015 that he expected to see a new app by the end of 2016; so the news was no surprise. Finally, our deadline was not a week or two away; we had a months’ long runway for this challenging project. In the end, the project burnt out so many people – there were mass resignations at the end – that the next rewrite of the Driver app saw a much more considerate approach.

At Twitter, Musk clearly wants to make the company profitable in record time, and doesn’t care about employee wellbeing, or how supportive the culture is.

And should we be surprised by this?

This is the same Elon Musk whose other company, Tesla, conducted mass layoffs in secret, offering one week of severance to people laid off on the spot, as I cover in The Scoop #15.

Musk might be the richest person in the world currently, but he’s certainly not the ideal boss for people who value weekends for themselves and their families.

This was one out of the five topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  1. Meta delays the starting dates of new hires to February 2023. All new software engineering hires in Europe who were meant to start before February 2023, have had their starting dates pushed back until 14 February, next year. Why has the company made this unexpected move, and what about those who may miss out on up to three months of salary, as a result? Exclusive
  2. Hiring freeze and expenses to be cut at LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s leadership announced a hiring freeze, no backfills, and will cut down on expenses. I talked with insiders about why this is happening. Unexpected bad news from inside one of the fastest-growing organizations at Microsoft. Exclusive.
  3. The Big Tech hiring slowdown keeps spreading. Apple was the last major tech company which kept hiring. Well, it now expects this will change. Analysis.
  4. A large spike in layoffs. Stripe, Lyft, Chime, MessageBird, Onfido, Opendoor are just some companies that laid off this week. What is happening? Analysis.
  5. The Good Scoop. Positive news stories from across the tech industry. A new experiment.

Read it here.

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