Twittering about Twitter by a Former Twitter Engineer

Since I used to work at twitter, a few folks have asked what I think of what’s going on with Twitter now that Elon Musk bought it.

The answer is a little bit complicated. I worked for Twitter back in 2013, so it’s quite a while ago, and an awful lot has changed in that time.

I went to Twitter out of idealism. I believed it was a platform that would change the world in a good way. At the time, there was a lot going on to back up that idea. Twitter was being used in the Arab Spring uprisings, it was giving underrepresented voices like Black Lives Matter a platform, and it really looked like it was going to democratize communication in a wonderful way. I was so thrilled to be able to become a part of that.

But what I found working there was a really dysfunctional company. The company seemed to be driven by a really odd kind of fear. Even though it seemed (at least from my perspective) like no one ever got penalized, everyone in management was terrified of making a decision that might fail. Failure was a constant spectre, which haunted everything, but which was never acknowledged, because if anyone admitted that something had failed, they might be held responsible for the failure. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else I worked, but people at Twitter were just terrified of making decisions that they could be held responsible for.

A concrete example of that was something called Highline. When I got to Twitter, the company was working on a new interface, based on the idea that a user could have multiple timelines. You’d go to twitter and look at your News timeline to find out what was going on in your world, and all you’d see was news. Then you’d switch to your music timeline to read what your favorite artists were talking about. Or your Friends timeline to chat with your friends.

At first, HighLine was everything. Every team at the company was being asked to contribute. It was the only topic at the first two monthly company-wide all-hands. It was the future of twitter.

And then it disappeared, like it had never happened. Suddenly there was no highline, no new interface in the plans. No one ever said it was cancelled. It was just gone.

At the next company all-hands, Dick Costolo, the CEO, gave his usual spiel about the stuff we’d been working on, and never mentioned highline. In fact, he talked about the work of the last few months, and talked about everything except highline. If I hadn’t been there, and didn’t know about it, I would never have guessed that nearly everyone in that room had been working heads-down on a huge high-profile effort for months. It was just gone, disappeared down the memory hole. It hadn’t failed, and no one was responsible, because it had never happened.

There was more nonsense like that – rewriting history to erase things that no one wanted to be responsible for, and avoiding making any actual decisions about much of anything. The only things that ever got decided where things where we were copying facebook, because you couldn’t be blamed for doing the same thing as the most successful social media company, right?

After about a year, we got (another) new head of engineering, who wanted to get rid of distributed teams. I was the sole NYer in an SF based team. I couldn’t move to SF, so I left.

I came away from it feeling really depressed about the company and its future. A company that can’t make decisions, that can’t take decisive actions, that can’t own up to and learn from its mistakes isn’t a company with a bright future. The whole abuse situation had also grown dramatically during my year there, and it was clear that the company had no idea what to do about it, and were terrified of trying anything that might hurt the user numbers. So it really seemed like the company was heading into trouble, both in terms of the business, and the platform.

Looking at the Musk acquisition: I’ll be up front before I get into it. I think Elon is a jackass. I’ll say more about why, but being clear, I think he’s an idiot with no idea of what he’s gotten himself into.

That said: the company really needed to be shaken up. They hired far too many people – largely because of that same old indecisiveness. You can’t move existing staff off of what they’re doing and on to something new unless you’re willing to actually cancel the thing that they were working on. But cancelling a stream of in-progress work takes some responsibility, and you have to account for the now wasted sunk cost of what they were doing. So instead of making sure that everyone was working on something that was really important and valuable to the company, they just hired more people to do new things. As a result, they were really bloated.

So trimming down was something they really needed. Twitter is a company that, run well, could probably chug along making a reasonable profit, but it was never going to be a massive advertising juggernaut like Google or Facebook. So keeping tons of people on the staff when they aren’t really contributing to the bottom line just doesn’t work. Twitter couldn’t afford to pay that many people given the amount of money it was bringing in, but no one wanted to be responsible for deciding who to cut. So as sad as it is to see so many smart, hard-working people lose their jobs, it was pretty inevitable that it would happen eventually.

But The way that Elon did it was absolutely mind-numbingly stupid.

He started by creating a bullshit metric for measuring productivity. Then he stack-ranked engineers based on that bullshit metric, and fired everyone below a threshold. Obviously a brilliant way to do it, right? After all, metrics are based on data, and data is the basis of good decisions. So deciding who to fire and who to keep based on a metric will work out well!

Sadly, his metric didn’t include trivial, unimportant things like whether the people he was firing were essential to running the business. Because he chose the metric before he understood anything about what the different engineers did. An SRE might not commit as many lines of code to git, but god help your company if your service discovery system goes down, and you don’t have anyone who knows how to spin it back up without causing a massive DDOS across your infrastructure.

Then came the now-infamous loyalty email. Without telling any of the employees what he was planning, he demanded that they commit themselves to massive uncompensated increase in their workload. If they wouldn’t commit to it, the company would take that as a resignation. (And just to add insult to injury, he did it with a Google forms email.)

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Particularly because, again, it didn’t bother to consider that people aren’t interchangable. There are some people that are really necessary, that the company can’t do without. What if they decide to leave rather than sign? (Which is exactly what happened, leading to managers making desperate phone calls begging people to come back.)

So dumb. As my friend Mike would say, “Oh fuck-a-duck”.

Elon is supposed to be a smart guy. So why is he doing such dumb stuff at twitter?

Easy. He’s not really that smart.

This is something I’ve learned from working in tech, where you deal with a lot of people who became very wealthy. Really wealthy people tend to lose touch with the reality of what’s going on around them. They get surrounded by sycophants who tell them how brilliant, how wonderful, how kind and generous they are. They say these things not because they’re true, but because it’s their job to say them.

But if you’re a person who hears nothing, from dawn to dusk, but how brilliant you are, you’ll start to believe it. I’ve seen, several times, how this can change people. People who used to be reasonable and down to earth, but after a few years of being surrounded by yes-men and sycophants completely lose touch.

Elon is an extreme case of that. He grew up in a rich family, and from the time he was a tiny child, he’s been surrounded by people whose job it is to tell him how smart, how brilliant, how insightful, how wonderful he is. And he genuinely believes that. In his head, he’s a combination of Einstein, Plato, and Ghandi – he’s one of the finest fruits of the entire human race. Anyone who dares to say otherwise gets fired and kicked out of the great presence of the mighty Musk.

Remember that this is a guy who went to Stanford, and dropped out, because he didn’t like dealing with Professors who thought they knew more than he did. He’s a guy who believes that he’s a brilliant rocket scientist, but who stumbles every time he tries to talk about it. But he believes that he’s an expert – because (a) he’s the smartest guy in the world, and (b) all of the engineers in his company tell him how brilliant he is and how much he’s contributing to their work. He’d never even consider the possibility that they say that because he’dfire them if he didn’t. And, besides, as I’m sure his fanboys are going to say: If he’s not so smart, then why does he have so much more money than me?

Take that kind of clueless arrogance, and you see exactly why he’s making the kinds of decisions that he is at Twitter. Why the stupid heavy-handed layoffs? He’s the smartest guy in the world, and he invented a metric which is obviously correct for picking which engineers to keep. Why pull the stupid “promise me your children or you’re fired” scam? Because they should feel privileged to work for the Great Elon. They don’t need to know what he’s planning: they should just know that because it’s Elon, it’s going to be the most brilliant plan they can imagine, and they should be willing to put their entire lives on the line for the privilege of fulfilling it.

It’s the stupidity of arrogance from start to finish. Hell, just look at the whole acquisition process.

He started off with the whole acquisition as a dick-swinging move: “How dare you flag my posts and point out that I’m lying? Do you know
who I am? I can buy your company with spare change and fire your sorry ass!”.

Then he lined up some financing, and picked a ridiculously over-valued price for his buyout offer based on a shitty pot joke. (Seriously, that’s how he decided how much to pay for Twitter: he wanted the per-share price to be a pot joke.)

Once the deal was set, he realized how ridiculous it was, so he tried to back out. Only the deal that he demanded, and then agreed to, didn’t leave him any way to back out! He’d locked himself in to paying this ridiculous price for a shitty company. But he went to court to try to get out of it, by making up a bullshit story about how Twitter had lied to him.

When it became clear that the courts were going to rule against his attempt to back out, he reversed course, and claimed that he really did want to buy Twitter, despite the fact that he’d just spent months trying to back out. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was going to lose the case – perish the thought! Elon never loses! He just changed his mind, because he’s such a wonderful person, and he believes twitter is important and only he can save it.

It’s such stupid shit from start to finish.

So I don’t hold out much hope for the future of Twitter. It’s being run by a thin-skinned, egotistical asshole who doesn’t understand the business that he bought. I’m guessing that he’s got some scheme where he’ll come out of it with more money than he started with, while leaving the investors who backed his acquisition holding the bag. That’s how money guys like Elon roll. But Twitter is probably going to be burned to the ground along the way.

But hey, he bought all of my Twitter stock for way more than it was worth, so that was nice.

2 thoughts on “Twittering about Twitter by a Former Twitter Engineer

  1. vilx2

    Yay, you’re posting again! ๐Ÿ™‚ I never doubted you for a second and never left your mailing list! ๐Ÿ˜€

    By the way – the previous email on December 6 (which should have alerted about the “How computers work” post) seems to have been sent with an error – it linked to some older article about Type Theory instead (ashamed to say, I ignored it, because the whole type theory thing just flies over my head).

    However the actual article about computer inner workings is very interesting! I hope you post the rest of it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Amy

    While I don’t know Musk personally, I’d certainly tend to concur with your analysis. And to be honest, your analysis also reminds me of a former president of the United States, who seems to have somewhat similar characteristics.

    As someone who tries to do paid work on making the world a better place, I guess it really sucks how Twitter was vs how it was hoped to be :/


Leave a Reply