Twitter chief tries to stay on course as Elon Musk flips plans

SAN FRANCISCO — At a virtual meeting for Twitter executives last week, Parag Agrawal admitted he was exhausted.

Mr Agrawal, the CEO of Twitter, had spent the past six weeks leading the company through a $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, the world’s richest person. Some employees openly rebelled against their new owner, who had criticized the social media service and its executives. Others were upset about Mr Agrawal’s recent turmoil in the company. And Mr. Musk probably seemed to force Mr. Agrawal out of his job.

At the meeting, Mr Agrawal was “rude” about Twitter’s issues and the hurricane of attention over Mr Musk’s deal, two people with knowledge of the event said. But he also conveyed a sense of acceptance of his situation and said he would move forward with his plans for the company, they said.

Mr. Agrawal identified areas he believes are essential to improve: Twitter’s core product, the company’s deep technology, the business, freedom of expression on the platform, and most importantly, what leadership looks like. Some executives left the meeting energized, people said.

That was what Mr. Agrawal could do given the circumstances. That’s because of all the top jobs in tech, the 38-year-old is in what is arguably the most impossible.

The Indian-born executive, a protege of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has only been in charge of the company since November. He was expected to turn Twitter around after years of missed growth and financial goals. But Mr. Musk dove in within months, essentially turning Mr. Agrawal into a lame duck who must manage a troubled workforce and tackle Twitter’s mounting economic challenges before he is likely to be fired from the company.

“No one in the world would want to be in those shoes,” said Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and professor at Stanford University.

But even as Mr. Agrawal struggles with the situation, he faces a soft landing. If mr. Musk fires him as chief executive, Mr. Agrawal earn $60 million, according to the securities filings. (In November, he received a compensation package of a $1 million annual salary, plus bonuses, as well as limited stock units and performance-based stock units worth $12.5 million.)

Mr Agrawal appeared on Twitter’s annual shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday, which was held virtually. He and other executives said they could not discuss the terms of the deal, which shareholders will vote on at a later date, until the transaction closes. They also answered questions from shareholders about Twitter’s products, misinformation and the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Twitter’s board of directors also underwent changes on Wednesday. It was Mr Dorsey’s last day on the board. And Egon Durban, a private equity executive and Twitter board member, resigned after not receiving enough shareholder votes to determine whether he would continue to serve. Twitter board considers his resignation, but can refuse and ask him to stay on; the company is expected to make a decision on Thursday.

Behind the scenes, employees and advisers said Mr Agrawal has been working with bankers and board members to finalize the sale of Twitter to Mr Musk, though the billionaire has recently suggested he wants to renegotiate and has made sharp remarks about the company. .

Mr Agrawal has also redoubled his plans to review Twitter while he can. This month, he fired two top executives, cut most hires and withdrew from discretionary spending after the company missed financial targets. He also plans to improve Twitter’s features using machine learning, make the platform more attractive to new users and accelerate new product launches, according to a presentation at a company meeting this month.

“I know we have been through a period of uncertainty,” Mr Agrawal said at that meeting, according to a recording of it obtained by The New York Times. “We are shifting our focus back to our work.”

Mr. Agrawal joined Twitter in 2011 as an engineer while completing his PhD in computer science at Stanford. After that, he steadily climbed the ranks of the company and became Chief Technology Officer in 2017. He has spent most of his career with the company and has more than 610,000 followers on the service.

As Chief Technology Officer, Mr. Agrawal tackled some of the intricate technical challenges of Twitter and built relationships with his technical colleagues and Mr. Dorsey. He shared Mr Dorsey’s view that the future of Twitter depends on overhauling its technology so that it can rely more on machine learning and decentralize its services to give users more control over their experiences on the platform.

when mr. Dorsey handed over the reins to Mr. Agrawal, the engineer went from supervising a handful of employees to directly managing more than 7,000 people. “My trust in him as our CEO is deeply rooted,” said Mr. Dorsey at the time.

Mr Agrawal immediately made changes. Days after he became CEO, he fired two top executives responsible for design and engineering. He gave the remaining leaders broader responsibilities. In internal emails from The Times, he emphasized accountability and said the new structure would clarify who was responsible for which tasks and speed up decision-making.

In January, Mr Agrawal pushed out two security managers. In an internal memo, he said the organization was not being run according to his expectations, affecting the top priority work.

Credit…Twitter, via Getty Images

Some Twitter employees applauded the moves, saying some of the ousted executives were slow or had bullied employees. Others were shocked that Mr Agrawal had fired old leaders and found him unfathomable.

By March, Mr. Musk had begun building a significant stake in Twitter. On March 31, Mr. Agrawal with Mr. Musk to pitch him about joining the Twitter board, according to a registration request. Mr. Musk initially agreed and then reversed course. Mr. Musk said he was also considering an offer to take Twitter private and had an idea to start a new social media company, according to the filing.

It was Mr. Agrawal’s first encounter with Mr. Musk’s unpredictable style, which quickly became routine. Mr. Musk soon launched a takeover bid for the company, sealed the deal and then pinned Mr Agrawal on Twitter about things like fake accounts. When Mr. Agrawal tried to allay the concerns on Twitter, Mr. Musk responded by sending him a poo emoji.

On Twitter, some employees soured Mr Agrawal, according to 10 current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity. He told workers he could not share information about the deal with Mr Musk as the details were being eroded. He was also initially silent at company meetings, they said, and was absent from an internal chat with employees.

Mr Agrawal’s supporters said he was legally prohibited from sharing information about the deal, according to two knowledgeable people, and internally expressed his frustration at not being able to say more about the deal initially. After the agreement was signed, Twitter held staff meetings and sent more than a dozen emails to keep employees informed. Last week, Twitter employees had Vijaya Gadde, the head of legal affairs and policy, and Ned Segal, the chief financial officer, ask questions about the deal.

Mr Agrawal’s defenders said he is more sociable and charming in smaller groups. They added that his changes were long overdue, especially at a company that had resisted change.

In Slack posts and group chats, other employees have expressed their enthusiasm for Mr. Musk’s property, believing his passion for Twitter could re-energize the company.

But Mr. Agrawal has opponents. At company meetings in recent weeks, he sometimes said that “at the moment” nothing would change. Some employees have mocked his comments and made memes showing Mr Agrawal making those repeated commitments, the people said.

Many employees remain uncertain about their future at the company, several people say. Some are also busy with the golden parachutes that Mr Agrawal and other top executives will receive if they are fired after the deal with Mr Musk is closed, the people said.

Mr Agrawal has told his confidants that he will carry out his plans rather than simply wait for Mr Musk to take over. After slashing spending and freezing nearly all hires at the company this month, he tried to recruit workers.

“During this time of change, it is critical that we continue to strengthen our work by taking greater accountability and execution to make Twitter all it can be,” he wrote in an email to employees, which was seen by The Times. “Our goal is existential.”

Ryan Mac reporting contributed.

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