New Twitter CEO Brings Engineering Education to Political Fight

On the first day of Parag Agrawal’s new post as CEO of Twitter, Republicans in Congress took a tweet he posted in 2010 out of context to imply he was biased against whites. On day two, Twitter unveiled a muddled new policy banning sharing of “private media,” which immediately drew fire from both left and right.

And all of this before Agrawal was officially introduced as the company’s new CEO in an open-ended meeting on Tuesday, following the surprise resignation of outgoing CEO Jack Dorsey on a Monday that was supposed to be a ‘day. rest ”for Twitter employees.

Agrawal, who at 37 becomes the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, was unanimously chosen to succeed Dorsey by Twitter’s board of directors, according to an official statement on Monday. At Tuesday’s all-level meeting, according to employees who attended, Dorsey highlighted Agrawal’s engineering background and the fact that he rose through the ranks for a decade on Twitter touting him as the perfect choice to lead the influential social media company.

Still, several current and former employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said Agrawal was an unexpected internal – but not necessarily unwelcome – choice for one of the most difficult leadership roles. of Silicon Valley. Having joined Twitter before completing his PhD. program at Stanford University in 2011, he spent much of his tenure there without any direct report, two of those employees said.

As CTO, he also had limited experience dealing with the thorny issues of content policy – what people are allowed to post on social media – that make Twitter an influential force in global discourse and a target of criticism and regulation by governments and political actors around the world.

“Agrawal must determine how Twitter should react to a shootout of bills in Congress to curb social media companies and a new president (of the Federal Trade Commission) who painted a target on leading platforms,” ​​as well that attacks from former President Donald Trump and the right wing, said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, in an email. If Trump runs again, “the pressure to reinstate him will be enormous. Awesome engineering techniques will not solve this problem.

Instead, insiders say, his formidable engineering skills, alignment with Dorsey’s vision of a “decentralized” future for social media, and his relatively uncontroversial reputation within the company have helped him to choose among other internal candidates, perhaps more obvious, in a process of guarded and opaque succession.

While Dorsey told all employees that the company had ‘defeated’ activist shareholders and that the decision to quit was his own, at least one person outside the company who was familiar with the process suggested he should was lobbying from those like-minded shareholders and board members that ultimately led to his departure. While the timing was up to Dorsey, said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters, her exit from the company was “the culmination of a conversation Elliott Management started when she invested in Twitter in early 2020. “

Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley sent a statement saying the board formed an independent committee in 2020 to assess Twitter’s leadership and create a CEO succession plan. Twitter also reiterated that the decision rests with Dorsey.

Kelley rebuffed the idea that Agrawal is light on politics or management experience. She said he played a pivotal role in reviewing a 2020 document that outlined the company’s strategic approach to policy and led the process of building software for machine learning that automatically removes content that violates Twitter rules. In a recent managerial role, she added, Agrawal led the company’s platform engineering team – a large technical team with hundreds of workers.

Agrawal is now becoming the public face of a platform that is frequently criticized by the right for moderating speech too aggressively and by the left for not moderating speech aggressively enough. His decision to cover a Trump tweet last year – before other tech companies took action against him – exemplified the inordinate political power of the role in which Agrawal is intervening. Dorsey has testified five times on Capitol Hill, and Agrawal will likely find his way there soon enough as Congress continues to monitor new regulations on social media platforms.

Agrawal will bring a keen intellect, say those who know him, but little or no experience in politics. Then again, few other Big Tech CEOs had political experience when they rose to the top positions, either. And investor pressure on Twitter’s board was less about the nuances of its policy decisions and more about developing popular new products that would spur user growth and give it more mainstream appeal.

One of the keys to selecting Agrawal, according to insiders, was that he appeared to be in sync with Dorsey on a vision for the future for the company. This future will focus on decentralization and free software. Agrawal was the main promoter of a Twitter-funded project called Bluesky, an independent organization that creates software that can be shared by different social media companies.

One of the employees described Agrawal as a “man of big ideas” who has no proven track record as a manager, who doesn’t like to deal with details and “isn’t the best with people”. Despite everything, this employee was “generally satisfied” with this choice, because Agrawal seemed thoughtful and respectful.

“People seem generally happy with Parag, but mostly because it’s the best choice among a bunch of bad options,” said another employee.

Other candidates considered for the job were not disclosed, and Twitter declined to comment. But one name that has emerged from both internal and external speculation is that of Kayvon Beykpour, the company’s head of consumer products, who has overseen the launch of several new features in recent years, including the Twitter live audio forum. Spaces.

Three of the employees agreed that Beykpour’s aggressive management style would have made him a division choice. One of them said they were ready to go if Beykpour was the choice. And two noted that Beykpour and Agrawal didn’t always agree.

The person outside the company who said they were familiar with the decision-making process confirmed that Agrawal’s strong reputation among the grassroots was a factor.

“He is a culture carrier, internally, very respected within the company, and would not be very disruptive,” said the new CEO, said the person. “If you look at what Twitter needs to get from where it is today to a $ 100 billion, $ 200 billion company, it’s really a product-driven innovation mindset: how do we deploy- we have new features? ”

The person cited Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen as examples of little-recognized internal candidates who have become capable leaders in their respective companies.

Twitter’s chief policy officer Vijaya Gadde is also well respected internally, current and former employees said, and would have been a smart choice to manage Congress and regulators. But it was understood that the company’s executives and investors preferred someone with expertise in engineering or product development.

Although Agrawal has no formal experience in managing a political team, he has been one of the main leaders in implementing initiatives aimed at balancing freedom of expression and the protection of people. users against harms such as bullying and misinformation, as well as initiatives to open up company algorithms to public scrutiny, said a senior Twitter executive, who requested anonymity to describe the issues internal.

For example, Twitter was the first of the major platforms to cover content with warning labels that let people know that a newsworthy tweet can be problematic and to create a pop-up asking people to take a moment to check if they want to retweet a particular tweet.

“Parag was the person who brought it all to life internally,” said the executive. “Twitter has always been a ‘product-driven business’, but as the future of the Internet relies more on algorithm standards and decentralization, it has played a key role in creating the tools to make those political goals a reality. “

One of the other Twitter employees offered a less glowing rating. “He’s not actively dangerous,” the employee said. “I’ve seen worse men walk with less. “


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