Twitter chief tries to stay the course as Elon Musk upends his plans

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

Mr Agrawal, chief executive of Twitter, had spent the past six weeks steering the company through a $44 billion sale to Elon Musk, the world’s richest person. Some employees were openly rebelling against their new owner, who had criticized the social media service and its executives. Others were upset by Mr Agrawal’s recent corporate shake-ups. And Mr. Musk seemed likely to force Mr. Agrawal out of his job.

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

Mr. Agrawal touched on areas that he said were critical for improvement: Twitter’s core product, the depth of the company’s technology, the enterprise, free speech on the platform and, most importantly, what leadership looks like. Some executives left the meeting under stress, the people said.

That was what Mr. Agrawal could do under the circumstances. It’s because of all the top tech jobs the 38-year-old is in for what is perhaps the most impossible.

The Indian-born executive, a protege of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has only been at the helm of the company since November. He was expected to transform Twitter after years of failed growth and financial goals. But Mr. Musk stepped in within months, essentially turning Mr. Agrawal into a lame duck who must manage a restless workforce and grapple with Twitter’s growing economic challenges before he is likely to be kicked out of the company.

“There’s no one in the world who would want to be in those shoes,” said Bob Sutton, organizational psychologist and professor at Stanford University.

Yet even as Mr Agrawal grapples with the situation, he faces a soft landing. If Mr. Musk removes him as chief executive, Mr. Agrawal will earn $60 million, according to securities filings. (In November, he received a total compensation package of an annual salary of $1 million, plus bonuses, as well as restricted share units and performance share units worth 12, $5 million.)

Mr Agrawal appeared at Twitter’s annual shareholder 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 deal closes. They also answered shareholder questions about Twitter products, misinformation, and the importance of diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Twitter’s board also underwent changes on Wednesday. It was Mr. Dorsey’s last day on the council. 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’s Board Considering His Resignation, But May Refuse and Ask Him to Stay; the company is expected to issue a decision on Thursday.

Behind the scenes, staff and advisers said Mr Agrawal had worked with bankers and board members to complete the sale of Twitter to Mr Musk, although the billionaire recently suggested he wanted renegotiate and made scathing comments about the company.

Mr Agrawal has also doubled down on his Twitter overhaul plans while he can. This month he fired two top executives, suspended most hiring and cut discretionary spending after the company missed its financial targets. He also plans to improve Twitter’s functionality using machine learning and wants to make the platform more attractive to new users and move faster to new product launches, according to a presentation at a meeting. business this month.

“I know we are going through a period of uncertainty,” Mr. Agrawal said during that meeting, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. “We focus on our work.”

Mr. Agrawal joined Twitter as an engineer in 2011 while completing his doctoral studies in computer science at Stanford. He then rose steadily through the company’s ranks, becoming chief technology officer in 2017. He has spent most of his career with the company and has more than 610,000 subscribers on the service.

As Chief Technology Officer, Mr. Agrawal worked on some of Twitter’s complex technical challenges and built relationships with his engineering peers and Mr. Dorsey. He shared Dorsey’s vision that Twitter’s future hinged on redesigning its technology so it could 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 in November, the engineer went from overseeing a handful of staff to instantly managing more than 7,000 people. “My faith in him as CEO runs deep,” Mr Dorsey said at the time.

Mr. Agrawal immediately made changes. Within days of becoming general manager, he fired two senior executives responsible for design and engineering. He gave the remaining leaders broader responsibilities. In internal emails seen by The Times, he emphasized accountability, saying the new structure would clarify who was responsible for what tasks and speed up decision-making.

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

Credit…Twitter, via Getty Images

Some Twitter employees applauded the moves, saying some of the ousted executives were slow or bullied workers. Others were shocked that Mr Agrawal sacked longtime leaders and found him impenetrable.

In March, Mr. Musk had begun building a significant stake in Twitter. On March 31, Mr. Agrawal spoke with Mr. Musk to offer him to join Twitter’s board, according to a regulatory filing. Mr. Musk initially agreed, then backtracked. Mr. Musk said he was also evaluating an offer to make Twitter private and had the idea of ​​creating a new social media company, according to the filing.

It was Mr. Agrawal’s first taste of Mr. Musk’s unpredictable style, which quickly became routine. Mr. Musk quickly launched a takeover bid for the company, completed the deal, and then tipped Mr. Agrawal on Twitter over issues including the fake accounts. When Mr Agrawal tried to address the concerns on Twitter, Mr Musk responded by sending him a poo emoji.

On Twitter, some employees criticized 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 because the details were hashed. He was also initially silent in company meetings, they said, and was absent from an internal conversation with employees.

Mr Agrawal’s supporters said it was legally forbidden to share information about the deal, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, and internally he expressed frustration at not being able to say more about it. the agreement. After the deal was signed, Twitter held staff meetings and sent out more than a dozen emails to update workers. Last week, Twitter let employees ask Vijaya Gadde, the legal and policy officer, and Ned Segal, the chief financial officer, questions about the deal.

Advocates of Mr Agrawal said he was more gregarious and charming in small groups. They added that his changes were long overdue, especially in a company that had resisted change.

In Slack messages and group chats, other employees expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Musk’s ownership, believing his passion for Twitter could reinvigorate the company.

But Mr. Agrawal has detractors. At company meetings in recent weeks, he has sometimes said that nothing will change “for now”. Some employees mocked his comments, creating memes of Mr Agrawal making these repeated assurances, the people said.

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

Mr Agrawal told confidants he would go through with his plans rather than just wait for Mr Musk to take over. After cutting spending and freezing nearly all hiring at the company this month, he tried to rally workers.

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

ryan mac contributed report.

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