Twitter boss tries to stay the course as Elon Musk changes plans

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

Mr. Agrawal, Twitter’s chief executive, had spent the last six weeks steering 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 networking service and its executives. Others were upset by Agrawal’s recent corporate shakeups. And it seemed likely that Musk would force Agrawal to quit his job.

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

Mr. Agrawal touched on the areas he said were key for improvement: Twitter’s core product, the depth of the company’s technology, the business, freedom of expression across the platform, and most importantly What does leadership look like? Some executives left the meeting energized, people said.

It was what Mr. Agrawal could do under the circumstances. That’s because of all the high-end jobs in tech, the 38-year-old finds himself in what may be the most impossible.

The Indian-born executive, a protégé of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, has been in charge of the company only since November. He was expected to turn Twitter around after years of missed financial and growth targets. But Musk pounced on it in a matter of months, essentially turning Agrawal into a lame duck who must manage a restive workforce and deal with Twitter’s mounting economic challenges before he is pushed out of the company.

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

However, even as Mr. Agrawal deals with the situation, he faces a soft landing. If Musk removes him as CEO, Agrawal could earn tens of millions, according to securities filings. (In November, he was awarded a compensation package of a $1 million annual salary, plus bonuses, as well as restricted stock units and performance-based stock units valued at $12.5 million.)

Mr. Agrawal will appear at Twitter’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, which will be held virtually. He and other executives are not expected to discuss the deal with Musk, which shareholders will vote on at a later date. Instead, Mr. Agrawal will keep the meeting procedural and brief, according to a regulatory filing.

Behind the scenes, employees and advisers said, Agrawal has been working with bankers and board members to close the sale of Twitter to Musk, even though the billionaire recently suggested he wanted to renegotiate and made scathing comments about the company.

Agrawal has also doubled down on his plans to overhaul Twitter while he can. This month, he fired two top executives, halted most hiring and cut discretionary spending after the company missed financial goals. He also plans to improve Twitter’s features through machine learning, make the platform more attractive to new users and move faster to introduce new products, according to a presentation at a company meeting this month.

“I know we’ve been going through a period of uncertainty,” Agrawal said at that meeting, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times. “We are refocusing 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 ranks at the company, eventually becoming chief technology officer in 2017. He spent most of his career at the company and has more than 610,000 followers on the service.

As CTO, Mr. Agrawal worked on some of Twitter’s tricky technical challenges and built relationships with his engineering colleagues and Mr. Dorsey. He shared Mr. Dorsey’s view that Twitter’s future depended on overhauling its technology so that 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 employees to instantly managing more than 7,000 people. “My trust in him as our CEO runs deep,” Dorsey said at the time.

Mr. Agrawal immediately made changes. Days after becoming CEO, 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, Agrawal ousted two security executives. In an internal memo, he said the organization was not being run according to his expectations, which was affecting top-priority work.

Credit…Twitter, via Getty Images

Some Twitter employees applauded the moves, saying some of the fired executives had been slow or intimidated workers. Others were shocked that Agrawal had sacked lifelong leaders and found him inscrutable.

By March, Musk had started to rack up a huge Twitter engagement. On March 31, Agrawal spoke with Musk to convince him to join Twitter’s board, according to a regulatory filing. Musk initially agreed, then changed course. Musk said that he was also weighing a bid to take Twitter private and that he had the idea of ​​starting a new social media company, according to the document.

It was Agrawal’s first brush with Musk’s unpredictable style, which quickly became routine. Musk soon launched a takeover bid for the company, sealed the deal, and then goaded Agrawal on Twitter over things like fake accounts. When Agrawal tried to address the concerns on Twitter, Musk responded by sending him a poop emoji.

On Twitter, some employees took issue with Agrawal, according to 10 current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity. He told workers that he couldn’t share information about the deal with Musk as details were being worked out. He was also initially quiet in company meetings, they said, and was absent from an internal employee chat.

Agrawal’s supporters said he was legally restricted from sharing information about the deal, according to two people with knowledge of the matter, and internally expressed frustration that he couldn’t say more about the deal initially. After the deal was signed, Twitter held staff meetings and sent more than a dozen emails to update workers. Last week, Twitter allowed employees to ask Vijaya Gadde, chief legal and policy officer, and Ned Segal, chief financial officer, questions about the deal.

Agrawal’s advocates said he is more sociable and charming in smaller group settings. They added that their changes had been long overdue, especially at 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 Agrawal has detractors. At company meetings in recent weeks, he has sometimes said that nothing would change “right now.” Some employees have mocked his comments, creating memes of Mr. Agrawal making those repeated assurances, the people said.

Many employees remain unsure of their future with the company, several people said. Some are also upset about the golden parachutes Agrawal and other top executives will receive if they are fired after the Musk deal closes, the people said.

Agrawal has told his confidants that he will carry out his plans instead of simply waiting for Musk to take over. After cutting costs and freezing almost all hiring at the company this month, he tried to mobilize workers.

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

Ryan Mac contributed report.

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