Elon Musk sent a flurry of emails to Twitter employees this Friday morning (18) with an appeal.
“Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 pm today,” he wrote in a two-paragraph message, which was seen by The New York Times. “Thanks, Elon.”
About 30 minutes later, Musk sent another email saying he wanted to learn about Twitter’s “tech stack,” a term used to describe a company’s software and related systems. Then, in another email, he asked people to fly to Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco to meet in person.
Twitter teeters on the edge of a precipice as Musk rebuilds the company after buying it for $44 billion last month. The billionaire has pushed relentlessly to make his mark on the social networking platform, cutting 50% of its workforce, laying off dissidents, pursuing new subscription products and delivering a stern message that the company needs to shape up or face bankruptcy.
Now the question is whether Musk, 51, has gone too far. On Thursday (17), hundreds of Twitter employees resigned en masse after the CEO gave them a deadline to decide whether to leave or stay. So many employees opted out that Twitter users began to question whether the site would survive, tweeting goodbyes to the service and turning hashtags like #TwitterMigration and #TwitterTakeover into “trending topics.”
Some internal estimates showed that at least 1,200 full-time employees quit on Thursday, according to three people close to the company. Twitter had 7,500 full-time employees at the end of October, down to about 3,700 after massive layoffs earlier this month.
The headcount is likely to remain fluid as the dust settles, with a lot of confusion over who is keeping worker records and running other systems in the workplace. Some employees who quit said they were parting ways with the company by logging out of email and leaving the internal Slack messaging system because human resources representatives weren’t available.
Musk and Twitter representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
But the billionaire tweeted on Friday what he said would be changes to Twitter’s content policy. Hate Tweets will no longer be promoted by algorithms in users’ feeds, he said, but they will not be taken down. He also reinstated several previously banned accounts, including those of comedian Kathy Griffin and author Jordan Peterson.
Perhaps the most crucial question now is how Twitter can continue to function after the massive reduction in its workforce in such a short time. The cuts and layoffs have taken a toll on the company’s technology teams, people with knowledge of the matter said.
A team known as the Twitter Command Center, a 20-person organization crucial to preventing outages and technology failures during high-traffic events, has caused scores of people around the world to leave, two former employees said. The “core services” team, which handles computing architecture, has been reduced from over a hundred people to four. Other teams dealing with how media appears in tweets or how profiles show follower counts have dropped to zero people.
“Wednesday offered a clean exit and 80% of those left left,” Peter Clowes, a senior software engineer, tweeted on Thursday about his team’s layoffs. “3 out of 75 engineers stayed.” He said on Twitter that he left on Thursday.
Twitter is still operating, but it could get harder for the company to fix serious problems when they arise, former employees said. A former Twitter engineer compared the current state of the service to Coyote, a character from the cartoon Bugs Bunny, as he runs along the edge of a cliff. Though he might still be running on air for quite some time, when he looks down he drops like a stone.
“The bigger and more prominent a platform is, the more care and nurturing it needs to keep it running and live up to user expectations,” said Richard Forno, assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. “It’s a big challenge.”
The headcount reductions coincide with Twitter entering one of its busiest periods in terms of visitors to the site. The World Cup, which starts on Sunday, is expected to bring a deluge of traffic to Twitter, which is the fourth most visited website in the world, according to digital intelligence platform Similarweb, which tracks web traffic. Twitter gets 6.9 billion hits a month, slightly more than Instagram’s 6.4 billion, though far fewer than Google, YouTube or Facebook, according to estimates by Similarweb.
On Twitter late Thursday, Musk expressed confidence that the service will work well.
“The best people will stay so not too worried,” he tweeted.
Fortune previously reported that 1,000 to 1,200 Twitter employees have quit. The Information reported on some of Twitter’s infrastructure issues. The Verge had reported on departures from the Twitter Command Center.
Keeping a site like Twitter online is typically a task for senior engineers, who must constantly protect themselves from cyberattacks and monitor web traffic to ensure the servers aren’t overloaded, Forno said. If too many veteran employees leave, leaving Twitter without the experience or staff to quickly monitor or fix problems, trouble could begin, he said.
Many technical issues can be fixed remotely, but some may require workers at Twitter’s data centers across the country, Forno added. If the issues aren’t resolved, users probably won’t see the site disappear all at once, at least not at first. But timelines may start to update more slowly, the site may struggle to load, and users may find Twitter buggy.
“It’s like putting a car on the road, stepping on the gas and the driver jumping out,” he said. “How far will he go before he crashes?”
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves.