Technology

Why some tech CEOs are rooting for Elon Musk

After a long weekend away, today let’s talk about the largely positive reception that Elon Musk’s radical remaking of Twitter is getting from tech CEOs — and whether those views are likely to change if the fight that Musk is picking with Apple erodes even more value from his $44 billion purchase.

The CEO’s revenge

Last week, Musk publicly mocked Twitter’s somewhat notorious “Stay Woke” T-shirts. The shirts, which the company produced in 2016 in response to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, were considered suspect even at the time. In those days, it was the left rolling its eyes — particularly after then-CEO Jack Dorsey wore the shirt during a Code Conference interview, giving the impression that a phrase that had originated within the Black community in response to systematic oppression had been co-opted by white corporate marketers.

Several million news cycles later, though, it’s the right roaring with laughter at the shirts Musk found in the closet of Twitter headquarters. To them, “woke” is a signifier of liberalism run amok — a totalitarian zeal for diversity and inclusion that results in censorship and oppression for those who refuse to play along. Earlier this year, Musk complained that “the woke mind virus” threatened to destroy civilization; to find a closet full of shirts encouraging people to stay woke at his own company, then, was something of a smoking gun.

Musk represents a good, old way of doing business: ignoring everything but his principles, his product roadmap, and his path to profitability.

Of course, to frame Twitter’s 2016 swag as a kind of retroactive admission of guilt erases a significant amount of relevant cultural history: of the historic importance of Black Twitter to making the service culturally relevant; of Silicon Valley’s mostly terrible track record at hiring people outside the non-white, non-male norm; of 2016 as a turning point when Twitter began to stand with the users of its platform who were most likely to be targets of harassment and abuse, rather than to ignore their plight.

One reason the right has found so much joy in Musk’s takeover of Twitter is the fantasy that you could erase that history, just as easily as you can throw a bunch of old T-shirts away. To them, Dorsey represented a new, bad way of doing business, dropping everything to go protest in his home state, explicitly linking his businesses (if only symbolically) to fights for justice and equality. And Musk represents a good, old way of doing business: ignoring everything but his principles, his product roadmap, and his path to profitability.

Set aside for the moment that this vision of Musk — clear-headed, focused, stable — is largely at odds with the man who has been running Twitter for the past few weeks. That Musk might be this person has proven to be hugely influential for some of his fellow CEOs, and the ramifications of his leadership could resonate across the tech industry for some time to come.

Take David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the web development framework Ruby on Rails and co-founder of Basecamp. Last year, Platformer reported on how Hansson and Basecamp CEO Jason Fried banned “societal and political discussions” on the company’s internal forums after employees formed a diversity, equity, and inclusion council and began to complain about some of its practices.

Last week, Heinemeier Hansson published a blog post titled “the waning days of DEI’s dominance.” In part, the post is a tribute to Musk. Heinemeier Hansson writes:

The DEI movement has lost control of Twitter, which served as the main instrument to run ideological enforcement in the corporate sphere. The threat of Twitter mobs ensured quick compliance from corporate executives, and other figures of power, lest the pitchforks be aimed at their necks.

But now Twitter is owned by Elon Musk. A fact that has fundamentally altered the balance of power on the platform.

For executives who have been looking for an excuse to stop pretending that they care about diversity issues, then, Musk seems to be providing huge inspiration.

Musk seems to be proving similarly inspirational to CEOs who believe their employees have grown too lazy, too coddled, too opinionated about their workplaces. On November 16th, the same day Musk asked Twitter’s remaining employees to sign an oath pledging to work long hours or resign, former PayPal CEO and Facebook crypto guy David Marcus tweeted:

I guess the times of complaining to the CEO of a large tech company at an all hands in front of thousands of people about the quality of toilet paper have come to an end. (True story. This really happened.)

Marcus has plenty of company in being annoyed at the entitlement of some tech employees; countless rank-and-file tech workers have told us stories about one outrageous request or another that one of of their peers made at an all-company meeting.

Some executives are positively giddy as they imagine a world in which all of these issues can be dismissed out of hand

But it’s worth pausing on why workers have felt free to ask questions like this over the past decade. At the former Facebook, where Marcus worked and this incident took place, the company was generating an estimated $1.6 million in revenue per employee last year. Talented engineers had their pick of companies to work for. That gave them power — to demand better toilet paper, yes, but also to protest payouts to executives accused of sexual misconduct, or compliance with China’s censorship regime, or funding transphobic comedy.

Watching Musk remake Twitter in his image, some executives are positively giddy as they imagine a world in which all of these issues can be dismissed out of hand — and the employees responsible can be dismissed along with them.

George Hotz, a legendary iPhone jailbreaker who founded an autonomous driving company and is now “interning” at Twitter, tweeted recently along these lines:

Every tech product you use came out between 2000-2010. Nothing was built from 2010-2020. The culture was so broken. PMs, MBAs, SJWs, and entitlement. But the culture is changing. Wild things will be built in the next 10 years. Are you in or out?

If you’re an executive who has grown increasingly frustrated by the work culture of the past half-decade or so — and of the often skeptical tone of the journalism that has chronicled the tech industry during that time — Musk’s sledgehammer tactics must feel like a balm. These leaders only fantasized about firing their most vocal internal critics; Musk went out and did it. Often without even knowing what job those workers did!

Most CEOs won’t adopt Musk’s tactics outright. But some, like Heinemeier Hansson, will implement smaller-scale versions of it. In important ways, Musk has broadened their sense of what might be possible.

This will be particularly true if Musk’s Twitter succeeds after eliminating the majority of its workforce. As Ben Thompson noted Monday at Stratechery. “If Twitter can cut their workforce by two thirds (or even more, if you include contractors), then investors will start raising a lot of questions about how many employees other tech companies have, even after the current wave of layoffs. Indeed, you could see PE firms looking to acquire companies, confident they can slash costs to pay off the debt necessary.”

And if it doesn’t work? Musk’s management style seems likely to prove influential anyway. Some tech executives have long sought an excuse to begin unwinding some of the leverage that their workforce gained in the roaring 2010s. As the economy weakens, Musk’s full-throated embrace of austerity measures may have given them one.

The Big Bang

Can Musk succeed, though?

From his project to reinstate banned users to picking a fight with Apple, the billionaire seems to be making it harder on himself every day.

As with his decision to restore the account of Donald Trump, Musk put the question of “a general amnesty” to a Twitter poll. “Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?” he asked, the day before Thanksgiving. Some 72.4 percent of respondents — some of which were likely bots — said yes. “The people have spoken,” Musk proclaimed the next day. “Amnesty begins next week. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”

Internally, the poll set off a now-familiar chain of events. Employees learned of the amnesty as they read Musk’s tweets, tried to interpret what they meant (which laws? What constitutes egregious spam?), and quickly started carrying out his commands. Just one week earlier, employees had scrambled to reinstate Trump after Musk conducted a similarly unscientific poll. Now, they would need to revive thousands more.

The project could cause more instability at Twitter

In fact, since Musk’s poll, Twitter has begun the process of reinstating roughly 62,000 accounts with more than 10,000 followers, Platformer has learned, including one account that has over 5 million followers, and 75 accounts with over 1 million followers. (The identities of the accounts could not be learned before press time.) Internally, employees have referred to this event as “the Big Bang.”

The project could cause more instability at Twitter at a time when the company is hemorrhaging engineering talent, according to current employees. Each reinstatement requires Twitter to rebuild a social graph, activating data on who the account follows and who follows the account. For large accounts like Trump’s, with 88 million followers, that’s millions of lists that Twitter has to update and maintain. 

The move also comes the same week that Musk plans to relaunch Twitter Blue, allowing anyone to buy a verified badge for $8 a month. An internal document about the launch, designed for employees in sales, says that impersonations have been “extremely rare,” despite all evidence to the contrary.

“We anticipated early efforts like this from bad actors, and we are adapting dynamically to prevent and detect them,” the document reads. What about “large scale coordinated misinformation attacks funded by wealthy organizations or governments?” the document asks. “Large-scale bad actors would also require a huge supply of unique credit card numbers and mobile phones,” the document says. “As we detect and suspend these, the logistical hurdles to re-offend at scale become insurmountable.”

Between the coming Big Bang and the remaining potential for brand impersonation, though, advertisers remain deeply skeptical. As they pull their spending from Twitter, Musk has called several CEOs to “berate” them for abandoning the platform, according to the Financial Times

Musk has also continued to antagonize his own engineers with late-night emails

The latest betrayal, by Apple, appears to have cut Musk particularly deep. (Apple was Twitter’s single largest brand advertiser, according to the Washington Post, responsible for $48 million in spending in the first quarter alone.)

On Monday, Musk tweeted that Apple had “mostly” stopped advertising on Twitter. “Do they hate free speech in America?” he asked. He followed up by asking Apple CEO Tim Cook to explain himself.

The chances that the even-keeled Cook would respond to a drive-by assault from Musk on Twitter seem vanishingly small. Amid Cook’s silence, Musk posted follow-up tweets alleging that Apple has threatened to remove Twitter from the App Store, and criticizing the 30 percent fee the iPhone maker charges app developers on some of their revenues. 

Behind the scenes, Musk has also continued to antagonize his own engineers. In an email late Sunday night, the CEO said employees should prepare for another round of “code reviews” this week. (Last week’s “code reviews” served as a pretext to lay off yet more engineering talent, particularly on machine-learning teams.)

“As a reminder, all managers are expected to write a meaningful amount of software themselves,” he added. “Being unable to do so is like a cavalry captain who can’t ride a horse.”

Current employees say Musk is planning to lay off most of the remaining engineering managers this week, though nothing has been shared in writing so far. 

From a far enough distance, it’s easy to understand why some of Musk’s peers might look at his scorched-earth approach to human resources with admiration. But go even an inch deep on Twitter 2.0, and it’s clear that the person in most need of a late-night performance review is Musk himself.



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