Twitter Risks Fraying When Engineers Quit Over Musk Upheaval

Elon Musk‘s manager bomb throw up Twitter has so thinned the ranks of the software engineers who run the world’s de facto public square that industry insiders and programmers who have been fired or resigned this week agree: Twitter could soon fray enough that it might actually crash.

Musk ended a very public standoff with nearly two dozen programmers critical to the stability of the microblogging platform by ordering that they be fired this week.

hundreds of engineers and other workers then quit after he demanded they commit to “extremely hard” work or quit with severance pay by Thursday night.
People walk in front of Twitter's headquarters in San Francisco on Friday, November 4, 2022.
Employees quit as owner Elon Musk overtakes social platform (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The latest departures mean the platform is shedding staff as it prepares for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which opens on Sunday.

It’s one of Twitter’s busiest events when tweet surges tax its systems.

“It looks like he’s going to blow up Twitter,” said Robert Graham, a veteran cybersecurity entrepreneur.

“I can’t imagine the lights not going out at any moment.”

Though many of the recent Twitter departures predicted a more gradual death.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is pictured attending the start of production at Tesla’s Gigafactory. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of employees said they were leaving before Thursday’s deadline and posted farewell messages, a greeting emoji or other familiar symbols on the company’s internal Slack messaging board, according to employees who still have access.

Dozens also took to Twitter publicly to announce they were unsubscribing.

Earlier in the week, some were so angry at Musk’s perceived recklessness that they took to Twitter to insult the Tesla and Space X CEO.

“Kiss my ass Elon,” said one engineer, adding traces of lipstick. She had been fired.

Twitter leadership sent an unsigned email after Thursday’s deadline, saying offices were closed through Monday and access to employee badges was disabled.

No reason was given, one who took the severance pay, one who is still on the payroll, according to two employees who received the email.

They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Having a trusted phalanx of Tesla programmers by his side as he browsed a formerly sociable workspace didn’t seem to bother Musk.

“The best people stay so I’m not too worried,” he tweeted Thursday night.

But it soon became clear that some key programming teams had been thoroughly gutted.

Hundreds of employees said they would leave the company before Thursday’s deadline. (PA)

To show how close he is to programmers, Musk emailed all-hands Friday saying “everyone who actually writes software” at 2 p.m. to his command post on Thursday, 10 a.m. but still received company e-mails -Mails.

After acquiring Twitter less than three weeks ago, Musk laid off half of the company’s 7,500 full-time employees and an undisclosed number of contractors responsible for moderating content and other key duties.

Then came this week’s ultimatum.

Three techs who left this week have described to The Associated Press why they expect significant inconvenience to Twitter’s more than 230 million users now that well over two-thirds of Twitter’s core service techs are gone before Musk.

While they don’t anticipate a near-term collapse, Twitter could get very rough around the edges, especially if Musk makes major changes without much off-platform testing.

Signs of fraying could be seen ahead of Thursday’s mass exit.

People reported seeing more spam and scams on their feeds and in their direct messages. Engineers reported dropped tweets. People were getting strange error messages.

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Nevertheless, nothing important was broken. Still.

“There’s a pool of bets on when that happens,” said one of the engineers, who all spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Musk, which could impact their careers and finances.

Another said if Twitter has closed servers and “high volume suddenly hits, it might crash”.

“The World Cup is the biggest event for Twitter. That’s the first thing you learn when you get on Twitter,” he said.

Twitter’s trending pages have already suffered from previous curation staff layoffs.

The tech fireworks began Tuesday, when Musk announced on Twitter that he had begun shutting down “microservices” that he believed were unnecessary “bloatware.”

Twitter employees are resigning en masse from the social media giant.
The World Cup is the biggest event for Twitter, starting this Sunday night. (PA)

“Less than 20 percent is actually needed to make Twitter work!” he tweeted.

That drew objections from engineers, who told Musk he had no idea what he was talking about.

“Microservices are what most of today’s major web services use to organize their code so software engineers can work quickly and efficiently,” said Gergely Orosz, author of the blog Pragmatic Engineer and former Uber programmer.

There are dozens of such services and each one manages a different function.

Instead of testing microservices removal in a simulated real-world environment, Musk’s team apparently updated Twitter live on all machines.

And sure enough, a microservice that people use to verify their identity on Twitter via SMS message when they log in broke down briefly. It’s called two-factor authentication.

“You have reached the limit for SMS codes. Try again in 24 hours,” Twitter advised when a reporter tried to download his microblogging history archive.

Luckily, the alternative to email confirmation worked.

One of Twitter’s newly separated engineers, who had worked in core services, told the AP that engineering team clusters had gone from about 15 people before Musk, not counting team leaders, who were all fired, to three or four before Thursday’s resignations.

Then more institutional knowledge that cannot be replaced overnight left the door.

“Everything could break,” said the programmer.

According to the engineers, it takes six months to train someone to work on-call for some services.

Such rotations require programmers to be available 24/7.

But if the person on duty is unfamiliar with the codebase, errors can cascade as they frantically trawl through reference guides.

Elon Musk, the new owner of Twitter.
Engineers also fear Musk is shutting down content moderation tools. (Associated Press)

“If I had stayed, I would have been on call indefinitely with little support on several additional complex systems that I had no experience with,” tweeted Peter Clowes, an engineer who accepted the severance package.

“To run even relatively boring systems, you need people who know where to go when something breaks,” said Blaine Cook, Twitter’s founding engineer, who left the company in 2008.

It’s dangerous to drastically reduce programmers to an emergency crew without first bulletproofing the code, he said.

“It’s like saying, ‘These firefighters aren’t doing anything. So we’re just going to fire them all.’”

Engineers also worry that Musk is shutting down tools for moderating content and removing illegal material uploaded to Twitter, or that there simply aren’t enough staff to run them properly.

Another problem is hackers. If they’ve entered the system in the past, the damage depends on spotting them quickly and kicking them out.

It’s not clear how Musk’s Twitter housecleaning has affected his cybersecurity team, which suffered a major PR black eye in August when the highly respected security chief who was fired by the company earlier this year, Peiter Zatko, filed a whistleblower complaint filed claiming the platform is a cybersecurity wreck.

“A lot of the security infrastructure of a large organization like Twitter resides in people’s minds,” said Graham, the cybersecurity veteran.

“And when they’re gone, you know, everything goes with them.”

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