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Elon Musk just taught the world a lesson about the value of coders

Employees continue to leave Twitter, and while things seem fine on the surface, Elon Musk will need to figure out solutions quickly.

elon musk in front of twitter icon
Image: KnowTechie

Earlier this week, Elon Musk gave the remaining Twitter employees — who, at this point, are so few in number that they could probably carpool home together — an ultimatum. 

Either they could commit to a new “hardcore” version of Twitter, where they’ll work grueling hours at “high intensity,” or they could leave with three months’ severance. They had two days to decide. 

Last night, Musk’s deadline elapsed. Many, it seems, decided to take the money and run.

We don’t have any concrete figures, but reporting from The Verge suggests the ultimatum backfired spectacularly. Twitter now faces an exodus of talent and no clear path to replace them.

The Verge reports that many of Twitter’s most critical engineering teams are now completely unstaffed, or operating with a skeleton crew. And when I say critical, I mean it.

The team that handles Twitter’s internal software development libraries is reportedly “gone.” One company insider said: “You cannot run Twitter without this team.”

Cogs in a machine

Musk is an iconoclastic figure. The Cult of Elon has millions of adherents. Many took to Twitter to gleefully brigade the mentions of departing Twitter employees, reminding them that they’re easily replaceable. 

Except, they aren’t. Look, I started life as a software developer.

I have a Computer Science degree. I’ve interned at startups. I know how the sausage gets made. Technology products are incredibly complex. They involve countless moving parts.

In the case of Twitter, are the culmination of thousands of people’s work. 

people working at laptops
Image: Unsplash

Twitter is almost two-decades old. Before Musk decimated its workforce, it had around 7,500 employees. I mention this because I want to illustrate the unknowable complexity of Twitter. It’s a big, big system. 

Sure, Musk can hire new engineers. They may be competent — even brilliant — coders.

And, perhaps most important, they may even be committed believers in the Cult of Elon. They’ll drink the Kool-Aid and say: “Please sir, can I have some more?” 

But that isn’t enough. It typically takes three and nine months for an engineer to fully acclimate to a new company. To have a meaningful understanding of the code base. And those are in the best of situations

The road to productivity

Twitter’s layoffs — and the voluntary exodus of the remaining workers — have meant a lot of institutional knowledge has left the company.

There is nobody left to explain how some of the most vital and complicated systems work. 

These new hires — assuming they materialize — will have to figure things out for themselves. I have no idea how long that will take. I am certain it won’t be quick, however. 

For the foreseeable future, Twitter will struggle to add new features. The platform’s reliability will nosedive. Remember the Fail Whale of early Twitter? It’s coming back. It’ll be a less competitive, more broken platform. 

twitter down
Screenshot: Twitter

And it was entirely avoidable. There’s a lesson here. Don’t screw over your engineers. Musk began its acquisition from an adversarial point.

He fired thousands, and threatened to make the working lives of the survivors that much worse. It’s no surprise they left in droves. 

Developers aren’t cogs in a machine. They’re talented people who understand the complexity and hidden nuances of application.

To reach that point, they spend months learning and studying but not really delivering any value in terms of new features. 

Have we hit bottom yet?

We don’t precisely know how bad things are at Twitter. We don’t know the true number of those who agreed to Musk’s “Twitter 2.0” pledge, and those who packed their belongings on Thursday night, never to return. 

And we don’t know what Musk plans to do next. Will he manage to recruit engineering talent to keep Twitter afloat? Can he persuade those leaving to stay? Will he walk back his more egregious cultural and workplace changes? 

Musk has suggested he may find a replacement CEO to take over at Twitter.

Will his successor mend the bridges that Musk unceremonially torched over the course of a matter of weeks? And will these fixes arrive in time to prevent a mass exodus of users? 

I honestly don’t know. But I have never been more convinced of one thing: Don’t fuck with your coders. 

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Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Past work can be found on The Register, Reason, The Next Web, and Wired.

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