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Is Elon Right? 🐦
Reflecting on the aftermath of the Twitter layoffs.
Hey! If you have been reading Refactoring for a while you may have noticed that I tend to steer away from news.
I focus on topics that are evergreen, so that anytime you are dealing with some issue in the future, you can hopefully go back to some article I wrote.
However, today I will make an exception — sort of — to comment on the Twitter apocalypse that is going on. I say sort of because, while this commentary might be particularly relevant now, I believe there are also timeless ideas and lessons we can take from this, that will stay relevant in the future.
In fact, the way Elon Musk has acted so far is such a radical departure from how large tech companies are usually managed, that whatever the future of Twitter will be, this will go down as one of the most important case studies in the history of tech management.
If Twitter fails or Elon can’t turn it around for the best, this story will turn into a legendary cautionary tale.
If the Twitter reboot is eventually successful, it will impose a deep reflection on many things we take for granted today.
So it makes sense to reflect on this even now that the outcome is still unclear.
There are many angles we can discuss. Here is what people are commenting on the most:
🚪 Layoffs — firing >50% of your staff in a week and expecting things to work just fine. What is going to happen?
🔪 Brutality — firing people via email and mocking employees publicly.
🏋️♀️ Culture — setting impossible deadlines, long hours, and the back to the office policy.
Will this work? Is this ethical? Do ethics even have a place here?
There is a lot to unpack. Let’s go 👇
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Let’s get something out of the way: Elon Musk runs successful companies — both Tesla and SpaceX are objectively so.
This argument is often used to conclude that he just knows how to do so, so we should leave him alone and things will turn out just fine.
This may or may not happen eventually. The main reason why it may not happen is that each company is different. Especially large ones.
One of the best managers I ever had once told me that what separates good managers from great ones is that the latter are able to use different styles with different people to get the best out of them — because the same style might not work with everybody.
Few managers, however, are able to pull this off. For two main reasons:
Success — people have early success with one style (e.g. aggressive, confrontational vs supportive, easy-going), so stick with it because that’s what they know best.
Personality — people tend to use the style that fits best with their own personality, so changing it is no walk in the park.
Now, if you take this style angle and apply it to a founder/CEO, rather than a simple manager, effects do not only apply to their direct reports — they ripple through the whole company culture, to the type of people you hire, and so on.
Elon seems to be taking the same playbook he used at Tesla and SpaceX, and applying it verbatim to Twitter. The risk here is that while at Tesla and SpaceX he was there from day one, Twitter is 15+ years old.
But what is this style we are talking about?
⚖️ A Tale of Two Cultures
A few days ago, my friend Roberto Ansuini argued on Twitter that, culturally, tech people these days seem to be divided in two big clusters:
🏃♂️ Hustle culture — Move fast, break things, revolutionary, intensity, all in the same room, synchronous, speed of results.
🧘♂️ “Calm” culture — Iterate, small increments, evolutionary, focus on quality, distributed, asynchronous, long term thinking.
Not only that — I may add that people are increasingly polarized and each group tends to look at the other as evil.
Hustlers see calm people as lazy / ineffective.
Calm guys see hustlers as toxic.
The truth is that, of course, both approaches have merits — and risks.
As a former founder, I have fond memories of long days (and weekends) spent at the office working with the team on a crazy goal. It wasn’t just the work — it was the beers, the laughs, and just the incredible energy.
Such intensity, and being everybody in the same room, makes you go faster indeed. Teams like this have an edge.
But I was in my twenties. Would I do it again today? Not sure, probably not.
Today I am a calm person.
I work asynchronously with my two collaborators. I focus on small increments. I take my time to do things. I stop working earlier, take some weekends off, and (gasp) I even go to the gym sometimes.
Do I work better today than before? Honestly—no. It’s just different.
The way I see it is that the two modes carry different risks:
Hustle culture carries a personal risk — to turn toxic and burn people out.
Calm culture carries a systemic risk — to turn bureaucratic and get little done.
You can counter both risks.
The best calm companies in the world are among the most effective, too. Think of GitLab, Zapier, or Doist.
Likewise, some of the greatest success stories in tech come from teams who worked nights and weekends to pull off incredible feats — like the iPhone, or early folks at Microsoft and Facebook.
Or like, you know, Tesla.
Elon is a hustler — that’s his recipe and what he is best at. He said it straight during his first Twitter all-hands 👇
I can tell you, philosophically, what works at SpaceX and Tesla is people being in the office and being hardcore, and a small number of people can get a tremendous amount done in that situation.
If you look at, say, the Tesla Autopilot AI team, it’s about 150 engineers, and they’re outperforming teams that they’re competing against that are 3,000 engineers. I’m a big believer that a small number of exceptional people can be highly motivated and can do better than a large number of people who are pretty good and moderately motivated.
That’s my philosophy.
The problem is: people have to buy into this culture.
Hardcore obviously appeals to some people more than others, based on things like demographics (e.g. young people, no family), personal values (focus on impact, ambition) and more.
Now, when you found a company, you can be intentional about hiring only people who thrive in the type of culture you want to establish. But what if you are jumping into an existing team of 7,500 folks, who were, we guess, mostly working under a calm agenda?
You either adapt, or… well, you layoff everybody.
🚪 The Layoffs
When people discuss Twitter’s layoffs, they usually do so from one of two angles:
Business — practical problems the company will incur while running the business.
Ethics — indignation that comes from how the layoffs have been carried out. The so-called brutality.
Let’s talk business first.
Based on reports here and there, after all the layoffs and ultimatums, Twitter today might be left with anywhere between 1000 and 2000 employees.
Now, maybe that’s unpopular opinion, but I believe that under normal conditions, Twitter might do just fine with 1000 folks — at least on the engineering side.
In fact, this was its headcount about 10 years ago, when it had ~200M MAUs. Numbers today are higher, but like… only 50% higher (Twitter doesn’t disclose MAUs anymore).
When you factor in the tremendous progress in dev and infra tools over the last 10 years, you can assume you would be able to handle such growth without growing the team substantially.
But that’s under normal conditions.
The reality is, for whatever reason, Twitter headcount grew to more than 7K people over the last decade, and is now shrinking back to where it was ten years ago — in the span of 2 months.
What is going to happen? Let’s look at three main things: outages, new developments, and maintenance.
Counterintuitively, normal outages aren’t probably the biggest problem here.
Assuming infrastructure is in a good state and observability works, you don’t need so many people to keep the lights on.
That is, as long as you keep things as they are. Which brings us to new developments 👇
The worst consequence of losing 80% of your engineering team — even if the team was bloated somehow — is losing knowledge of what exists and how it works. For a company that is 15+ years old, that’s a lot of knowledge.
Also, it doesn’t seem layoffs are sparing the longest tenured folks. Rather the opposite. People who have been there for 10+ years, who have the most knowledge of the system, seem to be leaving in droves. Management is even trying to bring them back.
This condition makes any new development a mine field.
Things will break, and the team won’t have the bandwidth to fix them all. Big things will be addressed and will probably be fine, but the product will be left with a long tail of clunky features that maybe are working and maybe not.
And since Elon has already promised a firehose of new stuff, in my opinion that’s the most likely scenario for the coming months.
Rather than dramatic outages — that I think are unlikely with the current state of tech — the product might just turn into a patchwork of unreliable stuff where you can’t trust most things to work anymore, besides the basics.
If anything, the current state of Twitter Blue might be a preview of this: who is verified now? Who has access to the feature? How does the official label work? Nobody knows.
🔪 The Brutality
Finally, let’s spend a couple of words on how these layoffs were performed.
Now, people who accept or justify this modus operandi, usually do so based on some combination of these three arguments:
It’s his company, he can do what he wants.
You have to act like this to be successful.
Elon has built billion dollar industries, you don’t know what you are talking about.
Let’s debunk all three 👇
He can do what he wants with his company
The obvious problem with this line of thinking is that it pretends this stuff happens in a vacuum.
Well, it doesn’t. And it sets examples.
More people will act like this in the future because “that's what Elon does”.
When Steve Jobs passed away and his bio got popular, we entered this stage where people thought founders had to be assholes to be successful. This is survival bias, at best.
Which leads me to the second point 👇
You have to act like this to be successful
As a matter of fact, founders/CEOs of the most successful tech companies of all time generally don’t.
Brin & Page are widely regarded as nice guys, and so is Satya Nadella. Zuck and Bezos can be brash sometimes, but never showed such carelessness for other humans.
So I believe that when you think at the impact people are bringing to the world, this doesn't only apply to their achievements, but also to how they behave, to the example they set and the culture they promote.
The biggest fallacy that I see today in Elon Musk’s behavior is that he seems to act like his only concern is his business results. He focuses on businesses that should be a net positive to the world (to his credit!), and on making them successful — everything else is just a means to an end.
But Elon has sold 3M cars so far, while people who look at him are 100M+ (on Twitter alone). At this point, it is tricky to measure what has the higher impact, if his businesses, or his persona.
Do we have the right to criticize?
Finally, it is sad to me to see how many otherwise incredibly smart people are discounting criticism because “Elon knows better than you”.
What kind of culture would we get if we were not allowed to cast doubt / criticism to any person who has achieved more than we did?
I feel stupid to even have to say that, as professionals, we have the right — and to an extent, the obligation — to reflect on major events in our industry, make our own opinions, and discuss them with others.
📌 Bottom line
So, will things turn out just fine? Maybe, but the road ahead is bumpy.
The team needs to be completely rebuilt, and they have barely scratched the surface of all the issues they will face. Some of the things we didn’t cover:
Diversity risks posed by pushing the hardcore culture.
The stigma of the tech community, which will make hiring harder.
Hardcore culture making it hard to hire seasoned engineers.
The product and business problems Twitter had before the acquisition… that are still there.
The list is long, but the world’s greatest hustler is up for the challenge.
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