Nov 16, 2022 - Technology

Musk's "hardcore" marching orders

Illustration of a dark room full of cubicles, with some lit up by computer screens

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Elon Musk's plan to remake Twitter by directing engineers to work "long hours at high intensity" is out of step with the lessons the software industry has learned about how to build great products.

Driving the news: Musk sent the company's workers a memo early Wednesday morning asking them to click a button committing them to Twitter's new, "extremely hardcore" environment by 5 pm Thursday — or leave the company with three months' severance.

  • "Twitter will also be much more engineering-driven...those writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway," Musk's memo read.

Yes, but: Twitter's biggest problems — including the wave of pranks and fraud that forced Musk to pull back his subscription plan — have to do with human behavior, not program code.

The big picture: Musk's belief that great software emerges from deadline-driven all-nighters is a mindset that programming experts have largely abandoned over the past two decades.

  • Modern programming — particularly for large, complex services like Twitter — is teamwork that calls on intense collaboration among front-end and backend engineers, product designers, user behavior experts, specialists who keep systems running flexibly and quality-assurance testers.

Zoom in: Musk already has strong evidence of his approach's problems.

  • For his first showcase project at Twitter — the effort to launch a new subscription plan — he told developers to deliver the project in a week or they'd be fired.
  • No one with experience in software was shocked when the plan encountered overwhelming problems at launch. Musk "paused" it, first telling Twitter customers it would reopen at the end of this week, then pushing back the date to Nov. 29.

Between the lines: Musk is trying to bring what many software developers see as a 1990s mentality to Twitter's decidedly 2022 problems.

  • The outside engineers he brought in to Twitter reportedly may have evaluated programmers by counting how many lines of code they had written.
  • But many of the best programmers maintain that their most important work involves deleting things, knowing what to leave out in the first place or rewriting overly complex code into briefer commands.

The other side: YCombinator founder and longtime software theorist Paul Graham tweeted, "It's remarkable how many people who've never run any kind of company think they know how to run a tech company better than someone who's run Tesla and SpaceX. In both those companies, people die if the software doesn't work right. Do you really think he's not up to managing a social network?"

Our thought bubble: Building a successful online community or platform isn't only a tough technical problem — it's also about inspiring and managing human behavior.

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