(Bloomberg) -- By naming Parag Agrawal as chief executive officer, Twitter Inc. is turning inward, choosing a low-profile technologist to steer a social network that has underperformed the market, haltingly introduced new products, and struggled to moderate harmful content under a leader long criticized for divided attention.
Agrawal, 37, was named on Monday to succeed co-founder Jack Dorsey after a four-year stint as CTO, a role where he oversaw Twitter’s pursuit of blockchain and other decentralized technologies. Dorsey, 45, will remain on the board through the summer and will stay at the helm of Square Inc., the payments company he also co-founded.
While Dorsey is a billionaire celebrity with famous friends and millions of Twitter followers, Agrawal is still a relative unknown who has spent no time in the limelight at the controversial social media company. Dorsey’s personal interests -- like music and Bitcoin -- often made an appearance in his posts, and eventually made their way onto the company’s product road map, but he has fallen short of transforming the business since he took over for his second stint as CEO in 2015.
The company’s new chief will inherit Twitter’s political scuffles -- including criticism over its ban on former President Donald Trump as well as friction with India’s ruling party. And he’ll have to chase aggressive goals to step up user growth, double revenue and expedite product execution.
“What’s going to be his North Star that he puts out there to kind of bet the farm -- or at least his career -- on?” said Mark Shmulik, an equity research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “And then how successful will he be at delivering against that?”
Agrawal is the youngest person to run a company in the S&P 500, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Prior to his move to Twitter, Agrawal earned a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay and a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University.
He has worked as a researcher for Microsoft Corp., Yahoo! Inc. and AT&T Corp., according to his LinkedIn profile. He joined Twitter in 2011 as an engineer at a time when the company had fewer than 1,000 employees. In that role, he worked on boosting audience growth and revenue and was named Twitter’s first distinguished engineer, the company said. After being named CTO in 2017, he led the company’s technical strategy including overseeing advancements in machine learning, according to Twitter’s website.
Now Agrawal takes over a company that has been slow to roll out new products and features for years, but has started to move faster, make more acquisitions and push into areas that might expand the business, like live audio and subscriptions.
Twitter’s accelerated targets for growth were put in place after activist investor Elliott Management Corp. took a stake in early 2020 to pressure the company to jump-start its business. After making initial changes that satisfied Elliott in 2020, in February 2021 Twitter announced goals to double annual revenue by 2023, and to continue to grow its user base by 20% each of the next three years.
On the plus side, Agrawal’s appointment means Twitter will have a full-time CEO for the first time in years. Dorsey’s position as leader of Square was one of Elliott’s main criticisms of the social network. On Monday, Agrawal sent a message to fellow Twitter employees, alluding to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
“We recently updated our strategy to hit ambitious goals, and I believe that strategy to be bold and right,” Agrawal wrote. “But our critical challenge is how we work to execute against it and deliver results -- that’s how we’ll make Twitter be the best it can be for our customers, shareholders, and for each of you.”
Insider reaction to the news appears mixed. A poll on Blind, an anonymous app for employees who sign up with a company email address, found that more than three-quarters of the more than 150 respondents either didn’t believe Agrawal was “the guy” for the job, or were waiting to decide but “feeling negative.” Some other employee tweets were more positive, and many acknowledged that the CEO transition already appears smoother than the last time Twitter changed leaders.
Twitter shareholders will be looking to Agrawal to chart a steadier course toward building up the company’s revenue and engagement metrics. While Twitter’s user base has been expanding steadily for years, the company has failed to match the growth or stock returns of peers like Snapchat parent Snap Inc. and Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc. Twitter stock has climbed 62% since Dorsey’s return in 2015, and annual revenue is up 68% from the 2015 level. Meta’s stock has gained 260% in that same time, and sales have more than quadrupled.
Rivals’ investments in augmented and virtual reality-powered devices and services could put pressure on Twitter to innovate in a bolder and quicker way. Meta recently changed its name to signal its focus on immersive digital worlds known as the metaverse, which many big tech companies are chasing as the next transformational computing platform.
“The headline takeaway here is Twitter’s execution,” said Mandeep Singh, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. “The level of engagement they had, they never were able to monetize it as well as some of the other social media platforms.”
To stay competitive, Agrawal may need to change the company’s culture so that new products and strategies can be implemented at a quicker pace than in years past, Shmulik argued.
“Can he at least avoid being the cog that everything needs to go through to get approvals and to get things moving?” Shmulik said. “Can he give more autonomy to different parts of the org so they can move at a quicker pace?”
Agrawal won’t just need to keep growing Twitter’s business. The company also remains at the center of a number of thorny political issues, such as how to moderate speech on the internet, and has been a prime target for conservative politicians who believe tech companies have too much power.
Twitter is routinely criticized by politicians around the world over how it chooses to manage misinformation, hate speech and other forms of objectionable content on its sprawling social network, which has 211 million daily active users. It’s become the go-to social media platform where politicians turn to trade barbs, where CEOs announce new products, and everyday users talk about the latest events.
The widespread reach of Twitter also makes it a place with many polarizing viewpoints, and the company is often attacked for decisions it makes around policing content. It’s accused of censorship by those whose tweets are removed or marked with a warning, and criticized by others for failing to protect its users from abuse or hate speech when it leaves some posts up.
This difficult balance is one reason the company has pushed what it calls Bluesky, an open-source project that aims to decentralize the technology used to run social media platforms. In theory, different organizations would have the freedom to create their own rules and algorithms to govern social media. A post that might violate Twitter’s rules, and thus be removed, could be visible on another service using the same protocol but with more lenient content standards. Agrawal understands Bluesky as well as any executive at Twitter, having helped incubate the idea internally before Twitter appointed an external lead for the project.
So far, Twitter’s approach to content moderation has yet to squelch criticism from Washington’s lawmakers, who have routinely hauled Dorsey before Congress to testify about the company’s policies. That outside pressure from politicians and pundits will be a stark change for Agrawal, who has spent his time at Twitter far from the spotlight.
Agrawal is getting a crash course on what it’s like to be a high-profile CEO. Shortly after he was announced as Dorsey’s successor, some Twitter users pounced on a 2010 tweet of his, quoting a Daily Show joke about how treating all Muslims as terrorists was analogous to treating all White people as racists.
Dorsey will stay on the board of San Francisco-based Twitter until his term expires in 2022, the company said. Agrawal is also joining the board, and director Bret Taylor, who is chief operating officer of software maker Salesforce.com Inc., was named independent chairman.
Though Agrawal may not ever cut as public a profile as his predecessor, as CEO he will be required to forge new relationships with the press, regulators and even his own employees.
“The world is watching us right now, even more than they have before,” Agrawal wrote Monday. “It’s because they care about Twitter and our future, and it’s a signal that the work we do here matters.”
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