Twitter risks fraying as engineers exit

Elon Musk's managerial bomb-throwing at Twitter has so thinned the ranks of software engineers who keep the world's de-facto public square running that industry insiders and programmers who were fired or resigned this week agree: Twitter might soon fray so badly it could actually crash.

Musk ended a very public argument with nearly two dozen coders over his retooling of the microblogging platform this week by sacking them. Hundreds of engineers and other workers then quit after he demanded they pledge to "extremely hardcore" work by Thursday evening or resign with severance pay.

The departures mean the platform is losing workers just at it gears up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup starting on Sunday. It's one of Twitter's busiest events, when tweet surges heavily stress its systems.

"It does look like he's going to blow up Twitter," said Robert Graham, a veteran cybersecurity entrepreneur. "I can't see how the lights won't go out at any moment", although many recently departed Twitter employees predicted a more gradual demise.

Hundreds of employees signalled they were leaving before Thursday's deadline, posting farewell messages on the company's internal Slack messaging board. Dozens also took to Twitter to announce their departure.

Earlier in the week, some were so angry at Musk's perceived recklessness that they tweeted insults at the Tesla and Space X CEO. "Kiss my ass, Elon," one engineer said, adding lipstick marks. She was fired.

Twitter's leadership sent a email after Thursday's deadline saying its offices would be closed and employee badge access disabled until Monday. No reason was given.

A trusted phalanx of Tesla coders at his side as he ransacked a formerly convivial workspace, Musk didn't appear bothered.

"The best people are staying, so I'm not super worried," he tweeted on Thursday night. But it soon became clear some crucial programming teams had been thoroughly gutted.

Indicating how strapped he is for programmers, Musk sent all-hands emails on Friday summoning "anyone who actually writes software" to his command perch on Twitter's 10th floor, asking they fly into San Francisco if not local.

After taking over Twitter less than three weeks ago, Musk booted half of its full-time staff of 7500 and numerous contractors responsible for content moderation and other crucial efforts. Then came this week's ultimatum.

Three departing engineers described for the Associated Press why they expect considerable unpleasantness for Twitter's more than 230 million users now that well over two-thirds of Twitter's core services engineers are apparently gone.

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

Signs of fraying were evident before Thursday's mass exit. People reported more spam on their feeds and in their direct messages. Engineers reported dropped tweets. People received strange error messages.

Still, nothing critical has broken. Yet.

"There's a betting pool for when that happens," said one of the engineers, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another said if Twitter had been shutting servers and "high volume suddenly comes in, it might start crashing".

"World Cup is the biggest event for Twitter. That's the first thing you learn when you onboard at Twitter," he said.

With the earlier lay-offs of curation employees, Twitter's trending pages were already suffering. The engineering fireworks began on Tuesday when Musk announced he had begun shutting down "microservices" he considered unnecessary "bloatware".

"Less than 20% are actually needed for Twitter to work!" he tweeted.

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

"Microservices are how most modern large web services organise their code to allow software engineers to work quickly and efficiently," said Gergely Orosz, author of the Pragmatic Engineer blog and a former Uber programmer.

There are scores of such services for various features. Instead of testing their removal in a simulated real-world environment, Musk's team has apparently been updating Twitter live on everyone's computers.

Indeed, one microservice briefly broke: the one people use to verify their identity to Twitter via SMS when they log in. Luckily, the email verification alternative worked.

The engineers also worry Musk will shut down tools involved in content moderation and removing illicit material, or that there simply won't be enough people to run them properly.

Another concern is hackers: minimising damage depends on detecting them quickly and kicking them out. It's not clear how Musk's house-cleaning has affected Twitter's cybersecurity team.

"So much of the security infrastructure of a large organisation like Twitter is in people's heads," Graham said. "And when they're gone, you know, it all goes with them."