Smart, calm, execution-focussed: Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal has his task cut out

#Parag Agrawal, #Twitter, new Twitter CEO, joined the company in 2011, reaching 315 million monetisable daily active users, TechCrunch report, The Information, involved in a prolonged tussle, ‘manipulated media’ label, was raided by the police, filed an FIR

Parag Agrawal was appointed as the chief executive officer (CEO) of Twitter on Monday.

Low-profile but smart, calm, balanced and articulate when there is a need — that’s how a former Twitter executive remembers Parag Agrawal, the new Twitter CEO. That’s a familiar description, one that could fit many of the India-born tech CEOs in Silicon Valley. And these are perhaps just the qualities Agrawal might need to steer the company towards better growth, relevance and innovation.

At 37, Agrawal is the youngest CEO of any S&P 500 company in the US. He takes over at a time when the company is still playing catchup with fellow social media majors such as Facebook and Snap.

Elevation as CEO

“Unlike typical founder-CEOs, Jack always had a hands-off approach. He depends on his core team, and Parag is a crucial part of it,” said the former Twitter executive cited earlier.

Agrawal, who joined the company in 2011, has been serving as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) since October 2017. In this role, he has been responsible for the company’s technical strategy. Despite the significant role he played, Agrawal remained in the background compared to, say, Kayvon Beykpour, who is Twitter’s head of product and Vijaya Gadde, who leads the legal, policy and trust team at Twitter.

“It goes to show the reward for the kind of good work you do, and not necessarily public visibility,” the executive said. This is further validated by Jack Dorsey’s letter, where he stated that Agrawal was the unanimous choice for the role. Dorsey also said: “Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around. My trust in him is bone deep.”

While time will tell how Agrawal fares, his elevation is an indication of the company’s focus on product and engineering right now in its drive to innovate. While Twitter has a unique positioning as a microblogging site, new-age technology firms are always a threat.

Task cut out

Compared to its peers, Twitter has not grown as fast in terms of revenue and users. Activist investor Elliott Management Corp, which acquired a 4 percent stake in the company last year, has been pressuring it to increase revenue. The investor, which has been pressing for Dorsey’s replacement as CEO, has given a thumbs up to Agrawal’s elevation.

Earlier this year, Twitter had set a target of reaching 315 million monetisable daily active users (211 million now), and revenues of $7.5 billion by the end of 2023.

Changing landscape

For Twitter, the social media landscape is challenging. The niche that Twitter operates in, though unique, also presents a challenge. Unlike Facebook, Instagram or Snap, it is all about the moment for the microblogging site. “You don’t usually go back and read a tweet that is four days old unless it is a very specific incident or a celebrity has made a statement. While this makes the platform unique in that sense, it also limits what can be done on the platform,” said Venkat Viswanathan, Chairman & co-founder, LatentView Analytics.

Also, the majority of users come to Twitter to consume content created by a small percentage of the population. Engaging the audience and coming up with new products to reduce its dependence on just one medium is a challenge the company has to address.

This challenge is exacerbated by the dynamic nature of the technology landscape, which will see new-age applications continue to come out. “So, product innovation, R&D, and being able to launch the right product at the right time is probably something important for them,” he added.

The other concern is revenue. “I think the challenge for Twitter has been from a revenue perspective (as well), since advertising is the only model they’ve been able to monetise.” According to Viswanathan, they need to figure out how else they can be relevant and look at alternate revenue streams.

Another tech executive, who did not want to be named, said: “If we go back to Facebook’s early days, the kind of revenue acceleration the company saw… Twitter is yet to reach there. Also, Twitter is much smaller compared to its peers in terms of user base.”

“Twitter cannot be run like a non-profit, as some critics point out. Technology innovation such as social audio and Twitter Blue has already begun and this should continue. Diversification is another area that would be a key focus for Parag,” the executive added.

Will Agrawal make the cut?

Over the years, Agrawal has played a critical role in several projects within the company.

He led the company’s efforts in using artificial intelligence and machine learning to increase the relevance of tweets in users’ timelines and grow its monetisable user base. He also played a key role in boosting Twitter’s use of third-party cloud providers and other technology solutions to focus on areas where they were uniquely positioned to innovate.

These changes came at a time when the social media firm was languishing with no major feature addition for a few years.

“A big reason for (moving slowly) is that we’ve been building upon systems that weren’t designed for the scale and complexity we work with today. We’ve been fixing things along the way, paying for deficiencies, using increased operational burden and slower development. This frustrated great engineers, it slowed us down, and kept us from being creative and innovative,” Agrawal said at the company’s analyst day in February 2021.

Product rollouts gathering pace

The result is now evident in the sudden increase in the pace of Twitter’s product rollouts in recent months as the company ventured into areas such as live audio, communities, subscriptions and newsletters (through the Revue acquisition) in a bid to attract new users and diversify its revenues, which are currently heavily dependent on advertising.

Agrawal is also a proponent of crypto/web3. In December 2019, Dorsey had put him in charge of Project Bluesky, the firm’s decentralised social networking effort, until it found a leader in Jay Graber in August 2021.

In addition, Agrawal is said to be working with the newly set up crypto team at Twitter on the future of crypto at the firm, according to a TechCrunch report.

In a March 2021 interview with The Information, Agrawal agreed that though Twitter is moving faster and past efforts are beginning to pay off, there is a lot more that needs to be done, especially if the company wants to achieve its ambitious targets.

Twitter’s revenue stood at $3.7 billion for the financial year 2020, whereas Facebook had $85 billion in ad revenue for the same year, while Snap had $2.5 billion.

The India story

India is one of the key markets for Twitter, but lags its rivals in terms of users. Twitter has 24.45 million users in India in November 2021 compared to Snap’s 115.95 million and Facebook’s 349.2 million, according to data platform Statista.

The social media firm has also clashed with the Indian government on content moderation and free speech. Earlier this year, Twitter was involved in a prolonged tussle with the Indian government over its alleged non-compliance with the new IT rules passed in May this year. One of the key triggers for this tussle was the ‘manipulated media’ label Twitter placed on tweets by senior BJP leaders.

Following this, the Twitter India office in New Delhi was raided by the police. In June, the UP Police filed an FIR against Twitter and its then India head Manish Maheshwari for a fake video of an assault on a 65-year-old person in the city being shared on the platform. The police alleged that Twitter had not taken any steps to remove the video.

It is not clear if having an India CEO would lead to the company having a better relationship with the Indian government.

“I don’t know if just being Indian is going to make a difference. But I think as a personality, Parag is not one of those controversial and brash, loud figures. He is more of a quiet, execution type of person. And we are seeing this even in other places, like Google, where the CEOs are focused on execution, and they don’t necessarily hog the limelight,” said the tech executive quoted earlier.

“But at the same time, when the occasion demands, they step up, like when they need to depose in the Senate or before Congress in the US. I expect Parag will be more of a technology specialist and a visionary who can help with new products.”

But the former Twitter executive has previously pointed out that the idea of free speech is deeply ingrained, hence a change of guard is unlikely to change the way Twitter works.

In an interview with US tech journalist Nicholas Thompson in July 2020, Agrawal had weighed in on Twitter’s strategy of labelling manipulated media and misinformation, stating that the approach is to “show diverse perspectives” and “avoid content removal as a concept”.

“We don’t make an attempt to determine the likelihood of something being true or false. That sort of leads to our strategy to label content so that people can find additional context around the piece of content as well as additional conversations and reach their own determinations,” Agrawal had said.

“We are opposed to misinformation and one of the primary goals there is to avoid and mitigate harm. As a result of that, we don’t attempt to go after all misinformation or address all the misinformation on the platform and instead prioritise and focus our effort where there is the highest likelihood of harm,” he added.

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