Nicholas Carlson | Dec. 12, 2011, 3:02 PM
From the #twitterati party at the Blush night club in Las Vegas
From the outside, Twitter seems like it’s doing very well. It has 2,400 advertisers and 100 million active users, 50 million of whom send 250 million tweets every day. The company is worth $8 billion on secondary markets.
But on the inside, something is going wrong. Even as the company has added hundreds of new employees this year, top engineers and executives keep quitting.
Some of the bigger departures include VP of engineering Mike Abbott, who left after just a year, and VP of Consumer Marketing Pam Kramer, who quit after only three months. There have been maybe a dozen more high profile departures, including much of Twitter communications team. After he left, former Twitter engineer Adrien Gaarf wrote a detailed post explaining what’s wrong with the company.
So…why are all these people leaving what appears to be a company that builds a product millions of people use every day, and several industries – including Business Insider’s – depend on?
We’ve asked a former Twitter employee. Does this source have an ax to grind? This source says no. This source asked to remain anonymous in order to be as candid as possible.
This source told us Twitter’s turnover problem has two main, related causes: Twitter, as a company full of workers, has cultural flaws and structural flaws.
- Our source says Twitter’s workplace is a “self-congratulatory, complacent, environment.”
- Unlike other maturing startups – like Facebook, for example, which are willing to reinvent themselves and their products – Twitter’s mentality has been: “This is our product, just perfect it.”
- Our source speculates that the root of this product problem may be that Twitter was, essentially, an accidental success, and the people in charge of the product now assume their job is to not screw that accidental success up.
- Our source says succeeding as an employee at Twitter is something of a popularity contest. The best anecdote our source gave us to illustrate this problem was a story about how, in October 2010, top Twitter executives Jason Goldman, Ev Williams and Biz Stone hosted a “#Twitterati” party at a Las Vegas club called Blush. It was not a company event, and not everyone from the company was invited. That was fine. The problem was that it wasn’t just top executives that were. Some of the people that went were assistants and other “random employees” who seemed to be mostly attractive young women. After the event went down, there was so much bad blood at Twitter over the party and who was and was not invited, that it became the main topic of the company’s next all-employee meeting. Several disgruntled employees stood up to complain that the party tarnished Twitter’s brand. One employee said that their family’s well-being depended on the success of Twitter, and that this was an assault on it.
- Another Twitter employee tells us the Vegas ordeal wasn’t such a biggie. He says he wasn’t invited and felt OK about it. “I hate Vegas.”
- It should be noted that Goldman, Williams, and Stone are all no longer with Twitter. It’s possible that many of these cultural issues have been remedied.
Twitter’s structural flaws, or at least the ones our source believes the company has, are even more interesting:
- Twitter started with mediocre engineering talent. That’s common in Silicon Valley. But Twitter compounded the issue by not successfully “promoting” early engineers out of the way. Google and other tech companies retain and “promote” early engineers without actually giving them more responsibility by giving them empty titles and fellowships. Twitter did not do this. It promoted old-timers into positions of power.
- To make matters worse, Twitter allowed these early employees to hire their own teams. Some of these early engineers are actually talented, says our source, and that has created “pockets of excellence” at Twitter. But our source says some of these early engineers were more “lucky” than good. This source says the old adage that “A” players hire “A” players and that “B” players hire “C” players proved true at Twitter. This source says one group at Twitter that is not a “pocket of excellence” is the team in charge of infrastructure.
- This source said that Twitter has not been enough of an engineer-driven company. This source said that at a good tech company, 50% of the employees should be engineers and that for most its history, this has not been true of Twitter.
We think it’s important to remember that Twitter’s current management and board only took over the company recently. CEO Dick Costolo got his job in Fall 2010. Executive chairman Jack Dorsey only returned to Twitter in February 2011. New board members joined soon after. We think these people are actively combating these legacy issues.
In the past year, Twitter has hired hundreds of employees. It has acquired startups for their engineering talent. It has focused on getting the percentage of engineers up to 50% of its total headcount.
The culture at Twitter has been a harder fix. It was never clear to us that Twitter’s former management was actually interested in building Twitter’s business into something more than a fun startup project. The good news is that those people are gone now. It may just be a matter of time before their legacy fades.
Briefed on the details of this story, Twitter declined to comment.