SAN FRANCISCO – When Jack Dorsey, then Executive Chairman of Twitter, pushed the company to expand its machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities in 2014, he turned to an engineer, Parag Agrawal.
When Mr. Dorsey later became the CEO of Twitter and needed help overhauling the company’s infrastructure, he brought in Mr. Agrawal as well.
And when Mr. Dorsey envisioned a future for Twitter in 2019 based on the concept of decentralization and technologies such as blockchain, he again called on Mr. Agrawal for help.
Mr Dorsey completed the transfer on Monday when he stepped down as chief executive and Mr Agrawal, 37, was named the new Twitter leader.
Mr. Agrawal, chief technology officer since 2017, is little known to the public, with some Twitter insiders even saying they are surprised by his appointment. But behind the scenes, the Indian-born engineer has been a Twitter veteran and confidant of Mr Dorsey who has been involved in several of the company’s biggest strategic initiatives. This made Mr Dorsey enthusiastic about his successor, claiming in a tweet that the board of directors had carried out a “rigorous” search for a new general manager and had approved Mr. Agrawal “unanimously”.
“It has been my choice for some time given how well he understands the business and its needs,” wrote Dorsey, 45.
In his own message to employees on Monday, Mr. Agrawal emphasized his knowledge of the company and his kinship with its workers.
“I joined this company 10 years ago when there were less than 1,000 employees,” Mr. Agrawal wrote in the company’s email, which he also said. tweeted. “I have walked in your place, I have seen the ups and downs, the challenges and the obstacles, the victories and the mistakes. But then and now, above all else, I see the incredible impact of Twitter, our continued progress and the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.
Mr. Agrawal becomes the latest Indian-born executive to take over a major US tech company. Executives of South Asian origin are now at the helm of companies such as Microsoft, Google and IBM, many of them succeeding the founders of the company. For some in Silicon Valley, Mr. Agrawal’s rise was the definition of the American dream.
“It’s wonderful to see the incredible success of Indians in the tech world and a good reminder of the opportunity America offers immigrants,” said Patrick Collison, general manager of Stripe, in a statement. Tweeter Monday congratulating Mr. Agrawal.
Yet as the new head of Twitter, Mr. Agrawal has his work cut out for him. The San Francisco-based company faces challenges, such as appeasing activist investors and appeasing a congressional agitated over its power, divisions, and potential to censor freedom of movement. ‘expression. Mr. Agrawal is also tasked with implementing Mr. Dorsey’s vision for decentralizing Twitter so that his users can eventually govern themselves what is allowed on the service.
Still, some tech observers have said that Mr. Agrawal’s appointment made sense because he was a sort of “spiritual successor” to Mr. Dorsey: both are calm, polite, deeply technical, and excited about an Internet where power and control are returned to users. .
“He definitely has a big picture of what Twitter should be like in the world and how it should work,” said Mike Masnick, founder of tech news site Techdirt, who has advised Twitter on decentralization efforts. , about M. Agrawal.
Born in Mumbai, Mr. Agrawal studied computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, an elite technical university. In 2005, he moved to the United States and enrolled at Stanford University to pursue a doctorate in computer science. There he joined a research group focused on databases, which enable computers to store and process large amounts of digital information.
Even among Stanford students, Mr. Agrawal stood out for his solid understanding of mathematics and the theory behind computer science, said Jennifer Widom, who led the research lab and was its director of thesis.
“Having these two skills – math and theory – can take you a long way,” she said in a phone interview. “If you are good at theory, you have the ability to be analytical, to reason, to make decisions.”
Mr. Agrawal’s focus on databases made him a natural fit for Twitter, which has to juggle data from tens of millions of people around the world. He joined the company in 2011 before completing his doctorate. and became a key member of the engineering team that oversaw the company’s advertising technologies.
“I kept pestering him to go ahead and finish his thesis,” Dr Widom said.
The ad team was among the first within Twitter to make heavy use of what’s called machine learning, mathematical systems that can learn special skills by analyzing data. Using these techniques, Mr. Agrawal and his colleagues developed ways to target ads to particular users, which helped increase Twitter’s revenue and profile.
He then became a member of what was known as the Twitter Architecture Group, or TAG, a team of senior engineers who reviewed and improved the company’s projects under development.
“He was on the list of the best engineers,” said Krishna Gade, who met Mr. Agrawal in his first interview with Twitter. “Even then, he had a lot of influence on the direction of the engineering of the company.” Mr. Gade left Twitter in 2014.
When Mr Dorsey returned to Twitter as CEO in 2015, Mr Agrawal was one of his lieutenants who helped refocus the company’s efforts on the ‘timeline’ that feeds tweets in the app. Twitter of a user. In 2017, Twitter promoted Mr. Agrawal to chief technology officer.
“I would characterize it as pragmatic,” said Kevin Quennesson, who oversaw Twitter’s machine learning efforts at the time. “As one of the early engineers, he has built strong internal relationships over the past decade. “
Even as CTO, Mr. Agrawal kept a low profile. He worked behind the scenes to rebuild Twitter’s technical infrastructure, which had been tinkered with over the years. This led to engineering issues and prevented the company from introducing new products and services as quickly as it wanted. Mr. Agrawal has helped Twitter switch to using cloud computing services from Google and Amazon, streamlining its operations.
In 2019, Mr Dorsey said Twitter would fund an independent research initiative to create decentralized social media, allowing users to make their own moderation decisions and apply their own algorithms to promote content. He brought in Mr. Agrawal to oversee Twitter’s contributions to the project, known as Bluesky.
“We believe that empowering more individuals and third parties could help solve community problems and help more people,” Agrawal said in an interview with Bluesky in June. “A lot of people want to be part of the solution and now the only way for them is to figure out how to work on Twitter or figure out how to put their community first through a business like ours. It’s a part of the thinking and reasoning behind algorithmic choice.
Twitter was eager to move beyond questions of what content to remove or leave on its service, Agrawal said at the time, and examine how algorithms lift content instead.
“Our role has changed from ‘we host a lot of content’ to ‘guide people to what they’re interested in’,” he said. “We think of it in terms of ‘How does something get attention and in what context?’ What you host or don’t host is a problem from 10 years ago.
Mr. Agrawal has also managed Twitter’s efforts to incorporate cryptocurrencies into the platform, allowing users to post cryptocurrency tips like Bitcoin. And he backed efforts to be transparent about Twitter’s algorithmic errors, urging the company to go public with its findings that a photo-cropping algorithm it was using was flawed.
Mr Agrawal’s focus on product development drew in insiders who believed Twitter had moved too slowly to introduce new products, said a person familiar with the succession process. His appointment could also help Twitter reflect the success of other companies that have brought in engineering leaders to oversee turnaround efforts, they said.
Mr. Agrawal will receive an annual salary of $ 1 million, plus bonuses, as well as restricted stock units and performance-based stock units valued at $ 12.5 million, according to a company file Monday.
“Parag has been behind every critical decision that has helped turn this business around,” Dorsey said in his tweet. “My confidence in him as CEO runs deep.”