When Parag Agrawal was at Stanford writing his computer science thesis, his adviser couldn’t imagine that any of her students would become the CEO of one of the world’s most powerful social media companies.
But much has changed since Agrawal graduated with his doctorate in 2012. On Monday morning, Twitter announced that Jack Dorsey had resigned and that Chief Technology Officer Agrawal had been promoted to CEO, effective immediately.
Dorsey, who drew frequent criticism for acting as the CEO of Twitter and payments-company Square at the same time, has long been obsessed with bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and has championed their adoption inside Twitter. The social media company’s embrace of decentralization and blockchain will likely not lessen with his departure, however; Agrawal has been Dorsey’s much quieter partner in this area, leading the hiring for Twitter research decentralization project Bluesky and for Twitter’s new cryptocurrency unit. Both Jay Graber — Bluesky’s new leader — and Tess Rinearson — Twitter’s crypto team leader — worked quite closely with Agrawal in his previous role.
“I read this as Twitter wanting to invest in innovation (given that he has been at the forefront of the blockchain stuff, etc.). I’m super excited that an engineer can rise up to be the CEO of a publicly traded company,” Raffi Krikorian, CTO of the Emerson Collective and a former VP of Engineering at Twitter, told Protocol.
Jennifer Widom, Agrawal’s thesis adviser and the dean of Engineering at Stanford, described Agrawal as thoughtful, analytical and especially good at the foundational theoretical and mathematical thinking she asked of her students. His research explored questions about how to deal with messy, undefined data.
“He would never have gone to business school,” she said.
But since leaving the hallowed halls of Stanford’s computer science doctoral program, Agrawal found business school somewhere else: inside Twitter. He quickly made a name for himself at the company, developing a reputation as someone eager to learn anything he didn’t know. He started work as an individual contributor engineer, working across both the platform team and the revenue team. He led an ML team for a period of time, and also served as the point leader for the platform team. He was appointed Twitter’s first distinguished software engineer — a prestigious honor at the company reserved for a mere handful in total — and then chief technology officer, after just six years as a "tweep."
“He became CTO even when he hadn’t been there all that long. He obviously had a big impact right away when he arrived,” Widom said.
As CTO, Agrawal was responsible for leading much of Twitter’s machine-learning efforts, and he championed the work of Twitter’s recently expanded Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency and Accountability team, spearheaded by Rumman Chowdhury. When Chowdhury agreed to join the company to helm the effort, she said that she was deeply encouraged by Agrawal’s previous work on Twitter’s image-cropping algorithm, which the META team continued after she was hired. Some Twitter users had complained for years that the algorithm seemed to favor men and people with lighter skin in how it auto-cropped images on the social feed, and Agrawal led the initial investigation into studying bias in the algorithm and helped arrange the plan to remove it after the researchers concluded there was indeed some bias present. The image-cropping algorithm research was shared publicly in May and the algorithm was removed based on the research.
A person familiar with the META team’s work inside Twitter described him as instrumental in the team’s push for public transparency about decision-making and one of the people who helped ensure that Responsible ML was one of Twitter’s 2021 official priorities. “He’s consistently been a strong strategic partner in breaking down barriers and providing guidance and resources. Team META is sharing a few things in January and I feel confident assuming that they won’t be abandoned or ignored under new leadership,” Chowdhury wrote on Twitter.
Agrawal’s work ethic and motivation to learn was well known and regarded inside the company, according to several Twitter employees. One year, in preparation for Twitter’s hack week, he read several books and took courses in machine learning just to prepare, according to the same Twitter employee familiar with his work.
Software engineers at Twitter have complained for years about technical debt — the implied future cost of additional work created by choosing the easy over the better solution in the present. This makes the work more difficult, which Agrawal admitted and described as a major priority in an interview in March 2021, calling Twitter’s tech structure a “ball of hair.” He has strong thoughts on the “build vs. buy” paradigm for Twitter’s tech stack, and he led the company’s transition away from its determined obsession with building all of its own services and toward its purchase of Google Cloud and AWS offerings.
Twitter critics have also taken major issue with the company’s relative lethargy to ship new products and features. Agrawal has been partially responsible for addressing those critiques by helping to shape more aggressive goals for 2021 and 2022, leading to a recent spate of acquisitions, growth and product launches, among them the already-described META team, Spaces, the now-defunct Fleets and the subscription product known as Twitter Blue.
Widom — who also attended Agrawal’s wedding — hosted Agrawal and his wife, Vineeta Agarwala, and their son for a backyard happy hour a few months ago. Vineeta Agarwala is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, where she leads investments for the firm’s bio funds. Widom described them as a “power couple” who, despite their impressive careers, “are very, very down-to-earth. He’s not egocentric at all. A very straightforward person,” she said.
Additional reporting by Issie Lapowsky.