One of the newly separated Twitter engineers, who had worked in core services, told the AP that engineering team clusters were down from about 15 people pre-Musk — not including team leaders, who were all laid off — to three or four before Thursday’s resignations.
Then more institutional knowledge that can’t be replaced overnight walked out the door.
“Everything could break,” the programmer said.
It takes six months to train someone to work an on-call rotation for some services, the engineers said. Such rotations require programmers to be available at all hours. But if the person on call is unfamiliar with the code base, failures could cascade as they frantically plow through reference manuals.
“If I stayed I would have been on-call constantly with little support for an indeterminate amount of time on several additional complex systems I had no experience in,” tweeted Peter Clowes, an engineer who took the severance.
“Running even relatively boring systems takes people who know where to go when something breaks,” said Blaine Cook, Twitter’s founding engineer, who left in 2008. It’s dangerous to drastically reduce a programming workforce to a skeleton crew without first bulletproofing the code, he said.
“It’s like saying, ‘These firefighters aren’t doing anything. So, we’ll just fire them all,’” Cook said.
The engineers also worry Musk will shut down tools involved in content moderation and in removing illicit material that people upload to Twitter — or that there simply wouldn’t be enough people on staff to run them properly.
Another concern is hackers. When they’ve breached the system in the past, diminishing damage depends on detecting them quickly and kicking them out.
It’s not clear how Musk’s housecleaning at Twitter has affected its cybersecurity team, which suffered a major PR black eye in August when the highly respected security chief fired by the company earlier this year, Peiter Zatko, filed a whistleblower complaint claiming the platform was a cybersecurity shambles.
“So much of the security infrastructure of a large organization like Twitter is in people’s heads,” said Graham, the cybersecurity veteran. “And when they’re gone, you know, it all goes with them.”
Beyond technical troubles and even the potential of a crash, critical social and safety concerns loom over Twitter, which has become a fundamental tool in how people and organizations operate and communicate with each other and the public, from academia and journalism to natural disaster information and emergency warnings.
“Twitter … is really important in our democracy. It’s important for media, and for politics, and for a lot of marginalized communities that rely on it to stay connected and get the word out on important issues,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener in a statement given to KQED, adding that instability at Twitter could hurt public and political discourse.
Wiener also accused Elon Musk of trying to align Twitter with the “MAGA right-wing world,” and called the fact that wealthy individuals can purchase and destabilize an influential platform like Twitter in mere weeks “one of the biggest flaws in capitalism,” adding that he and other legislators are considering ways to address the company’s treatment of its departing employees.
While organizations like Cal Fire and the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services say they have multiple platforms and tools with which to get information out to the public, they acknowledge that Twitter has been an essential tool for sharing information.
“[Twitter] allows us to be transparent and reach a broader audience, such as for the heat wave recently when we were encouraging all Californians to conserve energy,” said Brian Ferguson, state director of crisis communications for Cal OES. “[Twitter] was a big part of it. Certainly there’s both good and bad information on Twitter as we’ve experienced in the pandemic and in other things, but it is an important tool to have to reach the public in times of crisis.”
“Hopefully nothing happens,” said Cal Fire Public Information Officer Robert Foxworthy, referring to Twitter's ongoing troubles and recent predicament; he indicated that Cal Fire has multiple ways to get information out. But he also made sure to advise, given the extent of the public's reliance on Twitter for information, that people be prepared for the worst.
“We tell folks that where you get your information may not work at any given time, so we ask that you have multiple ways to get that information, whether that be through Twitter or Facebook or your local radio,” said Foxworthy. “We ask the public to go to whatever their local county uses for their alert system, like Reverse 9-1-1 that you have to sign up for, or like Text-to-911, where they can send you emergency alerts, or CodeRED ... because at any time the platform you use may not be usable.”
KQED's Ekene Okobi and Tara Siler contributed to this report.