The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hundreds said to have opted to leave Twitter over Musk ultimatum

The number of likely departures prompted Musk to ease his return-to-office edict and managers to meet to decide which engineers to ask back

Elon Musk eased off a return-to-office mandate he issued a week ago, now telling employees they would be allowed to work remotely if their managers assert they are making “an excellent contribution.” (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Hundreds of Twitter employees refused Thursday to sign a pledge to work longer hours, threatening the site’s ability to keep operating and prompting hurried debates among managers over who should be asked to return, current and former employees said.

The number of engineers tending to multiple critical systems had been reduced to two, one or even zero, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The crisis came in response to an ultimatum new owner Elon Musk issued Wednesday demanding that employees sign a pledge by 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday to work harder or accept three months’ severance pay.

On Friday, Musk sent an email to software engineers globally telling them to report to the 10th floor of Twitter headquarters at 2 p.m. the same day.

“Before doing so, please email me a bullet point summary of what your code commits have achieved in the past _6 months, along with up to 10 screenshots of the most salient lines of code,” he wrote, according to emails viewed by The Washington Post.

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In a subsequent email, Musk said he would try to speak via video to those working remotely, but that employees are only excused if they have a family emergency or “cannot physically get to Twitter HQ.” In a third email eight minutes later, he asked employees to fly to San Francisco to be present in person, saying he would be at the office until midnight on Friday and back again Saturday morning.

The scattered emails came after Musk on Thursday said he would ease off a return-to-office mandate he had issued a week ago, telling employees they would be allowed to work remotely if their managers assert they are making “an excellent contribution.”

But it was too late to keep Twitter from a precarious position, several workers said.

Elon Musk emailed an ultimatum to Twitter employees on Nov. 16, asking staff to commit to "working long hours at high intensity" or resign. (Video: Reuters)

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“I know of six critical systems (like ‘serving tweets’ levels of critical) which no longer have any engineers,” a former employee said. “There is no longer even a skeleton crew manning the system. It will continue to coast until it runs into something, and then it will stop.”

Workers offered varying estimates of how many people remained employed at Twitter, ranging from 2,000 to 2,500, down from the 3,500 or so believed to have remained after an initial round of layoffs affecting roughly half the staff this month. Access cutoffs have been delayed because the company is not sure who is gone after most of human resources left, according to one of the employees.

As of Friday morning, some employees were confused about their work status — those who hadn’t signed up to stay appeared to still be in the system, one of the employees said. And amid the chaotic departures, employees outside San Francisco who had been ordered to fly to Twitter HQ by Musk on Friday were unsure if there were still remaining personnel who could approve their travel expenses.

In a fourth email to the same thread, Musk clarified less than an hour later that flying to San Francisco “would be appreciated, but is not essential.”

Among those who were said to have declined to sign the pledge were half the trust and safety policy team, including a majority of those who work on spotting misinformation, spam, fake accounts and impersonation, according to one employee familiar with the team.

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Meanwhile, several critical engineering teams were reported to have been hollowed out. The team that runs the service Gizmoduck, which powers and stores all information in user profiles across the site, was entirely gone, according to a recent department head who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to detail the departures.

“Every mistake in code and operations is now deadly” said a former engineer who departed the company this week. Those left “are going to be overwhelmed, overworked and, because of that, more likely to make mistakes.”

Departing employees filled the Twitter hashtag #LoveWhereYouWorked with public farewells.

“I thought my soul was already fully crushed after the last two weeks. I was so wrong. Today has been rough,” one tweeted. “There will never be a better culture than what we had. We know it. Every other tech company knows it.”

“Wow, this is a lot of people saying goodbye,” one current employee said Thursday, referring to internal posts on the company’s Slack channels.

Musk issues ultimatum to staff: Commit to ‘hardcore’ Twitter or take severance

Twitter employees weren’t the only ones saying goodbye Thursday night. As news of the depleted engineering teams spread across the site, Twitter users began preparing for the worst — exchanging contact information, trying to download their Twitter data, and posting potential “final posts” in case the site went down permanently.

As of 9 p.m. Eastern time, the top trend on Twitter in the United States was “#RIPTwitter,” followed by the names of alternative social networks such as Tumblr, Discord and Mastodon as users mulled life after tweets.

On Thursday evening, there were scattered reports of Twitter not working for some users., a site that collects reports of websites not working, showed a spike in issues for Twitter.

Musk tweeted later that evening that the site “hit another all-time high in Twitter usage lol.”

Meanwhile, words were projected onto the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, calling Musk a “worthless billionaire” and a “bankruptcy baby,” among other names. It was unclear who the organizers of the demonstration were.

Elon Musk was called “worthless billionaire” in a projection on the wall of the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco on Nov. 17. (Video: Linda Chong/The Washington Post)

Musk’s return-to-office order had been a source of tension since it was issued on Nov. 9. In an email, he told employees they were expected back at their desks the next day. At a follow-up staff meeting on Nov. 10, Musk said that “exceptional” employees could continue to work from home, as many have since the pandemic began. But the return-to-office order remained a source of grumbling for Twitter staffers who had stayed at the company after Musk-ordered layoffs Nov. 4 eliminated approximately half of Twitter’s jobs.

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Musk did not say why he revised his return-to-office order. One Twitter staff member said the numbers of employees seeking to leave had alarmed many of Twitter’s managers, who had formed “war rooms” to determine which employees should be asked to stay on.

Resignations and departures were already taking a toll on Twitter’s service, employees said. “Breakages are already happening slowly and accumulating,” one said. “If you want to export your tweets, do it now.”

Hate speech and other abuse was also likely to spike, employees said. About half of Twitter’s Trust and Safety team declined to sign the pledge, a co-worker said.

The easing of the return-to-office order was the latest change in Musk’s decisions as head of Twitter. Musk also has halted his initiative imposing an $8 monthly subscription fee on accounts labeled with Twitter’s blue check mark.

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Musk, who purchased the company for $44 billion late last month, has said he wants to increase the platform’s ability to make money, focusing on ways to drive revenue and slashing costs. Musk, who is also chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla, is known for his companies’ hard-charging cultures and has famously described spending nights in a sleeping bag on the factory floor.

On Wednesday, Musk took the stand in Delaware Chancery Court in a trial over a shareholder lawsuit stemming from a compensation package he received as Tesla CEO. He also defended some of his actions at Twitter, including bringing in Tesla engineers to evaluate Twitter’s engineering staff.

Musk said in a Wednesday email outlining the severance offer that Twitter would be more of an engineering-focused operation going forward. And while the design and product management areas would still be important and report to him, he said, “those writing great code will constitute the majority of our team and have the greatest sway.”

Gerrit De Vynck, Will Oremus and Linda Chong contributed to this report.