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Griffin on Tech: It’s time to fire Elon Musk

Peter Griffin, Editor. 18 November 2022, 1:11 pm

Are you tired of hearing about Twitter? So am I. After all, the network is only used by around 11% of Kiwis.

Outside of the overlapping worlds of tech, media, celebrity and politics, I’m not sure how much the average person cares about the torrent of Tweet’s societal elites publish every day. Elon Musk is also entitled to do what he pleases with his US$44 billion plaything. He is, after all, paying the bills.

He can tinker with his Blue tick verification scheme to his heart’s content. That’s his prerogative. If he runs Twitter into the ground with bad business decisions, frankly, who cares? We are long overdue for an era of renewal in social media and I like the look of Mastodon and other emerging platforms in the ‘fediverse’ that are based on open protocols and don’t employ the same advertising-driven business model.

But the really disturbing aspect of Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter is the way he has treated the company’s employees. Imagine finding out that your six-year tenure as a respected application developer at Twitter has ended via a curt late-night email followed shortly after by your being locked out of your company laptop.

How would you feel if private messages you sent colleagues on Slack were used as grounds to fire you for insubordination?

Then there’s the email Musk sent Twitter staff this week giving them an ultimatum - agree to work crazy hours like he does or leave immediately with three months' termination pay. 

Screenshot 2022-11-18 at 8.41.01 AM.png

You may be wondering how any of that is even legally possible. But its a reminder of the ‘at will’ policies common in the US labour system. Employers can easily fire people on the spot, without having to go through the preliminary steps required under employment law in New Zealand.

In the US, you don’t need a good excuse to get rid of someone. You just can’t discriminate against them based on factors like race and gender. 

Tech workers are paid well over there and have typically enjoyed great perks, such as healthcare coverage, travel allowances and free food (something Musk is in the process of cancelling at Twitter). The ‘at will’ system also means that an employee can quit on the spot, no need to awkwardly serve out four weeks’ notice.

My experience working with US clients is that their employment system sees many of them living in a permanent state of stress, working long hours to keep the bosses happy, knowing that their employment status is essentially quite tenuous. It’s less of an issue in times of high employment, especially in the midst of the current tech talent shortage.

Pulling an all-nighter

But the worm is turning in Silicon Valley as recession looms. Plenty of those late-night emails are going out across the tech sector. Tech workers will likely feel most pressure to sleep under their desks, working through the night to get projects finished, burning out in the process.

This ‘at will’ system plays into the hands of a control freak like Elon Musk, just as it did with the often tyrannical Steve Jobs. Kara Swisher, the US tech journalist who has covered Elon Musk’s career since the early Paypal days, is particularly perturbed at the way Musk is currently treating his employees.

In this fascinating podcast, Elon Musk: Somebody that I used to know, she explains how she raised the ire of Musk after posting an innocuous Tweet he took offence at. The termination email from Musk came late at night:

Subject line: You’re an asshole.

Attached to the empty email was a screengrab of the offending tweet.

“In this case I was supporting him, which is kind of ironic,” Swisher says on the podcast. 

How does she explain the summary dismissal from someone she has interviewed countless times over the years and probably knows better than any other journalist? Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg and other tech billionaires, she posits, live in a “Cashmere prison”.

It's so narcissistic

“Their world gets smaller and smaller, they have more and more minions around them and it's more and more comfortable,” she says.

“It’s so bossy, I’m the law. It’s so narcissistic.”

Musk is in full ‘I am the law’ mode, says Swisher.

“It is in him to do great things. I think what he is doing now is indulgent, the way he is behaving. I think he should bring in the best people and he should listen to them.”

Until he does that, I don’t blame anyone at Twitter for opting out of agreeing to Musk’s hardcore mandate, as much as they love the company they work for and what they’ve contributed to building.

It’s easy for Elon Musk to fire thousands of people with the click of a ‘send’ button. But he is increasingly going to find out easy it is for self-respecting tech workers to do the same, and quit his chaotic fiefdom. 


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Aaditi Dubale 18 November 2022, 2:56 pm

As a US-to-NZ migrant, I chuckled at "you may be wondering how any of that is even legally possible." I can absolutely echo that "their employment system sees many of them living in a permanent state of stress" - especially when you factor in that Americans' ability to afford healthcare is often tied to employment. Migrating here has done wonders for my mental health.

Paul Matthews 21 November 2022, 8:46 am

I'd look at it through a slightly different lens.

By all accounts, Twitter had become a completely bloated and inefficient company with a culture of entitlement amongst an ever-growing staff. Not all of them of course, but perks were high and expectations on them low. Not uncommon in silicon valley, where the level of funding ($13B in Twitter's case) often removes the normal restraints and efficiency expected in startups and tech firms.

It wasn't that long ago that Twitter (and its ilk) were regarded as the crème de la crème for tech workers in silicon valley. Super hard to get into and only the best need apply - and be prepared to work super hard. In return, very high pay and a CV that gets them set for life. In short, you gotta do the mahi to work there.

Musk's moves are a fascinating case study, being played out in real time. The only thing we don't know yet is the subject.

On one hand, it could be a case study of how to a literal genius managed to turn around a culture from bloated and lazy to hungry and energised in just a few weeks (albeit with some pain along the way). A culture that puts devs and innovation at the front, as alluded in his letter, rather than management layers and activism.

Or it could be a case study of how a very flawed individual systematically destroyed $44B worth of value (albeit likely far less of actual value) in a few short weeks.

Or perhaps both.

Either way, it is a fascinating story, and one with a few chapters yet. If Twitter goes dark it might all end pretty quickly, but the chance of that happening are pretty slim. That comment might not age well.

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