When Jack Dorsey abruptly stepped down as Twitter CEO on Monday, he handed the reins to Parag Agrawal, a software engineer who has become one of Dorsey’s closest allies in shaping the social media company’s future.
Dorsey’s trust in Agrawal as CEO “is bone deep,” the outgoing chief told employees in an email on Monday. “He’s been my choice for some time given how deeply he understands the company and its needs,” Dorsey wrote.
Twitter insiders say Agrawal is a close confidant of Dorsey who shares the co-founder’s vision of a future in which Twitter runs on technology that gives users greater control. They’re both enthusiasts of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain, which they expect to play key roles in Twitter’s future.
Agrawal has been closely involved in related projects at Twitter. He has worked on efforts to let users send tips using bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and recently hired the head of a new dedicated crypto team. He also oversees the company’s Bluesky project, which aims to build decentralized social networking software on which any number of platforms could run.
Still, some current and former employees told NPR they were surprised Agrawal was tapped for the role, given that his profile inside the company is lower than others in Twitter’s executive ranks. He’s also little known outside the company, in contrast to Dorsey, whose eccentric health habits (he told Wired Magazine in 2020 that he eats just one meal a day and tries to spend two hours a day meditating), beard length and bitcoin obsession have fueled headlines for years.
The 37-year-old Agrawal is a computer scientist who studied at the Indian Institute of Technology and Stanford University before joining Twitter a decade ago. He worked on advertising products and the company’s engineering architecture. In 2017, Dorsey named him chief technology officer.
In his own email to Twitter staff, Agrawal noted that when he joined, the company had fewer than 1,000 employees.
“I’ve walked in your shoes, I’ve seen the ups and downs, the challenges and obstacles, the wins and the mistakes,” he wrote.
He’s worked on machine learning and other technical advances that have enabled Twitter to roll out new features and products more quickly, as it’s tried to shake off a reputation for being slow to innovate.
Agrawal has also championed an internal team of researchers investigating whether Twitter’s algorithms are fair. Recently that team published research that found its automated photo-cropping system favored white faces, and Twitter announced it was abandoning the software.
“Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around,” Dorsey wrote.
The handover comes at a critical moment for major social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
“There’s a lot of heat and a lot of friction and politics associated with being these social networks on which so much public conversation plays out,” said Margaret O’Mara, a historian of Silicon Valley at the University of Washington.
“Mark Zuckerberg is looking to the metaverse,” she said, referring to Facebook’s recent pivot to building immersive virtual reality experiences and corporate rebranding as Meta.
“Perhaps Twitter is looking at, ‘What is the next-gen social network going to be? Is it going to be more decentralized? Is it going to be more user controlled?'” she asked.
It’s up to Agrawal to answer those questions.