Jack Dorsey announced that he would be stepping down from the CEO position at Twitter, corroborating rumours that had been floating around. This announcement sent the whole internet into a frenzy. Dorsey tweeted a screenshot of the email sent to Twitter’s team announcing his resignation, where he mentioned that Parag Agrawal, the former CTO of Twitter, will take over the post.
Dorsey wrote very high praises for his successor. He said that Agrawal had been part of every “critical decision that helped the company turn around,” apart from mentioning that his trust in Agrawal as a CEO is “bone deep”.
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It was too late before congratulatory messages started pouring in for Agrawal, in fact, a little extra for being the latest Indian-origin person to lead a big tech company. He joins the likes of Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, and Arvind Krishna. However, not much was known about Agrawal until now, the fact that he himself acknowledged in his tweet.
In a press release, Twitter wrote, “Parag Agrawal joined Twitter in 2011 and has served as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) since October 2017. As CTO, he has been responsible for the company’s technical strategy, leading work to improve development velocity while advancing the state of Machine Learning across the company. Prior to being appointed CTO, Parag had risen to be Twitter’s first Distinguished Engineer due to his work across revenue and consumer engineering, including his impact on the re-acceleration of audience growth in 2016 and 2017.”
Agrawal has been a driving force behind the platform’s AI and machine learning efforts. We trace some of his initiatives, especially the ones accomplished at Twitter.
Born in Mumbai to teacher and government official parents, Agrawal graduated in Computer Science Engineering from IIT Bombay (a few media reports suggest that he secured 77th rank in the entrance exam). He then moved to the US to pursue PhD from Stanford University (his thesis was on “Incorporating Uncertainty in Data Management and Integration”)
Dean of Engineering at Stanford, Jennifer Widom, was Agrawal’s thesis advisor, who described him as thoughtful and analytical. His PhD was on methodologies to deal with messy and undefined data.
Agrawal became the first distinguished software engineer at Twitter. It is a technical strategist role that drives efforts on machine learning, cloud adoption, security, and quality. A distinguished engineer partners with directors and engineers, along working with Principal and senior staff engineers to guide, mentor and contribute to the design review process and ideation.
He climbed ranks and, within a span of just six years, was elevated to the position of CTO. Agrawal’s forte has been machine learning, and under his aegis, the organisation achieved many breakthroughs in this space.
ML-based Efforts at Twitter
Agrawal is well known for leading the work on an ML-powered cropping algorithm developed after several users complained that the present algorithms favoured men with lighter skin. He led the initial investigation into the study of the bias and arranged the plan to remove it after it was concluded that bias was indeed present.
ML bias has been high on the agenda for Agrawal. He was instrumental in the team’s efforts for public transparency on decision-making and ensuring that Responsible ML was one of Twitter’s official priorities for 2021. The ML Ethics, Transparency and Accountability (META) team was set up that consists of engineers, researchers, and data scientists who collaborate to recognise algorithms that may have been causing harm and also help Twitter recognise which issues to tackle first.
Agrawal helped Twitter shift to cloud computing services from Google and Amazon, thereby streamlining its operations. For example, in December last year, Twitter signed in on AWS for its global cloud infrastructure to deliver Twitter timelines and uses AWS’ infrastructure and products for tasks like computation, storage, security, etc.
Further, in 2019, Dorsey had put Agrawal in charge of BlueSky, Twitter’s efforts for decentralised social networking.
It needs to be seen how Twitter’s tech strategy would change under the leadership of Agrawal.