SAN FRANCISCO — When Jack Dorsey, then-CEO of Twitter, pushed the company to build its machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities in 2014, he turned to engineer Parag Agrawal.
When Mr. Dorsey later became the CEO of Twitter and needed help fixing the company’s infrastructure, he also appointed Mr. Agrawal.
And when Mr. Dorsey envisioned a future for Twitter in 2019 based on the concept of decentralization and technologies like blockchain, he once again pulled Mr. Agrawal for help.
On Monday, Dorsey completed the handover when he stepped down as CEO, and Mr. Agrawal, 37, was named Twitter’s new leader.
Mr Agrawal, chief technology officer since 2017, is little known to the public, with even some Twitter insiders saying they were surprised by his appointment. But behind the scenes, the Indian-born engineer was a Twitter expert and confidant of Mr. Dorsey who has been involved in many of the company’s biggest strategic initiatives. This caused Mr. Dorsey to speak too loudly about his successor, saying in Tweet That the Board of Directors had done a “rigorous” search for a new CEO and had “unanimously” approved Mr. Agrawal.
“It has been my choice for some time given how deeply he understands the company and its needs,” wrote Mr. Dorsey, 45.
In his private message to employees on Monday, Mr. Agrawal emphasized his knowledge of the company and his closeness with its workers.
“I joined this company 10 years ago when the number of employees was less than 1000,” Mr Agrawal wrote in the company email, which is also chirp. “I’ve walked where you are, I’ve seen the ups and downs, the challenges and obstacles, the ups and downs. But then and now, above all else, I see the incredible impact of Twitter, our continued progress, and the exciting opportunities that lie ahead.”
Mr. Agrawal has become the latest Indian-born CEO to take charge of a major US technology company. Executives of South Asian descent are now at the helm of companies including Microsoft, Google and IBM, many of whom are succeeding corporate founders. For some in Silicon Valley, Mr. Agrawal’s rise was the definition of the American dream.
“It is great to witness the incredible success of Indians in the world of technology and a good reminder of the opportunity America presents to immigrants,” said Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe. tweet On Monday congratulate Mr. Agrawal.
However, as the new head of Twitter, Mr. Agrawal is out of business for him. The San Francisco-based company faces challenges, such as placating activist investors and mollifying a Congress angry about its power and division and the possibility of censoring free speech. Mr. Agrawal is also tasked with implementing Mr. Dorsey’s vision to decentralize Twitter so that its users can eventually control what is allowed on the service themselves.
However, some tech watchers said Mr. Agrawal’s appointment made sense because he was a kind of “spiritual successor” to Mr. Dorsey: both are calm, polite, highly technical and enthusiastic about an internet where power and control are returned to users.
“He definitely takes a comprehensive view of what Twitter should be in the world and how it should work,” said Mike Masnick, founder of tech news site Techdirt, who has advised Twitter on its decentralization efforts, of Mr. Agrawal.
Born in Mumbai, Mr. Agrawal studied Computer Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, a distinguished technical university. In 2005, he moved to the United States and enrolled at Stanford University to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science. There, he joined a research group focused on databases, which allow computers to store and extract large amounts of digital information.
Even among Stanford students, Mr. Agrawal was distinguished by his strong grasp of mathematics and the theory that underpins computer science, said Jennifer Widum, who led the research lab and served as its thesis advisor.
“Having these two skills — math and theory — can take you a long way,” she said in a phone interview. “If you are good at theory, you have the ability to analyze, think and make decisions.”
Mr. Agrawal’s focus on databases made him a natural fit for Twitter, which must reconcile data from tens of millions of people around the world. He joined the company in 2011 before completing his Ph.D. He became a key member of the engineering team that oversaw the company’s advertising technologies.
“I kept urging him to go ahead and finish his thesis,” Dr. Widom said.
The advertising team was among the first within Twitter to make extensive use of so-called machine learning, mathematical systems that can learn specific skills through data analysis. Using these techniques, Mr. Agrawal and his colleagues developed ways to target ads to specific users, which helped increase Twitter’s revenue and profile.
He then became a member of what was known as the Twitter Architecture Group, or TAG, a team of senior engineers who reviewed and improved the company’s projects that were in development.
“He was on the shortlist for senior engineers,” said Krishna Jade, who met Mr. Agrawal when he first gave an interview to Twitter. “Up until then, it had a huge impact on the engineering direction of the company.” Mr. Gad left Twitter in 2014.
When Mr. Dorsey returned to Twitter as CEO in 2015, Mr. Agrawal was one of his lieutenants who helped refocus the company’s efforts on the “timeline” that feeds tweets into the user’s Twitter app. In 2017, Twitter promoted Mr. Agrawal to the position of Chief Technology Officer.
“I would describe it as pragmatic,” said Kevin Quinnison, who oversaw Twitter’s machine learning effort at the time. “As one of the early architects, he has built strong internal relationships over the past decade.”
Even as chief technology officer, Mr. Agrawal has kept a low profile. He has worked behind the scenes to rebuild Twitter’s technical infrastructure, which has been held together over the years. This led to engineering problems and prevented the company from introducing new products and services as quickly as it wanted. Mr. Agrawal has helped Twitter switch to cloud computing services from Google and Amazon, simplifying its operations.
In 2019, Mr. Dorsey said Twitter would fund an independent research initiative to create decentralized social media, allowing users to make their own moderation decisions and applying their own algorithms to promote content. Mr. Agrawal has been used to oversee Twitter’s contributions to the project, known as Bluesky.
“We believe that empowering more individuals and third parties can help solve communities’ problems and help more people,” Mr. Agrawal said in an interview about Bluesky in June. “Many people would like to be part of the solution, and now the only way for them is to learn how Twitter works or discover how their community is prioritized by a company like ours. That is some of the thinking and logic behind choosing the algorithm.”
Agrawal said at the time that Twitter was keen to bypass questions about what content should be removed or left in its service, and look at how algorithms raise content instead.
“Our role has shifted from ‘we host a range of content’ to ‘we direct people towards what they care about,’ he said. ‘We think about this in terms of ‘how does something grab attention and in what context?’ What is hosting or not hosting an issue? Since 10 years “.
Mr. Agrawal has also managed Twitter’s efforts to integrate cryptocurrencies into the platform, allowing users to send tips on cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. He has supported efforts to be transparent about Twitter’s algorithm errors, and has urged the company to publicize its findings that its image-cropping algorithm was biased.
A person familiar with the succession process said Mr. Agrawal’s focus on product development attracted insiders who thought Twitter was moving too slowly to introduce new products. And they said his appointment could also help Twitter reverse the success of other companies that have hired engineering leaders to oversee turnaround efforts.
Mr. Agrawal will receive an annual salary of $1 million, plus bonuses, as well as $12.5 million in restricted stock and performance-based stock units, according to the company’s filing Monday.
“Parag was behind every critical decision that helped turn the direction of this company,” Dorsey said in his tweet. “My trust in him as our CEO is very deep.”