Engineering culture is hard to make but easy to destroy

Like most people, I have been watching, with utter despair, the downfall of Twitter. Twitter, the community, has been a bit of a cesspool in general but there are some really great micro communities that help each other.

I know I have met amazing people on there and from there cultivated great friendships.

The one thing that has shocked me with Elon Musk, is not how he said he was going to down size the company. He told people that at the beginning. It’s the callousness of all his actions!

Bullying is never ok

Anyone who has seen the news reports from Union Busting at Tesla to issues with Self-driving Cars(now a class action lawsuit) to him seemingly breaking WARN Act in California, know Musk has little regard for laws around him.

This has lead to, at least if rumours are true and what we’re seeing at Twitter suggests they are, a constant bad engineering culture within all Musk companies. Bullying and Harassment.

Now, at this point I can foresee Musk supporters thinking “Well you’re not a billionaire so why should we listen to you?” You don’t need to listen/read anything I put out there. No doubt that Musk has been a shrewd investor, but the concepts and successes are built on the people doing the hard work. If my family had also been able to exploit South Africans during Apartheid, I too would be significantly wealthy.

But being a shrewd investor doesn’t mean it’s ok to bully or harass folks.

Building a healthy culture

A healthy culture is a productive culture in the same way a healthy population will be a prosperous nation. When people feel they can make mistakes safely they are going to learn and build and grow with you. It’s one of the main reasons in the tech world we have moved to blameless retrospectives.

One thing that is true, and underrated, is “Every hire will impact your culture”. If you go for a group of Chads, or mix it up with people from different backgrounds, you will have a different culture. I have worked on teams where there were 6 of us (3 David’s and literally no women). I learned more and grew more as an engineering leader by having different people around me.

Words matter

Words matter, and the more multinational a company is, the more important words can be. How you speak to people is going to show them how they can interact with you. I know when I speak to certain parts of the world I need to make sure that if someone calls me sir that I remind them that I am not knighted and they should just call me David.

Why? Because if they fail they are likely to feel that they can’t speak to me. I also remind them that fail stands for First Attempt In Learning. Give people the space to grow and you will be amazed by what they come out with.

It’s really the little things.

Leaders need to be at the front

Leaders showing people how to do things from the front, even if it makes you feel “weak”, creates empathy between you and your team. It’s long known that facism is beaten by empathy. Empathy is not a weakness, it’s a super power. It also will help them feel like they can challenge you if you are wrong. Musk has shown that if you challenge him you will get fired. He is now surrounded by sycophants. People won’t challenge him and it’s leading to him looking like the emporer with his new clothes.

Culture can be destroyed in an instant

One thing that I learned back in my Mozilla days was that culture can be destroyed by poorly chosen words by leaders or poorly chosen actions. The actions of leaders can hurt people. If you want amazing products you need diverse teams. It’s important to It takes time to build a culture that people want to be part of, that allows failure and learning. Trust can takes weeks to months to years to craft. Ask any manager who does 1:1s…

Building a rapport that allows people to be their best within a team so you can have a group of people at their best forming the best team takes time. You can’t just force culture on people, especially since each person can change the culture in the group. It needs to get there through discussion and tradeoffs.

It takes time to build world class engineering and a good set of leaders who can handle the tradeoffs that teams need. Build out what we need when we need it. Musk clearly doesn’t have that skill. I bet there are a couple good managers at his companies that can help deliver things but it’s clear from his actions it’s not him.

It’s going to impact other companies. Twitter, Telsa, and SpaceX will feel it soon in their recruitment as that dries up quickly with people refusing to work there because of the actions of the CEO. I definitely wouldn’t want to work there!


And finally, you need to read Chesterton’s Fence and think about all the things that Musk is doing. It will hopefully frame why a lot of well respected people in their field are utterly shocked by the actions to people and systems happening in Twitter!