Twitter’s new chief executive, Jack Dorsey, must hope that none of the about to be let go by the struggling company are as valuable as John Bauer.
In 2002, Bauer was a programmer at Google who tweaked some code and turned the company it into a cash-generating machine. The tweak allowed key words typed into the search engine to appear in bold when they flashed up in adverts, alongside the search results. It more than quadrupled the number of times people clicked on the ads, and ensured Google’s financial future.
Noting Bauer’s success, Dorsey could certainly use a simple software alteration that would suddenly turn the social network profitable. But it is the software engineers – normally the most venerated at any Silicon Valley company – who are being hit hardest in Dorsey’s layoffs: almost all of the cuts from the 4,100 strong workforce are coming from its “product and engineering” division, rather than in marketing or sales.
“We feel strongly that engineering will move much faster with a smaller and nimbler team, while remaining the biggest percentage of our workforce,” Dorsey told employees in an email. Almost at the same time as cutting staff, Twitter rolled out its “Moments” service that aims to collect tweets and links about noteworthy news events, and is considering tweets where links and names aren’t included in its 140-character limit.
But culling engineering jobs is a shocking act in a field where poaching is commonplace, such is the intense competition for staff. Ego-pumped rivals try hard to dismiss any loss they suffer to a competitor. Or in the case of Elon Musk, founder of the electric vehicle maker Tesla, a rival such as Apple is downgraded to jumped-up rival. “They have hired people we’ve fired,” Musk said recently about Apple having poached a number of key members of his staff. “We always jokingly call Apple the ‘Tesla graveyard’. If you don’t make it at Tesla, you go work at Apple.
It is no accident that Musk sounds like a football manager cutting loose disappointing players via transfer deals. Top programmers are now the Premier League footballers of the computing world. And the reach of the computing world is extending everywhere, from phones to cars to buildings, which fosters demand for software programmers.
Like footballers, top programmers are getting used to being mollycoddled: according to jobs site Glassdoor, which tracks salaries, a software engineer starting at Twitter, Facebook, Apple or Google could expect to be paid at least $127,000 (£82,000) annually, with medical insurance, free canteen food and holidays thrown in, as well as share options that could boost their income by 50%. For senior software engineers, the starting figure can be $153,000 (£98,000), which pushes beyond $250,000 (£161,000) after cash and stock bonuses. By contrast, salaries at Microsoft and Amazon, further up the coast in near Seattle, begin at around $100,000 (£64,000).
Despite the high pay levels, however, only the very best make a significant difference to a company’s performance. Studies from as far back as 1968 have found that the best programmers produce code that runs up to 10 times faster than an alternative offered by an average yet experienced programmer.
Sometimes, according to Steve McConnell of Construx Software, one person can make all the difference. When he was at Boeing in the mid-1980s, he says, a critical project with 80 coders was near to missing its deadline. According to company lore, “they moved most of the 80 people off that project and brought in one guy who finished all the coding and delivered the software on time,” he says.
But another interpretation of the Twitter cuts is that they they represent a peak for programmer power. If Silicon Valley is heading for a crash as valuations for companies like Snapchat soar, then there will be consequences for its star employees. After the dot-com bust in 2000, the market for programmers cratered; many left the area altogether.
There is no danger of a repeat, insists Michael Solomon, managing partner at 10X Management in New York, a talent agency for top programmers. “We’re looking at a shortage that’s projected into the future as a growing, growing problem,” he says.
“Just yesterday we had a call with a significantly growing startup that was looking for us to bring in seven people because they just can’t fill the gaps. Twitter might be changing its focus, but there’s no glut.”
Solomon says that the problem is compounded because there’s still no easy way to identify one of those “10x” programmers, other than rigorously looking at work they’ve done. “It’s like building a house,” he says. “Some people make it beautiful - but it’s a year late. Some finish on time – but it doesn’t hold up. I would like there to be a magic test. But there isn’t.”
That points to Dorsey’s problem – and opportunity: if he keeps the right people, Twitter might improve much faster than it has for years and all with just a few lines of code. Provided Twitter’s equivalent of John Bauer is not on the redundancy list.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010