The world is watching us now, even more than they have before,” Parag Agrawal wrote in a note to the staff of Twitter on November 29, the day he was named Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the microblogging platform.
As Agrawal, 37, takes over from Jack Dorsey — the embattled founder of an embattled company that has struggled to keep pace with contemporaries such as Facebook — the IIT Bombay (IIT-B) alumnus will be acutely aware of the spotlight he finds himself in as Twitter negotiates the free-speech line with governments around the world, including in India.
While this is probably the first time Agrawal has stepped into the media glare, he has been a key force at Twitter as Dorsey himself acknowledged. “(Parag) has been my choice for some time given how deeply he understands the company and its needs. Parag has been behind every critical decision that helped turn this company around…. My trust in him as CEO is bone deep,” Dorsey wrote, announcing Agrawal’s appointment and his own stepping down.
Parag, who joined Twitter as an engineer in 2011 and went on to become the San Fransisco-based company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), has been responsible for driving most of the path-breaking projects at the company, the most crucial being the successful monestisation of the company’s advertisement-based revenue models. Under Agrawal, the ads team used machine-learning to analyse data and target advertisements to users.
He has also worked to accelerate user growth by improving ‘Home timeline’ relevance, reworking the company’s technical strategy, and overseeing machine learning and AI across the platform. In 2019, Dorsey leaned on Agrawal to launch Bluesky, an ambitious Twitter-funded initiative to create a decentralised social media, where users can apply their own algorithms to moderate and promote content.
While the industry and the media reacted with surprise and curiosity at Agrawal’s appointment, with Twitter’s India timelines flooded by a rush of memes on “Agarwal ji ka beta”, his friends and teachers say they are not surprised at the meteoric rise of this “brilliant”, “focused”, “creative” mind — traits that seem to have led him all the way to Silicon Valley and onwards to Twitter.
His wife Vineeta Agrawala, who holds a B.S. in biophysics from Stanford University and has MD and PhD degrees from Harvard Medical School/MIT, is a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. The couple have a three-year-old son.
News of Agrawal’s appointment brought in a rush of memories for Praveen Tyagi, 47, who coached Agrawal for his Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) — from the time Agrawal and his friends fell off a cycle they were “riding triple” while on their way to class, to when the boys would escort him to the gate when a back pain left him using crutches, to the gold medal Agrawal won at the International Physics Olympiad.
“Parag was a bright student… got a high JEE rank. He would have ranked better but I remember, during his examination, he asked for supplement sheets and due to a misunderstanding on the part of the examiner, he lost valuable time,” said Tyagi.
Dr Jennifer Widom, professor at Stanford University who guided Agrawal through his PhD thesis on ‘Incorporating Uncertainty in Data Management and Integration’, says his analytical skills and ability to collaborate will help him in his new role at Twitter.
“Parag is incredibly smart and creative. As a PhD student, he was equally adept with theoretical concepts as building software systems. He was also a wonderful sounding board and collaborator with other students and their research, very generous with his time. He is also analytical, curious, and patient — all of which will help in his new role,” she told The Sunday Express, signing off with an advice to the new Twitter CEO: “Don’t lose your fun-loving, light-hearted, down-to-earth personality. You kept it during many challenging years as CTO and I’m counting on you to keep it as CEO as well.”
Supratim Biswas, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT-B, who taught Agrawal, said in a recent video address, “Parag is from the 2001 batch and graduated from our department in 2005. We all know we only get the toppers from all over India into our department, and to top within that itself, requires special calibre and Parag definitely had it. He was extremely bright, focused, and hence it is no wonder that at such a young age he has earned this distinction. He was also honoured with the Young Alumnus Award from the institute three years ago, so he was in the news as far as the department is concerned.”
Anand Kumar, now principal of Atomic Energy Junior College in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs of Anushakti Nagar where Agrawal studied, said, “From what I have heard from his teachers, he was very intelligent, focused, creative and always to the point. We were very excited (about the appointment)… He will be a talking point when we give speeches in our college to inspire our students.”
Prof Subhasis Chaudhuri, Director of IIT Bombay, said, “The significance of a university is often judged by the collective achievements of its alumni… Parag Agrawal is one such alumnus that IIT-B is proud of.”
Agrawal’s contemporaries at Stanford University and earlier at IIT-B, where he spent hours hanging out with friends near Vihar Lake, behind the institute’s Hostel No. 4, too talk of him as a man who learned fast.
Devdatta Gangal of Facebook Reality Labs recently wrote a post on Agrawal, his Computer Science contemporary at IIT-B, and how their friendship was cemented during Gangal’s frequent visits to Stanford, where his wife studied, and later after he moved to Silicon Valley. “The living room of Parag’s home at 50 Dudley Ln, Stanford, was our unofficial ‘Community Center’ and we have spent hours chatting, playing games, cooking, eating, celebrating Diwali etc, and crashing there. And using it as a base for various treks, hikes, and weekend ski trips to Tahoe,” he wrote, before listing Agrawal’s winning traits — that he is well-read, logical, hyper-efficient, has clarity of thought, and that he loves Twitter.
“Parag is deeply knowledgeable about almost every topic he cares about. And there are many — sports, finance, Indian and American politics, travel, and unsurprisingly consumer electronics and tech. If there is something he doesn’t know, he is quick to say ‘jyada idea nahi’, ‘I haven’t followed it recently’, and follows up with ‘bata what’s the deal with XYZ’, with the right set of questions to get informed on it. Maybe this is what Jack Dorsey meant when he wrote about Parag’s curiosity,” wrote Gangal.
Vijay Krishnan, CTO of the Silicon Valley-based Turing.com, who graduated from IIT- B and Stanford University, said, “My first overlap with Parag at IIT-B was when we were in a geometric algorithms elective course. It was taught by a professor trying to solve the ‘P vs NP’ problem, which is one of the toughest open problems in Computer Science. Only students who did extremely well in other mathematics and algorithms classes at IIT would opt for it. I vividly remember that Parag seemed to easily understand the material while most others found it hard and would lean on him for questions and clarifications after the class.”
But one of the biggest challenges awaits Agrawal back in India, where Twitter is increasingly finds itself caught in the free speech vs censorship debate.
While tensions between the company and the government, which peaked earlier this year, have eased considerably, Agrawal’s appointment, say officials of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, is expected to douse the fire further.
“The ministry is much more than just about social media intermediaries or Internet regulation. We are hopeful that with this (appointment), things will be more positive in coming times,” said the official. Twitter India refused to comment on Agrawal’s appointment or his role in the company.
Like the current crop of Indian-American tech bosses — among them IBM Chairman and CEO Arvind Krishna; Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella; Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai; and Adobe Chairman, president and CEO Shantanu Narayen — Agrawal too will have to be “smart and clever in his meetings and dealings with the Indian government”, said an industry executive who has worked in the Silicon Valley.
However, as CEO of the company, Twitter’s India operations will only be a small part of what Agrawal surveys. He will be watched for how he steers the company and its policies while focusing on the company’s financial performance and technological innovations.
A big test will also be how he navigates hot-button issues — including “misinformation” on the platform — in a highly polarised political environment. Across the world, while some want Twitter to do more to address misinformation and hate speech on the platform, others have accused it of censorship.
Agrawal got a taste of what awaits him when, soon after his appointment as CEO, an old tweet of his was dug out by conservatives who accused him of racial bias.
A relatively more innocuous tweet of his is from 2018, when an employee of the platform had quoted him as saying, “For most problems you encounter someone else has encountered a similar problem and has probably built a solution that you can re-use, modify or be inspired by. So try to be lazy and make use of those solutions.”