Monday, November 28, 2022

Here’s how a Twitter engineer says it will break in the coming weeks

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This is particularly problematic, says Krueger, for a site like Twitter, which can have unforeseen spikes in user traffic and interest at random. Krueger compares Twitter to online retail sites, where companies can prepare for big traffic events like Black Friday with some predictability. “When it comes to Twitter, they have the possibility of having a Black Friday on any given day at any time of the day,” says Krueger. “At any given day, some news event can happen that can have significant impact on the conversation.” That’s harder to do when you lay off up to 80% of your SREs—a figure Krueger says has been bandied about within the industry but which MIT Technology Review has been unable to confirm. The engineer agreed that percentage sounded “plausible”.

The current Twitter engineer doesn’t see a route out of the issue—other than reversing the layoffs (which the company has reportedly already attempted to roll back somewhat.) “If we’re going to be pushing at a breakneck pace, then things will break,” he says. “There’s no way around that. We’re accumulating technical debt much faster than before—almost as fast as we’re accumulating financial debt.” 

The list grows longer

He presents a dystopian future where issues pile up as the backlog of maintenance tasks and fixes grows longer and longer. “Things will be broken. Things will be broken more often. Things will be broken for longer periods of time. Things will be broken in more severe ways,” he says. “Everything will compound until eventually, it’s not usable.”

Twitter’s collapse into an unusable wreck is some time off, the engineer says, but the telltale signs of process rot setting in are already there. It starts with the small things: “Bugs in whatever part of whatever client they’re using; whatever service in the backend they’re trying to use,” the engineer says. “They’ll be small annoyances to start, but as the backend fixes are being delayed, things will accumulate until people will eventually just give up.”

Krueger says that Twitter won’t blink out of life, but that we’ll start to see a greater number of tweets not loading, and accounts coming into and out of existence seemingly at a whim. “I would expect anything that’s writing data on the backend to possibly have slowness, timeouts, and a lot more subtle types of failure conditions,” says Krueger. “But they’re often more insidious. And they also generally take a lot more effort to track down and resolve. If you don’t have enough engineers, that’s going to be a significant problem.” 

The juddering manual retweets and faltering follower counts are indications that this is already happening. Twitter engineers have designed failsafes that the platform can fall back on so that the functionality doesn’t go totally offline, but instead provides cut-down versions—that’s what we’re seeing, says Krueger.

Alongside the minor malfunctions, the Twitter engineer also believes that there’ll be significant outages on the horizon, thanks in part to Musk’s cost-cutting drive to reduce Twitter’s cloud computing server load as an attempt to claw back up to $3 million a day in infrastructure costs. Reuters reports that project, which came from Musk’s war room, is called the “Deep Cuts Plan”. One of Reuters’ sources called the plans “delusional”, while University of Surrey cybersecurity professor Alan Woodward says that “unless they’ve massively overengineered the current system, the risk of poorer capacity and availability seems a logical conclusion.”

Brain drain

Meanwhile, when things do go kaput, there’s no longer the institutional knowledge within to quickly fix issues as they arise. “A lot of the people I saw who were leaving after Friday have been there nine, 10, 11 years, which is just ridiculous for a tech company,” says the Twitter engineer. As those individuals walked out of Twitter offices, decades of knowledge about how its systems worked disappeared with them. (Those within Twitter, and those watching from the sidelines, have previously argued Twitter’s knowledge base is overly concentrated in the minds of a handful of programmers, some of whom have been fired.)





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