Whilst looking for some holiday reading on Amazon I came across “Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal ” by Nick Bilton. Like most people I’m vaguely aware that Twitter has had a smattering of CEOs, and that the legendary Jack Dorsey hit the big time through the revolutionary platform. The book follows the story from Twitters formative days as the podcasting company “Odeo” all the way through to Dick Costello taking over as CEO — a little behind the times now that he’s gone and Jack has returned as leader.
It is a genuinely fascinating story of big personalities and intriguing characters. The most notable outcome is the incredible amount of backstabbing that has gone on throughout the history of Twitter, with not one but two separate coups to oust founding members and replace CEOs. It’s amazing Twitter has survived as a company given not just the amount of turmoil but also how terribly it has been run as a firm. It’s fascinating just how quickly the world has forgotten the fail whale, Twitter’s mascot during site downtime which used to be a regular occurrence for the site’s users.
To give an idea of the scale, my favourite tale from the book is from when then CEO Ev Williams was asked to go on Oprah to help her write her first tweet. So concerned the team was that the site wouldn’t work during the show they created a dedicate “Oprah server”, so that even if the entire of Twitter went down it would still work for the queen of daytime TV. The book is littered with these tales of a team constantly fighting the oncoming tide of new users, a rare problem for any modern startup.
Much of Twitters formative years are shaped around this pattern. After taking what seemed like an age to get anyone to use the system the following growth explosion was unstoppable resulting in all hands on deck just to keep the ship floating. Despite this the book portrays a constant battle in the boardroom, normally revolving around Ev and his successive ousting of Noah Glass and Jack Dorsey. The book pulls no punches with it’s regards to the lead characters. Noah is painted as lonely and desperate to be liked throughout whilst Ev comes across as ruthless and obsessed with his own image. The worst is saved for Dorsey who is portrayed throughout as manipulative of both his friends, the firm and the media and almost sounds like an evil mastermind by the end of the book where he reclaims his place back in Twitter after years in exile.
The books characters make for a great story in and of itself, but it also has much to say to any geek or wannabe startup creator. After floundering for some time, Twitter then went on to achieve an incredible exponential growth with huge valuations despite zero revenue, the likes of which will never be seen again. This was all done with a failing tech stack, a pool of cash that repeatedly dried up, and a constant battle between the leadership about what twitter should be about. In the often difficult balance between building well and building quickly. Should time be spent shoring up dodgy infrastructure and rewriting core systems, or instead spent adding new features at the expense of performance and reputation? The story of Twitter is very much one of a firm simply struggling to keep the lights on most of the time despite its huge success and the battle between features and stability, eventually won by stability but not before several years of packing the features onto a system built on unstable foundations.
Whilst I would love to see an updated version with the latest happenings at the firm, Hatching Twitter stands its ground as a fascinating insight into the firm. Whilst the writing is somewhat dramatic in places for a non fiction book, I can highly recommend this to any nerd.