The Lamen

Timeline: How Sam Altman became the new, new CEO of OpenAI

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Inner turmoil at OpenAI led to a hell of a weekend, ending with almost the entire board stepping down after a rash decision to oust their CEO.

Photo: Bing Image Generator

Published on Nov 24, 2023

The hottest company in tech just went through a hell of a week: OpenAI CEO Sam Altman went from being fired, replaced, and hired by Microsoft, to being reinstated in a span of five days. The board’s decision to abruptly fire the superstar CEO was not immediately clear, and what followed was untethered turmoil behind the company walls.

Here’s a timeline of the events that panned out leading to OpenAI’s reshuffling.

November 17: Altman Out

Around this time last year, OpenAI became the most talked about company in tech — thrust under the spotlight thanks to its release of ChatGPT. This made CEO Sam Altman an overnight sensation, and inadvertently the face of the AI boom.

Fast forward to November 17, and the company’s board issued a statement saying that Sam Altman has been fired for not being “consistently candid in his communications with the board.”

  • The statement added that OpenAI president and board chairman Greg Brockman would be stepping down as board chairman but remain as president “as part of this transition.”
  • CTO Mira Murati will be serving as the interim CEO, effective immediately, while the company searches for a permanent successor to Altman.
  • Altman said in a post on X that his time at OpenAI “was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit.”
  • Greg Brockman announced that he would be quitting the company later that evening. “I’m super proud of what we’ve built together since starting in my apartment 8 years ago…. But based on today’s news, I quit,” his statement read.

In another post later that evening, Brockman said that he and Altman were notified by OpenAI co-founder and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever of their removal over Google Meet. “Sam and I are shocked and saddened by what the board did today,” Brockman wrote.

  • Even Microsoft — rumored to own 49 percent of OpenAI after pouring some $13 billion into the company — was blindsided by the board’s decision, reported Axios.
  • Soon after Altman and Brockman’s exit, three senior researchers at the company resigned — a sign of “immense disappointment” and “long-simmering divisions” over AI safety practices at the company, The Information reported.

November 18: Why was Altman fired?

Sam Altman wasn’t fired for “malfeasance” or any “financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices,” according to an internal memo Axios saw that was sent by COO Brad Lightcap.

We can say definitively that the board’s decision was not made in response to malfeasance or anything related to our financial, business, safety, or security/privacy practices. This was a breakdown in communication between Sam and the board.

  • Altman’s dismissal was reportedly fueled by the turmoil among the company’s two distinct ideologies — one that progressed toward rapid commercialization (Altman’s viewpoint), and the other that looked to walk the path of AI with caution.
  • Reports emerged that the ousting was likely orchestrated by chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who worried over the speed at which Altman moved toward commercializing the software.

A statement released by Microsoft said: “We have a long-term partnership with OpenAI and Microsoft remains committed to Mira and their team as we bring this next era of AI to our customers.”

  • However, Altman’s ousting “blindsided key investor and minority owner Microsoft,” making Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella “furious.”
  • Both Altman and Brockman were reportedly in talks with OpenAI about a return by Saturday afternoon.

Tensions between Altman and the company’s board had been continuing for more than a year, primarily due to the company’s unique structure.

  • OpenAI started out as a nonprofit in 2015 focused on creating artificial general intelligence that would benefit “humanity as a whole.”
  • In 2019, OpenAI launched a subsidiary with a “capped profit” model that would generate revenue but would remain under the nonprofit board’s control.

The board’s decision came as a result of withholding principle ahead of profits, as expressed in its charter: “Our primary fiduciary duty is to humanity.”

November 19: Last-Ditch Effort

Just a day after being ousted, ex-CEO’s supporters and OpenAI investors pressured the board into bringing Altman back — with Microsoft leading the charge, multiple sources reported.

  • Investors were also enthusiastic to invest if Altman were to start a new company — something the ex-CEO was reportedly considering.
  • OpenAI’s chief strategy officer Jason Kwon told employees that the company is “optimistic” about Altman and Brockman returning, promising a mid-morning update the following day.
  • Altman arrived back at the OpenAI building for the “first and last time” wearing a guest badge, implying that he would either return as CEO or walk away indubitably.

Altman had one big condition for his return in that the existing board had to step down — setting a 5 p.m. deadline for the board to submit to the demands. The discussions reached an impasse as the Sunday deadline was missed.

November 20: Mass Exodus and Big Wins for Microsoft (sort of)

After a weekend of failed negotiations, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella later announced the hiring of both Altman and Brockman to lead Microsoft’s new advanced AI research team — with Altman serving as CEO.

We’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success.

  • “The mission continues,” Altman responded.
  • The news came just a week after Microsoft unveiled its custom AI chip that can be used to train large language models (LLMs).

Just an hour later, OpenAI announced its new, new CEO: Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear.

  • Sheer accepted the “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” after reflecting on it for “just a few hours,” he posted on X.
  • He also outlined a three-point plan that involved hiring an independent investigator to generate a full report of the events that led to Altman’s firing.

I have a three point plan for the next 30 days:

– Hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.

– Continue to speak to as many of our employees, partners, investors, and customers as possible, take good notes, and share the key takeaways.

– Reform the management and leadership team in light of recent departures into an effective force to drive results for our customers.

Outside OpenAI’s calculations was a revolt where about 95 percent of the company’s employees signed an open letter — threatening mass resignations unless the current board resigned, reinstated Sam Altman as CEO, and appointed two new independent directors like Bret Taylor and Will Hurd.

  • Chief scientist Ilya Sutskever said that he “deeply regret[s] my participation in the board’s actions” and “will do everything I can to reunite the company.” He was also one of the signatories to the open letter.

Experts said that much of the resigning staff could join Altman and a team of renegade ex-OpenAI team at Microsoft — something Microsoft is optimistic about.

November 21: Altman’s Back at OpenAI

With the board yet to respond to the staff petition, news of Altman’s possible return to OpenAI surfaced again.

  • Interim CEO Emmett Shear reportedly threatened to resign unless the board could provide evidence of wrongdoing from Altman’s end — which led to the commencement of renegotiations.
  • Altman also wasn’t showing up in Microsoft’s corporate directory yet, which meant that things weren’t a done deal.

OpenAI confirmed that it had reached an “agreement in principle” for Sam Altman to return as CEO near 10 p.m. Tuesday, with a new initial board chaired by former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor.

  • Besides Taylor, the new board is composed of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and current board member Adam D’Angelo, co-founder of Quora.
  • The initial board will help vet and appoint a bigger permanent board, reported The Verge, which may include an executive from Microsoft, OpenAI’s largest investor.
  • Greg Brockman and others who quit in protest of Altman’s firing are set to return as well.

Altman’s response: “i love openai, and everything i’ve done over the past few days has been in service of keeping this team and its mission together…. with the new board and w satya’s support, i’m looking forward to returning to openai, and building on our strong partnership with msft.”

  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella referred to these changes as “a first step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance.”
  • Emmett Shear posted that he was “deeply pleased” by this result since it was “the pathway that maximized safety alongside doing right by all stakeholders involved.”

What’s next: The weeklong drama could make the European Union and other governments make faster moves toward regulating the technology — something that aligned with the first board’s vision.

  • With OpenAI retaining its structure, the higher-ups attract criticism over principles and commitments — since its CEOs can still be fired at a moment’s notice.
  • As it experienced a looming threat of implosion, the company could also pull back on its efforts of deployment.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article previously stated that Alman and Brockman are part of the new OpenAI board. We have since corrected the error. We regret the inconvenience.