November 30, 2023

Less than 72 hours after the board of ChatGPT maker OpenAI ousted CEO Sam Altman, more than 500 employees of the 700-employee company threatened to quit unless the board of directors themselves stepped down and reinstated Altman as their boss.

What would move them to take such a stand? Well, it helps that they appear to have jobs waiting for them at Microsoft, which scooped up Altman and Greg Brockman, who resigned as OpenAI’s president in the wake of Altman’s departure, to have them lead a new advanced AI research team for Microsoft.

“We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote on X on Sunday night, ahead of the stock market’s opening the next day. (Microsoft shares, which slipped in after-hours trading on Friday following the news of Altman’s dismissal, has recovered and rose 2.05% in Monday’s session.)

But the threat of mass resignation at OpenAI no doubt also says something about Altman himself.

What makes Sam Altman such a valued leader in tech?

Since the release of ChatGPT nearly a year ago, Altman, a serial entrepreneur and investor, has established himself as a public-facing CEO. His outreach to regulators and world leaders has been well-received, earning him a reputation of friendliness and cooperativeness that has eluded other big tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Previously, at the tech accelerator Y Combinator, he mentored other startup founders, which requires being able to listen to people’s needs, a skill that perhaps also sets him apart from many other tech CEOs.

Luis Videgaray, a professor at MIT Sloan and a former finance minister of Mexico, said he has had several conversations with Altman, including one about financial systems and fintech. Not all of Altman’s predictions from that conversation came true, but some of them did, Videgaray said, adding, “He thinks about the future—not in an abstract way, but actually how to build the future and get there.”

Perhaps underscoring his having an eye toward the future, Altman was asked to leave Y Combinator several years ago after spending more time on other business ventures including OpenAI.

Why did OpenAI fire Sam Altman?

It’s still unclear why the board of OpenAI lost confidence in Altman; Altman had reportedly been talking with Apple’s former chief design officer, Jony Ive, about creating an AI hardware device, as The Information reported, and was seeking investors for a chip company, as reported by Bloomberg.

OpenAI, which has built the most advanced large-language model powering AI chatbots, had recently been in talks to raise funds that would boost the company’s valuation to $80 billion. Google, Amazon, and other big names in tech have been racing to stay competitive with the Altman-led upstart.

The management upheaval at OpenAI now provides another opportunity for competitors to catch up. In response to the turmoil, some AI startup founders took to posting reminders about their open positions. And Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff offered to employ any OpenAI researcher immediately.

What’s next for OpenAI?

With employees upset, and with Microsoft’s CEO having swiftly brought Altman into the fold of the tech giant, it raises the question of whether Microsoft could essentially absorb all of OpenAI’s talent. In the letter to the board, OpenAI employees said that Microsoft has offered positions for all of them on the new research team. The tech giant already has invested billions of dollars into OpenAI, so it certainly has the motivation to not let scarce AI talent leave its ecosystem.

Meanwhile, OpenAI has named Emmett Shear, formerly the CEO of Twitch, as interim CEO of OpenAI. He replaces Mira Murati, OpenAI’s chief technology officer, who was put in the interim CEO role when Altman was ousted.

In a post on X, Shear noted the mission-drivenness of OpenAI’s employees and made sure to note that OpenAI’s partnership with Microsoft remains strong.

Reading into the emojis of the past 72-hour saga at OpenAI

Following the announcement from OpenAI’s board to fire Altman from the company late Friday east coast time, Greg Brockman, OpenAI’s president, resigned shortly after.

Over the weekend, OpenAI employees and a who’s who of Silicon Valley showed their support for Altman on social media. Their support came even if they didn’t know the board’s exact reasons for ousting Altman, who was responsible for bringing on many of OpenAI’s key employees. “i love the openai team so much,” Altman posted the day after he was fired.

Today, Murati and chief operating officer Brad Lightcap, among other OpenAI employees, posted a unified message: “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” In response, Altman responded with a heart emoji.

Following the show of support for Altman, Ilya Sutskever, co-founder and chief scientist at OpenAI—as well as one of the board’s members—posted this on X: “I deeply regret my participation in the board’s actions. I never intended to harm OpenAI. I love everything we’ve built together and I will do everything I can to reunite the company.”

In response, Altman wrote: “❤️❤️❤️”.

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