June 16, 2024
Sam Altman back at OpenAI: The craziest five days in Silicon Valley history | The DeanBeat

OpenAI has rotated through four CEOs in five days. I think that qualifies as the craziest five days in Silicon Valley history. Now fired CEO Sam Altman is back as the CEO of OpenAI again.

When the OpenAI board first fired Sam Altman as its CEO on the Friday before Thanksgiving, it might have thought the news would be quiet. It is, after all, one of the quietest news days of the business year. It named CTO Mira Murati as its new interim CEO.

But a storm erupted on social media. No one understood why the board would fire what seemed to be a popular CEO who helped trigger the generative AI revolution just a year ago with the release of ChatGPT. That made it seem like the board that fired Steve Jobs from Apple.

On its face, the OpenAI firing seemed to me like one of the worst board moves of all time. Of course, Jobs was pretty unpopular at the time he was fired by CEO John Sculley and Apple was struggling in the market. It took years for Jobs to gain back his role as CEO of Apple, after he had matured as a leader.


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Still, the comparison could be made that it made no sense to fire someone who was changing the world. Employees and other allies of Altman unsuccessfully tried to reinstate him over the weekend.

Then on Sunday the OpenAI board named Emmett Shear as its new interim CEO, immediately demoting Murati back to her earlier role. The board went through a few candidates before it found one that said yes, and then it turned out that Shear had a lot of publicly available tweets that were pretty questionable.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, stepped in personally over the weekend and hired Altman and colleague Greg Brockman to establish an AI research arm with as many people from the OpenAI team who would join him. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, swooped in to try to entice OpenAI employees to join an AI think tank at his firm.

By Monday, Ilya Sutsever tweeted that he deeply regretted his participation in the board’s actions in firing Altman, saying he never intended to harm OpenAI. He doesn’t mention that he is on the board. Hmmm. Nobody seemed to be a big fan of Shear. At this time, more than 700 of the 770 employees of OpenAI said they would quit if Altman wasn’t reinstated.

Microsoft’s Nadella seemed unsure what was going to happen. In an interview with Emily Chang on Bloomberg, he said that he would work with Altman if he came to Microsoft, or he would work with Altman if he was reinstated at OpenAI. But he really didn’t know what would happen. It looks like Nadella, smiling through the interview, is about to crack up while on air while Chang makes her best face at bafflement.

“No matter where Sam is, he is working with Microsoft,” Nadella said.

Sustkever was one of the people at OpenAI who signed the open letter demanding that the board step down — of which he is a member.

Shear said that the board had not yet told him why it fired Altman, and that he would insist that he got the explanation in writing before moving forward. By this time, it felt like this was a Silicon Valley episode on Max (formerly HBO). Or a Silicon Valley movie.

And then about an hour ago, the board announced that Altman was back with new additions to the board. If there weren’t a lot of careers on the line and jobs at stake — and perhaps the fate of the world considering the importance of OpenAI’s work in the pursuit of artificial intelligence — this would be high comedy.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody.

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