OpenAI is experiencing a significant internal crisis following the abrupt dismissal of its co-founder and CEO, Sam Altman. This situation has led to a potential mass exodus of employees, casting a shadow over the future of the AI organization.
The upheaval commenced with the unexpected removal of Sam Altman and Greg Brockman from their leadership roles. This move has sparked a significant backlash among the employees, leading over 700 of the company’s approximately 750 staff members to threaten departure unless the current board, including Chief Scientist Ilya Sutskever, steps down and reinstates the ousted leaders.
There are now over 700 signers and counting (out of ~750 employees) to our letter calling for unity & board ouster. The 550 the media reported was just the signatures we could get between 1:30am and 5am PT last night. This was everyone staying up and calling each other in support https://t.co/CZ4jEcHmDV
— Evan Morikawa (@E0M) November 20, 2023
Employee revolt and leadership vacuum
The employees’ revolt against the board’s decision is rooted in what they perceive as a lack of competent leadership. In a strongly worded letter to the board, they expressed, “Your actions have made it obvious that you are incapable of overseeing OpenAI.”
The signatories, including Ilya Sutskever, voiced their inability to align with leadership, which lacks “competence, judgment, and care for our mission and employees.”
Microsoft’s intervention and new leadership dynamics
CEO Satya Nadella announced he was hiring Altman and Greg Brockman to lead a new AI research team at Microsoft. This step is part of Microsoft’s ongoing investment in AI, which includes a previous $13 billion investment in OpenAI.
I’m super excited to have you join as CEO of this new group, Sam, setting a new pace for innovation. We’ve learned a lot over the years about how to give founders and innovators space to build independent identities and cultures within Microsoft, including GitHub, Mojang Studios,…
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) November 20, 2023
Microsoft’s involvement has offered an alternative for some OpenAI employees considering their options. The possibility of these employees moving to Microsoft, where they would join Altman and Brockman, might change the dynamics in the AI field, as Microsoft could gain from the added skills and knowledge.
Furthermore, the stock market has shown a positive reaction to these events. Microsoft’s shares experienced an increase after an initial drop, influenced by the market’s anticipation of Microsoft potentially gaining greater access to OpenAI’s resources and technology.
The board’s decision to appoint Emmett Shear, former CEO of Twitch, as Altman’s replacement adds another layer to the unfolding drama. Shear, acknowledging the internal discord, has committed to hiring an independent investigator to review the events leading to the leadership crisis. In an early statement, he acknowledged,
“It’s clear that the process and communications around Sam’s removal have been handled very badly, which has seriously damaged our trust.”
The board’s firm stance amidst growing dissent
Despite the escalating tension and dissatisfaction among the workforce, the OpenAI board remains firm in its decision to remove Altman, citing a lack of candor in his communications with the board.
A person close to the board’s deliberations shared, “There was no single precipitating incident but rather a mounting loss of trust over communications with Altman that led to his removal as CEO.” This stance is maintained despite pressure from significant investors, including Microsoft and venture capital firm Thrive Capital.
In their letter, the employees further demanded adding two independent board members. They emphasized the need for leadership that aligns with their vision and values. They added an ultimatum to join Altman and Brockman at Microsoft if their unmet demands could significantly impact OpenAI’s talent pool and future projects.