Return of the King: Altman Reclaims OpenAI Throne

After a days-long internal struggle unfolded publicly, fired OpenAI CEO Sam Altman returns after a failed coup.

Shane Snider , Senior Writer, InformationWeek

November 22, 2023

3 Min Read
Sam Altman, OpenAI CEO, joins the Technical University of Munich (TUM) for a panel discussion.
Sam Altman, seen here arriving in Munich for a panel discussion earlier this year, has returned to OpenAI after being fired.dpa picture alliance via Alamy Stock

To quote The Wire, “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

A drama-filled week ended early Wednesday morning as ousted OpenAI CEO Sam Altman took the reins of the company once again and all but one of the board members responsible for the firing will exit.

In one of Silicon Valley’s biggest dramas in recent years, OpenAI’s board of directors gave in to an overwhelming majority of employees calling for Altman’s return. Backed into a corner after a bold move from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella threatened to sap the company’s top talent, the board relented after days of back-and-forth negotiations.

The deal will place new board members Bret Taylor, former Salesforce co-CEO, and former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers at the helm of the Microsoft-backed startup. Taylor will become the new board chair.

“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. When I decided to join [Microsoft] with the new board and with Satya’s support, I’m looking forward to returning to OpenAI, and building on our strong partnership with [Microsoft],” Altman wrote in a post on X, where much of the drama had been unfolding. (InformationWeek has edited the quote for grammar and clarity).

Related:OpenAI’s Dysfunctional Thanksgiving: 5 Key Players in Coup Drama

Nadella also took to X to applaud the developments.

“We believe this is a first essential step on a path to more stable, well-informed, and effective governance,” Nadella wrote. “Sam, Greg and I have talked and agreed they have a key role to play along with the [OpenAI] leadership team in ensuring [OpenAI] continues to thrive and build on its mission. We look forward to building on our strong partnership and delivering the value of this next generation of AI to our customers and partners.”

Microsoft stock was up 1.10% to $377.10 in pre-market trading.

The fate of co-founder Ilya Sutskever, OpenAI’s chief scientist and one of the board members voting to fire Altman and remove board chair Greg Brockman, is unknown. Sutskever had a change of heart after twice voting Altman out of the CEO job. A story in the Wall Street Journal said Sutskever’s close relationship with Brockman and his wife (Sutskever served as officiant at the couple’s wedding) led to him joining calls to reinstate Altman.

Brockman took to X to post a selfie surrounded by a crowd of OpenAI employees. “We are so back,” he wrote.

OpenAI’s structure as a non-profit with a capped-profit parent company created a unique board of directors without the usual representation from investors or stakeholders. The company was founded in 2015 by Sutskever and Brockman -- with Altman and Tesla CEO Elon Musk among the original investors. The company was initially founded with a mission of creating advanced AI to benefit humanity.

Related:OpenAI Investors Mulling Lawsuit After Altman Firing: Report

In 2019, Altman created the for-profit arm of the company that would go on to reap rewards from juggernaut chatbot ChatGPT. Reports said much of the in-fighting was due to conflicting goals about commercialization versus safety.

The drama started Friday, with OpenAI’s shocking late-afternoon announcement that Altman would be replaced by CTO Mira Murati. Reports said Microsoft leadership, which had pledged more than $10 billion to the company, was caught off guard by the announcement. The next day, after outcry from investors and from within OpenAI, the company seemed to be entertaining the idea of bringing Altman back. Altman even showed up to OpenAI with a guest badge to participate in negotiations. The board instead appointed Twitch co-founder Emmet Shear to the interim CEO position.

Nadella then stepped in to announce he was hiring Altman and Brockman, along with several other key OpenAI leaders to start an in-house AI group at Microsoft. After that, almost all of OpenAI’s 770 employees signed a letter calling for the board’s removal and Altman’s reinstatement, threatening to leave the company. The letter was signed by brief interim CEO Mira Murati, and Sutskever, in a stunning reversal that seemed to seal the board’s fate.

Related:Weekend OpenAI Drama Ends with Huge Microsoft Power Play

Altman has agreed to an investigation into the events that led to the coup. 

About the Author(s)

Shane Snider

Senior Writer, InformationWeek, InformationWeek

Shane Snider is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of industry experience. He started his career as a general assignment reporter and has covered government, business, education, technology and much more. He was a reporter for the Triangle Business Journal, Raleigh News and Observer and most recently a tech reporter for CRN. He was also a top wedding photographer for many years, traveling across the country and around the world. He lives in Raleigh with his wife and two children.

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