Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, and co-founder Greg Brockman were fired by the board of directors. This led to an uproar within the company. Indeed, more than 500 of OpenAI’s 700 employees voiced their concerns in an open letter to the remaining board members, threatening to jump ship if they did not resign and reinstate Altman.

While this was initially perceived by many as the beginning of the end of OpenAI and a great drawback to AI development overall, just 5 days later, OpenAI “reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO with a new initial board.”

The stated official reason for Sam’s dismissal was his “lack of candor” in communications with the board and leadership controversies. That said, can we really accept this as the truth? OpenAI’s new board, led by Bret Taylor, has initiated an independent investigation into what went wrong. As we wait for this investigation to come to a close, all that’s left to do is explore the various theories* on the true motives behind Altman’s firing.

* Please note that none of these theories have been confirmed in any way, and this article is purely based on conjectures or rumors that we personally believe may hold some truth. We, like most of our co-investors, still believe AI is one of the most promising industries, and OpenAI, in particular, is one of the world’s most outstanding companies.

The power-struggle roller coaster for leadership in the AI race

Kara Swisher, an American journalist and a legendary Silicon Valley tech reporter, dug into the situation and reported on what she heard from within the company while providing her own insights via a series of threads on X (formerly Twitter):

Theory #1 – Coup chronicles or the pursuit of money against common sense

Sources tell me that the profit direction of the company under Altman and the speed of development, which could be seen as too risky, and the nonprofit side dedicated to more safety and caution were at odds. One person on the Sam side called it a “coup,” while another said it was the right move. This seems more plausible, but the tech community is also rife with rumors of all kinds, some really out there. A lot of questionable incomings, for sure.
— Kara Swisher

Theory #2 – The Sutskever factor: A conflict that reached a climax

Sources tell me chief scientist Ilya Sutskever was at the center of this. Increasing tensions with Sam Altman and Greg Brockman over role and influence and he got the board on his side. [...] The developer day and how the store was introduced was in inflection moment of Altman pushing too far, too fast. My bet: He’ll have a new company up by Monday.
​​— Kara Swisher

Theory #3 – Altman unmasked: The board confrontation over the CEO’s alleged manipulation and unyielding behavior

The board members who voted against Altman felt he was manipulative and headstrong and wanted to do what he wanted to do. That sounds like a typical Silicon Valley CEO to me, but this might not be a typical Silicon Valley company. They certainly have a lot of explaining to do. Would be eager to hear actual specifics of their concerns and also evidence that they tried to inform him if they had problems and gave him a chance to respond and change. If not, it looks cloddish.
— Kara Swisher

Regarding Sutskever’s role and reports that Altman has been exploring outside business endeavors for some time, The Verge’s Alex Heath seems to have heard a similar story:

Like Kara Swisher, I’ve heard that Sutskever, who leads the OpenAI’s research team – and not the applied side of the house that brings products to market – was instrumental in the ousting of Altman and that this all went down very recently. [...] Altman was recently talking to Jony Ive about doing something in AI and consumer hardware, though no company has been formed [...] Logic says that, ultimately, this was a battle over two warring factions. Sutskever, who has been steadily beating the drum about the dangers of superintelligent AI, seems to have won.
— The Verge

In this respect, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sutskever was the person who told Altman that he’d been fired.

An immediate response – how did it all end?

Despite everything, Altman and Brockman were willing to return to OpenAI if the remaining board members who axed Altman stepped down:

The promised mass exodus of virtually every OpenAI employee — including board member and chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, who led the initial move to depose Altman! — means that there is more pressure on the board than ever, with only two of the three remaining members needing to flip. Altman posted on X that “we are all going to work together some way or other,” which we are told is meant to indicate that the fight continues. [...] Altman, former president Brockman, and the company’s investors are still trying to find a graceful exit for the board, say multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation. The sources characterized the hiring announcement by Microsoft, which needed to have a resolution to the crisis before the stock market opened on Monday, as a ‘holding pattern.’
The Verge

Altman — backed by leading shareholders in OpenAI, including Microsoft and Thrive Capital — wanted the entire board replaced as a condition for his return and had already started making plans to start a new company with other newly departed OpenAI employees.

Nevertheless, soon after Altman was fired, OpenAI investors launched an effort to get Altman reinstated, and the board began talking to Altman about bringing him back, even though he was reportedly “ambivalent” about returning and demanded significant governance changes should he return.

The threat of a mass exodus by OpenAI employees, including Sutskever, applied immense pressure for a complete board overhaul. This tug-of-war between the departing employees and the remaining board members ultimately led to Altman’s reinstatement.

Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI
Source: CNBC

Some of the board called me and asked if I’d be up for talking about it. And my immediate reaction was sort of one of defiance. It was like, “Man, I’m hurt and angry, and I think this sucks.” [...] And then, pretty immediately, I started thinking about, like, obviously, I really loved the company and had poured my life force into this for the last four and a half years full time, but really longer than that with most of my time. [...] It took me a few minutes to snap out of it and get over the ego and emotions to then be like, ‘Yeah, of course, I want to do that.’
— Sam Altman in an interview for The Verge

Moonshot Opinion

The turbulent sequence of events, steeped in uncertainty and speculation, led to a pivotal moment for the company. Altman’s return, although initially met with hesitance, heralds a semblance of stability and relief for investors, customers, and the AI community at large. With the crisis averted, OpenAI once again stands at the forefront of AI innovation, poised to continue shaping the future of technology.

It is important to remember that while visionaries play a crucial role in founding the company and during its formative years, the technology is later developed by hundreds, if not thousands, of engineers — not the top managers. A well-built enterprise consistently delivers innovations and financial results, even during times when top managers are figuring out the next steps. In the case of OpenAI, the company’s challenge at times is not the absence of visionaries or lack of good strategic options; it is the opposite — they have too many of both. To put things in perspective, it is helpful to note that OpenAI generated USD 1.6 billion in revenue in 2023, and the projections for 2024 are even more promising.

The saga of OpenAI’s leadership crisis serves as a cautionary tale, underscoring the intricate balance between innovation, corporate governance, and conflicting visions within the tech sphere. Even though the exact catalysts behind the turmoil remain veiled, the industry collectively breathes a sigh of relief, eagerly anticipating the next chapter in the relentless pursuit of AI advancements.

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