Sam Altman returns to OpenAI as CEO amid ouster of board members

Altman is back in, while most of the board members are out.
Written by Lance Whitney, Contributor
Sam Altman
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Sam Altman is back as CEO of ChatGPT developer OpenAI, the company he co-founded in 2015. In a post on X, aka Twitter, OpenAI announced that it reached an agreement in principle for Sam Altman to return to OpenAI as CEO following his dismissal last week, and with a new board of directors.

The new board members will be former Salesforce co-CEO Bret Taylor as chair, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, and Quora CEO and existing board member Adam D'Angelo. Gone in the board shakeup are Ilya Sutskever, Helen Toner, and Tasha McCauley. All three had voted to dismiss Altman as CEO, as did D'Angelo.

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Altman's reinstatement as CEO comes just five days after OpenAI announced that he had been fired from the top role. To try to explain this sudden and surprising move, the company said only that following a review process it determined that Altman was not consistently candid in his communications with the board. As a result, "the board no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI."

Along with Altman's dismissal last week, fellow co-founder and president of OpenAI Greg Brockman would be exiting as chairman of the board but would remain with the company. (He later quit in protest over Altman's dismissal). Chief Technology Officer Mira Murati would serve as interim CEO as OpenAI would begin a search for a permanent CEO.

However, shortly after all that news hit last Friday, reports starting popping up on Saturday that the board was reconsidering its decision regarding Altman in the wake of pressure from investors and employees. And then Altman's employer quickly changed.

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By Monday, Altman and Brockman had both been hired (or at least in the process of being hired) by Microsoft to lead a new team working on advanced AI research. The fit seemed natural as Microsoft has been one of the key investors and partners for OpenAI. At the same time, OpenAI tapped Twitch co-founder and former CEO Emmett Shear as interim CEO, replacing Murati.

But wait - all those employees unhappy over Altman's ouster made their voices heard. On Monday, more than 500 of the company's 778 employees released an open letter to OpenAI's board of directors, threatening to resign and join Altman and Brockman at Microsoft if the two co-founders were not brought back. In the letter, the employees insisted that the current board members resign and be replaced by a board "that could lead the company forward in stability."

And now the obvious pressure on the company and the board has led to a reversal of last week's decision, while most of the board members now find themselves on the outs. One member has even expressed regrets over Altman's initial firing.

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"I deeply regret my participation in the board's actions," Sutskever said in a Monday post on X. "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 his own post, Altman alluded to his brief journey from OpenAI to Microsoft and then back to OpenAI. His decision to join Microsoft on Sunday was clearly the best path for him and his team, Altman said. But with the new board and with the support of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, he said that he was looking forward to returning to OpenAI and building on the company's strong partnership with Microsoft.

In its post announcing Altman's reinstatement, OpenAI added: "We are collaborating to figure out the details. Thank you so much for your patience through this."

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And figuring all this out should be high on the company's priority list. All the back-and-forth firings and misfirings haven't done OpenAI's reputation any good. Beyond upsetting employees, the moves have certainly worried investors, especially Microsoft.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV on Monday, Nadella said that he definitely wants changes at OpenAI in the way the company is governed.

"Surprises are bad and we just want to make sure that things are done in a way that will allow us to continue to partner well," Nadella added. "This idea that somehow suddenly changes happen without being in the loop is not good and we will definitely ensure that some of the changes that are needed happen and we continue to be able to go along with the partnership with OpenAI."

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