Sam Altman’s surprise move to Microsoft after his shock firing at OpenAI isn’t a done deal. He and co-founder Greg Brockman are still willing to return to OpenAI if the remaining board members who fired him step aside, multiple sources tell The Verge.
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.”
A spokesperson for Microsoft declined to comment.
Update November 20th, 6:18PM ET: After this story was published, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella appeared on CNBC and Bloomberg TV. When asked directly by CNBC’s Jon Fortt if Sam Altman and OpenAI’s staffers would join Microsoft, Nadella said “that is for the OpenAI board and management and employees to choose.” He followed by saying that Microsoft “chose to explicitly partner with OpenAI [and] obviously that depends on the people at OpenAI staying there or coming to Microsoft, so I’m open to both options.”
On the topic of whether Microsoft needs a seat on OpenAI’s board, he said that “it’s clear something has to change around the governance — we will have a good dialogue with their board on that, and walk through that as that evolves.”
On Bloomberg TV, Nadella told Emily Chang that “surprises are bad” and Microsoft will “definitely want some governance changes. This idea that changes happen without being in the loop is not good.” When Chang asked who OpenAI’s CEO would be tomorrow, Nadella laughed and said “I will leave it with OpenAI and its board.”
Here’s the rest of our original story:
After Altman was suddenly fired on Friday, negotiations with the board to potentially bring him back reached a stalemate. While OpenAI’s management team and investors were vetting candidates to replace the board for Altman’s potential return, the board was quietly conducting its own CEO search in parallel. Late Sunday, the board announced that Emmett Shear, the co-founder of Twitch, would be CEO, seemingly putting an end to the possibility of Altman coming back.
Employees responded to the news of a new CEO in OpenAI’s Slack with a ‘fuck you’ emoji
There has been a nonstop power struggle inside OpenAI since Friday, with nearly all employees against the now three-person board that opposes Altman. Employees at the company’s San Francisco headquarters refused to attend an emergency all-hands scheduled on Sunday with new CEO Emmett Shear, according to a person familiar with the matter, who added that they responded to the announcement in OpenAI’s Slack with a “fuck you” emoji.
Later that evening, Sutskever flipped on the board, even though he had played a key role in the ousting of Altman just days earlier. His name was on an open letter to the board on Monday calling for them to resign and reinstate Altman, which nearly the whole company has now signed.
On Monday, employees started posting on social media that they are continuing to keep the lights on and maintain service stability for OpenAI’s developers, which we’re told is being done to ensure the company doesn’t fully implode while the board is pressured to resign.
New CEO Emmett Shear has so far been unable to get written documentation of the board’s detailed reasoning for firing Altman, which also hasn’t been shared with the company’s investors, according to people familiar with the situation. He said in a note to employees Sunday night that his first order of business would be to “hire an independent investigator to dig into the entire process leading up to this point and generate a full report.”
Moments after this story was first published, Altman said in another X post that his “top priority remains to ensure openai continues to thrive,” and that he and Microsoft “are committed to fully providing continuity of operations to our partners and customers.”
It’s not clear how going to Microsoft with over 700 former OpenAI employees is compatible with ensuring OpenAI continues to thrive, or how that can be reasonably set as a priority for those former employees once they are working at Microsoft. Also: Altman is not in Microsoft’s internal corporate directory yet.
The remaining board holdouts who oppose Altman are Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo, former GeoSim Systems CEO Tasha McCauley, and Helen Toner, the director of strategy at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. They have so far not responded to The Verge’s requests for comment.