Over the last five days, the AI world has been shaken by the firing of OpenAI’s co-founder, Sam Altman. OpenAI’s board pushed him out over what they stated were serious communication issues. But it now appears it had more to do with Altman’s speed of releasing new ChatGPT AI functions without completely informing the board, and the board was concerned these new releases were not appropriately vetted in light of their potential impact.
Within a day of the Altman firing, rumors circulated that there were talks of bringing him back, as the OpenAI board found themselves in a beehive of news and primarily negative feedback about what they had done.
By late Saturday, the comparisons of Altman’s firing to Apple’s firing of Steve Jobs began circulating and gaining steam. The pro-Altman crowd hoped for a similar resolution and wanted to see Altman return to the company and drive it to greater glory, as Steve Jobs did for Apple.
But by Monday morning, that dream had died. OpenAI brought in Emmett Shear, co-founder of Twitch, as Interim CEO. Altman and former OpenAI president Greg Brockman joined Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team at the company.
I am sure there will be more details about this earth-shaking development at OpenAI, and more news related to this situation rolling out over the weeks to come.
However, it is essential to look at this and understand that there is no comparison between Steve Jobs’s firing in 1984 and Altman’s firing from OpenAI last week.
Although Jobs was the visionary and spiritual leader at Apple, he was highly immature as a leader in the early days of Apple. His charisma and visions helped Apple’s exponential growth with the introduction of the Apple 1 and 2 personal computers, and the Mac looked like it could be another big hit for the company.
However, Apple’s board felt that Job’s ability to lead the company in the future and his often erratic leadership style would hinder Apple’s growth, so they decided to minimize his leadership role. Jobs did not accept this decision and instead left the company altogether.
In Altman’s case, he is nothing like the 1984 Steve Jobs. Altman displayed excellent leadership skills and a great vision for the company and understood how to drive the company forward. While his communication with the board could have been an issue, it should have been resolved internally without the drastic move to fire him. The firing of Altman will go down as one of the greatest blunders in modern business.
Ironically, that was the same sentiment about Apple’s board when they fired Jobs. However, I had many encounters with Jobs pre-1984 and saw firsthand how he yelled at and treated some of his key employees. While he was a great motivator, many of his employees acted more out of fear of him than from his visionary inspiration.
After Jobs left Apple, he started NeXT Computer, a company with only marginal success. He was still immature as a leader, and I saw him chew out a top executive in front of a large crowd of employees at NeXT. At that point, it seemed clear that he still had not learned how to lead, which impacted the ultimate success of NeXt.
However, the NeXT experience, or what I call his wandering in the wilderness experience, matured him; when he returned to Apple in 1997, he was a different person. I met with him the second day he came back to Apple to lead it, and after that meeting, I remember saying to myself that this was not the same guy I dealt with in his early days at Apple. He seemed more humbled, focused, and ready to lead a company that, at the time, was $1 billion in the red and close to bankruptcy.
Altman’s firing from OpenAI cannot be compared to Jobs’ firing in 1984. Altman has the leadership skills that could continue to help the company grow. Could he ever come back to OpenAI? That could be possible, although he would likely be better off creating new AI products for Microsoft.
But remember, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was because Apple was in dire straits and was in serious trouble. If Altman does return to OpenAI, let’s hope it has yet to get to that level of failure that he needs a Jobisian-like miracle to save the company.