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From Stanford dropout to doomsday prepper, who is Sam Altman, the ousted CEO of OpenAI?

Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (AP)
Former OpenAI CEO Sam Altman (AP)

It is a saga which has sent shockwaves around the tech industry. On Friday, Sam Altman, the former CEO of OpenAI, was abruptly ousted from the firm’s board, citing a failure to be “candid in his communications”.

The 38-year-old reportedly received a text from a fellow board member inviting him to an impromptu video call, whereupon Altman was told he had been fired. As one JPMorgan analyst described it in a note on his firing: “Ctrl, Altman, Delete”.

“Today was a weird experience in many ways,” Altman later posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"I loved my time at OpenAI. It was transformative for me personally, and hopefully the world a little bit. Most of all, I loved working with such talented people," he added. "Will have more to say about what's next later."

However, in another unexpected turn of events, OpenAI’s investors – who include Microsoft – then began pushing for Altman's reinstatement. The Verge, a tech news website, reported that Altman was at OpenAI’s offices at the weekend for the “final stretch” of negotiations over his return.In a memo circulated to OpenAI staff on Saturday night, chief strategy officer Jason Kwon said he was “optimistic” that Altman would return, according to the Financial Times and The Information. On Sunday, Altman posted a picture of himself on X wearing an OpenAI guest badge with the caption: “First and last time I ever wear one of these.”

But, after a weekend of intense boardroom drama, news came on Monday morning that the bid to get Altman back had failed. Instead, Microsoft, OpenAI's lead investor, has hired Altman as head of the new advanced artificial intelligence team.

Altman led OpenAI through a period of immense growth. Thanks to its hugely popular ChatGPT chatbot, which hit 100 million regular users within weeks of its launch, the San Francisco start-up was at the center of an AI boom. Microsoft injected $10 billion in funding into the company, and it was reportedly valued at $90 billion.

​​The success saw Altman become one of the most recognisable faces in tech, shooting to stardom alongside the likes of celebrity entrepreneurs Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

So, from Stanford dropout to doomsday prepper, who is the young tech entrepreneur, and why was he so abruptly ousted from OpenAI?

A childhood tech prodigy and a young LGBT pioneer

By nursery school, Altman understood the system behind area codes, and learned to program and disassemble a Macintosh at eight (Getty)
By nursery school, Altman understood the system behind area codes, and learned to program and disassemble a Macintosh at eight (Getty)

As a young Jewish boy growing up in St Louis, Missouri, it didn't take long for Altman's technical prowess to become apparent.

By nursery school, he understood the system behind area codes, and had learned to program and disassemble a Macintosh at eight, according to the New Yorker.

Having a Mac computer also helped Altman come to terms with his sexuality. “Growing up gay in the Midwest in the two-thousands was not the most awesome thing,” he the New Yorker. “And finding AOL chat rooms was transformative. Secrets are bad when you’re eleven or twelve.”

He came out to his parents at sixteen. After a Christian group boycotted an assembly about sexuality at his school, Altman announced that he was gay to all the pupils, and asked whether they wanted it to be a repressive or welcoming place.

“What Sam did changed the school,” Altman’s college counsellor told the New Yorker. “It felt like someone had opened up a great big box full of all kinds of kids and let them out into the world.”

The Stanford dropout to tech entrepreneur pipeline

Altman spent two years at Stanford, before following the well-trodden tech entrepreneur path of dropping out of college to work full-time (Getty Images)
Altman spent two years at Stanford, before following the well-trodden tech entrepreneur path of dropping out of college to work full-time (Getty Images)

Altman went on to enrol at Stanford University. He spent two years studying computer science, before following the well-trodden tech entrepreneur path of dropping out of college to work full-time.

He founded Loopt with two of his classmates, a mobile app that told your friends where you were. One of Altman’s co-founders at Loopt, Nick Sivo, was also his boyfriend – the two dated for nine years.

The first summer after Altman dropped out of college, he worked so tirelessly that he got scurvy. Loopt was part of the first group of eight companies at start-up accelerator Y Combinator. Each start-up got $6,000 per founder - Loopt was in the same batch as Reddit.

As CEO, Altman raised more than $30 million in venture capital for Loopt. However, the app failed to gain traction with enough users.

“We had the optimistic view that location would be all-important,” Altman told the New Yorker. “The pessimistic view was that people would lie on their couches and just consume content — and that is what happened. I learned you can’t make humans do something they don’t want to do.”

Altman and his co-founders sold Loopt in 2012 for $43 million.

Shortly after selling Loopt, Altman and Sivo split up. “I thought I was going to marry him — very in love with him,” Altman admitted.

Taking over at the helm of start-up investor Y Combinator

In 2014, at the age of 28, Altman was chosen by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham to succeed him as president of the company (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)
In 2014, at the age of 28, Altman was chosen by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham to succeed him as president of the company (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

After Loopt, Altman founded a venture fund called Hydrazine Capital, and raised $21 million. He invested 75 per cent of that money into YC companies, the parent company of Y Combinator.

In 2014, at the age of 28, Altman was chosen by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham to succeed him as president of the company. In a 2014 blog post, Altman said that the total valuation of Y Combinator companies had surpassed $65 billion, including Airbnb, Dropbox, Zenefits, and Stripe.

In 2015, Altman was featured on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for venture capital at age 29.

But it seems that Altman has some history when it comes to shock departures from company boards. By 2019, Altman had been relegated to chairman at YC. The following year, he said he would be leaving the board and continuing as an adviser – a role which he never formally assumed. As of early 2020, he was no longer affiliated with YC.

Former Bloomberg journalist Eric Newcomer wrote: “Altman went from president, to chairman, to being an adviser, to having no affiliation with Y Combinator without much detailed reporting from the press. YC successfully swept, what seems to be a real schism, under the rug.”

Trump, doomsday prepping, and a potential run for California governor

The reason for Sam Altman’s exit from the AI company remains unclear (Eric Risberg/AP) (AP)
The reason for Sam Altman’s exit from the AI company remains unclear (Eric Risberg/AP) (AP)

As well as making waves in the world of tech, Altman has also not been shy about his political views and aspirations.

After the 2016 US election, Altman, who tweeted that he voted against Donald Trump, decided to talk to 100 Trump supporters around the country to understand their views on the president. He also wanted to know "what would convince them not to vote for him in the future".

In a thread on X, Altman said he was "voting against Trump because I believe the principles he stands for represent an unacceptable threat to America".

During his interviews, he said that most people he approached were willing to talk to him, but that they wanted to remain anonymous for fear of being "targeted by those people in Silicon Valley if they knew I voted for him". He even said that one person he spoke to in Silicon Valley made him sign a confidentiality agreement because she was scared of losing her job for supporting Trump.

In 2018, there were also reports that Altman might run for Governor of California, but he did not end up entering. That year, however, he announced "The United Slate", a political project to improve housing and healthcare policy.

The following year Altman held a fundraiser at his house in San Francisco for 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. In May 2020, Altman donated $250,000 to American Bridge 21st Century, a super-PAC supporting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Altman has also admitted that he is a doomsday prepper. “I try not to think about it too much,” he said. “But I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israeli Defense Force, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to.”

The role of a lifetime: OpenAI and ChatGPT

Under Altman's leadership, OpenAI released popular generative AI tools to the public, including DALL-E and ChatGPT (Getty Images)
Under Altman's leadership, OpenAI released popular generative AI tools to the public, including DALL-E and ChatGPT (Getty Images)

After stepping away from YC, Altman took on what would become the role of a lifetime, when he joined OpenAI as CEO.

Shortly after joining, at a StrictlyVC event in 2019, Altman was asked how OpenAI planned to make a profit, and he said the "honest answer is we have no idea". But by the summer of 2019, he had helped raise $1 billion from Microsoft.

After Altman took over as CEO, and after the investment from Microsoft, the company started focusing on developing natural language processing. Under Altman's leadership, OpenAI released popular generative AI tools to the public, including DALL-E and ChatGPT.

After ChatGPT was released on November 30, Altman tweeted that it had reached over 1 million users in five days.

In January, Microsoft again announced it was making a "multibillion-dollar" investment into OpenAI. Although the specific details were not shared, it is believed Microsoft's investment is worth $10 billion.

"Ctrl, Altman, Delete": a new role at Microsoft

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In a move that sent shockwaves through Silicon Valley, Altman was abruptly sacked as OpenAI CEO on Friday after a statement by the board that it “no longer has confidence in his ability to continue leading OpenAI".

"We are grateful for Sam's many contributions to the founding and growth of OpenAI," a statement from OpenAI's board said. "At the same time, we believe new leadership is necessary as we move forward."

Altman arrived at OpenAI's San Francisco headquarters on Sunday for talks with senior company executives in a bid to be reinstated as chief executive, mediated by Satya Nadella, CEO of lead investor Microsoft.

But those talks appear to have fallen through. On Monday morning, Nadella said that Altman would instead be hired at Microsoft. The company has appointed Altman and OpenAI’s former president, Greg Brockman, who resigned on Friday, to lead a new advanced AI team at the company.

“We’re extremely excited to share the news that Sam Altman and Greg Brockman, together with colleagues, will be joining Microsoft to lead a new advanced AI research team. We look forward to moving quickly to provide them with the resources needed for their success,” Nadella wrote on X.

In a culmination of a dramatic few days of boardroom drama, the non-profit board of OpenAI has installed Emmett Shear, the co-founder of video streaming site Twitch, as the company’s third CEO in three days, according to multiple reports.