Learning from the OpenAI Staff Mutiny


Dec 18, 2023

Cropped shot of a young male programmer working on computer code in his office, photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images

Photo by PeopleImages/Getty Images

The recent dramatic events at OpenAI have highlighted the unique power elite technical talent can hold within their organization. All organizations, including the government and the military, should be paying attention.

For most corporations, their employees would simply be bystanders during a boardroom struggle between the company's CEO and its board of directors. Instead, OpenAI's employees played a key role in ending the standoff by demonstrating their willingness to leave the company alongside the CEO, Sam Altman. This threat ultimately could not be countered since the value of the company almost entirely consisted of the ideas and innovation generated by the minds of its employees. In the end, OpenAI would be nothing without its people.

This incident is hardly the first time that technical staff have exerted their influence over the organizations they work for. Just a few years ago, engineers at Google rebelled against the decision by their corporate leadership to participate in the Defense Department's most prominent Artificial Intelligence (AI) project—successfully forcing Google's CEO to pull back from defense-related projects.

Organizations need to rethink whether their current culture is compatible with the expectations of technical talent.

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As AI and other software-based technologies continue to rise in importance for the government and Department of Defense (DoD), its leaders should learn from these examples about how top technical talent differs from other kinds of workers and how to ensure the military understands how to interact with the best and brightest technical workers America has to offer.

To begin with, most technological capabilities today are powered more by their virtual software than their physical hardware. An organization's ability to create this software is not limited by its ability to build complex machinery or to acquire rare materials—it is only limited by the ability of its technical staff to turn the ideas in their head into working code. Today, in order to succeed every organization must be an innovation organization. To accomplish this, organizations need to continuously seek out new talent from outside their organization and even outside their industry. Successful innovation requires a constant stream of new ideas and people who have experience doing things differently from how they have always been done.

Additionally, organizations need to rethink whether their current culture is compatible with the expectations of technical talent. Technical staff do not implicitly trust people in leadership positions—regardless of whether those leaders are military brass, politicians, high-ranking government officials, or tech CEOs. Leaders used to a hierarchy culture like those in the government and the military—where workers obey the rules and regulations established by management—can have a difficult time commanding the respect of technical talent. Instead, technical staff expect to have a voice in how their organization operates and to have the logic behind important decisions communicated to them. They must be persuaded rather than commanded.

Leaders used to a hierarchy culture like those in the government and the military can have a difficult time commanding the respect of technical talent.

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Finally, leaders in all kinds of organizations, need to recognize they are in a war for talent. Practically every organization wants to hire more talent and better talent with digital skills. To succeed, organizations increasingly need to be open to all types of entry points for talent. Instead of focusing solely on new graduates entering the workforce, organizations need to be just as open to mid-career hires bringing their accumulated experience and knowledge. Organizations such as the military and government who cannot match top-tier industry salaries will also need to tap hidden talent pools within their existing workforce by upskilling and retraining individuals with the potential to learn desperately needed skills.

The Army Software Factory is one example of putting this principle into action—it already must turn away 10 qualified applicants for every one soldier it can train into a digital warrior. Lastly, organizations need to provide their technical staff with a career path that lets them stay technical. Many technologists simply love working with advanced technology and have no interest in a career that takes them away from understanding the intricate details of new technology. Government and the military should signal to these individuals that they will always have room to grow and new challenges to motivate them.

James Ryseff is a senior technical policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.