These 3 engineers are using their experience at Apple, Qualcomm, AMD, and Tesla to help Intel move beyond PCs and beat its rivals to a $300 billion opportunity (INTC, AMD)


Murthy Renduchintala Intel Chief Engineer

  • Intel has turned to 3 outsiders to lead the chip giant’s bid to expand beyond the PC and server markets it has dominated for decades.
  • Murthy Renduchintala, Jim Keller and Raja Koduri are known as rock-star engineers who led innovation at companies like Apple, Qualcomm, AMD and Tesla.
  • It’s an unusual trend for Intel, which is known for looking within for leadership. Intel recently also named former CFO Bob Swan as its new CEO. The move drew some criticism because Swan does not have an engineering background.
  • These three engineers are charged with one big mission: Help Intel tackle markets like high-performance computing, graphics, and self-driving cars — markets where it’s historically lagged rivals like Nvidia and AMD. 
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In 2015, Murthy Renduchintala quit as co-president of Qualcomm, where he had spent the last 12 years of his career, to join Intel’s leadership. Then-CEO Bryan Krzanich welcomed him with a letter, saying: “Intel is truly an inspirational place to work.”

But Murthy, as Renduchintala is fondly called, was nervous about “the general reputation that Intel was a very difficult place for executives from the outside to come and be successful,” he said.

“My initial concern was: is this going to be an experience of trying to get my fingernails into granite,” he told Business Insider. “Half of my nervousness was the calibration of how much I had to learn and my own sense of, ‘Could I surmount those learning curves?'”

It’s worked out so far: Murthy is now Intel’s chief engineering officer, in charge of a team of roughly 75,000 people. He eventually brought in two other outsiders, both known as heavy hitters in the semiconductor world.

Jim Keller, described by VentureBeat as a “rock star chip architect,” and by Wired as a “chip wizard,” was lured in 2018 from Tesla to lead Intel’s silicon engineering group. He’s in charge of the Intel teams developing the designs and architectures for new microprocessors that the company hopes to build.

And Raja Koduri, one of the leading graphics chip engineers in the world, joined Intel in 2017 from rival AMD, where Keller also had a distinguished career. Koduri leads the teams developing Intel’s high-performance graphics, an area where the company has historically lagged rivals such as AMD and Nvidia. Keller and Koduri are both also veterans of Apple.

Together, these three outsiders have been given a gargantuan task: Take Intel beyond its core PC and server business, and help it conquer what the company’s leadership sees as a $300 billion opportunity in cutting-edge markets like high-performance computing and the cloud, autonomous cars, AI, graphics, and networking.

Their efforts are already starting to come to fruition. Intel just introduced the next generations of its current PC and server chip lines, and will unveil its first AI processor built from the ground up later this year.

But their bigger, longer-term goals woud mean transforming Intel into a more agile competitor in multiple arenas. 

“90% of a static market is a very different picture than 25% of a large and growing market,” Keller told Business Insider. “The company over the last number of years has pivoted to have a lot more market segments, a lot more designs in those market segments. That will generate a lot more chips, a very large amount of IP [intellectual property].”

Murthy used a sports metaphor to illustrate what they needed to do: “Intel was a gold medal winning single sport Olympic winner.  We now have to win at Decathlon. We have to be good at sprinting. We have to be good at pole vaulting. We have to be good at javelin. .. We don’t have to be a great single sport athlete, but we have to be really good at everything because at the end of the day, a single sport is no longer sufficient.”

Asked about the biggest hurdle they face, Murthy, Keller and Koduri offered the same answer: scale. Transforming a 51-year-old tech behemoth with 107,000 employees in 46 countries into a heavyweight that could compete in all these new markets is not going to be simple task.

“You don’t turn like a Navy Seals speed boat,” Murthy said. “You turn much more systematically because you have to take 100,000 people with you.”

There have already been challenges

Even in his short term at Intel, there have already been challenges.

Barely three years after Murthy joined Intel, Krzanich resigned amid revelations that he had an illicit relationship with an employee. He was replaced by chief financial officer Bob Swan, who had joined Intel just a few months after Murthy did.

Suddenly, Murthy, the outsider, found himself reporting to another outsider. Not only was Swan an Intel newbie, he was also a non-engineer tapped to lead a company of mostly engineers which raised questions about his ability to lead Intel

Jim Keller and Raja Koduri of Intel

The changes hit Intel at a critical time. Its core PC market is shrinking, and it was facing stiffer competition in the data centers. Suddenly, the company famous for the “Intel Inside” logo found on millions of desktop and laptop computers powered by its processors and for looking within for leadership, was being led by outsiders as it sought to reinvent itself.

In 2016, Intel also acquired an AI chip startup called Nervana as it took aim at the fast-growing field of artificial intelligence, where it is looking to catch up with rival Nvidia.

The shift was underway even before Swan took over, though it shows little sign of stopping now.

Led by Murthy, the three technologists’ mission is to help Swan lead Intel’s grand pivot — from focusing squarely on a $52 billion market, the world of PCs and servers, which Intel has dominated for the past 30 years, to a nearly $300 billion market, including new and fast growing arenas where Intel is just another contender, and in some cases even an underdog. 

Intel is making the move in a challenging time. While it remains dominant in the data center market, rival AMD just rolled out a new server chip that has won rave reviews. Intel is also looking to reestablish itself as a chip manufacturing trailblazer, especially after AMD overtook it in adapting a 7 nanometer process, referring to the manufacturing technology based on the line-width on chips. 

Intel has historically led the way in producing smaller and less expensive processors, guided by Moore’s Law, the chip industry trend named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, in which the number of transistors that companies are able to put on an integrated circuit has roughly doubled every two years.

This trend has allowed chip makers to make smaller, more powerful, and less expensive processors, but Intel and competitors like AMD alike have acknowledged that it’s increasingly a challenge to stay on that curve.

Outsiders who failed showed ‘a lack of appreciation for what Intel had achieved’

Intel has a long history from which they could draw knowledge and insights, which can also be a challenge, Koduri said. He compared Intel to one of those old gigantic libraries found in Europe, with huge amounts of material.

“Intel is like that. It’s great,” he told Business Insider. “Lots of knowledge and lots of history. But also like an old library, it’s hard to find information. They’re not easily Google-searchable.”

To be sure, the company had great talent, three of whom Keller named in a recent interview: Ann Kelleher, who leads Intel’s manufacturing operations; chief technology officer Mike Mayberry and Rich Uhlig, who leads Intel Labs.

But Intel is also a gargantuan organization, and Murthy identified the challenges he faced early. In a memo to Intel senior managers a few months after he joined, he cited “a lack of product/customer focus in execution that is creating schedule and competitiveness gaps in our products.”

But Murthy now says that he understood that the outsiders who joined Intel only to fail showed “a lack of appreciation and a lack of respect for what Intel had achieved.”

“It was all about, ‘Let me show you how good I am and how I can transform the company,'” he said. “It was a case of, ‘Move aside. Let me show you.'”

‘I don’t want you to come in and bounce off’

Murthy also stressed the importance of adapting to Intel’s culture for the people he brought in, including Keller and Koduri.

“His one comment was: ‘I don’t want you guys to come in and bounce off,'” Keller recalled. “He had seen it happen and I took that heart.”

That has meant putting extra effort in adapting to Intel’s culture even as they pushed for change. Keller said he has met Intel people who have been at the company for a long time. 

“People have said to me, ‘We tried to make that change 10 years ago,'” Keller said. “I’m relentless. I’m not really a bounce-off kind of guy.”

When a team in Texas said they were wrestling with problems with a project, Keller told a manager, “Get them in a room at 8 o’clock in the morning and I’ll go catch a plane.” He spent two days “in a room with big white boards” working out problems and answering questions.

“Sometimes, it’s tough,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel like a beat-up puppy.”

Koduri said persistence will be key, citing the technological principle first proposed by Intel’s co-founder.

“Moore’s Law is relentless, and Intel is relentless,” he said. “Relentless and persistent. That’s what we need to survive.”

Analyst Linley Gwennap, president of the Linley Group, it wasn’t surprising that the company was turning to outsiders to pursue that strategy. 

“I think when things aren’t working, the natural tendency is to turn to outsiders,” he told Business Insider.

But it won’t be easy. 

“Intel is a battleship and it is taking a long time to turn,” he said. “There’s a lot going on, but we’re probably not going to see how well this experiment works for another couple of years.”

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