The Return Of The Prodigal Son: Who Is Intel’s New CEO, Pat Gelsinger

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Pat Gelsinger’s appointment as Intel’s 6th CEO has been received with universal optimism. Gelsinger who joined Intel after a 9-year stint as VMWare’s CEO more than tripled the cloud/enterprise giant’s revenue after it was merged with EMC where Gelsinger was the Chief Operating Officer. But before Gelsinger was at EMC, for more than 30 years he was at Intel where he joined at the age of 18. Apart from being a consummate insider fully aware of the ins and outs of Intel and what Intel should be, he is what many will describe as a legendary programmer and tech wizard. By the time he left Intel, he had become its first Chief Technical Officer and was the boss of Intel’s digital enterprise group which accounted for more than half of its revenue at the time. Yes, in a company that is the envy of the entire planet for its wealth of technical talent and expertise, Gelsinger was a Jedi grandmaster of sorts. He was tipped to become Intel’s CEO, not once by at least three times in the last decade, for it to finally happen at the turn of the decade in 2021 where he replaced Bob Swann in the role come February 15. 

Gelsinger is the personification of Intel DNA and the logical heir

Gelsinger joined Intel in 1979, the very year legendary former Intel CEO and technical boss Andy Grove became president at the company. Gelsinger worked for Grove for more than 20 years, till the time Grove was CEO in 1998 and remained chairman of the company till 2004. Grove was the heir to Intel’s founder Robert Noyce and the legendary Gordon Moore and in more ways than one Gelsinger was Grove’s apprentice who had been groomed through his storied career to one day lead Intel. 

When Gelsinger was in his early days at Intel, the company even funded his master’s and a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and Santa Clara University. As brilliant as Gelsinger is, he became brilliant at Intel with all the support the company provided him and the mentorship he received not just from Grove, but also Noyce and Moore who were still involved deeply in the company in his earlier days. 

One of the first big projects that Gelsinger took up was the Intel 80486 microprocessor which was released in 1989. Gelsinger was the chief architect for the processor. It was an important product that also ushered in the era of PC gaming particularly at the fag end of the life of the Microsoft MS-Dos operating system in the early 90s. Ironically, Dell which is the owner of EMC-VMware was one of the first customers of this microprocessor. 

Gelsinger over the years went to have a seminal role in the development of technologies that we are dependent on daily. This includes things like USB and Wi-Fi as well and he holds several patents regarding these technologies which speak volumes of his technical process which has been deeply missing from Intel right up at the top. Gelsinger was also the founder of the Intel Developer Forum event which was shelved in 2017, 20 years after Gelsinger started it at the company.

First visionary CEO since Andy Grove who stepped down in 1998

It is important to note that Bob Swann, the man Gelsinger will replace, was never meant to be Intel’s CEO. He was tapped as Intel’s CFO and was appointed interim in June 2018 when then CEO Brian Krzanich suddenly resigned after an illicit relationship with a subordinate came to the fore. Intel had been missing a technology visionary leader — especially since the days of Andy Grove. 

Gelsinger had been tipped to become CEO one, especially during the time of Paul Otellini. But under Otellini who was Intel’s CEO between 2005 and 2013, Gelsinger left Intel for EMC in 2009. Otellini was mostly a sales and marketing gut through his career at Intel and famously the company decided to not help Apple develop a dedicated processor for the iPhone because it didn’t make business sense. 

This was the decision that led Steve Jobs to bring chipset development in-house which culminated in the A-series of processors that has led to the new M1 processors which replaced Intel’s processors in Apple’s new Macs late last year. When Otellini retired in 2013, many believed that Gelsinger would return, but instead, logically so Otellini tapped his COO, Brian Krzanich as the CEO of the company. Unlike Otellini, Krzanich did have a technical background but for too long he was in charge of operations of the company. He did push the company in spaces and under him, Intel’s mobile strategy also faltered. 

Now that Gelsinger is back and at the top, there is hope for the embattled chipset giant. 

Challenges remain afoot

Intel has several challenges when Gelsinger jumps in. One of the biggest problems for Intel has been the loss of ascendency of its fabled manufacturing process. Numerous delays and yield problems with Intel’s new manufacturing processes in the last decade meant that chipset from fabless chip companies like Qualcomm, AMD, Apple, and MediaTek have become very popular. In 2021 Intel intends to release a 7nm chip while ARM-based designs are already on the 5nm node and are expected to hit 3nm in 2022. Fixing foundries is not a straightforward thing and it will take time and it will be painful. The other issue is the relevance of the x86 architecture which is now starting to lose its performance advantage thanks to Intel’s failings with manufacturing. 

Performance per watt was never the strong suit of x86 and as mobile has scaled since the unveiling of the first iPhone. In the age of AI, neural processing units or AI processors and GPUs become more important which hasn’t been the strength of Intel. Intel hired iconic graphics expert Raja Koduri to lead its GPU and the Xe processor is the first fruit of this endeavor. It is looking promising. 

But Intel has some mighty competition coming from Nvidia which has positioned itself as the foremost graphics company. Nvidia’s recent acquisition of ARM from SoftBank gives it stewardship of the leading computing instruction set for mobile which is now scaling to PCs and Datacenters. The fastest supercomputer in the world is no-more on x86 but ARM. 

Nvidia is so mighty that it has outplaced Intel as the most valuable semiconductor company on the planet. It is not only Nvidia but also AMD which used Intel’s own instruction set and off late under CEO Lisa Su has developed the Ryzen line of processors which are out doing Intel on its turf while being cheaper.

More so, as everyone moves towards purpose-built processors, even for data centers — like the ARM-based Amazon Graviton or Ampere’s new chips, the x86 architecture is riddled with challenges, combined with Intel’s manufacturing woes. Gelsinger will have his hands full. But if anyone can do this, then it is the man who authored a book called Programming the 80386. It is important to note that Gelsinger was noted multiple times as the best CEO in the US in the last decade by Glassdoor which means he was often judged by employees. 

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