Chip Boss Lisa Su Has AMD Heading in the Right Direction
It's not hyberbolic to say that Lisa Su, chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices, is a mover. In her three years as CEO at AMD, Su [seen here] has moved the chipmaker to become one of the leading players for chips used in graphics, gaming and other high-end processors. This week, the company found itself working with longtime rival Intel, to make a graphics processor unit that will be integrated into a new Intel chipset aimed at Nvidia, a mutual competitor.
AMD's recent chipsets, such as Ryzen, Epyc and Threadripper, have garnered high marks from analysts. And investors have thought highly enough of what AMD has done that they have more-than-doubled the company's share price over the last year, to around $14.10.
But Su is literally moving, too. AMD is preparing to leave its long-time Sunnyvale headquarters for a new location in Santa Clara. Su said the new headquarters is on track to open in late November.
"I feel we're on the next phase of the company," Su said in a recent meeting at AMD's current headquarters. "I'm very proud of what we've done, but I feel we have a lot more to do."
Su talked about her career, how she came to America as a child, and about AMD's position in today's chip market. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You've been CEO of AMD for three years now. If you look back three years ago, what was it about this opportunity that made you think, "This is what I should do."?
A: I grew up as a semiconductor person, and when you think about the U.S. semiconductor industry, there are very few companies that can operate at this type of scale and that have this type of technology. I love high-performance technologies, the stuff that's the brains of today's products, and AMD was one of the few companies that had this type of technology. I always believed that it was a company that had great technical capability, but needed better business focus. When I became CEO, I really felt we had great foundational assets. But we needed very clear focus and execution.
Q: How was it steering AMD into new directions like graphics and gaming?
A: I think the main thing for us was to be clearer about what we're great at. If you looked at our business a few years ago, we were over 90 percent PC-market focused. Today, we have a very good graphic business, we have a great game-console business, we have these new products with Ryzen in the PC segment, and Epyc in the server segment. We just said, "We're really good at building high-performance microprocessors and high-performance graphics processors." We had to get comfortable with saying what we are and what we're not. I think that focus has really given us a new, and certainly a very strong roadmap.
Q: You mentioned the gaming arena. To the average person, it may seem like AMD has suddenly become this force to be reckoned with there.
A: Gaming is one of those things that's pretty amazing because when you think about it, everybody wants to game; whether you're a casual gamer, or you're an enthusiast gamer, there's a large market for us. We have very strong graphics processors that we sell into the PC segment. We also have the ability to combine our CPUs (central processing units) with our GPUs for custom chips. We do custom chips for Microsoft for their XBox One, and for Sony for their PlayStation 4. It puts a lot of our focus on gaming and we spend a lot of time with software developers and developing good gaming content.
Q: And I believe you're the only ones who do that CPU-GPU combination.
A: That's right. We are the only company that has both high-performance CPUs, and high-performance GPUs. So, we really think about how we can optimize them together.
Q: Your Ryzen chips, in particular, have gotten a lot of attention this year.
A: We made a pretty big bet about four years ago that we were going to build a brand new microprocessor -- and you only build new microprocessors about once a decade. The idea was to really focus it on high-performance applications. We brought Ryzen out to the market in March for high-end desktops, and we will bring it to multiple other product lines through this year. The reception has been really, really cool. We also just recently introduced Threadripper, and if you want to talk about incredible desktop performance that you can buy off the shelf, that's what it is. We're actually targeting the "prosumer" -- the guy who games, but also does some video editing, some content creation, who wants to use a PC for multiple things. It's almost like the revitalization of the PC.
Q: Your parents moved to the U.S. from Taiwan when you were two years old. Was that for work or school or other reasons?
A: My dad was going to graduate school at Columbia, in New York, so we moved there. After he graduated, we ended up settling in New York, so I grew up there. I ended up going to M.I.T. for my undergraduate and grad work from 1986 to 1994.
Q: When it comes down to it, how would you say people should view AMD today?
A: I would say, we are here to build great products. We're all about the technology. We've demonstrated that you don't have to be the biggest company in the world. What you have to have is very smart, motivated, dedicated and focused engineers, and focus them on the right goal. I think we have shown that when we want to focus on high-performance microprocessors, what you get is Ryzen and Epyc. I think that's a good shot in the arm. And we're nowhere near done.
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