So @nvidia briefly overtook @intel market-cap last week - GPUs FTW! I spent 6yrs @AMD engineering & it was unfathomable to beat Intel back then. Here’s the inside story of how & why AMD saw the GPU oppty, lost it, & then won it back & lessons I still carry from those heady days👇
After my MS, I had an offer from Intel & AMD. I chose AMD at 20% lower pay. Growing up in India, AMD was always the hacker’s choice - they allowed overclocking, were cheaper, noisier, grungier and somehow just felt like the underdog david to back against the Intel goliath!
Through the 90s, AMD was nipping @ Intel’s heels but ~2003 we were 1st to mkt w/ a 64-bit chip &, for the FIRST time, had a far superior core architecture. Oh boy, those were exciting times! Outside of SV, I haven’t seen a place where hardcore engg was so revered. Maybe NASA.
I joined AMD right when their stock price was ~$40, and worked on the 1st dual-core architecture (single die, two cores) AMD-X2. Our first mistake -- and AMD insiders won’t like me saying this -- was made here.
We were always engineering-led and there was a lot of hubris around “building a pure dual-core” -- single die split into two separate CPU cores w/ independent instruction & data pipes, but shared cache, page tables etc. Even the fabs didn’t yet have the processes ready.
While we kept plodding on the “pure dual-core”, Intel, still smarting from the x64 defeat just slapped two 1x cores together, did some smart interconnects, & marketed it as “dual core”. Joke at AMD was that Intel’s marketing budget was > our R&D (true fact). Customers ate it up.
We did launch a “true” dual core, but nobody cared. By then Intel’s “fake” dual core already had AR/PR love. We then started working on a “true” quad core, but AGAIN, Intel just slapped 2 dual cores together & called it a quad-core. How did we miss that playbook?!
AMD always launched w/ better CPUs but always late to mkt. Customers didn’t grok what is fake vs real dual/quad core. If you do cat /proc/cpu and see cpu{0-3} you were happy. I was a proud engineer till then but then saw value of launching 1st & fast. MARKET PERCEPTION IS A MOAT.
Somewhere between this dual→ quad journey, AMD acquired ATI, the canadian GPU company. It made ZERO sense back then -- market was in servers & client CPUs and GPUs were still niche! The internal joke was AMD+ATI=DAMIT. But clearly, someone at AMD saw the future.
ATI was a tough nut - we didn’t really “get” them; they saw the world very differently. We wanted to merge GPU+CPU into an APU but it took years of trust & and process-building to get them to collaborate. Maybe if we had Slack, but we only had MSFT Sharepoint 😭
While all this APU work was going on, AMD totally missed the iPhone wave. When we built chips for the PC, world was moving to laptops, when we moved to laptops, they moved to tablets, & when we moved there, world moved to cell phones.
We also missed the GPU wave trying to introduce a fundamentally better but also fundamentally new architecture: APUs (CPU+GPU on same die - we love “same die everything” I guess). CATEGORY CREATION IS HELL but “if you’re going through hell, keep going”. We hesitated and...
...2008 crisis happened & we were totally caught with our pants down. After that, AMD basically lost the market to pretty much everyone: Intel, ARM, Nvidia. I learned it the hard way how SUPERIOR PRODUCTS LOSE TO SUPERIOR DISTRIBUTION LOCK-INS & GTM.
Few yrs later in '11, I left AMD to join Google via a short 1yr MBA. AMD stock was hovering b/w $2-4 - lower than BOOK VALUE if we sold it for scraps. I should’ve bought some stock but my salary coming out was ~30% lower than salary going in - I was basically broke w/ MBA loans.
Huge respect for Nvidia though. They were just one of the little boys back then - we lost some GPU sales to them but never thought of them in the same league as ARM/Intel. They stuck to their guns, and the market came to them eventually when AI took off. BELIEVE IN YOUR VISION.
Even madder props to Lisa Su who now leads AMD. Lot of my engineer friends are still there building world best tech and I can’t imagine what they must have had to go through: multiple heavy layoffs, salary cuts, leadership changes (2 CEO changes b/w 08-11 alone), low morale.
AMD was a “TRIBE”. For so many it was their 1st job out of college in late 80s & they are still there after 30yrs! I guess this is how AMD survived multiple near-deaths & this is also why when it comes to AMD I still say “we” as if I’m still the fanboy I was as a college student!
/end (if we worked together @ AMD, please DM me I'd love to hear how you are doing!) ❤️
You can follow @MohapatraHemant.
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