AMD’s 50th Anniversary Reminds Us Why The Company Matters

By Patrick Moorhead - May 2, 2019
AMD founder Jerry Sanders III

This week, AMD celebrated its 50th anniversary. I wanted to weigh in on the occasion, as I have been in and around the company, its customers, partners and competitors for close to 30 years. I spent roughly a decade as a hardware OEM at Compaq, NCR, and AT&T, over a decade in chips at AMD, and now almost a decade as a tech industry analyst covering AMD. Through all these experiences, I’ve come to know the company quite well. 

AMD is a resilient company, that has had some high highs and some low lows over those 50 years. But I can't help but to think this time the company has more staying power. Under the leadership of Lisa Su, I believe AMD is a different company focused more on consistent execution than swinging for the fences every time at the plate. Let me dive into some of my thoughts on the company's 50th.    

Fifty years is a very long time in the tech industry. Since AMD’s founding in 1969 in Sunnyvale, CA, the company has borne witness to and participated in multiple significant milestones and paradigm shifts. Moreover, it has done so with its characteristic spirit of leadership and innovation. 

It’s hard to come up with a highlights reel, but I did my best. 

In 1970, AMD released its very first proprietary device, the Am2501 logic counter. The company landed several industry firsts in the 80s, including the first single-chip burst error processor in 1984, and the first universally compatible (at the time) graphics board on the market in 1987. 

Around the turn of the century, AMD played a critical role in driving down computer prices, with the first volume (Cyrix was first) sub-$1,000 CPUs in the industry, the AMD-K6. I was a product manager at the time at Compaq, and I can tell you I gained a ton of profitable market share partnering with AMD on my products. AMD followed this accomplishment up with the industry’s first processor to break the 1GHz barrier in the year 2000.

Processor frequency used to matter more than as processor architectures were so similar.  When processor architectures, IPC per core and frequency decoupled reliable performance with frequency, AMD led (disclosure: my team led this) the True Performance Initiative with the Athlon XP, and the rest is history. From that point forward, the industry agreed frequency was not a good way to compare processor efficiency or performance, industry standard benchmarks were.  

In the more modern area (in 2017), AMD was responsible for three big firsts: the first x86-based 64-bit processor, the first x86 dual-core processor, and the first native quad-core x86 server processor. Most software, including Windows, still refers to its 64-bit variant as “amd64” which brings me back to that time. 

Last year, AMD launched the world’s first 7nm GPU, and it rounded out Q4 2018 with impressive financials (read my coverage here). To be certain, AMD has hit a few slumps over the years and I don’t want to sugar-coat those as they were personally and professionally rough on me and colleagues. However, the company always springs back with a vengeance, thanks in part to its commitment to innovation, willingness to try something different technologically, and maybe with a chip on its shoulder wanting to prove it has what it takes. 

Anniversaries also present a great opportunity to look towards the future and if there’s one thing I know about Lisa Su, is she doesn’t want to stare at the past. AMD, in my opinion, is making smart moves to sustain its success moving forward. The company understands that high-performance computing (not to be confused with “HPC”) is going to drive the lion’s share of technological innovation in the coming years, across AI, edge IoT, mixed reality, gaming, big data analytics, cloud services, and more. AMD’s stated goal is to provide increasing compute and graphics power to more and more people globally, enabling the next generation of global problem solvers. This makes much sense to me for AMD versus, let’s say, chasing smartphone processors, controllers or sensors. 

As I wrote earlier, under the tenure of Lisa Su and her leadership team, AMD is a company more focused on execution than taking huge risks (read more on AMD’s strategy and accomplishments over the last several years here and here). AMD strikes a great balance between innovation and execution, which I expect will continue to pay dividends in the coming years and allow the company to remain a major player in high-performance computing.   

In addition to its innovation and focus on execution, AMD has another secret ingredient to success I want to touch on: its people-centric company culture. This dates back to the company’s early days—AMD’s founder, Jerry Sanders, believed that if AMD put its people first, products and profits would follow. The first time I met with Jerry Sanders, he shared this with me, and he followed it to a fault. When I say “to a fault,” I mean that sometimes investors didn’t like this and were looking for short term gains at the expense of the future or laying off masses of people at the first negative sign. Today at AMD, this people-centric culture means encouraging employee growth, listening to feedback, and encouraging them to challenge the status quo when necessary. This also means taking workforce health and safety seriously. You can read more about how AMD takes care of its employees at its Corporate Responsibility website here, if interested. 

In my products, strategy and marketing experience in the tech sector, and later as an analyst, I’ve seen that the companies that listen to, take care of, and respect their people are often the ones who prosper in the long term. On top of that, nimble, innovative companies like AMD draw in people who want to push the envelope and develop bold new technologies. To do well at AMD, you have to be willing to march to the beat of a different drummer and think differently, as you don’t have the biggest budgets or the longest timelines. A people-centric culture goes a long way towards retaining talent once you have it, of course.

AMD’s eye for innovation, focus on execution, and people-first strategy has allowed it to weather 50 years in the dog-eat-dog tech industry and pull down many impressive “firsts” along the way. Though it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, few are more resilient than AMD. Under Lisa Su, the company is now more focused and nimble than ever, and it has staked its claim on the ever-growing, vitally important high-performance computing sector. Here’s to another 50!

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.  

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.