AMD exec exodus isn’t a sign of the end times, it’s a fresh beginning for the red team

AMD HQ staff

AMD have seen some of their top minds jump ship to Intel in the past year, losing the likes of Raja Koduri, Jim Keller (via Tesla), and very recently Chris Hook. While this can be construed as a rough deal for AMD – especially as the defectors are now heading to a direct competitor – this might not be all that bad for team red and the graphics and processing architectures to come.

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The floodgates were opened by the surprising departure of the face of Radeon Technologies Group, Raja Koduri, leaving in the final few months of 2017. It came shortly after the AMD Vega architecture launched with questionable performance, serious supply problems, and high cost to the customer. Koduri had been a divisive figurehead for RTG, leading the charge for AMD through some rocky patches in their often forlorn contest with GPU giant Nvidia.

But Koduri was swept up by Intel, and is now applying his GPU knowledge to Intel’s new Cores and Visual Computing division – in which Intel aim to create “high-end discrete graphics solutions for a broad range of computing segments”. AMD CEO, Lisa Su, took over Raja’s position for the interim, with David Wang and Mike Rayfield taking over control of RTG from January 2018.

Koduri had been commanding AMD GPU development for some time, but on the eve of a potential new graphics architecture beyond Navi, it makes more sense than ever for a new team to take over the reins of development with AMD’s graphics architecture approaching a fork in the road.

AMD’s leapfrogging design teams will already be working on the generation beyond Navi, and are looking to make a “bigger leap forward” with their upcoming architectures. A refreshed team under new leadership could be the impetus RTG need to get the performance pendulum swinging back in their favour and away from Nvidia – who have a comfortable lead in graphics card performance as it stands.

RTG Chief Architect Raja KoduriWe’ve spoken with sources inside AMD about Koduri’s departure, who have expressed positivity about his decision to move on and for the future of the graphics division. It seems AMD are favouring the team-centric approach the company wishes to adhere to from here on out, as opposed to figureheads driving their own individual vision – as was the case with RTG under the seemingly dominating influence of Koduri.

In recent weeks, ex-AMD CPU engineer, Jim Keller, also joined the Chipzilla cabal. After a brief stint as autopilot vice president at Tesla, Keller has moved to Intel primarily to “lead silicon engineering” – largely focusing on system-on-chip development and potentially heading the Intel Ocean Cove team.

It’s no wonder that Intel are interested in Keller – especially after their continued 10nm delays – as at AMD Keller played a pivotal role in the development of the Zen architecture. That’s been critical to AMD’s new found success with the Ryzen processors from last year and the recently released AMD Ryzen 2 chips.

Keller’s departure certainly seems to be a damning event for AMD’s CPU development and success. However, with the Zen architecture already on the table, and a team of competent engineers pushing out some of the finest silicon we’ve had for some time, the next iterations of Zen may not necessarily warrant someone with Keller’s know-how to get off the ground.

AMD Vega GPUWith Zen in the bag, AMD need to focus on maintaining their momentum with future processors, and their leapfrogging design teams have already been confirmed to be working on architectures even as far as Zen 5. Keller’s influence will, therefore, still be prevalent in AMD’s designs for some time even after his departure.

AMD have also just lost their chief marketing manager, Chris Hook, who’s replacement is fellow long-standing employee and software marketing boss, Sasa Marinkovic.

Hook had, until recently, been in charge of AMD’s product marketing while the company has existed in the form we know today, and Intel have swiftly picked up Hook up to manage their newly-formed Graphics Division. Branding has been a bit of sticking point for AMD, especially in the face of Nvidia’s GPP in recent months; however, changes to the marketing formula alongside the recently very exciting product stack from AMD could be well-timed in the red team’s favour.

That’s a lot of key members of AMD’s product development team heading over to Intel – from architecture and design, all the way to marketing the finished product – however, that doesn’t necessarily leave AMD in a bad way. In fact, it would be insulting to the remaining engineers, marketers, developers, managers, (and so on), to imply that the recent success of the red team has been entirely due to the drive of only a few key players.

AMD Ryzen ThreadripperAMD have recently announced the movement of employees between the CPU Ryzen division and graphics RTG division to aid in development of more power efficient, higher frequency, and greater performing graphics cores – utilising the lessons learned with the Zen architecture. Their had seemingly been a large division between the CPU and GPU divisions at AMD, likely stemming from the acquisition of ATI back in 2006, although it seems RTG may finally be falling into line beneath AMD’s umbrella since Koduri’s departure.

The vacuum left by these ex-AMD employees won’t be left vacant for long, and those who have worked under, and learnt from, these big names in tech dev have the potential to really make a name for themselves. This could be the catalyst for the next generation of Kellers and Koduris to come to the fore. They can push the company in new and creative ways – something that AMD will need to do to keep a competitive edge against Intel, who are fighting for their corner and willing to throw lots of money at their problems, and Nvidia, who also have large quantities of capital for R&D.

AMD have plenty of evidence of fantastic products coming out from ‘teams of engineers’ in their spare time (the disruptive Threadripper release is a prime example), and putting this ethos, and their passionate employees, at the forefront of a shake-up in management could put AMD in a great position for the coming years. Plus, all that talent heading to Intel could make for fiery competition, too.