Exclusive: Fortune 500’s newest woman CEO talks about her first 90 days on the job
Last October, Lisa Su became the first female leader of a major semiconductor company. As Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) new CEO, the long-time technologist also became one of the 25 women CEOs in the Fortune 500. She has since spent the past few months trying to get the company—which, like larger rival Intel, has suffered from slumping PC sales—back on a path of profitable growth. To explain how she plans to do that (and to share her thoughts on breaking the glass ceiling at AMD and her passion for gaming), Su sat down for an exclusive interview with Fortune this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
FORTUNE: You’re a few months in to the job now. What do you hope to do, and what’s the plan?
Lisa Su: It’s been just about 90 days, and it’s been fabulous. I have been with the company for a couple of years and in the semiconductor industry for over 20 years. It is incredibly fun to run a company like AMD. I’ve spent most of the last quarter on the road. So that’s a lot of time with customers and partners and employees. The most interesting thing is just talking about the technology and why it’s exciting and important and we’re going with it. I grew up as a technology geek, and now I get to live the part for real.
Semiconductors have always been my background, so building chips and seeing the product of our designs go into devices is really cool for me. I think the vision that I’m trying to establish for AMD is that we are a company with technology that’s really, really leading edge, and we’re going into the most important applications over the next five years. So 50 billion devices will be connected together and there will be all different types of devices. You’ll have PCs and cars and more, and all of them need computing and visualization. That’s what we do.
How can you differentiate the company going forward?
Diversifying the business is definitely a good thing. But for me, it’s really about product applications and what we can enable and inspire. I think AMD is at our best when we’re working with a customer and allowing them to do something they couldn’t do before. That is not the history of the company—the history of the company is that we’ve been second source to other people. I think we really need to change that, that’s the nugget I’d like to change. Two years from now if we’re sitting here, you should be thinking, “Hey, these are all the cool things that AMD is in”—not that AMD is a second source to somebody else.
So what kind of cool things, for example?
Like the iMac 5K display. It has all of the technology that we can pack and graphics and visualization in a beautiful form factor. Also game consoles—that’s really a product that enables so much. I happen to have lots of game consoles in my house, and for our holiday party we did Just Dance [a “rhythm game” developed and published by Ubisoft]. It’s not a fighter game, but it’s a different way of socializing and bringing technology to the forefront. I think that’s what I’d like AMD to be known for—you know, we bring cool applications to the market.
You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How has it changed? There seems to be a changing of the guard at a lot of companies at the moment and rapid technology changes.
The pace of change has increased. It’s not measured on years anymore; you can actually see it in a shorter time scale. Putting management changes aside—because every company has management changes and that’s not necessarily the primary factor—the market is changing and it’s because the technology is changing so fast. If you think about the period of time between when we went from PCs being the center of the universe to smartphones to tablets to now, where it’s not any one of those things but really a collection of hundreds of devices that have become important, I think it’s really because those changes have accelerated that it causes us as technology people to be much smarter or more predictive of what has to happen. Because when we make an investment in technology today it will take us three years to see if it will pay off. So we have to be predicting what will happen three years from now.
I joke about this but a lot of people ask me why AMD isn’t in smartphones. I say, “That’s an interesting question but you should have asked me that three years ago.” What you should be asking me today is what’s going to be important three years from now. That’s the part of our industry that I think makes it so interesting to be in, because the important money is what are we investing in in the future.
But there’s still a lot of money in mobile. Was the decision not to be there a mistake?
I think the decision was one that was made three years ago. And I view it as, you have to play to your strengths. There are a lot of phones that are going to be sold and that’s good. But our strengths are in computing and visualization. So playing to our strengths is key.
AMD is in two very large markets [PCs and gaming] but not dominant in either. Is that a problem?
The way I think about it is that I would probably define the markets differently as we go forward. The market is going to be defined by those 50 billion connected devices. So the question is does it end up being that there’s a set of applications where different technologies are satisfying different applications. I think AMD has a set of technologies that can service a broad number of those applications. It’s different than if we’re talking about microscopic changes on a quarterly basis. There you tend to get into who lost and gained a percentage point of market share.
So you’re saying that who’s going to be dominant could be different because the market categories could be different?
Yes. I firmly believe that the innovation in computing is still really in its infancy. As good as our phone is today, the speech recognition and the face recognition isn’t very good today. So there’s still plenty of innovation to be had.
Is running this company something you always aspired to do?
It’s definitely something I aspired to do. I went to school at MIT with a whole bunch of engineers. And then I started work one day and asked myself, “why do all of these MIT Ph.D.s work for Harvard MBAs?” Why should it be like that? I was one of those engineers who thought, “Why are these people making those dumb decisions?” So it’s fun to be the person making them. This is a fantastic opportunity.
You’re also the first woman to run a major semiconductor company.
I’ve heard that.
Is that a significant milestone to you?
I think I’m honored by it. I’m honored more by the fact that if you had asked me what I want to be when I grew up, it would have been pretty much here. Just 90 days into a job it’s hard to talk about legacy, but what’s more important to me is that when you grade AMD, whether it’s three years from now or five years from now, you grade it on that this was a fantastic set of assets that she turned into something special. That would be a phenomenal grade to have. So that’s more important than do I happen to be the first [woman] today.
Watch more interviews from this year’s CES from Fortune’s video team: