Competition, Cooperation, and Creative Contention with CTO of AMD, Mark Papermaster

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Imagine this. You and one other suspect have been arrested for a crime. You are taken to separate interrogation rooms where the cops give you two options: you can either confess that you and your accomplice committed the crime or you can stay silent and not confess.

Here’s the catch:

If you confess, and your partner does not confess, you will go free.

If you do not confess, but your partner does, then you will be convicted of the maximum sentence.

If you both confess, you will both receive mild sentences.

If neither of you confess, you will both be free within hours. 

What do you do?

What is described above is a famous Game Theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. Why bring this up? Because it illustrates an idea that Mark Papermaster, the CTO and EVP of AMD, laid out to describe how he thinks about getting ahead in the industry. Want to learn more? All the details are on this episode of Business X factors.

Main Takeaways:

    • Hire People with Passion: It may be tempting to only recruit people for academic prowess and experience — they seem like less of a risk. But hiring for passion could open up a talent pool of people who live and breathe the business. People who are passionate and positive about the company and their job are more invested in improving the overall performance of the business. They work to encourage the company and each other to succeed and are prepared to go the extra mile in times of trouble, which makes them a wise investment. 
    • Rules for Coopetition: A mix of competition and cooperation between companies can be a way to save cost and avoid duplication of effort. Sharing may mean putting your special sauce at risk, but the combination of ingredients can create value for both sides. To structure a coopetition agreement, make sure that scope and control is established. Work out who is in charge and how things are going to be unwound if the arrangement no longer makes sense. Cooperation and partnership agreements that are limited and don’t raise control issues are the simplest. In other cases, costs can be shared by parties, but not proprietary knowledge. 
    • Transformational change = High Risk: Businesses that are forced to or want to transform are often required to take significant risks. These high-risk projects are often highly visible and have sweeping impacts inside and outside the organization. To manage risk, undertake risk analysis to identify threats and assess the likelihood of them being realized and once you’ve worked out what they are, you can start by looking at ways to manage them effectively. This could include avoidance, sharing the risk or accepting risk while carrying out steps to reduce its impact. This could be done by rolling out high-risk activity on a small scale in a controlled way.


Key Quotes:

“Some wars don’t end. When you’re competing to win on capability with your direct competitors, that is the capitalism that our society is based on. And everybody benefits from that. So that war doesn’t change. And that’s why all of us have been in technology as many years as I have. We thrive on that. This is why we love what we do. That’s why we wake up excited every day. It’s like, I’m going to win that war. There are other wars that aren’t good and where we need to actually collaborate.” 

“You hear the phrase all the time, ‘coopetition.’ What does that mean? It means that for the technology industry to thrive, you’ve gotta be clear on where we’re going to duke it out and go head-to-head with one another on capabilities, but where do we need to cooperate. ”

“I was only at Apple a couple of years, but what I learned working for Steve [Jobs] is that, if you take on a high risk, but put the risk management around it and get the right team behind it, get a team that’s passionate and committed and have that shared vision that what you do, can really have an impact on others, it’s incredibly motivating. I was motivated. Our teams were motivated. And so, what I realized is that I was looking to do that same kind of impact on where I had spent most of my career and that’s computing”.

“When you look at the size of the company, we were really a 10th the size of our competitors… PCs at the time back then, it was well over 90% of the revenue for the company, and the PC market was shrinking rapidly. It’s hard to think about it now because if you look at the last year… the PC is the center of everyday life. PCs are much more competitive and relevant to us now than at that time 10 years ago.”

“You always hear that trite phrase, ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ Well guess what? Survival and the ability to create a vision that can thrive when you’re in a downturn market and shrinking in size, that’s a motivation… We had to downsize before we could expand. We had to make some tough, tough decisions… and we moved very, very swiftly, and made those bets, communicated those bets.”

“The schedules are tough. You look at the consumer cycle, PCs graphics, you need a new model out every year. If you’re the editor in the data center, it’s every 18 to 24 months. You can’t miss a cycle. So, some folks left and that’s okay, but the folks that stayed, they were amazingly committed to win. Being the smaller competitor, it was just personal. It was personal to every employee in AMD. It’s personal to the executive leadership team and wow, that creates a special environment.” 

“When everyone in the company is working in a high-performance mode, you’re going to hire for that mode. You’re going to look for people to have a passion. They’re not here to get a paycheck. Yes, of course the pay is important. You’ve got to pay competitively, and we do, but you want people that want to win that war, they’re here to make a difference.”

“We implemented teams that leapfrog one another. So, while one team was working on generation one, there’s already an advanced team saying, ‘Hey, I’m banking on you being successful. What do we need next? How do I build on what you’ve done and make it even better?’ And so, a culture that allows teams to really solve problems and work together, and then teams are structured so that you do not miss a beat.”


Mark Papermaster is the Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice-President of Technology and Engineering at AMD and is responsible for corporate direction, product development including system-on-chip (SOC) methodology, microprocessor design, I/O and memory and advanced research. He led the re-design of engineering processes at AMD and the development of the award-winning “Zen” high-performance x86 CPU family, high-performance GPUs and the company’s modular design approach, Infinity Fabric. Papermaster has more than 35 years of engineering experience. Previously he was the leader of Cisco’s Silicon Engineering Group and he served at  Apple as senior vice president of Devices Hardware Engineering, where he was responsible for iPod and iPhone hardware development.

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Episode 21