Intel has kicked off 2021 with a few key appointments, including 6 Israelis promoted to executive roles within the company. Leading the way was the promotion of Uri Frank, who was Intel’s silicon engineering lead in Haifa, to Corporate Vice President of Intel global. However, just two weeks later, a bomb was dropped. Frank surprisingly stepped down from his role at Intel. Only to add salt to the wound by jumping ship over to Google, where he’s leading chip R&D and development for the newcomer to the semiconductor game.
“It was really disappointing,” says Ran Berenson, Frank’s replacement. Despite a strong friendship, the two are currently at the peak of a new kind of technological battle. Over the years, due to a lack of major competition, Intel has had “early dibs” on Israel’s top tier engineering talent. However, recent years have introduced new market leading players to the Israeli chip scene. Intel has quickly found itself competing for human resource and talent with the likes of British powerhouse ARM; NVIDIA through its Mellanox acquisition; Amazon’s Annapurna Labs and Tel Aviv R&D center; and with Apple and Google, with Facebook and Microsoft looking to join the party soon enough. Berenson is aware of the rising competition and its impact on Intel: “On the other hand,” he says, “it opens new opportunities, spurring organizational change… It helps a company refresh itself, grow stronger and better.”
In an interview with Geektime, Berenson lays out Intel’s new opportunities, and presents the company very differently from the one that had kind of ignored consumer reports and the tech community in recent years. Intel, which has been rattled with controversy lately, including 2 CEOs resigning, product launch delays, and lagging in the tech department, is setting off on a new, but old, journey.
Parachuted into Intel as a student 20 years ago
Berenson is not ashamed to say that he “owes a lot to Intel.” His career at the company began as a 26-year-old student. “I started during my 3rd semester, without knowing much, I was parachuted straight into Logic Design. My manager taught me everything I needed to know,” tells Berenson, who adds that Intel has kept the tradition of hiring students to this day. “Unlike most companies today, which focus on headhunting for experienced talent, Intel is also looking for people with a strong willingness to learn.”
From a student position at Logic Design, Berenson climbed Intel’s corporate ladder throughout his 20 year career; not once thinking of leaving. He has held more than 10 different positions in the chip company, mostly in the engineering department. Over the last two years, he has been managing a number of Intel’s most important projects, including Rocket Lake and Alder Lake. Both Intel flagship products which are yet to be released. “Our team is brainstorming the content, the configuration, the realization and testing of different projects.”
When Berenson refers to his “team”, he’s talking about 2,000 engineers, most based in Israel, with additional employees working from India and the U.S. Today, Berenson is a VP, General Manager of Core and Client Development Group at Intel Corporation.
He refers to his new role as “back to the source”, because he’s reengineering development of Intel’s cores of the future, which are expected to see light first in 2023. Berenson, of course, refused to reveal too much on the new cores’ specs, but claims that it's a “revolution of process efficiency”. This, he notes, will lead to faster turnaround, where more cores can be placed on the same silicon.
Bad years in the past, good years to come?
If you’ve followed Intel’s story during the past 3 years, then you probably agree that the company desperately needs to “revolutionize” its processors. Despite remaining a dominant chip force, Intel has lost its leading technological edge to its competitors, and even to its customers. While Intel struggled to reach market with its 10 nanometer chip, AMD prospered, providing higher performing chips at less than half the price of Intel. The company also backed out of its 5G modem venture, selling the business to Apple; suffered from multiple critical security scandals; sat on the bench while NVIDIA solidified its leading position with the ARM acquisition; and of course, Intel’s image was badly damaged from Apple's dramatic transition from Intel processors to home built Apple Silicon. Intel constantly tried to downplay Apple leaving, and in terms of market cap, the company is actually right. Apple dropping Intel hasn’t really impacted the company’s business all that much. But as we all know, it’s more than just market cap. Apple’s apparent success has signaled other OEMs that there are potentially other paths than Intel.
“Intel has experienced a few down years,” says Berenson. “We were clearly market leaders, and we acted as such… We developed strong products knowing we were ahead of the game. Then 3 years of poor execution; both in Design and process. Problems and setbacks slowed down developments. The previous executive board was more focused on growing into new markets and vectors, rather than advancing Intel’s core business -- processing chips.”
Berenson claims that during those 3 down years, AMD and Apple were able to achieve significant milestones. “There were years when it was extremely difficult to make any impact from Israel. But now a new and prosperous era is ushered in… We don’t intend to let the down days continue,” he concludes.
Berenson argues that the changes, which he and his team are attempting to inject into Intel’s core, are needed due to increasing competition in recent years. He explains that the market has dictated the company to be “more aggressive towards our goals and in our processes.” Berenson adds: “The job is to invigorate the core and refresh our excellent development team to be better adapted to market competition.
From almost completely ignoring competition and consumer review, it seems as if Intel has taken a course in humility. When I question Berenson on Apple’s dramatic exit, he refuses to hide behind diplomatic answers, and admits to being disappointed: “As an executive, and as an engineer, you want everyone to want your product… I think their announcement was interesting. Competition acts as a mirror to show where you’re good and where you’re not.. We learned a lot. We have many strengths, but there’s still room for improvement.”
According to Berenson, the recasting of Intel’s executive team, a crisis catalysts in itself, seems to be part of the reasons for that mirror. In January 2019, Bob Swan replaced Brian Krzanich, who resigned after it was reported that he had been leading a consensual relationship with another Intel employee. Two years later, Swan out, and Pat Gelsinger in. Gelsinger was the CEO of VMWare and has been with Intel for 30 years.
“Being the best has been the ruling conception for Intel over the last six months. The new CEO has injected the company with a new spirit. He wants to compete, and for us that means striving to be the best across all sectors,” explains Berenson. He notes that Intel aims to dominate across three main vectors: highest quality products, best architecture, and holding world-leading production.
We’ll have to wait and see about the first two, but the third one shows major organizational change for Intel. Instead of producing chips only for Intel use, the company will start to commercialize production to external customers as well. “Companies will use Intel infrastructure to manufacture their own chips,” claims Berenson. “We aim to attract companies that want access to the most advanced production line. Additionally, we look to serve companies that require more traditional processes; who focus on the cost and stability of production. Intel is going to be dominant in both of these sectors.”
Intel’s new CEO, Gelsinger, looks to bring innovation to the company, and not focus just on the technology. In 2017, the company announced the cancellation of its annual developer convention, Intel Developer Forum (or IDF for short), while other major tech companies continued with their networking and product events, to help build stronger ties between developers and engineers in their communities. That was another sign of the, back then, growing disconnect between Intel and its end users. To counter this, Gelsinger quickly announced a sort of comeback of the event, under a new format called Intel On. The event is expected to take place in October of this year.
The battle for Israeli engineers
The new-old spark that Berenson talks about isn’t meant to just gain the faith and trust of tech aficionados and developers, but also the engineers as well. Gelsinger wasted no time acclimating to his new role; visiting Israel for the opening of Intel’s new Haifa mega-campus, which employs 6,000 people focusing on software and hardware innovation. Intel hasn’t reached their headcount benchmark yet, and is still looking to fill the rank with another 1,000 new employees.
However, Intel is far from the only player looking to conquer the hearts of Israeli engineers. About a month prior to Intel’s mega-campus announcement, Google announced it would open a new R&D center in Israel, focusing on chip development. The person leading Google’s chip charge is none other than -- Uri Frank. The man Google poached from Intel’s executive ranks. It seems as if Google is attempting to recreate Intel’s R&D success in Israel, and the path there will probably require engineers jumping ship from Intel to Google. This has also been accompanied by headlines reporting Facebook’s hunt for engineers, who will house the company’s new Israeli R&D center; of course, can’t forget about NVIDIA, and its Israeli foundation through the acquisition of Mellanox; and Amazon taking a stab at the chip game via its Israeli subsidiary Annapurna Labs.
“It’s welcomed,” answers Berenson to my question on the vigorous competition for the Israeli ecosystem’s engineering talent. “The open market is experiencing a rejuvenation. It impacts the number of people who want to learn and expand… There’s an obvious race for talent. And the competition is healthy. It creates new HR challenges regarding employee retainment and new talent acquisition. The situation provides new opportunities for many different people.”
Berenson explains that the engineers on Intel’s wish list are divided into 3 groups: Long term investment in new hires with high future potential; Medium, meaning new hires with over 5 years experience; and the top tier engineering talent, who are touted to lead billion dollar projects. While the two extreme groups are the ones who need major corporations for career building opportunities, Berenson surprisingly, notes that recruiting middle talent is where the true battle is being fought.
“The HR reservoir has grown,” he claims. “It’s amazing to see companies that were founded only 10 years ago now adding to the reservoir. While we may be a key market player, and have had numerous startups founded by former Intel talent, there are still many other players contributing to the ecosystem.”
The next two years are going to be extremely critical for Berenson and his team. While Apple picks up praise for their premiere processors, Intel has only begun its significantly needed turnaround. The company’s mission seems utterly impossible: conquer the hearts of consumers, developers, OEMs, and yes -- also engineers. The main difference between Intel 3 years ago and Intel today is the fact that now the company seems more aware of its faults and is changing to improve on them. Better late than never, I guess.