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VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger has always had a reputation for being a bit of a Boy Scout. So he decided to play against the guy a few years ago for his speech at the software company’s annual customer conference in Las Vegas.
“What can I do to take my commitment to the next level,” he asked the crowd. “I went to the streets for ‘Bad-Ass Tattoo’.”
Rolling up his sleeve, Gelsinger revealed a huge tattoo spelling out the company name in bold black letters on his left forearm. He even had a photo of himself at the aforementioned local salon getting the seemingly permanent sign of his loyalty to VMware Administered by a braided blonde tattoo artist. “Sometimes what happens in Vegas takes you home,” he added.
The audience loved it but his wife was not amused. Fortunately for Gelsinger’s wedding, the tattoo was only temporary and the photo was staged.
And now, luckily for his career choices too. Intel announced on January 13 that its current CEO, Bob Swan, is stepping down next month and that Gelsinger would take over. In many ways, it’s a return of the prodigal son, as Gelsinger, 59, spent three decades at Intel before moving in 2009 to EMC and eventually the lead role at VMware.
Intel might need help. The once dominant chipmaker for PCs and servers is face challenges from all directions. While manufacturing issues have hampered improvements in Intel’s chips, Advanced micro-systems takes market share with more efficient processors. Nvidia buys rival Arm to strengthen its position in processor chips and Apple has defected from Intel to chips of its own, possibly alluring designs Microsoft do the same. Meanwhile, large cloud services Amazon and Google are also developing their own server chips to replace Intel.
Many of Intel’s shortcomings over the next three years “are probably already set in stone, and there is not much Pat can do to change that,” noted longtime chip industry analyst Stacy Rasgon of Bernstein Research after Wednesday’s announcement.
Gelsinger certainly seems up to the task. Growing up on a farm in rural Amish, Pennsylvania, he woke up before dawn to tend pigs and cows. His main task in the morning he Told Forbes years later, you had to “jump right into a dusty day at work and try not to get kicked by an animal.”
Neither parent had more than an eighth grade education, he Told the Computer History Museum. “They just hammered us, from an early age, to go to school, to go to school,” he said.
In high school he showed aptitude for math and science and graduated very early after winning a scholarship in a branch of the Lincoln Technical Institute. It’s the first place he meets computers, excels in electronics, and catches the attention of an Intel recruiter. A job interview in Silicon Valley came thanks to the first plane trip in her life. At just 18 and without a four-year college degree, Gelsinger accepted a job at Intel as a quality control technician in 1979.
Taking advantage of Intel’s generous tuition reimbursement program and flexible working hours policy, he went on to earn a BA in Electrical Engineering from the University of Santa Clara in 1983 and an MA from the University of Stanford in 1985, while working full time. Legendary computer science professor John Hennessy was Gelsinger’s senior adviser at Stanford.
He also continued to take responsibility. While working on Intel’s 386 processor, it caught the attention of Intel CEO Andy Grove, a “career defining moment,” Gelsinger said later. Grove then mentored Gelsinger for decades.
Gelsinger was responsible for the design of Intel’s famous 486 chip line in his twenties and become the company’s first CTO in 2001, aged 40.
Gelsinger has a somewhat unusual experience in Silicon Valley as a devout Christian. A solid religious education has helped overcome difficulties in the corporate world, he says. A favorite biblical version of the Book of Colossians Command: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, working for the Lord and not for the human masters.” He quoted the verse in a 2016 interview, adding, “I can get snot kicked out at a board meeting or on a sales call, and I can bounce back the next day, full of joy and determination, to start over.”
He also met his wife Linda at church services when he first moved to California.
Despite all his success and talents at Intel, Gelsinger was sidelined from the top position in 2005, when Paul Otellini was selected. Gelsinger joined data storage giant EMC as COO in 2009, then moved to the Boston area.
Still with the goal of becoming CEO, he applied to attend EMC board meetings and received extensive advice from company co-founder Jack Egan. “We are an East Coast company. You have to dress like you’re in an East Coast business, ”Egan, Gelsinger told him. called back later. The order prompted a quick expedition trip to Nordstrom that night.
Egan also told Gelsinger he needed to better understand corporate finance. So Gelsinger spent a year being tutored by a Columbia University professor on the subject.
The homework paid off when the head office in EMC’s VMware unit opened in 2012.
At first, the struggle was against cloud computing. Amazon advocated for companies to move away from running their own data centers and move to the cloud. Gelsinger has tried to strike back with offers to make data centers more efficient and secure. Then VMware tried to create its own cloud service, but it failed. In the end, opposing the cloud was a losing battle and Gelsinger completely changed strategy, pairing VMware with services from Amazon and Microsoft and creating software that helped customers migrate to the cloud.
“Simply put, customers are asking us to do more together,” said Gelsinger Fortune in August 2019 explaining the case with Microsoft Azure. It further sketch his philosophy in another interview with Fortune in April 2019. “If you don’t get in the face of these transition waves, you’re driftwood,” Gelsinger said. “You have to get on the right part of the wave and have that energy pull you forward.”
In-depth engineering experience has helped Gelsinger identify trends like the cloud, which should help him lead the ship at Intel. A few years ago he invented an acronym for what he considered the most important trends of the time, even though it was an acronym only an engineer could love: SOMOCLOBAT. It meant social, mobile, cloud and big data networks.
Intel has struggled in many of these areas, particularly on mobile. Gelsinger will need more than a few more acronyms to be successful.
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