Maya Ajmera, President & CEO of the Society for Science and Publisher of Science News, chatted with Lisa Su, CEO of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), a multinational semiconductor company that develops computer processors and related technologies. Su is an alumna of the 1986 Science Talent Search (STS), a competition owned and produced by the Society for Science. She was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 2018 and was appointed to President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in 2021.
How did STS impact your life? You went to Bronx High School of Science, a school where many students have competed in STS over the years.
My STS project was the first large project that I completed on my own. It was ambitious, and it forced me to think broadly about what I wanted to work on for a few months. I also recall hoping that my project would amount to something. It was a great experience.
Was your project focused on engineering or mathematics?
I did a math project centered on number theory and how to think about math.
Growing up, your father was a mathematician and your mother was an accountant and an entrepreneur. Did your parents’ background and expertise shape your aspirations?
My parents had a large influence on how I grew up and how I spent my time. When I was in grade school, my father would quiz me in math tables after dinner. That’s how math became something that I enjoyed. I also enjoyed understanding how things work, especially physical things.
My brother had these model car toys that sometimes would stop working and I was interested in understanding why. I would open them up, take them apart and realize: “Oh, there’s a loose wire there. If I connect this wire, then the car will start working again.” So that was how I got into engineering and developed the desire to fix and work on things.
Beginning with your time as a student at MIT, much of your career has been spent improving semiconductor technology and leading teams in those efforts. When did you know that you wanted to focus on engineering? When did the business piece come into play?
MIT was a great experience and I enjoyed being surrounded by other people who had similar interests. I majored in electrical engineering, which was the most popular major as well as the most difficult major at the time.
I thought it was so cool that during our introductory classes, we were actually building circuits, building computers and programming things. I enjoyed that aspect of engineering.
My mother was an entrepreneur who started her own business, and I had a chance to observe her experience. When it came time to lead my own company, it was fun to put together both the process of building things and the process of running businesses.
Semiconductors are an essential component of nearly every electronic device. What is it about the field that continues to interest you? What keeps you excited and motivated?
The beauty of semiconductors is that they really do touch every aspect of your life. When I started in this field more than 25 years ago, it wasn’t that obvious. I don’t think everybody understood how important semiconductors were. Now, everything in our lives runs on processors built with semiconductors, including computers, phones and washing machines. What I found really interesting was that, through a process of basic fabrication, you are able to build something that’s very complex.
This field has continued to be as exciting as it was 25-plus years ago because we keep improving the capabilities of semiconductors. I love the idea that something I worked on or that we worked on as a team can show up in your house.
When you were named CEO of AMD, the company faced steep challenges. Since then, AMD has grown substantially and cemented itself as an industry leader. How did you get the company back on track?
In our industry, it’s all about making long-term bets. What was most important for me and for my team was having a long-term vision of where the semiconductor road map was going to go. We knew it would take three to five years to really see the results of some of the directional decisions that were made. Beyond that, sometimes it’s about deciding what you’re not going to do.
Less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs. As one of those leaders and the first female CEO of AMD, what do you think needs to happen to increase representation at the highest levels of industry?
First, there are fewer women in engineering than men. A lot of the work needs to be done in STEM education to expand access and bring women into the engineering workforce. While no one can guarantee career success, more opportunities are helpful.
I was helped along the way by people who gave me opportunities and put large problems in front of me. I am a big believer in giving women and underrepresented minorities, or frankly just high-potential people, really challenging opportunities early on in their career.
We’re not there yet — by a long shot — but I think there’s a lot more constructive dialog taking place now than there ever has been before.
Last year, you received the Robert N. Noyce medal, the highest honor bestowed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Looking back on your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am a product person through and through. So launching a new processor is probably my proudest moment. Out of all of the processors that I’ve launched during my career, probably the first generation of our Zen processor was my favorite. But honestly, they’re all like my kids, so I love all my products.
The nature and complexity of your work requires forecasting the needs of the market several years down the road. Where do you see the field of computing technology heading?
It is pretty much like a crystal ball, trying to figure out what’s going to happen over the next decade. I do think that there are several important computing trends, including high-performance computing, which is providing more performance at lower power, as well as artificial intelligence, which has an amazing array of applications. The other aspect is recognizing that for us to continue the pace of innovation that we’ve been experiencing, we need more interdisciplinary development — hardware folks working with software folks working with system designers — to really optimize the entire system.
Who inspired you as a young person, and who inspires you today?
That may be the same. My inspiration has always been my mother. She and my dad immigrated to the United States right after I was born, in 1969. Watching her work hard to build her own business and to build her life here in the United States was an inspiration and continues to be an inspiration to me. It’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it.
What advice do you have for young people just starting out in higher education or their careers?
I would encourage young people to dream big and be ambitious about what they can do. You have to dream it to actually achieve it. Plan your career, your education or your life in five-year segments. It’s hard to know where you want to be in 25 years, but you can certainly identify things you would like to accomplish in the next five years. Share those ambitions with people because they will want to help you if you’re open about your ambitions.
Lastly, the best piece of advice I got as a young engineer was from one of my mentors who advised me to run toward problems. You will learn an incredible amount. It’s been one of the best pieces of advice because, if you think about it, there are a lot of talented individuals in the world. But what you need is a combination of being smart, working hard and being in the right place at the right time. Running toward problems helps you be in the right place at the right time.