Facebook returns a key product leader while Intel loses one

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We usually relegate the comings and goings of tech executives, even at the highest levels, to a little weekly section in Tuesday’s Data Sheet. Not today. The one big arrival and one big departure in the industry on Thursday have big implications. In the newspaper business, we’d say they belonged on page one, above the fold.

The arrival: Longtime Facebook engineer Chris Cox is returning to the social network after about a year away.

Cox quit last March when his title was chief product officer. After 13 years at Facebook, he was reportedly unenthused about CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to emphasize strong encryption across all of the company’s messaging products. “This will be a big project, and we will need leaders who are excited to see the new direction through,” Cox wrote at the time in a statement that didn’t exactly take a PhD in psychology to unpack.

Later reporting uncovered numerous projects Cox had championed to make Facebook’s platform less politically divisive and polluted with bad information–projects that Zuckerberg watered down or shelved. When Cox left, Facebook tried to fill the void with a handful of promotions, but no one can say the company has done a good job on cleaning up the divisive and misinformative content.

Thus the return, back with the title of chief product officer. And just in time, too, as Zuckerberg seems nearly overwhelmed by the current circumstances and unable to steer the company through the flood of crap floating on top of the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protests against racism and police brutality. Just on Thursday, the problems hit the headlines again when Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden blasted the company. As former Facebook board member Donald Graham told the Wall Street Journal on Cox’s return: “Chris’s return is the best news I could imagine for the company.”

The sudden departure: Chip giant Intel‘s Jim Keller, senior vice president and head of the silicon engineering group, is leaving for undisclosed “personal reasons.”

In a kind of mirror image of Cox’s career longevity at one shop, Keller left Intel after two years, which followed similarly short stints at Tesla and Advanced Micro Devices. He’s a Baby Boomer, but his resume is all Gen X, with eight stops in the past 20 or so years (Coincidentally, I, a true Gen Xer, also have eight stops over the same period). As one friend of the itinerant chip designer put it to me yesterday, it was always a question of “not if but when Jim is going to leave Intel.”

As you may know if you read my profile of Keller in Fortune a few weeks ago, the guy is a microprocessor design star on the level of Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid in building design. In just one year at AMD in the late 1990s, he helped produce some of the most innovative CPUs ever seen, co-wrote a standard still in use for data transport, and set up the company to beat Intel in the transition to 64-bit processors. At Apple in the mid 2000s, he helped build the company’s first in-house chips for the iPhone and iPad, then went back to AMD in 2012 to craft the basis of the now killing-it Zen processor.

Intel really really needed some of Keller’s star power. Waylaid by years of delays, missteps, and missed opportunities, Intel is in danger of being surpassed by a hoard of hungry competitors, including former Keller employers AMD and Apple. Apple’s imminent move off of Intel chips for its laptop and desktop computers is not just the latest sign of Intel’s problems, but could make them worse if the decision influences other PC makers to follow.

Intel’s chief engineering officer and group president Murthy Renduchintala, who helped bring Keller aboard, told employees in an email that the company was losing “a champion of our technologists” who had been “fearless in his pursuit of innovation.” Renduchintala added: “I am very sad to see him go and wish him well.”

Intel’s engineers, customers, and shareholders would no doubt agree.

Aaron Pressman


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