A Detour at Intel
1983-1984
Greg Bryant


Greg Bryant at Intel Headquarters (aka SC4)

I was hired into Intel as a Unix guru with microprocessor expertise --
by a sharp, and ultimately successful, insurgent group at Intel's 
global headquarters in Santa Clara. Like many guerilla groups, they
had many supporters among the oppressed people, and even some secret
comrades up the management ladder.

This insurgency, and other tempests in a teapot, took place mostly on the top floor
of a rather small two-story building. This activity had world-changing consequences 
only because of the vast monies and energies focused on this particular engine, 
Intel, within the computer industry. The executives who founded Intel were NOT 
influential because they were brilliant. They were brilliant, but that's beside 
the point. They were successful because they'd been seduced by 'the drive to win',
and took advantage of opportunities to grow their portfolios of technology, power,
and finance. They built armies to serve the establishment. They happily helped to
grow industry and empire, no matter the cost to the world. They sucked up the
brightest people and nature's precious resources for power and profit, justified 
by convenient collective delusions of human progress. They weren't the only ones
deluded in this way, of course. The 20th and 21st centuries have been full of 
unleashed, uninhibited tech daddies, a fate I managed to turn away from, but whose 
temptations I felt quite clearly. If you look at it in a totally selfish light, 
becoming a tech plutocrat seems like the only liberation available, in a world of 
alienation produced by extreme capitalism which, at that point, had already been 
extreme for a hundred years. Today, everyone is becoming aware that capitalist
industrial growth is burning the planet.

Gordon Moore, famous for observing the pace of this destruction, was the CEO,
and he would stalk the floor restlessly. He'd regularly pull a mildly displeased
face at me for purposefully not wearing my badge ... but he would not tell me
to put it on. At that point, he wasn't completely sure if badges were a sufficiently 
important issue to lose a good engineer over. That would change.

Everyone at Intel was working too hard. And they suffocated in an impossibly
bureaucratic, autocratic, and sterile office-political atmosphere. It was 
managerial, hierarchical, irrational, and dull. Unions were forbidden, and
co-operation, even for the good of the company, was covert. There was a 
patronizing, soul-sucking marketing campaign to teach everyone the 
'Intel culture'. A culture where creativity, innovation, opportunity,
mutual aid, and human qualities were stifled at every turn.

Luckily, my immediate co-workers agreed with my assessment: that secret rebel group.
But the engineering challenges were consuming our attention. We found a new way of
producing microprocessors, while stitching together computing power to do the work. The 80386 
wouldn't have been buildable without Unix -- itself a covert project within a different
tyrannical corporation -- as well as countless notions imported into electronic engineering 
from the world of software. This work required tireless, diligent reasoning, systems-level 
rationality, and relentless bug-killing.

Here's a typical email from one of the rebels: a 22-year-old Pat Gelsinger.
I served as a technical consultant for a corporate-wide migration of engineering
to Unix, pushed by the rebels. I was constantly offering ideas, making observations, 
and debating, alongside a nauseatingly unproductive and unsubtle divide-and-conquer 
mechanism promulgated by the executive management: 'constructive confrontation'. 
Which was only confrontation, and never constructive. Still, it wasn't hard for us
to win these arguments, because we were borrowing many successful software principles
and deploying them for the first time to chip design. All of that is laudable,
but most of my time at Intel was spent working with Gelsinger and others to cobble
together a custom heterogenous network of Unix machines to improve our computing
performance, to move the 386 or 'p3' project forward:



Although there were certainly brilliant people at Intel, the insanity of the organization
itself drove me crazy by osmosis. I resigned in the middle of an additional
storm of stupidity from the outside, when IBM had decided that 32-bit computers
(including the 386) were overpowered for desktop machines ... and so they wouldn't be 
using the chip at all! They also saw no merit in the microprocessor group's work
on the backwards-compatibility of executable software, for which we forcefully advocated,
a lesson learned in part from portability issues that arose in the unix world
(I was a C portability consultant prior to this job, so I longed for compatible
hardware advancements). These simple ideas were not yet on the radar of
the establishment executives.

Desperate, Pat Gelsinger and three senior rebels took me out to lunch, after I gave my notice.

In the tradition of Intel's 'renegades' -- who left one startup to start another, and left
that one to start Intel -- they begged me to start a super-rational company, building 32-bit 
machines with the 386 after it was released, that could run all known software -- and then 
hire them away from Intel! They were appealing to various arguments I'd made over my time
there, including the need to deprecate technologies that survived only because they were proprietary.

But deep down, they just thought I'd be a fun CEO, because I don't believe that anyone
should indulge the fantasy that they could 'manage people'. Instead, people must work 
together to manage the project, and if possible, decide what it is. Because that's what
happens in successful projects anyway. Management is deluded if they think otherwise.
It's better to clear away the whiff of autocracy and get on with cooperative action.

But, I asked them: Why help Intel out of its stupor? Why take advantage of an obtuse IBM? 
Why promulgate computing at all? It's a dirty business, making chips and boxes, despite
its PR-cultivated post-industrial image. We were all fighting within the industry, but we weren't
fighting to stop its problems. Is that doing the right thing? We fought out of frustration, and a
sense of injustice, because we were at the bottom, and the people at the bottom know better
than the people at the top. We were drawn to the technical problem of forcing 'business people',
and even former engineers like our executives, to understand reality. But was that worthwhile?
There's no right answer. It depends on the situation, of course. But we need to openly discuss it.

I also told them that, based on the examples I'd seen, I might become a worse person if I was
to become a CEO.

So I said no.

So, they all stayed at Intel, and fought. Compaq decided to take that opportunity or risk on the 386. 
The rebel project I'd helped for nearly two years ultimately became the most influential computer 
chip in history: the 80386, the microprocessor inspired by unix software practices.

And, after several exits and returns, Pat Gelsinger is CEO of Intel now.



Above: Early Internet email gymnastics. In 1983, Pat Gelsinger offers his account to Greg Bryant
so he could correspond with people on unix's informal uucpnet, the largest network of computers at the time.
This is months after the Internet's adoption of TCP/IP.