Growing up, the dinner table talk in Mark Papermaster’s (B.S. ECE 1982) family gravitated toward science – what seems like an unconventional topic of conversation until you find out his father, Dr. Ben Papermaster, was a noted cancer researcher and a nascent leader in the field of immunology. The conversations Mark and his dad had spurred Mark’s curiosity, teaching him the importance of asking questions and seeking out — or developing your own — answers.

Now, with an engineering career that spans nearly four decades and is marked by tremendous leadership and product advancement, he is the chief technology officer and executive vice president of technology and engineering at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), where he is responsible for corporate technical direction, product development including system-on-chip (SOC) methodology, microprocessor design, input/output and memory, and advanced research. We sat down with him to get his thoughts on leadership, taking risks and the importance of investing in future generations.

Mark Papermaster portrait

How did you know you wanted to be an engineer?

When you’re younger, you don’t really think about specific degree paths. Rather, you just naturally gravitate to doing what you enjoy. I found, growing up, that I loved problem solving and fixing things – I would disassemble and reassemble things around the house for fun. As I continued through my school curriculum, I was very fortunate to have some pivotal teachers who really opened up mathematics to me, which is when I discovered my love for math. The final piece of the puzzle was when I worked a summer job in high school for an electrical engineer who was working on research and applying math…and using engineering to solve the problems. That was a light-bulb moment for me, because I realized engineering, and specifically electrical engineering, combined the two things I love – problem solving and math. And, it would give me the opportunity to work with lots of people and take on big problems.

What choices did you make in college that helped you get where you are now?

Although the vast majority of my core classes were engineering- and technology-related, I made it a point to choose electives in areas completely outside of technology. I took classes in history and global civilization and similar areas. I think it’s very important for engineers to make sure they are well-rounded, because equally as important as your ability to solve problems is your ability to have empathy and truly listen to and understand society around you. If you want to have an impact, it’s crucial you are aware of where your skills as an engineer fit into the broader picture.

When you joined AMD, you made big changes that ultimately led to tremendous success. When you stepped into your role and began to implement those changes, how did you navigate such high-stakes risks?

It’s important to listen and learn so you understand what is working and what is not working. But you also have to move quickly to develop a strategy and communicate that strategy. Big change happens when you have buy-in on a vision, to the new “North Star.”

For AMD, our new North Star was taking our entire product line into high-performance products so we could be leaders in industry – essentially re-engineering how we performed engineering at AMD. It’s a bit like driving a car down the road at 70 mph and doing maintenance on the car while you’re driving – it’s a heavy lift. It takes everyone working together, and I applaud the AMD team for rallying to the cause in such a phenomenal way.

What has been the most rewarding part of your career?

There’s no question: The most rewarding part of my 35+ years in industry has been the fantastic people I’ve been able to work with. That’s what it’s all about. What you find over the years is when you want to solve problems and make big things happen, it’s really all about the people. Nobody can do anything on their own; that’s not how engineering happens. As somebody in a leadership position, it’s incredibly rewarding to see other people thrive and to know I’ve had a part in helping them have greater impact.

In your recent talk with our Texas Engineering community, you expressed the importance of leaning into challenges and your belief that “passion drives innovation.” What specific challenges have you faced throughout your career, and how did you overcome them? And how has passion been reflected throughout your career?

It’s so important to show vulnerability and that means recognizing your challenges, leaning into them and talking openly about them. As a leader, you won’t have all of the answers, but you do have to know the questions, and it’s your responsibility to help your team answer those questions while putting structure around solving the problem. When you do that, you are naturally creating an environment of collaboration where people aren’t worried about what others are thinking as much as they are collectively committed to working together to innovate. Communication and collaboration are fundamental to being an effective engineer, and frankly, effective in most walks of life.

Passion is the driving force to really accomplishing your goals. My recommendation for any student about to start the rest of their working life is to find an area you truly have a passion for, because then all the other facets that enable success will naturally fall into place. When you have passion, you’re going to bring an energy level to what you do. You’re going to want to ask questions. You’re going to want to innovate. When you bring passion to whichever walk of life you choose, it brings out the best in you and it brings out the best in others.

You have established multiple endowments to support students and the Cockrell School’s electrical and computer engineering department. Why is it important for you to invest in the next generation of engineering leaders?

I think it’s important for everyone to do what they can to invest in the future, whether that’s mentoring and reaching out to students, or sharing any life lessons or industry lessons you’ve learned along your journey. If you’re able to give to help institutions of learning do the best they can, that’s an additional way to make an impact. We all share the responsibility to give back however we can to future generations.