The resignation of Intel’s chief over a moral infraction is an astounding act of ethics

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A quite remarkable thing happened in the tech world last week, that would be even more astounding if it occurred to South African politicians and business people to do the same.

Brian Krzanich, the chief executive of Intel, resigned last week after the semiconductor chip maker’s board found he “had a past consensual relationship with an Intel employee”.

It’s an entirely unexpected end to an otherwise stellar career by the 58-year-old Krzanich, who has been fighting to make Intel relevant in the post-PC world. He has been pushing to transform the chipmaker from making the processors that are used in PCs to make chips used in data centres and mobile phones. Named CEO in May 2013, he has overseen a 120% rise in its share price. He earned $21m last year.

But earlier this year Intel was hit with a massive scandal when two fundamental security vulnerabilities called Spectre and Meltdown were revealed that could open chips designed by Intel – and competitors AMD and ARM – to being hacked.

Intel said in a statement last week that “an ongoing investigation by internal and external counsel has confirmed a violation of Intel’s non-fraternization policy, which applies to all managers. Given the expectation that all employees will respect Intel’s values and adhere to the company’s code of conduct, the Board has accepted Mr. Krzanich’s resignation.”

Imagine that. The CEO of one of the most iconic firms in the computer age, the company that – along with Microsoft – made computers part of our everyday life, stepped down because of this relationship. Intel created the silicon processors that gave us personal computers. Intel is part of the firmament of our digital world.

For the CEO of such a firm to resign over a “past consensual relationship” which reportedly ended before the married Krzanich got the top job because it violated the company’s “non-fraternization policy” is frankly remarkable.

Intel wants to let the world know that it has ethics and integrity, even if it means sacrificing its own CEO. And it’s hardly a period of plain sailing for Intel and other chipmakers, who have been under pressure as more consumer opt for smartphones and not traditional computers.

In the last few years Qualcomm has stolen the limelight for its powerful mobile processors, while AMD’s Radeon graphics cards are used to mine cryptocurrencies and reportedly earned the chipmaker 10% of its first-quarter revenue.

Meanwhile, Apple is rumoured to start making its own chips in-house by 2020 – it already uses its own A-series of processors in iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and HomePod speakers. When these rumours of a shift away from Intel – which Steve Jobs famously adopted in 2006 – broke in April Intel shares dropped 6% but only lost 2% on the day when Krzanich resigned. That can’t be good for a CEO’s ego.

But just drink this in: imagine if South African business people or politicians conducted themselves according to a code of conduct with this much ethical backbone. Can you imagine a Steinhoff or KPMG director or a Cabinet minister who ordered another R1m luxury car behaving with such dignity by resigning?

If only.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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