Andrew McAfee

Principal Research Scientist, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

The Geek Way

The Geek Way

Aside from being a proud geek, Andrew McAfee is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He studies how digital technologies are changing the world.

By: Daniel de Wolff

A self-avowed geek, Andy McAfee is intrigued by how technology changes the world—particularly the business world. In his words, an elevator-pitch description of his research focus goes like this: “Technological progress impacts everything—business models, competition, wages, even our relationship with the environment. I’m fundamentally interested in how technology changes “X,” and “X” varies.”

While doing research for his latest book, The Geek Way (Little, Brown), McAfee became convinced that the most important new technology to emerge in recent decades is an innovation in the company itself. "A company is a technology. A technology is a thing that humans create to help us shape the world. That applies to a hammer; it very clearly applies to a company as well.”

And technology has infused the business world. Every industry is technologically intensive. Look at Domino’s Pizza—its former CEO famously referred to the pie-slinging company as “technology disruptors.” It would be laughable if it weren’t accurate.

Armed with the idea that every industry is now high-tech—a good starting point for gleaning insight into best practices for any business in any industry—to McAfee, it made sense to study the lessons and trajectories of the most experienced and best-performing businesses in the high-tech sector. Geographically, that meant zeroing in on Silicon Valley. Here, Silicon Valley is shorthand for Northern California, something McAfee makes clear by using air quotes when referring to the region.

Before diving into his definition of geekdom, he acknowledges that some of the bigger names (e.g., SpaceX and Amazon) don’t fit the geographical mold. Nor is he naïve enough to believe that everything coming out of Silicon Valley is gold or even good (e.g., Theranos). But, says McAfee, Silicon Valley (still in air quotes), has given the company a significant upgrade.

“I found it striking that many of the companies I was studying were founded by good old geeks,” he says. “To clarify, for me, ‘geek’ is a term of praise. I want to take that word and bring it into new territory to describe not just getting good at computers but getting good more broadly.”

for me, ‘geek’ is a term of praise. I want to take that word and bring it into new territory to describe not just getting good at computers but getting good more broadly


Geeks, says McAfee, have two main characteristics. First, they are tenacious—pitbulls intent on finding solutions to tough problems. Second, they do not give a damn about the status quo. They are pleased to be as unconventional as necessary to implement their solutions. To illustrate the point, McAfee trots out a line penned by Jeff Bezos in a letter to shareholders when Amazon went public: “…inventing and pioneering involves a willingness to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”

McAfee loves that line. “It’s a terrific summary of the geek ethos,” he says.  In The Geek Way, McAfee posits that much geek success can be attributed to their ability to address classic dysfunctions that plague(d) industrial-era companies; things like bureaucracy and a risk-averse culture of silence that insists on protecting the status quo, stifling the exchange of ideas.

McAfee references the “Culture 500” research conducted by MIT Professors Donald and Charles Sull. Using machine learning, they gathered and parsed employee reviews posted on Glassdoor to systematically explore corporate culture. Among the topics they studied, McAfee was most interested in measures of innovation, execution, and agility. In his mind, these are the qualities most clearly tied to performance. And it just so happens that geek companies excel in these three areas.

McAfee mentions Netflix, the former DVD-by mail service that turned the entertainment industry on its head. “Netflix fundamentally changed the competitive dynamics, the economics of this longstanding, well-entrenched industry. And it was not founded by a Hollywood insider. Reed Hastings was a computer geek. He asked, ‘How can companies avoid becoming more sclerotic as they age? How do I keep myself from making big mistakes?’”

The CEO’s solution gets to the heart of the geek way, but not without a stumble. At a certain point, Hastings cleaved his company in two. The idea: a separate company for streaming, a separate company for DVD’s. Customers did more than bristle at paying for two subscriptions and managing two lists. It was a disaster, and Netflix lost 75 percent of its market capitalization. When Hastings abandoned the idea, his post-mortem included a deep dive into why none of his colleagues called him out for his mistake. Unsurprisingly, he discovered what we are constantly rediscovering—employees are reluctant to disagree with their bosses.

A technology It's hard to build a culture of open discussion and speaking truth to power

“It’s hard to build a culture of open discussion and speaking truth to power,” says McAfee. In The Geek Way, he details Hastings’ trials and tribulations on the path to establishing a sustainable culture of open communication at Netflix by emphasizing the importance of integrating group-level habits and policies.

McAfee identifies what geek companies do that allows them to pull away from the competition. “What makes them simultaneously agile and innovative in their execution? What are they doing beyond offering free food and foosball tables? A lot of my work was to distill what I think the major differences are. And in the book, I devote a chapter to each of the four great geek norms: science, ownership, speed, and openness.”

His favorite example of the geek way in action at MIT, which he calls a “very geek-rich environment,” is a course called “How to make almost anything,” taught by the founder of the Institute’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Neil Gershenfeld. Gershenfeld teaches his students how to use a variety of tools, from laser cutters to fiber cutters, from 2-D and 3-D software to basic programming; he teaches how to mold and metal cast, how to work with materials as diverse as cardboard, plywood, and ceramics, not to mention how to program embedded devices.

“Neil is willing to be unconventional to accomplish his objectives. And his objectives are to teach people how to build almost anything and give them that confidence for the rest of their careers,” McAfee says. Beyond Gershenfeld’s unconventional approach (a core element of the geek way), the course taps into one of McAfee’s four geek norms. He calls it “speed,” but admits that “cadence” is a more precise term. It has to do with the pace of iteration: build quickly, get feedback quickly, and adjust where necessary.

But McAfee’s new book doesn’t just explain the geek ethos and its norms, it takes aim at understanding why the geek way is successful. The ‘why does it work?’ question became his obsession. A chance encounter with a burgeoning discipline called “cultural evolution” provided an answer: while biological evolution pertains to every living thing, humans are unique in that we also experience a cultural evolution.

McAfee expands, “We are the only species on the planet that cooperates intently in large numbers with people who are not our kin. This, coupled with the fact that we can learn so quickly—that’s what gets us to the spaceship stage. One way to think about innovation is that it increases the pace of cultural evolution in the right direction. Can we get better at, in this case, giving customers what they want or figuring out what they want?”

Which brings us to McAfee’s take on MIT ILP. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for ILP’s ability to connect companies with academics for—I’ll use my phrase here—the purpose of faster cultural evolution. We need to help companies innovate faster. We need to help them become more agile. We need to help them execute. We need to increase the pace of their cultural evolution.”