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John McAfee discusses his drift from AV through American Indian folklore and on to the next big 'killer app'.
The quiet revolution of John McAfee
by Chris Henson
Think of him as the Jonas Salk of the digital world.
These days when you fire up your PC, download an e-mail attachment, or open a Microsoft Word file with a mysterious macro, your first line of defense - your vaccine - against a computer virus is some sort of anti-virus software. And it's probably McAfee ViruScan.
As in John McAfee. Roanoke College Class of '67.
As the business world has lunged into technology, from simple spreadsheets to e-commerce, and from word-processing to wide area networking, John McAfee has been there. His computer virus protection software, first given away free to users, turned into one of the first great Internet success stories and made 'McAfee' a household name that glows brightly each time a protected PC starts up.
Something of an upstart, arguably he created the anti-virus industry single-handedly. His years as a math major at Roanoke instilled in him a 'love of learning,' something more valuable to a technology visionary than computing skills. He cites his liberal arts education as the foundation of his ability to adapt to changing technology. Now a confirmed Internet junkie, he spends his days watching the web, generating ideas, looking for the next big thing. And it's a safe bet he'll find it-and he'll probably turn a profit.
When he first dreamed up his now universal computer-virus-thwarting software, McAfee was at home ill...with a virus. The human kind. 'If you're thinking of illness,' he says smiling, 'the world around you looks sick.' Born in England and raised in the Roanoke Valley McAfee was a systems architect at Lockheed in the mid-eighties. But on that tired and feverish day he was considering a relatively new phenomenon, the appearance of a computer virus named 'Pakistani Brain.' It was a program written to destroy data files on a personal computer's hard drive while replicating itself by moving on to another PC via floppy disk.
Then it occurred to him. Why not make a business out of ridding computers of these viruses? He left Lockheed in 1987 and started McAfee Associates while he was driving across the country in a Winnebago collecting samples of virus code and then fixing them manually.
From fix to fixture
McAfee offered his first virus detection and prevention software to the personal computing public, mostly students at the time, as a form of shareware, or free software that could be passed around without fear of copyright infringement. 'People would send me checks,' says McAfee. 'And I would return them.'
A student of the sixties McAfee seemed to enjoy the Spartan lifestyle of those early years. 'I have always been a very frugal person,' he says. 'Even today. I underpay and scrimp. So I had always had a reasonably-sized nest egg to tide me over in times when I happened to need it.'
By the late eighties ViruScan had been downloaded from Internet bulletin boards into ubiquity. The next step was to sell the popular software to the corporate world. By offering licensing for the program in exchange for future updates to keep virus protection current, McAfee Associates began to generate income.
As the notoriety of computer viruses and their effects grew, and as the business community became more dependent upon computers, networks, and the Internet, the rogue programs became perceived as less of a nuisance and more of a threat to global digital commerce. Could it be possible that a tiny, invisible program could move so fast and far - and wreak such havoc - that a corporation could become crippled by it?
The trick was to change the traditional view of shareware. 'The concept of shareware has actually been around for quite awhile,' says McAfee. 'I just twisted the concept. It had been traditionally a method to provide software to 'techie' home users. Businesses would never want it. It was not even 'real' software. I decided it was time for businesses to embrace shareware.
'Anything that clogs up the channel of distribution or slows down the dissemination of anything - knowledge, software, water, food - is a negative. So my goal was to target American and international businesses rather than home users. My goal was to get the corporate environment to use it, and so the challenge I had was to change the corporate mindset from 'shareware is not real software' to 'shareware is the only software.''
Meanwhile, McAfee brought a message to the computing public, through the media, that viruses would only get worse, that millions of PCs would be rendered useless. Sales continued to grow.
On March 5, 1992 the computing world held onto its motherboards as the 'Michaelangelo Virus' delivered its dated payload. On that date it was scheduled to dump the memory of every hard drive it had infected, believed to be millions of computers around the world.
'Michaelangelo' was painted as a potential economy-crippling bug (sound familiar?). Businesses and individuals scrambled to protect their data from the digital onslaught. And there was John McAfee, by then a familiar face in the doom-and-gloom virtual world of viruses.
When 'Michaelangelo' fizzled, the media took a second look at the hype generated by McAfee Associates. 'I'm probably the most controversial character in the software industry,' McAfee has been quoted as saying. 'It's my business style.'
And it worked. McAfee Associates business doubled to a reported $6.3 million that year. In 1993 he took the company public and raised nearly $50 million. When McAfee sold his interest in McAfee Associates in 1994 he 'retired' with an estimated $100 million fortune.
Love of learning
You won't find him in the Rawenoch, or the Brackety-Ack. He was a quiet presence on the Roanoke College campus, majoring in mathematics, minoring in invisibility. His former teachers and classmates all but scratch their heads when trying to recall him.
But his is the first name that comes to mind in the anti-virus world now. It's a phenomenon he attributes in part to the relationships he developed with his teachers at Roanoke, and the cross-discipline advantages of a liberal arts education.
'If [Roanoke College] had a computer course, I was not aware of it,' says McAfee. 'I knew nothing about computer science. What Roanoke College provided me was an umbrella and an opportunity. You have the umbrella that isolates you from reality; that is, the world outside. The college campus is the most magical place on earth because you get to create a reality of your own making, and it is molded and shaped by your professors, by your curriculum, and by the rules and regulations that you must live by. But beyond that, it's what a person makes of that freedom that molds his or her entire life.
'For me, I was very fortunate. I happened to be in the classes of some very special professors - Professors Bondurant and Rikard, Colonel Moushigan and Bill Ergle, for instance - that gave me an ethic of knowing which has stuck with me. And that ethic has kept me interested in my profession and everything that touches it.'
It's not so much the information or the knowledge one gets in a formal education that matters according to McAfee. That's because knowledge becomes obsolete very quickly, especially in computer science. 'I don't know anything that I learned ten years ago that is still valid today,' he says. 'What is of value is the longing for knowing, and that can be taught in a biology class or a philosophy class or a religion class.
'If there is something that happens where the student sees the spark of mystery to knowledge, that is where a piece of information or a structure that finally comes together opens for them a new universe and a new possibility of experiencing the world. Then they will continue to try to seek out situations where they fulfill themselves intellectually and through knowing. I think it has more to do with the professor than anything. A professor can instill into the student the awesome mystery of the world, and that every piece we pick up and examine makes that world more meaningful and more beautiful. And that's what I was fortunate enough at Roanoke College to have imbued to me.'
A home in the mountains
After leaving the anti-virus business John McAfee built a house on an outcropping overlooking Pike's Peak in Woodland Park, Colorado. Enormous windows in every room of the adobe chalet offer an unencumbered view of the snow-capped mountain. He purchased the 400 acres of forest and ridges to insure his solitary view remains undeveloped. Inside, his home is adorned with several centuries' worth of artifacts, statues, paintings, and furniture.
There are five rustic log cabins on his property, for getting away or for guests. As he drives his Dodge Durango past one he points to a frozen lake 30 feet from a cabin's front door. A huge log has been rolled into the center of the ice. 'Bears,' he says. 'They're always playing around here.'
Now in his fifties, McAfee rises each morning at 4:30, brushes his teeth and goes to his computer. 'I get e-mail from all over the world,' he explains. 'No matter where you are, it's always morning somewhere.' He'll spend two hours going through e-mail, and researching websites or business opportunities. Then he does yoga and meditates, after which he calls his wife at their home in California. 'I don't believe your mind can be agile without physical fitness,' he says. After breakfast comes his daily two-to-three-hour hike and weight training. He then stays on his computer until 8:30 or so in the evening. His is a quiet presence on that mountaintop.
In 1997 McAfee reentered the tech business world with a new company, TribalVoice, and a new product, PowWow. The idea was to create Internet 'communities' through more organized chat. By incorporating buddy lists that alert users as to which friends are currently online, sophisticated white pages, and instant messaging, McAfee sought to bring together a lot of separate pieces offered by different internet providers like AOL, under one virtual roof. What was initially developed by a team of young 'outlaw geeks' holed up in offices above a movie theater in Woodland Park, turned into a full-scale corporation in relatively short order.
Like before, McAfee offered PowWow on the Net for free, hoping to spark a corporate need and recreate his earlier success.
'Success is relative in any endeavor,' says McAfee now. 'The Internet has proved to be a far more dynamic and fast-paced environment than software in the pre-Internet world. Competition has been far more fierce.
'And the competition seems to be a lot younger. One of the characteristics of young people is they are nimble both intellectually and physically. So you have to go back to things like experience, and you now have a war of experience versus nimbleness, and which wins out? It's a fifty-fifty game.
'We have five million users. In the pre-Internet world that would have been a success on a monumental basis. Today, that's a 'ho-hum.' So I have spent five years building a 'ho-hum.' There are some monumental players in the Internet arena, AOL of course being the largest with fifty million users. But that's not to say PowWow was a failure. Five million people are certainly nothing to scoff at. I had hoped for a greater success. And I'm certainly not slowing down, and I'm moving on into the next project.'
McAfee sold his stake in TribalVoice in November of last year for an undisclosed amount. For the time being, he is content to dabble in venture capital, looking primarily at - what else? - the Internet. 'The focus has shifted to security again,' he says. 'With DSL and cable Internet connections, where a computer is logged on permanently, it's much easier for hackers to get at your PC and do damage.'
Computer Genius 101
Over the years McAfee has met a lot of young genius programmers. He feels there is a certain romanticism attached to the 'code warriors' creating the Net's software today. It goes beyond the eye-reddening, ninety-plus-hour work weeks, beyond workaholism. The kids creating the new Internet are single-handedly fashioning new worlds. And sparking fierce competition.
The results are Internet companies like E-bay or Napster where the nature of commerce is being changed and challenged. 'If your technical talent and your creative genius is spending ninety hours a week on the job, then your competition might as well pack it in and shine shoes,' he says. 'And that has simply been the modus operandi of all successful Internet companies. This has been a natural evolution of what these kids want to do with their lives. Many of them find technology to be the supreme goal, ahead of things like dating, movies, beer parties, or a life. I mean, their life is the technology.
'Software engineering is one of these few fields where there is a huge differentiation between one programmer and another. There literally are programmers who can do fifty times the work of another programmer. They're both smart. It's just that one happens to live programming. They sleep programming. They breathe programming. And as a result, it becomes so much second nature, they are able to manifest their ideas into reality - that is programs - into a miraculously short amount of time. And so, four or five of these people are worth an entire IBM corporation.'
McAfee sees the computer as an endless palette for furtile young minds. 'This is the first time a sixteen-year-old boy or girl can learn a simple process called software engineering and through that, create something absolutely magnificent. By taking numbers and putting them in a certain sequence and a certain order on the screen can be a three-dimensional world of their creation. They become little gods and goddesses in a certain way. They create worlds. It doesn't have to be a three-dimensional world, it can be a world of finance or a world of communication, and one person can do that. One person can't build a car or even design a car. One person can't build an airplane. But one person can build a software program which looks as complex as a Boeing 747. So this is why we have 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds who work ninety hours a week and sleep under their desk. It's their work that provides meaning for them.'
For the rest of us McAfee feels there are a few other now-basic skills every college graduate should have in order to work with technology, whatever the career. 'Learn to type, number one,' he advises. 'Every college graduate, no matter what field he or she is going into, should be an outstanding typist. I am not, I wish I were.
'Number two: You should have your own computer, and you should be so dependent upon that computer that if you do not have access to it, you feel lost and insecure. And how you want to do that is entirely up to you, but you should have that relationship with your laptop, or your computer, or whatever. Without that relationship, you are not going to be able to keep up with that changing environment inside the world that you are connected to through that computer.
'Beyond that, you know, do whatever you wish.'
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