📖 Book Review: The Geek Way - The Radical Mindset That Drives Extraordinary Results
Andrew McAfee's new framing on why tech ate the world
Summary: Adam reviews the 🔥 new business book that is all the rage in the hallways of tech right now. The final verdict: A great read for those new to the industry & it inspires good questions about where our culture should go next.
Am I a geek? At 15, the Doom-playing, PC-building, 12-sided-dice-using, varsity-academic-team-member that was me would have said yes. I was part of the first 0.1% of the people on the planet to use the Internet - my tinkering was 1990’s geek-fueled counterculture and part of my identity.
Now in my 40’s, well, a lot of what made me a geek back then has gone mainstream. We are in the Golden Age of geek-built tech, I am in a profession that is as close to tinkering with Legos as you can get, and I play Legends of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom with my two daughters. But it’s all so aligned with what many think is the default success pattern in life now.
Andrew McAfee’s new book - The Geek Way - would say that it’s not me that has changed; I’m just as much of a geek as ever. It’s just the rest of the world that has caught up - and the definition of “geek” has expanded to be a much bigger tent, with a long tail of things in the world that anyone can geek out about, including how to build a business.
McAfee dives into the success patterns of the geek-built company, its culture, and its operating model. From Netflix’s famous Culture Deck to the story of how Microsoft Hit Refresh, The Geek Way is a tour through some of the most famous cultural principles of tech-driven companies.
Let’s take a deeper look at one of the Books of the Year by both The Economist and Forbes.
The Four Norms of Geekdom
Like any good business book, The Geek Way has a list to help frame the thesis. McAfee proposes four norms to a geek-built company: Science, openness, speed, and ownership. Let me describe each and share my own lived experience with them.
What it is: Geek-driven cultures prioritize metrics, data & output-driven thinking paired with rigorous scientific inquiry and debate. Tinkering, experimentation, and curiosity are all prized above edicts and command/control.
Where it comes from: Early geek culture prioritized learning, curiosity, and the fun of sharing facts and debating. It’s about turning that childlike need to explore into a coherent system of decision making.
My experience with this: Clearly anyone in tech is familiar with metrics-driven product making, especially in the SaaS era. What I love about McAfee’s framing here, though, is the core frame of “science” instead of just “data.” I like that reframe because it captures the biggest nuance that I see in my life: metrics can tell whatever story you want them to. So you must pair metrics with a culture of inquiry, curiosity, and healthy candor. Being metrics-driven is a social activity that still requires driving consensus, just like the scientific method.
What it is: Openness is about embracing failure, avoiding fake success narratives, rejecting conformity and group-think, driving transparency, and making everyone invested in the success of an organization by inviting everyone to perform their own analysis. It often involves the radical sharing of data.
Where it comes from: Geek culture was counter-culture - it was about being different, not conforming to societal norms, and accepting people for how l33t they are more than anything else. Openness translates those roots into a culture where hierarchy matters less and there is a constant hunt for the best idea and decision.
My experience with this: I’ve always worked in transparent cultures and prided myself on the grind and rigor required to develop that transparency. McAfee’s reminder to ask for dissent (with cool stories about companies who require a process of written pre-mortems on any idea) was inspirational. I’ve also found transparency to underdeliver results as an organization and project scales as people get too overwhelmed by so much data. It requires a commitment from busy people to look outside their swim lanes.
What it is: “Observe, orient, decide, act” and then repeat. Geek-driven companies prioritize learning, iteration, and fast cycle-time. They were born from the ashes of waterfall software projects that are constantly late and especially susceptible to the last 10% of a project taking longer than the first 90%.
Where it comes from: I actually thought the relationship to geek culture here to be weak. It just comes from empirical analysis of how to build great software vs. anything inherently “geeky.”
My experience with this: Speed is highly relative to the business problem and tech stack I’ve worked in. The fastest projects in my career were the ones starting with a fresh code base; not every project has that luxury. So I’ve always seen this less as some finish line (“Yay, we are fast enough now!”) and more about prioritizing a constant improvement in decision and execution velocity. I especially try to prioritize quick decisions on so called “49%/51%” problems where the difference between two paths is small. I also try to ask “Is this a one way door?” as a way of crystalizing how much time to spend on a decision which could be reversed easily.
What it is: Ownership is about a culture of autonomy and avoiding “proxies” that are distanced from the real results (e.g. the activity of a status report is a proxy for actually completing the project which is a proxy for sales lift).
Where it comes from: Geek culture was rooted in a being on the outside of the social and hierarchical power structure. Once on the inside, it’s rooted in avoiding the bureaucracy that is seen as toxic to individuality and autonomy.
My experience with this: I apply McAfee’s lessons here to my x-team work, as my job is mostly to build software sold as part of a larger suite, with the high coordination cost that entails. My strongest x-team relationships are rooted in this ownership mentality and in particular creating bonds between “a network of do’ers” instead of a hub/spoke model where a central hub feeds out work to spoke teams.
I Was Left Wanting More
In some ways, McAfee’s book left some of the most important questions unsolved, especially on where the future of geek culture needs to evolve and whether it gate keeps too much. If geek culture created the Golden Age of tech, how does it need to be augmented and changed for stewardship of what’s been created? Here’s questions I was left asking:
How well does geek-culture build software that reflects and improves humanity? It clearly captures economic results, but does it drive the empathy & inclusion that is required now that it’s on the world stage? What can geek-driven culture learn from other operating models?
Who thrives in this culture? What are the cultural weaknesses? McAfee focused on business results, but not employee wellness and development. How do the cultural norms need to be augmented to ensure more people can succeed inside the culture? Despite a couple pages on psychological safety, McAfee didn’t fully explore how wells those who “didn’t grow up a geek” can survive and thrive in these cultures.
What role do the humanities play in product making? Given how critical my Design relationships are in my work life - and how terrible the business outcomes have been for companies who don’t prioritize superior design - it feels like a real miss to not frame how the best run tech companies have incorporated humanities into their product making processes.
The Geek Way is most useful to folks new to tech or outside the tech bubble. Folks who already subscribe to Ben Thompson and Benedict Evans will find it surface level and the famous stories familiar. Yet regardless, it’s an important crystallization of key trends that matter deeply to product making in the 2020’s and forces us to ask important questions about what’s next for geek driven companies, how we adapt to a changing role in the world, and how to ensure the cultural norms work for all, not just geeks.