John McAfee’s Folly Was Founder Worship at Its Most Extreme

Bloomberg Technology reports on the self-destruction of a Silicon Valley icon in the podcast Foundering: The John McAfee Story.

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There was a distinct moment when John McAfee crossed the line from eccentric technology mogul to possible villain. It was when his neighbor was found with a gunshot wound to the head, and McAfee, facing questions from police, fled from his home in Belize.

That, of course, was not the end for McAfee. He reemerged as a cryptocurrency kingmaker, ran a high-profile campaign for US president (twice) and was charged with tax evasion and fraud before dying by suicide in a Spanish jail cell.

McAfee lived an extreme existence, and the absurdity of the events is practically unmatched. But what happened later in life was enabled, in large part, by something deeply ingrained in our culture. McAfee’s entrepreneurial success in the 1990s lent him legitimacy that he exploited to dangerous effect.

Read the feature story about John McAfee in Bloomberg Businessweek

Founders of prosperous companies are fetishized. In the public mindset, their business accomplishments often overshadow their personal shortcomings. They surround themselves with people who rarely challenge them. Years before the fall of Sam Bankman-Fried, McAfee’s antics raised the question, How could someone so gifted and seemingly successful have ended up like this?

McAfee is the subject of the new season of Foundering, a podcast from Bloomberg Technology. Using interviews with McAfee’s colleagues, acquaintances, family members and investigators — some of whom have never spoken publicly about him before — the six-part series inspects the ways McAfee capitalized on his reputation in ways that caused harm. The podcast demystifies lies he told throughout his life, reveals secrets he kept and resolves questions surrounding his public and decades-long self-destruction.

Before all that, McAfee was known as a quirky and ingenious computer programmer. His knack for mathematics and machines drew him to Silicon Valley. Rebecca Costa, who was one of the few women in senior executive roles in tech during the early 1980s, worked with McAfee then. “It took me all of 15 minutes,” she said, “to realize he was brilliant.”

McAfee was an effective salesman as well. He was ready-made for television, urbane, hardened and handsome with a baritone voice that conveyed authority. To publicize his computer security software, McAfee designed a truck with lights and signs that he would drive to the parking lots of customers’ offices, “sort of like an amplified version of Ghostbusters,” said Gene Spafford, a computer scientist at Purdue University who was active in the antivirus community. “The business kind of took off from there,” Spafford said.

McAfee started his eponymous antivirus program at a formative time in the personal computer industry. It was shortly after Hewlett-Packard introduced inkjet and laser printers for desktops and Xerox Parc invented the mouse. Their creations were drawing widespread curiosity, but there was less attention on how the products were made.

If there had been, the warning signs around McAfee would have been glaring. Employees of his antivirus company described routine drug and alcohol use at work and a game played among colleagues called Little Foxes, in which participants earn points by engaging in sexual acts around the office. Intercourse on the chief executive officer’s desk was worth the most points, said Andrea Nation, an executive assistant at the company.

There were no consequences for McAfee fostering this sort of corporate culture. He spent much of his time later in life, as this season of Foundering will show, evading punishment for numerous other allegations.

–With assistance from Matthew Bremner.

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