On the trail of software guru McAfee
School friends remember McAfee as pleasant, fun, fond of pranks but never to the extent of being a troublemaker. They also remember him as being good at school, in particular at maths, the subject he ended up studying at the nearby Roanoke College.
He graduated in 1967, did a year of further maths studies at Virginia Tech and then stopped to think. “What am I doing studying mathematics?” he remembered asking himself. “I’m going to a place where other people told me to go.” So he said he dropped out, packed his bags and embarked on a life of adventure with a first stop, in 1969, at 11th and Broadway in New York. He landed squarely on his feet, getting a job there at Nasa - “I learnt computers well and, from that experience, computers were just a natural for me.” The rest of the time, he said he just spent getting stoned and watching bands at the Fillmore East rock venue.
During the heady days of the late 1980s McAfee became one of the computer era’s brightest stars. He breezed through a string of jobs in the tech industry, from a position at Xerox to working for Lockheed in California. That was when he came across a report of a virus. “My brother-in-law was reading a piece in the paper about a thing called the Pakistani brain, the world’s first computer virus. I go, ‘Let me see that.’ I snatch the newspaper out of his hands, read it and I started thinking, ‘What the f***?’ And then it came to me: ‘Oh, I know how they did this.’ And as soon as I saw how they did it, I saw how you could solve it . . . I know computers.”
He phoned Dennis Yelle, a brilliant programmer, and asked him if he could write the code. He couldn’t remember but thought he had paid him $200 for the work. “Within six hours he had the program,” recalled McAfee. “A week later, I had McAfee. That was it. That is how it started.”
McAfee’s genius lay not only in working out how to combat and eliminate the virus but also in his decision to give his antivirus program away for free at a time when every software company in the world was obsessed with protecting their products.
“I didn’t think there would be any more [viruses],” he said. “And I thought, ‘That’s a flash in the pan. I’ll get this out for free and I’ll make a name.’ Well, I did make a name but then, immediately, more viruses cropped up . . . I called Dennis and said, ‘This is a completely different affair but we can use the same program, here is what you have to do.’ Within a day, he had the program, I had it out and by then we were the number one antivirus provider because I gave it away for free. I didn’t sell it. Freeware. Take it, use it. Copy it.”
The model was simple: get the program installed on to everyone’s computers, make a name, attract companies to use it and then charge the companies for the updates. “Eight months after I started, there was $10m in the bank.”
McAfee crossed his long, sinewy legs and lit up yet another cigarette. He appeared a little more relaxed than when I had arrived several hours previously, and seemed to be enjoying the memories. After the initial success the money was pouring in so fast, he said, that the bottom drawer in his filing cabinet at work was stuffed with cheques for $1,000 or less. “I didn’t have time to take them to the bank. There must have been $50,000 in that drawer.”
At the insistence of his then partner, McAfee said he moved out of his one-bedroom place in Santa Clara, in the heart of Silicon Valley, and into a $5m mansion in Santa Cruz. She also urged him to swap his beaten-up Datsun Z series sports car for a top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz. “I could care less . . . two beat-up cars would have been fine for me.” The longer McAfee talked, the stronger the impression grew that money had been at once a liberation and a burden to him. One mistake, he said, was building so many different properties around the world - at least 20. “The South Padre Island one? I spent $5m building it. I was there for a week. That’s how ridiculous life becomes . . . it’s a f***ing nightmare.”
Inevitably, perhaps, he discovered yoga, which he embraced in the 1990s, establishing a yoga retreat in Colorado and even writing several books on the subject. One reviewer on Amazon.com described McAfee’s 2001 Into the Heart of Truth: The Spirit of Relational Yoga as “profoundly illuminating . . . the author is talking to nearly everyone that I know - he’s certainly talking to me.” But, as with most other things, he got bored of that too, and began to look for the next big thing.
McAfee admitted that life on the run was tough. But it was also clear that he fed off the drama, the media attention and the uncertainty of what the next day would bring. Change and upheaval had been persistent themes in his life; now he was living them to the extreme. In that spirit, I had little doubt that he embellished many of his stories.
McAfee told me that he intended to leave Belize in the following few days. He sketched out a plan, how he would make the break and where he might go. But I also knew that he was living day to day and that his plans could and would change.
We took some pictures, shook hands and said our farewells. There was just one more question, though: “Do you have McAfee antivirus on your computer?” He looked at me and put down his cigarette. “I take it off,” he said. “It’s too annoying.”
As the FT went to press,McAfee turned up in Guatemala, making his first public appearance in almost a month. His claim for asylum there was rejected by the authorities. Barring a successful appeal, he will be deported to Belize. McAfee was taken to hospital on Thursday, suffering from hypertension
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012