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Upgrading Company Culture Using The Geek Way with Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management

Adel and Andrew explore the four cultural norms of the Geekway, the evolutionary biological underpinnings of the traits high performing organizations exhibit, the role of data in driving high performance teams, and a lot more.
Updated Nov 2023

Photo of Andrew McAfee
Andrew McAfee

Andrew McAfee is a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management, co-founder and co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, and the inaugural Visiting Fellow at the Technology and Society organization at Google. He studies how technological progress changes the world. His book, The Geek Way, reveals a new way to get big things done. His previous books include More from Less and, with Erik Brynjolfsson, The Second Machine Age.

McAfee has written for publications including Foreign Affairs, Harvard Business Review, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He's talked about his work on CNN and 60 Minutes, at the World Economic Forum, TED, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, with Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, and in front of many international and domestic audiences. He’s also advised many of the world’s largest corporations and organizations ranging from the IMF to the Boston Red Sox to the US Intelligence Community.

Photo of Adel Nehme
Adel Nehme

Adel is a Data Science educator, speaker, and Evangelist at DataCamp where he has released various courses and live training on data analysis, machine learning, and data engineering. He is passionate about spreading data skills and data literacy throughout organizations and the intersection of technology and society. He has an MSc in Data Science and Business Analytics. In his free time, you can find him hanging out with his cat Louis.

Key Quotes

10,000 years ago, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture was sticking a twig in a termite mound to get the yummy termites out. Right now, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture is sticking a twig in a termite mound to get the yummy termites out. And it's true, right? So chimpanzees have culture, but their cultures don't evolve very, very quickly, if at all.

The reason we're different, the reason we're this species on the planet that we are, we're launching spaceships and everything else, is our cultures evolve with lightning speed. And so the field of cultural evolution takes that as the starting question. It says, okay, what is it about us that allows us and us alone to do that?

A relentless emphasis on winning will tank you over time. The way you make an organization better is not by making its individual people better, sending them off to cutting edge training on data science or ethics or whatever else. It's by getting the right norms in place, then you've got community policing that takes the organization in the direction you want it to take.

Key Takeaways


Focus on group dynamics: Understand that the group is where the action is. Create norms and values that align with the goals of the organization and encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing among team members.


Lead by example: Recognize that the behavior of influential and prestigious individuals in the organization matters. As a leader, set an example by embracing data-driven decision-making and encouraging others to do the same.


Challenge hierarchical decision-making: Address the issue of senior people overriding data-driven recommendations based on gut instinct. Encourage a culture where evidence and analysis are valued over hierarchical authority.

Links From The Show


Adel Nehme: Andrew McAfee, it's great to have you on the show.

Andrew McAfee: Adel, thanks for having me.

Adel Nehme: Awesome. So you are the co founder and co director of the Initiative on the Digital Economy and a Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management. You've published several influential books such as The Second Machine Age, Machine, Platform Crowd, and most recently, a book I have here, The Geek Way: The Radical Mindset That Drives Extraordinary Results. So, maybe to set the stage for our discussion, what is The Geek Way?

Andrew McAfee: The geek way is an upgrade, and it's an upgrade to this technology that we call the company. And that sounds like I'm playing word games, but I'm not. The company is a technology. It's a thing that we human beings invented to help us get things done. Technologies improve over time and the company has gotten better in some ways.

Companies are more productive than they were a generation or two ago. But the reason I decided to write the geek way was I became convinced that the technology that is the company has recently received a major upgrade. And it's an upgrade that hasn't spread very widely yet. It's concentrated in what we call the tech sector.

It's concentrated on the west coast of the U. S. it's in the early stages, I believe, of diffusing very, very widely for one really simple reason. It works better. It lets a company do the things a company is supposed to do. and do them better.

Adel Neh... See more

me: So we're going to unpack a lot what the Geekway means, what are the different dimensions of the Geekway, but I think what is great about the book is that it tries to capture the root or the common thread between so many of today's winners in the digital economy, and it's something that we keep hammering on quite a lot on DataFrame, which is the importance of culture over technology, when driving successful results in digital or data transformation.

So maybe before going into demystifying the mindset or the behaviors that underpin the Geekway, maybe share with us your thoughts on the importance of culture when driving success in digital transformation.

Andrew McAfee: If you had told me 10 years ago that I would write a book about organizational culture, I would have laughed in your face. I might have even gotten violent, but I would have laughed in your face because I had absolutely no interest in doing that. Because for me, most of the discussions around organizational culture, and I want to be clear, I'm leaving out some really, really good work done by colleagues of mine done by some people I know.

But Most of the work done about organizational culture, I found really underwhelming because I thought it was virtue signaling in a lot of cases. Shouldn't you treat people nice? Yes, you should treat people nice. Shouldn't you have cultures that, yeah, you should do that. Or it was CEOs doing, self promotion and talking about how they made the tough call and built it.

And I'm just like, You know, I didn't get anything out of it. I agreed you should treat people nice, but I just, I had no desire to contribute to that field. And it was only when I started trying to answer the question that you started with, which is what are the things that these successful companies have in common?

And what are the, how are those things different than the companies that I started studying earlier in my career, giant incumbents of the 20th century of the industrial era. It wasn't their technology stack, it was their ability to adopt and incorporate technology successfully. That's not the same thing.

It wasn't the average IQ. Maybe the average IQ at these geeky companies I was studying was a little bit higher. Nobody thinks that makes all the difference in the world. But, and when I listened to the alpha geeks, they kept talking about culture and about how hard they worked to build an organization that could thrive and succeed in these really, turbulent, very technologically fueled times.

And I eventually realized, Oh, the culture is, vitally important, and there's a way to talk about it that for me is more grounded, that's more rooted in first principles than a lot of the stuff that I was hearing. So this is, this is not really a book about technology. As you know, when you read it, this is a book about culture.

Adel Nehme: Yeah, and I couldn't agree more here on the importance of culture as a common thread between all of these successful tech companies. And I think this kind of segues into, the second question I have is like, who, the third question I have is who is the Geek Wave for, Because I think a lot of listeners here coming from, let's say more traditional industries, think finance, insurance, et cetera, probably thinking and listening to this episode and saying, Hey, you know, I come from a massive organization.

I'm not a small startup in the valley. Maybe the geek way is not for me, I'm an incumbent in my industry and I don't have the agility or the ability to, adapt my organizational culture to compete in such a manner. However, what you point out in the book is that a lot of companies, even though they come from the tech industry, are incumbents, are massive organizations, and they have adopted like the geek way.

As a, organizational culture in some way or fashion, a good example comes recently with generative AI. Microsoft, one of the largest corporations on the planet, is able to make large strides with generative So maybe walk us through that misconception a bit more in detail. Who do you think the geek way is for?

Andrew McAfee: And I believe that the Geekway, because it's just a better way to run this technology called a company, and I'll broaden it even farther than that. It's a way to run this. technology that we call an organization. An organization is a group of people brought together to accomplish some goal. The geek way does better at that.

And you mentioned Microsoft, which I think is a great example of a number of things. It's a great example of an organizational comeback. Remember how Dead in the water, Microsoft was for the first decade of the 21st century. The stock price didn't budge hardly at all. The company was an afterthought in the technology sector.

And then Satya Nadella took over, and it has been maybe the greatest corporate comeback story that I'm aware of in my career. And I had the opportunity to interview Nadella for The Geek Way, and it's just absolutely fascinating. He and Microsoft did. Really, really deeply smart strategic moves, but he spends at least as much time in his book and in our interview talking about the cultural changes that he made and how important it was to unjam the company and let the Microsofters do what they could do and.

Part of your question I thought was fascinating, and it corresponds to things I hear when I talk to people running large legacy organizations, they say some version of what you said, which is, look, this stuff might be okay for a 20 person startup out in Silicon Valley, but I run a gigantic industrial corporation, we simply, we can't move that fast, we can't pivot, we can't do those things.

And then for me, the follow up question is always, why? Why is it? Do you have handcuffs on? are your desks set in concrete? are your people just so dispirited they don't even want to try anymore? What do you mean you can't continue to be innovative and agile and nimble as a large organization?

is stopping you from doing that? Especially because we do see very large companies now. Tesla is a large company. Amazon is a very large company. We see very large companies able to, stay nimble, stay agile, stay innovative, continue to have cultures that devolve authority down, even as they become very large organizations.

So my question back to those incumbents is, what do you think is getting in your way? And is it an insurmountable barrier? And the answer pretty quickly is our culture just doesn't allow it. Culture is a thing you can change.

Adel Nehme: I couldn't agree more and I'm very excited to unpack with you as well, how to best approach culture transformation, but maybe first let's get to define the geek way in a pretty detailed way audiences. In the book, you describe the GeekWay as four components, Speed, ownership, science, openness, And these are kind of key dimensions of the GeekWay. Maybe walk us through how you came about to these four characteristics and maybe some of the research that you've unearthed showcasing how a culture built on top of these characteristics leads to better corporate results.

Andrew McAfee: So I can't prove to you that the four norms that you just listed, science, ownership, speed, and openness, are the final answer for what the geek way is. I you know, I can't derive that from first principles. They came about because I was just doing an extended pattern matching exercise. As I did my research and went through my career, I have the really good fortune of spending time in both halves of the economy.

I hate these phrases, but the old economy and the new economy, the industrial era incumbents, and all these weirdos over in Silicon Valley. We're disrupting thing after thing and turning out astonishing offerings for us. And so as I was wandering around year after year, I kept on trying to understand two things.

Number one, what distinguishes the geeks from the incumbents of the industrial era? And number two, geek companies are very different in some important ways, right? Netflix and Amazon are very different companies in a lot of ways, but to me, they felt more similar than different. And I was trying to understand what's consistent across these companies that I kept coming across that I thought what that I thought were so amazing, and I kept on seeing a few things over and over again.

Number one, they're just. iteration fanatics, they're agile fanatics. The old fashioned waterfall method of running a big project is rare if you ever see it in a geek organization. Another thing was that they were full of engineers and scientists and people who love to be data driven, but did more things than just Generate a lot of data, they would follow it.

they would not let data lose out to intuition or to what the boss wants to hear what the boss believes. And they love to argue with it with each other. I don't like, geeks love to argue with each other's very argumentative cultures. They were also much more egalitarian. And I saw this over and over in different ways than the ones that I saw in the industrial era.

And they had this fondness For pushing decisions down for running much more autonomous, decentralized companies, no matter what the org chart looked like, when you looked at how things actually got done, you saw a lot more devolving authority downward atomized companies, decentralized companies in a lot of ways.

And so those were the commonalities that I saw. And I would, I distilled them down to these four norms and I should stop for a second and be crisp because I gave a very vague definition of the geek way up front, right? It's an upgrade to the company, a much more precise one is it's a company that follows four big norms and that word is critical because a norm is a thing that the people around you expect you to do.

A norm is a thing that's community policed. So in other words, it doesn't matter how many speeches that the CEO of the company gives about being data driven. If your peers, if your immediate supervisor, if the folk around you are not, you will not be either. So it's not what's on the wall. It's not what's on the inspirational poster.

It's not in the annual report. It's not what the CEO wants to have happen. It's the stuff that the people around you expect of you. And the deep, deep similarity to me when I walked around these companies was that the peer pressure, the community policing is around speed. Openness science and ownership, these four norms.

Adel Nehme: I love that. And I love that you mentioned as well here that community policing and the norms aspect of it, because an interesting dimension that you apply in the book when looking at the norms of the geek way is evolutionary biology and psychology, like a very deeply human approach to studying organizational culture.

So I'd love to learn why you think these are very useful tools for studying organizational culture and what you think this lens offered in defining the geek way. And why you think that we ought to be called homo ultra socialis instead of homo sapiens?

Andrew McAfee: Yeah, there's a lot to unpack there. One of the reasons I decided to write this book is I was puzzling over all this. I'm like, something's going on. I need to write a book about this. And then I really got jazzed because I came across a body of science, a body, really good body of research from a young discipline.

And I'm going to use a little bit different. label for it than you use. I'm going to use the label cultural evolution, which is how a lot of these scholars from all different fields talk about the thing that they're studying and the thing that they're studying is the thing that makes us human beings unique and very, very successful on the planet.

And a way to start thinking about that is to ask yourself the question, why is it that we are the only species that launches spaceships? Nothing else is going to do it, right? The ants and the wasps are not going to be launching spaceships. The chimpanzees are not going to land on the moon. The octopuses are very intelligent, but they're not going to launch any spaceships outside of sci fi movies, right?

So something is going on with us that lets us launch spaceships. And the first answer that I hear very often is, oh, we're really smart, which is true, but I don't think it's the right answer. We're actually not that smart in some really fundamental ways. What we are, Is capable of cultural evolution. Let me unpack that a little bit.

We're not the only species with culture chimpanzees have culture Dolphins have culture lots of animals have culture and their groups do things a little differently from each other but I came across this wonderful quote in the book from a Psychologist, I believe, Steve Stewart Williams, who said, Look, 10, 000 years ago, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture was sticking a twig in a termite mound to get the yummy termites out.

Right now, the pinnacle of chimpanzee culture is sticking a twig in a termite mound to get the yummy termites out. And it's true, right?

Adel Nehme: that's true.

Andrew McAfee: these have culture, but they, their cultures don't evolve very, very quickly, if at all. The reason we're different, the reason we're this species on the planet that we are, we're launching spaceships and everything else is our cultures evolve with lightning, lightning speed.

And so the field of cultural evolution takes that as the starting question. It says, okay. What is it about us that allows us and us alone to do that? And the answer is kind of a two part answer. We do two things that no other species does, and they're very closely related. The first one is we come together and we cooperate with large groups of unrelated individuals, people who are not our kin.

Think about an army, think about a company, think about a sports team. we're the only species on the planet that does that. And then the other thing is we learn very, very quickly from each other. And we tinker with, with our endowment, with our learning endowment, and we improve it over time. So you put those two things together and that's the secret of our success, which is the title of a great book by Joe Henrich that I learned a ton from.

And when I started to think about it from the lens of somebody who studies business, I'm like, wait a minute. this is a different way to think about your job as somebody helping to run a company. Your job is to accelerate the cultural evolution, and in particular, to accelerate it in the direction that you want it to go, that's in line with the goals of the organization.

Because... Like we'll probably talk about, a sclerotic bureaucracy is a thing that can evolve. A lot of companies wind up there, that's not what you want if you're trying to run the organization. So it's really important to take the insights and the tools of cultural evolution, harness them, and put them to work to increase the pace of evolution in your company.

In your organization and make sure it's all heading in the right direction. And for me, that scientific grounding in really solid work and there's, there's really not a better proven theory or a more established theory, maybe gravity, but after that, it's Darwin's theory of evolution, right? And to take those ideas and apply them to the work of evolving a culture, your company, as you want to to me, that was a Eureka moment and led to the book.

Adel Nehme: That's wonderful. And so let's get into that transition to that cultural evolution, how that happens. And I wanna focus really on the becoming scientific norm, Because, that's a lot of what we talk about here on data frame, like how to become data driven as an organization. So I'd love to deep dive with you on adopting science as a normative value within the organization.

So maybe to first set the stage, walk us through why science is such a hard norm to instill within an organizational culture.

Andrew McAfee: It's astonishingly hard, bizarrely hard and persistently hard, and you, I really had trouble understanding why it was so difficult until I came across, again, from all this reading that I've been doing in Cultural Evolution. This notion of your press secretary and your press secretary is module.

It's a thing in your brain. It's a piece of mental real estate that you have and I have and we all have it. It's about as deeply ingrained in us as our language module is. Human beings have a language module. I believe we also have a press secretary module and it's got a, a very, very specific job.

It's job is to tell us the best possible stories about us that we can get away with so that we tell those stories to other people in all good conscience and in all confidence to make us look good to other people. In other words, the audience for the press secretary Terry module is not other people.

It's us ourselves. It's job is to whisper in our ear. And tell us the most barely plausible story about our awesomeness so that we then feel more awesome and go repeat that to the world. Now, the reason that exists is because we are such a social species. We're an ultra social species.

It is really, really valuable for us to appear Smart, informed, experienced, wise in the eyes of other, a great way for us to appear that way is to believe those things about us. And the Press Secretarial is not about reality, it's about puffing us up so that in all good conscience, we look good to other people.

Now once you realize that, you realize that, Man, your brain is amazing, but its job is not to give you the truth. Its job is not to uncover reality. Its job is to tell you flattering things about yourself. Science is not about that. Science is not about flattering yourself. Science is about getting closer to the truth.

And so you have to overcome, you have to find a way around your press secretary module in order to actually do science, to actually be data driven. And that's really hard homework. The most important thing to do to get over the homework is not self improvement, it's not self reflection, it's to set up norms, to let other people help you get it right, to help you search for the truth, and you're going to help them search for the truth.

So a huge misconception about science is that it's kind of a lone genius in the room having eureka moments. Science is an intensely social process, it's an argument. Don't believe the same thing you believe, we have to come to an understanding, and it's an argument guided by a rule. When you and I disagree, we're going to figure out the evidence that we're going to gather, the data, the test we're going to do, the experiment, to resolve that disagreement.

And I love this way of thinking about science. It's social, it's a norm, and it's a ground rule for resolving arguments that doesn't have anything to do. With Press Secretary Module, or Charisma, or Seniority, or anything like that, it's, man, what test is going to tell us who's right? Let's go run that test.

Adel Nehme: That's fascinating. And what's really interesting about what you mentioned here is that that press secretary, a key function of this press secretary is for us to enable us to find community, Like yeah, we want to be able to, present ourselves in the best light to be able to find community and what you're proposing here is using community to override the press secretary, and that's a really fascinating override here.

So maybe what have you found to be like useful or successful applications of that, community model to driving that norm? I'd love for you to expand on that notion.

Andrew McAfee: Yeah, let me give you a couple of them. And you're exactly right. One thing about The Geek Way that, again, was a eureka moment to me is they're all group level practices. They're all norms. They're community exercises. They are not about you individually becoming better.

They are about harnessing the group. To let the group collectively get there. This is a crucial crucial difference The more I learn the more skeptical I get about individual self improvement efforts. We should try them I I try them right? I You know, I love books by Annie Duke and Steven Pinker and Adam Grant.

I've learned a ton from them I am skeptical about my own ability To overcome my press secretary. I've just become skeptical about it and I'll give you one quick data point there one aspect of our press secretary is it tells us we will get the project done quicker than we actually will Danny Kahneman calls it the planning fallacy.

It's just very deeply rooted Adele did I finish my manuscript for this book on time? I want to be super clear. I did not, So my partner's like, Come on, you know, you got this. You know about overconfidence. You're going to plan correctly. No, I still got it wrong. So it's a group level process and it can take many different forms.

A super obvious one is an A B test, which was pioneered by Google in early 2020. Instead of arguing about what color blue people were going to like better, let's just run an A B test on the web with the scale of the web. You can do that. And we might still argue about what outcomes were interested in. We might still argue about how to set up the testing infrastructure, but we're not going to second guess the results of the A B test.

We're going to go ahead and run them. Choose the color blue that people actually like better. So A B tests are a very, very clear application of the iron rule and the norm of science. Just let the data decide how the site should unfold. But that requires a big old infrastructure and kind of a lot of upfront work.

I, found an example of the norm of science at Apple, which had nothing to do with sophisticated A B tests or fancy math or anything. It was simply about. Should the user see the blur in an iPhone portrait while they're setting up the portrait or only after the picture is taken? Because there were, there's an argument within Apple.

Some people thought, look, it's not that valuable. It'd be a lot more work. We'll have to do a bunch more in software, difficult work to get the blur so that it's visible to the user as they're setting up the picture, and there's another thing said, even if it is a ton more work, you people want to see what the final picture is going to look like, and instead of arguing back and forth, they did a demo, they did a quick test, and the room was like, Oh, yeah, it's much better if you can see the blur before you take the picture, debate was resolved that way.

I talk a bit about Andresen Horowitz, the venture capital firm, where Horowitz and Andresen have been arguing with each other intensely for the entire time they've known each other. And that's more than 10 or 15 years by now. And they've got a great way to talk about it. They said, look, The other guy pisses me off, right?

I don't like being disagreed with. That's not a comfortable feeling. But what I do know is that the disagreement is going to make me sharper and it's going to lead us to a better answer and I will tell you having been on stage arguing with Marc Andreessen a couple times Arguing with that man is a full body experience.

He is an Absolutely top shelf debater and holy cow, does he back up his points with evidence? So the geek way is absolutely about that But I do also tell the story of linus torvalds and linux and how he had to walk away from the community that he founded Because argument for him turned into abuse just needless abuse of a lot of people inside the community And that's one of the failure modes that geeks can get into They can mistake abuse for argumentation or not be aware enough of that difference and we geeks really You have to watch out for that.

Adel Nehme: So I want to touch on that last point, right? Because I wanted to ask about this because there's often like a balance that you want to strike as a leader. Someone listening to this, things. Okay, this is very good feedback. I want to be able to apply this within my own organization, my department, my team.

How do you balance, the norm of argumentation, which is extremely important when you know, having https: otter. ai

to enable people to have that healthy document, like argumentation. So I'd love to see from your perspective, how do you balance and trade off between both of them?

Andrew McAfee: The guidelines are relatively straightforward, right? And I rely on my former Harvard colleague, Amy Edmondson, who is just this fantastic scholar about psychological safety. And the ground rules are fairly simple, right? Attack the argument, not the person. Don't hurl insults. Don't... Interrupt the other person all the time.

We know the ground rules for fostering a Productive argument as opposed to a torrent of abuse or as opposed to just being a domineering Jerk, but to anybody who's interested in putting this norm in place the man the first step for me is pretty easy Ask your people. I include surveys in the book that you can use in your organization to see where you stand on each of the four geek norms.

Amy and other scholars have made surveys available about psychological safety a habit. I notice among a lot of execs that I talk to, and we talk about these kinds of things, I say, okay, yeah, we're fine on psychological safety. I feel pretty good about that. And the answer is, okay, I don't care how you feel.

Let's do science. What does the evidence say? So go run a survey and you will probably be surprised about some of what you learn back from your people about whether they believe they have psychological safety or not.

Adel Nehme: Yeah, that's very, very fascinating insight. And really continuing on the, you mentioned here, the survey, right? There's like, you mentioned a survey at the end of the chapter related to science, And, some of the example questions that you asked are really pointed in my opinion, answer yes or no to questions such as we do not have a data driven culture.

Senior people override data driven recommendations based on gut instinct. People here are reluctant to bring up evidence that doesn't support their boss's views. Really great questions that touch upon kind of the cultural aspects and also like the psychological safety aspect of being able to raise issues with data and science.

But what's interesting about these questions as well is that when you're trying to build a data driven culture, there's also a skill component attached to, being able to Understand data, work with data and something that we think about quite often on data frame, something that you're also deeply interested in investing in, which is the reskilling and upskilling agenda.

So I'd love to learn more from you. What is the relationship between upskilling and reskilling and building a science norm within the organization?

Andrew McAfee: And you have, I'm sure, tons of colleagues and guests who can do a much better job about talking about the training and the upskilling that's available to become a more data driven individual. What paths you should follow, where the good materials, the good certifications are. I'm going to leave that alone.

For me, another essential thing is to find ways to instill this norm of science. of evidence driven argumentation throughout the organization. And, and getting training on that, I think, is really important. Because, Adele, think about a company that has a, doesn't have a culture of science, as I'm defining it, where the bosses override the junior people all the time, and there are tons of hippos around.

And you probably know the acronym HIPPO. It's absolutely my favorite business acronym because it stands for Highest Paid Persons. Opinion, and it's just, the boss listening to both sides and saying, okay, well, my ample experience and fantastic judgment, tell me we should do B and not A.

It's just, you might as well just throw out all the analysis that you've done the boss is just going to make decisions based on gut. So here's a quick thought experiment. Imagine that company thinks they want to become more data driven and they send off their entire staff to go get the absolute best training on Data Science or Data Analysis 101.

There are all these amazing resources that are out there. Everybody comes back from that training, and the boss is still a hippo. How much progress have you made? Really, right? So it reinforces to me the idea that these are all group level activities, and the group has to adopt it and has to engage in the community policing for these norms to take hold.

Adel Nehme: So in a lot of ways, leading by example is a very strong way to get that done as like if the hippo, for example, as you mentioned here, like adapts their approach, starts leading with data with the meeting that has like a massive impact in driving them. Okay.

Andrew McAfee: And we all know that the behavior of the boss matters a great deal. I think we continue to underestimate it because one of the things that comes out, again, of this wonderful discipline of cultural evolution that I've learned so much from is insight about how we human beings learn. And it turns out that universal way that we learn, whether or not you live in a country with a formal education system and there are calculus textbooks at some point in your life, everybody learns.

By watching other human beings and we are exquisitely. Programmed by evolution to figure out who to watch. You don't want to watch, you don't want to watch the lousy performers. You want to watch the good performers. And so it looks like we use three cues to figure out who to learn from. And once our radar locks on those people, we mimic them consciously and unconsciously.

We learn, we just start doing what they do deeply. But the three cues are age. looked around at our elders who have had time to accumulate knowledge, prestige. Who does everybody else listen to? who holds the room when they start talking, when they walk into the room? And success. man, if you just are an amazing analyst, I'm going to learn that pretty quickly and I'm going to go try to learn from your success.

So think about prestige for a minute, because a lot of bosses have some level of prestige associated with them. The behavior of prestigious people in an organization. Matters a huge amount because the other people will start to mimic them consciously, and I think even more important, subconsciously.

So this notion that what you do as the boss matters, man, that bumper sticker is absolutely true, and I think we are deeply underestimating it.

Adel Nehme: That's an excellent insight. And I want to demystify as well. The other norms that you mentioned here go into more deeply on what makes a high performing organization here and what makes the geek way. So probably speed, ownership and openness are one of my favorite chapters in the book, because that's what really struck a chord with me.

I love to operate, on the podcast and the team at data camp with speed, ownership and openness. while focusing on these norms, I'd be remiss not to mention how you open them. Transcribed The chapter on ownership. I'd love to read this out. You mentioned that in 1994, the CIA wrote the simple sabotage field manual to advise people living in Norway,

Andrew McAfee: Wait, you said, you said, you said 94, right? I think you meant 1944.

Adel Nehme: Sorry, 1944, 1944. Sorry. Yeah. To advise people living in Norway, France and other countries occupied by the Nazis during world war two on how to best sabotage the Nazis efforts, right? Like while there's usual suspects starting fires, violent means, etc. They also provide non violent ways to sabotage their efforts.

1. Insist on doing everything through channels. Never permit shortcuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions. 2. Be worried about the propriety of any decision. Raise the question on whether such an action lies within the jurisdiction of the group. Or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

Three, multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, decisions, etc. See that three people have to approve everything where one would. I love three. This essentially describes most large organizations and government agencies today. So maybe kind of unpacking that a bit more. Why have we built up such a large bureaucratic debt in our approach to managing organizations?

And why do we think it's okay?

Andrew McAfee: When I first heard about the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, I thought it was an urban myth, right? I thought it was this document that some wise guy on the internet invented because they were so frustrated by bureaucracy, right? No, no, it's real. This was actually a pamphlet dropped out of airplanes and smuggled into occupied countries that teaches you how to make a toilet bomb and a pipe bomb and put Nails on the road and whatnot, and there's a chapter of it devoted to organizational sabotage, and you quoted from it.

It reads like the policies and procedures manual for most large organizations today. We are inflicting on ourselves the same things we would hope to inflict on Nazi organizations during World War II. like, the fact that this thing actually exists was mind blowing to me. And then how closely it aligns with what a lot of companies actually wind up doing.

And you asked the key question, which is how on earth did this come to happen? what on earth explains this? And it's a rich question. I want to give an answer that is, I think, again, deeply underappreciated, which is, it's not the dumb bosses. It's not the lawyers. All those things both exist. It's us.

It's all of us. And in particular, it's not the press secretary module. It's something else that's deeply innate about all of us human beings. We want status, right? Status is... Some people have written about as important and necessary as oxygen for human beings because again We are such a social species that everything evolutionarily speaking You do a lot better as a human being when you have more status same thing for other social animals same thing for lots of mammals for some birds you want a lot of status and You will fight pretty hard to get it.

You will be very reluctant to give it up. And I'll say this one more time. A lot of it happens below the level of conscious awareness. And A great way to get status in an organization, in your company. And keep in mind, you spend a lot of your waking adult life inside a company. A lot in America, people spend as many hours at work as they do asleep in a week.

People, at least in America, the average worker spends more time at their job than with their partner. And almost as much time on the job as they do with their children. You spend a lot of time at your job. Status at your job is incredibly important to you. And so, my ultra social explanation for bureaucracy is it is a group level unintended outcome of people seeking status.

I want to And

If I can think of a reason to invent a way for me to be involved in that process, I'm going to do that. Again, not with overt Machiavellian scheming, but subconsciously we think it's a really good idea for me to be involved in that thing. I'm going to put myself in the middle of that because they need me.

They need me to double check, they need my opinion, I'm backstopping or I'm auditing the whole thing. And you wind up with this just bureaucratic mess of an organization. I quote... Some really good work done by Michele uh, Zahini and Gary Hamel on how pervasive bureaucracy is. Even, here we are deep in the 21st century, it's all over the place.

Most of the respondents felt like they were just being oppressed by bureaucracy. It gets worse with older organizations. It gets worse with, bigger organizations. To think that we vanquished this thing is wrong. And the, I think the main way to vanquish it is to realize where, where it deeply comes from.

And. And. to do the hard work of taking away opportunities for status that don't align with the goals of the organization. And in the book, I give a couple, I think uh, amazing examples of companies that decided to do that. Amazon, for me, is my favorite example there.

Adel Nehme: Yeah, I'd love to learn some of these examples, but maybe first before we go into them, like demystifying a bit. Also, what we mean by bureaucracy here, we're talking about like all types of organizations, But there are certain types of organizations that kind of need bureaucracy. Think, financial services, organizations, airlines, etc.

You need these checklists, regulations to be able to successfully deliver a service without hurting anyone, right? Or hurting your stakeholders. So maybe demystify that just a bit for us.

Andrew McAfee: Thank you. This is a key point. Bureaucracy is not the problem. And I've been using bureaucracy as a shorthand for excessive bureaucracy and you're making this really important point that some level of bureaucracy is necessary, not just for high risk organizations, but for all organizations. Max Weber, who's one of the founders of sociology, said, Look, you're kidding yourself.

If you think that you can accomplish the work of a, in his case, an early 20th century large organization without a bunch of people sitting in offices Moving paperwork around and he was right. You need some balances. You said checklist. I'll say process on top of that decision loops approval. Yeah, you need some of that, but you need much, much, much less of it than exists at most companies.

And the problem becomes when bureaucracy becomes stifling when it becomes excessive when it jams a company up when it's not serving any useful purpose except giving us people status and when it turns into sclerosis and a company just Unable to get out of its own way and get stuff done and that is the default is the point that I make you should expect to see that because of our deep thirst for status, unless you go after it explicitly and with a vengeance.

Adel Nehme: That's awesome. And you mentioned a couple examples here, one of them being from Amazon. I'd love to learn that story because you describe ownership here as an antidote to excessive bureaucracy. So maybe define some of these examples, how you think about ownership and kind of anchor that in that Amazon example.

Andrew McAfee: There's a great book written just a year or two ago by a couple of former Amazonians called Working Backward that talks about some of the cultural secret sauce at Amazon, and they told a story that I wasn't aware of, which is that. By the late 90s, Amazon was growing like crazy. It was well on its way to becoming a really large organization, but it was building a strangling bureaucracy.

And if you wanted to innovate at Amazon, and this came right from the top. This came right from Jeff Bezos. If you wanted to do an innovative project at Amazon, you had to submit it to a bureaucracy because you might need either technology resources or other resources for you to accomplish your project.

So you'd write up what you wanted to do, how you wanted to innovate. And you would specify what resources you needed and you would submit it to this process, we'll call it a bureaucracy, and you would get back one of three emails. You would get back either congratulations, we approve your project, and the resources that you need will be in touch with you soon to understand how to help you out.

Or bad news, good news. The bad news is that none of your projects got approved. The good news is that you don't have to supply resources to any other part of the organization. Just keep doing your thing. The third email was the one you really didn't want to get, which said bad news, bad news.

The bad news is your project was not approved. The further bad news is that in addition to accomplishing all the other goals that we've already agreed on, you now have to help this other part of Amazon. Accomplish its goals. Wow. Wow. That second email was actually good news because it meant the bureaucracy was leaving you alone.

The third email was the really bad news which is, oh, you just had work added to your plate and you're getting nothing in return. Which is kind of a nice way to think about bureaucracy. Right? The process was very clearly not working by the late 1990s. Everybody hated it. It was jamming the company up. The innovation was slowing down.

And Bezos, right from the top, Bezos and his top people said, Okay, we have, this doesn't, doesn't work. We have to rethink it. And that was the birth of Amazon Web Services. Because they said, One of the main things that you currently have to ask for, is technology help. So we want to get people out of that.

Ask loop. We want to have such a modular technology infrastructure, such a robust and modular technology infrastructure that you can just plug into the resource that you need. And it's robust enough to handle your additional load. You don't have to ask any permission for it. This was in the late nineties.

This was crazy pants, right? This was this was nutty. Nutty nutty talking. And then they said in parallel. We want to figure out how to decouple the organization so much that you don't have to ask anybody else for help. In addition to technology resources, you just don't have to ask for help if you want access to, marketing or warehouse capabilities or anything.

You can just go do it. This is an audacious vision, right? This is nutty. And it came from somebody Bezos, who was described by one of his former employees in this blog post that went viral. He said, look, Bezos makes an ordinary control freak look like a stoned hippie. This is not a man. Who just gets up thinking about how to have, how to exert less control.

He's a control freak. But he realized that it was not working and they had to change. They had to change about 180 degrees. And so they did, and they succeeded with the modularization of technology and that's the birth of kind of the cloud and AWS. They also succeeded at Modularizing, the organization.

And Benedict Evidence is this great analyst of technology. He's got this beautiful description that I include in the book and he said, look, Amazon is this atomized. Big company full of tiny little Amazons that do their own thing, and you don't need to get a lot of permission or buy in or bureaucracy from the other parts of Amazon for you to start doing your thing.

Man, that's super powerful, right? The danger of what I've just described is that all these little atomized teams are going to go off and do their own thing. And it might not be aligned with what Jeff Bezos wants to accomplish next year or for the next five years. So along with this decentralization and this ownership culture, comes a bureaucracy that ensures alignment between what all these little teams are doing and the overall goals of the organization.

John Doerr talks about OKR as an OKR based organization and a planning process. Salesforce has a V2MOM process that accomplishes that. There are lots of flavors. The alignment is key if you're actually serious about unleashing the people in your organization, getting the sclerosis, getting the excess bureaucracy out of the way, you have to make sure you've got an alignment process.

And once you can do that, man, organizations are so much more autonomous, decentralized. There's such a strong culture of ownership at these places. And I think the results largely speak for themselves.

Adel Nehme: And what's interesting about the Jeff Bezos story that you mentioned here, you know, I'm sure Jeff Bezos is a control freak. And what he used here is that he used the science norm to override, whatever kind of inclination you may have to control, Amazon, right? And use the science norm to let go of that particular form of centralized ownership.

Andrew McAfee: And we'll talk about it more when we get to the final great geek norm of openness. Man, Bezos is, is a person of very strong convictions, right? For good reason. He built Amazon. But he has been willing at very important points to let go of this deeply held belief in this thing that he espoused and believed in, and to do something different because it was better.

Man, I love that

Adel Nehme: And, another thing that kind of defines a company like Amazon is speed as well. So before we get to openness, let's maybe discuss speed and maybe walk us through why organizations struggle with speed so much. What are some common negative patterns that you see in organizations struggling there?

And what do you think works best here to flip the switch and adopt speed as a norm?

Andrew McAfee: there's a syndrome or a pattern called the 90% syndrome in lots of different industries. It was so well established that there were. Research papers written about it and it appeared in software. It appeared in semiconductors. It appeared in construction. It appeared in some kinds of manufacturing and it was a really puzzling pattern because it was a pattern that appeared in a big important effort where things seemed to be on track for the first 90 percent of its history.

And then in the last 10 percent of the first timeline for the project everything would go to hell and all these terrible problems would appear the project would be super delayed. It would take, 50 percent longer twice as long four times as long as originally intended and.

People generally didn't even become aware of how bad it was until the initial timeline for the project was 90 percent done. There was a lot of head scratching about this and a couple of my colleagues went to go try to investigate the 90 percent syndrome and they wrote a great paper, and I'll tell you the title of the paper in a second, and they went around to investigate it and they interviewed a bunch of people.

And they were at a, I think it was an automotive company, and were talking to one of the project... Leads and they said, okay, you've, you've got the big status meeting on Monday morning. Tell us about that meeting. And the guy said, Oh, you mean the liars club? And my colleague's like, well, hold up. What do you mean?

And the guy said, look, when we walk in, when my colleagues and I walk into that meeting on Monday morning, we're late. We all know we're late. We all know the other guy is late too. But here's another thing we know. As long as we are not the first person whose lateness gets found out, we're fine. Because that poor person is going to get all of the all the negative attention, all the bad reputation, all that.

And we're going to get the extra time that was necessary to fix that problem. We get that extra time to fix our problems too. So we're going to play a game, and game theory is super useful for analyzing this very simple game. Every week we're going to walk into the meeting, and we're going to say that we're on time.

until somebody cannot hide the fact that they're late anymore. So, I'm telling a cynical story, and there is a lot of cynicism going on there, but I want to make a related point, which is, the person that we lie to the most, Is ourselves. And again, this goes back to the press secretary module. I Told myself that I would finish this book's manuscript on time This is a book about how we are not reliable narrators to ourselves Knowing that as I was writing the chapter Some part of me knew that I was going to be late, but I was my press secretary kept telling me these stories to myself That's what happens in a lot of cases in projects.

And the reason the geeks are agile fanatics is fundamentally that Agile gets rid of places to hide in a big project by requiring you to show progress and show working code or show actual progress to a customer who's going to give you a thumbs up or thumbs down and to do that on a fast cadence, a week or two cadence that just disbands the liars club.

you can't keep lying for months when you've got to show your work. On a more of a weekly cadence. So part of the brilliance of the agile approach is that it disbands the liar's club But I that's not the end of the story because it also accelerates your ability to learn from the environment And to learn from other people like we said earlier learning from others is our superpower Agile by making the work more visible making it shorter term gives you more opportunities to learn from other people So agile disbands the liar's club and that's great.

I think the even bigger benefit of a fast cadence iterative approach is it just increases the rate of learning in the organization, which is critically important.

Adel Nehme: That's really fascinating insight, and it's very interesting how the press secretary that you mentioned can turn malignant at times, right? And certain Environments, as you mentioned here in the Liars Club, and, this segues as well to the next value that we thought we're going to talk about, or kind of the norm, which is openness, right?

Because that's also a great antidote for these types of behaviors and these negative patterns. So maybe walk us through what openness looks like in practice, and how can you as a leader adopt a culture of radical transparency?

Andrew McAfee: Yeah. And I love that phrase, radical transparency, radical candor is a great book by Kim Scott. Openness for me. Might be the crown jewel of the geek norms. I feel about the norms the way parents feel about their children, right? You don't have you shouldn't have a favorite but the reason openness is so special is it is the community policing for the organization as a whole including whether or not people are actually following the other norms and best way I I believe to think about Openness is it's the opposite of something and it's the opposite of defensiveness and defensiveness can take many different forms.

Defensiveness about your current job title, about your headcount, about your budget, about this project that you're championing. It's actually not a very good idea anymore, but I'm not going to admit that I'm going to cling to it and be defensive and see this project through. And defensiveness is this very natural human reaction, of course.

We want to defend what we have. That's very deeply rooted in us. We want to stick with the status quo. we have a status quo bias as a species, too, for all kinds of deep reasons. And most organizations make defensiveness worse instead of better by the things that they value. And I think the most underappreciated scholar of organizations is a guy who taught at Harvard for a long, long time named Chris Argyris.

And I got to know Chris when I was a young professor at Harvard, and he was a living legend. And he did this amazing work back in the 70s and the 80s. He did this amazing work to dive in on the question, Why is it so hard to change organizations? Just why is it is.

And Argyris said, look, the values that we are promoting, Are our worst enemies here and he said let me tell you what the values of most organizations are They are be in unilateral control assume responsibility, strive to win and minimize losing, and suppress negative feelings. And I looked at that list, I'm like, yeah, it's it's about the right list, right?

Take responsibility, take control, win, and don't be a jerk, just, don't, suppress negative feelings. And Argyris brilliance is, he said, that is a recipe. for failure. That is a recipe for defensiveness. That is a recipe for toxicity. And he unwound all that because all that be in control means don't ever give up control.

Get more. Expand your turf. Don't give an inch. That's the opposite of being in control. Win. Sounds right. Win means don't ever admit that you have been wrong, that this is a loser idea. Fight it out till the very end. And suppress negative feelings. That sounds okay, but what it means is don't give anybody, any other person Enough credit for resilience and grit and a growth mindset and all these things.

Take care of these poor, fragile people. No, people can handle getting feedback, getting constructive criticism, being argued. You don't have to suppress negative feelings. And sometimes in an organization, when a project or an effort is not going well, when you don't have product market fit, those are negative feelings.

That's bad. You shouldn't suppress them because you might need to pivot to something better. So for me, Argyris brilliance was he showed how these values that guide an organization get you into, reliably get you into very deep trouble. And he proposed different values, and I kind of put them under the norm of openness, which is, look, don't just always want more control.

Be willing, have a cult, have a company, have a culture that celebrates. Failures. Authentically, Google celebrates failed moonshots. Amazon has the big red shoe, the Just Do It award. Whether or not the thing that you just went and did worked. Bezos talks to his shareholders and said, Look, I'm pretty sure we are incubating multi billion dollar failures inside Amazon right now.

Given generative AI, all the work they've done so far on Alexa, Looks like one of those multi billion dollar failures. Bezos was out in front of that saying, I guarantee you, for an organization of our size, we need to be brewing multi billion dollar failures. Man, I haven't heard CEOs talk like that very often.

So these are all aspects of this broad norm of openness.

Adel Nehme: And this reminds even like Jeff Bezos letter and the I think late 90s early 2000 shareholders like Amazon is not going to be profitable for a long time. We are building a product. That is going to serve consumers and the profit will come with time, right? So it's value that has been built within the organization over decades and over time.

And, we mentioned earlier in our discussion outside of Amazon, Microsoft being one of those great comeback stories, as we approach the end of our conversation, be remiss not to talk about Microsoft with you as well, Andrew. So. Microsoft is not only a good example of a large incumbent adopting the GeekWay, but it's also a good example of a company that fell off the GeekWay and came back to it, as you mentioned, as a comeback story.

So maybe walk us through that journey. What can organizations learn from it? Love to get that from you before we wrap up today's episode.

Andrew McAfee: There's so much to learn and I was grateful that Nadella gave me some time and I got to pepper him with questions about how he accomplished this. The chapter on ownership is chapter and it includes my interview with Nadella. And I want to just talk about a couple things in relation to openness.

He had a genius way to open the conversation about openness. Super senior leadership team that would meet once in a while, and they had grown up under the Microsoft culture of the previous decade, which was all about what Argyris identified. Microsoft was all about being in control and winning and negativity is no loser talk.

Negativity is not allowed. And Nadella said, look, nobody ever would allow themselves to get shown up in a Microsoft meeting. You had to be on top of your figures. You had to be crushing your markets and crushing your objectives. It was just extraordinarily defensive. Culture and he had a beautiful way to highlight that he brought in a psychologist whose name I can't remember right now to talk to the senior leadership team and this psychologist had this amazing start to the set to the session.

He said, Hey, who wants to have an amazing experience? And then he, and around the senior leadership team at Microsoft, nobody said anything nobody volunteered. And finally, one brave person, I forget who she was, stood up and said, Okay, fine, I'll, I'll be the guinea pig here. Like, what, what's happened now?

And the psychologist said, no, no, no, what happens now is not the interesting part. What just happened is the interesting part. You guys are all senior, super accomplished people at a, forward facing tech company. I just offer you the opportunity to have an amazing experience, and you are all too scared to take it.

Man, you guys are defensive, like what's going on here? What happened here? And that unpacked a conversation where people for the first time started to do the opposite of being defensive, which is being open and a synonym and a lot of ways for that is vulnerability. Are you willing to show? that you were wrong, that you don't have the answer, that you don't know the way forward, that you're not the confident captain at the helm of the ship.

Are you willing to be vulnerable? And so that's, according to Nadella, that meeting started a process of change from that defensiveness to openness and vulnerability inside Microsoft. When I used to hear people talking about vulnerability inside the company, I used to think, The company is not your group therapy session.

that's actually not what it's there for. What you're walking around talking about, you're vulnerable. I thought that was just nonsense. I was wrong. I was wrong, right? Because it's an incredibly important thing for a leader to do. Back to our earlier conversation. To show that vulnerability. And to let the rest of the organization know that clinging and being defensive and winning all the time, that's not, we want to win, you have to lose a lot to get to that winning point.

I'll tell one more quick story. I got to interview Yamini Rangan, who's the CEO of HubSpot, took over a couple years ago, and I asked her about vulnerability. And she said, look, when I was coming up, I was, I was a woman in tech sales. And the advice I got from my mentor, who was a woman, was don't drink as much as the men.

Work harder than men and don't ever show any vulnerability. And Yamini's like, look, I'm not living that way anymore. I think it's bad advice. I'm certainly not going to live my life that way anymore. I don't want HubSpot to be that way anymore. And I said, okay, well, give me an example. What do you do to model that vulnerability?

And she said, I shared with my direct reports my latest performance evaluation from the board. The whole thing. Not just the good parts, the Yamini, here's what you need to work on. And that's a great idea because back to our conversation, people mimic prestigious people. And sure enough, she didn't have to say, and now you guys go, everybody, you go do this with your direct reports.

They did it naturally. They were mimicking a successful, prestigious person. So that kind of behavior cascades down in the organization and you wind up with an organization that is more that where the people are willing to be open and vulnerable and all these other synonyms. And I, firmly believe. That in any organization, you're going to fail a lot to have big successes.

That's axiomatic, right? so it's a really bad idea to have an organization where failure is an unacceptable thing. And way too many organizations have that as a ground rule. For heaven's sake, don't ever admit failure, don't dig in your heels, win, win, win. Those are just terrible ground rules.

Adel Nehme: and this connects back to what you mentioned about how much time we spend at work. We spend more time at work than with our partners, potentially our kids. And the states you mentioned, we spend more time at work than sleeping. Do you want

Andrew McAfee: do you want to spend all right, do you want to spend all those hours in a defensive crouch? Yuck! But yuck, no, no, no, no. But it's also, to be, to be, really clear, it's not your 8 or 10 hour day group therapy session. You're there to accomplish a business goal. But what I found fascinating, and this is one of the deepest learnings that I had as I was researching writing the book.

A really good way to accomplish that business goal is to allow vulnerability into the organization. Because you're gonna lose. You're gonna fail. Your people are gonna screw up. And if you have an organization that just whacks people for all those things that are going to happen. You are in trouble, right?

You are, you are really not going to get there. And so the, the geeks these companies that I've learned so much from, they win. And winning is very, very, very important to them. These are ambitious, tenacious people, but they've also realized that that defensive crouch and that, like, all I do is win all day, like, that is not the way.

to launch a spaceship that takes us to Mars. It's not going to get you there.

Adel Nehme: A hundred percent. And as we close out on this particular sentiment, Andrew, do you have any final notes or call to action for our audience before we wrap up today's episode?

Andrew McAfee: A couple quick things. I think this final discussion has been really important. emphasis, the relentless emphasis on winning will tank you over time. The other thing is that the way you make an organization better. Is not by making its individual people better, sending them off to cutting edge training on data science or ethics or whatever else.

It's by getting the right norms in place because then you've got community policing that takes the organization in the direction you want it to take. So one of my broadest goals for the book is to shift the level of analysis or the level of effort for how you make an organization, how you turbocharge an organization.

Yeah, individual training is essential and we've got to do it. What you also have to do is, is reorient your thinking. How do I get the groups to maintain and instill and perpetuate the values and the goals that I think are important? The group is where the action is.

Adel Nehme: That is awesome. The group is where the action is. Thank you so much, Andrew, for coming on DataFramed and everyone make sure to check out the Geekway. Awesome book. Highly recommend it. And thank you so much, Andrew, for giving us time of your day.

Andrew McAfee: Adele, thank you. It was a blast.


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