Growing Up Geek: Iyaz Akhtar

Welcome to Growing Up Geek, an ongoing feature where we take a look back at our youth and tell stories of growing up to be the nerds that we are. Today, we have a special guest: Iyaz Akhtar, current associate producer and host of Tech News Today on


My childhood home had a lot of electronics around because my Dad was a bit of a gadget guy. Every now and then, we'd go to a small electronics shop where my dad would negotiate prices and extras since he apparently knew the owners. If we bought a portable game system, we'd always get extra batteries for free.

Actually, I was more interested in hooking up a couple of VCRs to copy tapes-if I remember right, a guy at the video rental store actually explained to us how this was possible. The double-VCR monster was a bit messy with RCA cables everywhere, but it worked.

I also liked playing video games on our Atari 7800 and Nintendo. We eventually got the Sega Master System, but in our house, it was pretty much a dud. I'd play One on One: Dr J. vs. Larry Bird, Contra, and could never figure out the exact use for R.O.B. the robot. Then I found the world of video game magazines and my eyes grew wide at all the stuff coming out in Japan so far before it did in the U.S.

When I'd go to Electronics Boutique at the mall, I'd pick up EGM and GamePro. I learned about the Mega Drive, PC Engine, and Super Famicom. When I heard PC Engine was coming to America, I was horrified to see the form factor expand as it was rebranded the "TurboGrafx 16." Seeing the Super Famicom turn into a gray and purple, boxy Super NES was also a downer. Apparently, I was a design freak even back then.

Eventually, I wound up ordering a Super Famicom and played Super Mario World and ActRaiser, even though I couldn't read anything. My parents got us a Super NES and a Sega Genesis. I was so eager to play certain games that I ordered the Japanese versions after I somehow learned you could physically modify the American machines to play the Japanese ones. I took my needle-nose pliers and ripped out pieces of plastic from the SNES so I could have one machine that played everything.

In general, I had a lot of interests that got me labeled as a geek. At various times, I was fascinated with origami, making balloon animals, learning everything I could about trees and clouds, and practicing magic tricks. I also watched a lot of television and read a lot of comic books.

My computer geekiness started by accident. My younger brother purchased a Simpsons game at a store. Once he opened the box, he was less than thrilled to see three 1.44MB disks instead of a console cartridge. He appealed to our dad and basically said he'd like to play the game, so let's get a computer. While this may sound like a seriously weak reason to get a PC, my dad gladly used the excuse to purchase a new Tandy from Radio Shack. Not knowing anything about DOS, we had to return to Radio Shack for help. A clerk explained to us what we'd need to do and kindly wrote down every command we'd need to know to do anything in a notebook. We never did get that game to install, but that sparked something.

We eventually got to upgrade to a Tandy Sensation, which had a CD-ROM. I was fascinated by the idea of storing video and audio on a disc -- it was like the future! I didn't know it then, but the Sensation had a skin over Windows 3.1 called "Deskmate." One day, after a particularly bad crash, I was stuck in something called "Program Manager." I started asking around at school about it. My friends told me to check out computer magazines like PC World and PC Magazine.

I first got online using Prodigy. I was astonished to find that I could send messages to people in far away places like Arizona (that might as well have been Mars to me then) for no additional fee. That eventually led to me trying out different services like CompuServe and AOL. AOL was particularly interesting because it had content from Mad Magazine and DC Comics.

Then it was coming -- Windows 95 was coming! I read about "Chicago" and its brand new interface with the Start button. I convinced my dad to take me to Staples before midnight so we could buy Windows 95 on opening day. Once I got my hands on that heavy Windows 95 box, I couldn't wait to get home. I spent hours installing the operating system-back then, the OS was on 13 disks. Somewhere along my swapping of disks I noticed each disk had a capacity of larger than 1.44 MB. How was this possible? After the install, I played with the desktop and Start menu until I fell asleep.

One day while messing around on Windows 95, I clicked an icon labelled "Internet." This was different than the online world I knew through Prodigy and such. I went to CompUSA and bought Netscape Navigator for $20 -- browsers weren't free back then. I spent hours in CompUSA, Computer City, and Radio Shack staring at all kinds of things. You can upgrade your own machine? There are books to help you? You can install a CD-ROM drive?

College was a turning point. Having an email address in high school meant you were a nerd. You were required to have an email address at Boston University. I signed up in a computer lab where I had my first experience with Unix. The dorms had wired Ethernet and I was blown away by the speeds and ease of networking. The engineering floor had built its own private network with Ethernet taped to the ceiling with cables going to each room. On the digital music front, it was the Wild West. Napster and Scour were favorite music discovery tools.

I even started my own website on because it didn't have super-intrusive ads and had a quick URL. My first site had all the cliched animated gifs and noises you could ever want to experience. I eventually learned that less was more and started writing "Ramblings." It was like a blog before there were blogs. Each entry on the site was another table entry. Navigation was done via hand coding and targets.

After college, I started spending a lot of time watching a network called TechTV. I even wrote in a question that was read on The Screen Savers. That led me to read and write about technology in my spare time. Through a series of unlikely events, I wound up podcasting on Wil Harris and Justin Gayner's ChannelFlip network. In turn, that helped me land a job as the editor of a tech blog. In the meantime, I had become a regular at the #Cnetfans chatroom to talk with people who were also passionate about tech.

In my adult life, I got to work at PCMag, which was a childhood dream (I didn't just say that at the interview-I meant it). In 2006, I heard a podcast called This Week in Tech and thought, "I'd like to do that someday." 5 years later, here I am working at TWiT.

Iyaz Akhtar can be found on Twitter (@iyaz), Google+, on his personal site at and of course every weeknight at 2:30pm PT / 5:30pm ET as the host of Tech News Today.