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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Billionaire grew up castrating bulls, eating snake hearts

NetApp founder shares unusual life story in new memoir

By Jon Brodkin , Network World , 01/21/2009

If you're surprised that the founder of an IT company is familiar with the intimate details of bull castration, then you haven't read the life story of Dave Hitz.

The founder and executive vice president of storage company NetApp, Hitz published his tale this week in a memoir titled "How to Castrate a Bull: Unexpected Lessons on Risk, Growth, and Success in Business."

The title is meant to be taken literally – Hitz worked on a cattle ranch during college.

The cover of David Hitz's new book

"If someone gave you a dull pocket knife, pointed out a five hundred pound bull calf, and said 'jump that fence and cut off his [testicles],' would you do it?" Hitz writes.

There seem to be many other unusual and interesting aspects of Hitz's life. For example… well, let's just let him tell it:

"I am the product of a tryst in a squalid Times Square flophouse and was raised by a brothel owner and his opium-using wife. I am a high school dropout who started college at 14. My youth was spent hitchhiking and cutting the testicles off bulls. I sold my blood for money. I am an ordained minister and an atheist. I once ate dog meat and the still-beating heart of a snake. I made a billion dollars and I lost a billion dollars. I am presently employed as a shaman.

"Or . . . I can say that I am the son of comfortable and educated middle-class parents. My father was an aerospace engineer while my mother took care of the three children. I went to college and studied to become an engineer like my father. I earned a computer science degree from Princeton in 1986 and headed off to Silicon Valley to write software. In 1992 I joined two colleagues to start a data storage firm called NetApp, where I still work today.

"Both accounts are true. My story, like everyone's, depends on the circumstance in which it is told."

Those are the first three paragraphs of "Chapter Zero," a reference to what Hitz calls the "ancient battle" about whether to start counting at "one" or "zero."

As a young teen, Hitz started taking high school classes in the morning and college classes in the afternoon at George Washington University. Eventually he attended Deep Springs College, "a two-year liberal arts school located on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in California's high desert."

Students worked the ranch when not studying. "Before Deep Springs, I could never have imagined performing rudimentary surgery on a touchy region of an enormous, angry beast; now I've done hundreds. Risk can be managed."

At one point, Hitz took a break from college and spent two summers as a paid cowboy for Deep Springs. Hitz explains that ranch life demanded self-sufficiency, a quality that's important whether you are castrating bulls or building and selling computers. "Years later, these lessons were surprisingly relevant in Silicon Valley start-up companies," Hitz writes. "Not the details, but the attitudes and styles of thinking."

Hitz spends much of the book discussing what happened after he moved to Silicon Valley in 1986 and began working at a series of start-ups, and the various business problems he faced and how he approached them. In 1992 Hitz teamed with James Lau to found NetApp, which today is a prominent player in the world of enterprise storage.

Hitz describes in detail the evolution of NetApp and, of course, does not omit the vendor's sales pitch. "Even though we sell big systems full of disk drives, mostly what customers like about us is that we help them manage all that data more efficiently and easily than our competitors," Hitz writes. (Compare storage products.)

But at various points in the 200-page book Hitz takes a break from talking business to focus on some of the humorous passages referenced in Chapter Zero

Some are not nearly as sordid as they initially sound. The "tryst in a squalid Times Square flophouse" occurred when his parents stopped in New York on their way to Europe and ended up in a low-cost hotel because of bad planning and bad luck. Hitz's mother is described as an "opium-using wife" because on a trip to India her tour group came upon a desert hut where nearby "wizened old men" were stirring a pot of liquid. She drank some to be polite, and was then told she had ingested opium.
And Hitz's father became a "brothel owner" unwittingly after buying property in Northern California. A con artist rented out the property illegally to "an enterprising woman and her two grown daughters, who established the property as the local whorehouse."

A local sheriff informed Hitz's father of the situation, but kicking the prostitutes out was not so easy.

"Evicting anyone in California is tough, but tossing out pregnant women is especially hard," Hitz writes. "So, for the next couple years, at any one time, at least one of the women was pregnant, staving off any attempt to clear them out. My grandfather, who lived nearby, collected the rent for my parents until my grandmother found out and put a stop to it. Eventually, my parents did extricate themselves from being brothel owners, and later the property paid their kids' college tuition."

A couple other Hitz stories that are given explanation include him selling blood for money and eating the still-beating heart of snake.

Between stints at Deep Springs ranch, Hitz was living in San Francisco and, short on cash, started selling his plasma for $8 twice a week (plasma can be drawn safely more often than whole blood). His mother was appalled.

While discussing bull castration as "a metaphor for learning to take risk," Hitz mentions the time his girlfriend "arranged a special Vietnamese meal for me: snake prepared seven ways."

"As the guest of honor, I knew I'd be the one to eat the raw heart," Hitz writes. "What I hadn't realized was that it would still be beating when I swallowed it."

This leads to a discussion about which risks are worth taking. For Hitz, eating the snake heart was a good bet. He ended up marrying the girl.

In a later chapter, Hitz touches briefly on his religious beliefs while discussing the difference between scientific truths and useful truths. "I believe that individuals are sometimes better off believing things that may not be scientifically true," he writes. "What if believing in God makes people happier and more successful, independent of whether God actually exists?"

And of course, Hitz gives a half-page primer on the fine art of castrating a bull. After all it is the book's title and the cover page has a picture of a pocket knife.

The half page description includes gruesome details related to the bull's affected areas, but we'll quote selectively here. (You can get the whole book at Amazon anyway).

"Warning: Do not use a sharp knife no matter how much the bull begs," Hitz lectures. "A sharp cut bleeds dangerously, but a dull fray creates more surface area to induce clotting. Leave the wound undressed and release the animal. Repeat until you've finished the herd. Then cross Castrate a Bull off your list of things to do before you die."

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