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Bull castration, snake eaters, opium and a whorehouse: the life of storage guru Dave Hitz

NetApp founder shares unusual life story in new memoir

By , Network World
January 21, 2009 01:26 PM ET

Network World - 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."

Listen to a podcast interview with Dave Hitz (9:55)

Read a Q&A with Dave Hitz: Part 1 | Part 2

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

"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. 

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