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Board Member Spotlight: Dave Hitz

May 10 2021

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People at a Glance

In 1992, Dave Hitz co-founded NetApp, a small data management and company in Silicon Valley that basically invented, then dominated what then was a whole new market segment called “network attached storage.” During his 27-year tenure, NetApp grew to a leading enterprise storage solutions provider not just for tech companies, but for the military and other government agencies, the entertainment industry, and more. Hitz played many roles at NetApp including programmer, architect, vice president of engineering, strategist, cheerleader, and coach. Before his career in Silicon Valley, which included previous stints at MIPS and Auspex, Dave worked for a couple of pivotal years as a cowboy on a cattle ranch, where he learned valuable lessons that informed his business career. He chronicled much of this journey in his book, How to Castrate a Bull: Unexpected Lessons on Risk, Growth, and Success in Business. The title, as he often explains, is a metaphor, though he does give explicit instructions on the real thing late in the book.

Hitz retired from NetApp in 2019. In 2018, he joined the CASBS board of directors for a three-year term. He begins a second three-year term in September 2021. We caught up with Dave to learn more.


CASBS: How have you weathered the pandemic? Have you employed any specific coping mechanisms? Have you incorporated any new hobbies or practices?

Dave Hitz: I am lucky to be an introvert. That has made the pandemic much easier than it would be otherwise. Also, I’ve had a tiny handful of people in my bubble that have helped make everything bearable, sometimes wonderful. But yes, it can also be hard. As my thirteen-year-old daughter said, “Sometimes it seems like all of the days are just the same.”

I took up “slow running.” I’ve struggled with running in the past (too old and fat), but I read about using a heart rate monitor and maintaining a surprisingly slow heart rate, running slowly, walking if need be, and all of a sudden, it’s easy and I enjoy it. Also, I’ve been running barefoot. (If you aren’t allowed to be weird, what’s the point of having a pandemic, anyway?)

I haven’t solved world hunger or written the Great American Novel.

You (and your family foundation) have a few passions sustaining you during your post-NetApp life. One is translating Shakespeare into present day English. You’ve gotten a fair amount of press about this project [for example, here, here, here, here, and here]. It seems to have struck a nerve, both positively and negatively. Can you provide an update on how the project is proceeding? Are you winning over new converts?

DH: Awesome timing for this question. We recently posted the first few episodes (here) of a verse translation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth into present day English. Check out the podcast (here)! It’s like an old-time radio play. (If any of you have friends who love theater, it would be a great favor to me if you would forward this to them.)

I’ve been watching Shakespeare since I was a little kid, but — confession — I have always struggled to understand the language. If I don’t “do the homework” ahead of time (reading a No-Fear version, or studying the footnotes), then I don’t enjoy watching the play. So several years ago I started Play On Shakespeare to translate all 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into present day English. The project is going wonderfully. We had a reading of all 39 plays in New York, in the summer of 2019, and we have had many productions of the plays at theaters around the country.

The pandemic shut down all of the theaters, of course, but we have had a number of zoom productions, and as I noted above, the podcast just launched. This year we also expect to begin publishing the translations in book form.

You retired from the company you co-founded, NetApp, in 2019, after 27 years. You’re now “Founder Emeritus,” a special title created for you. For many years, you were NetApp’s public face. One thing that’s evident from sampling videos online is that you’re a great presenter, evangelist, and storyteller. Do you miss that part of the job? Would you like to incorporate that kind of communicating into your post-tech executive life, or have you moved on from stuff like that?

DH: I do enjoy presenting, and I have missed it. I occasionally get to speak. Here is an interview (here)I did about the Shakespeare translation project.

You’ve been a participant in and observer of the Bay Area tech scene since 1986. Are there particular tech trends you’ve had your eye on during the past year or two? What excites you and/or scares the hell out of you? Is it business as usual for Silicon Valley or has the pandemic put anything new on your tech radar?

DH: Artificial Intelligence both fascinates me and scares the $h!t out of me. I can’t decide between the “don’t worry, it will just help people” gang, and the “AI will kill us all!” gang.

I managed to get myself invited to a conference on AI governance. What kinds of laws and policies should we have about AI? That was fascinating. One thing that struck me was how naïve some of the would-be policy makers were about technology. One idea I heard was that “engineers should be required to understand exactly what their products will do.” I tried to explain that no engineer who has written more than a thousand lines of code has ever known exactly what her product would do. With AI, we don’t even write the code: We show it examples in order to teach it things. It’s like predicting what a two-year-old will do.

Many people don’t like that we personify AI. “We shouldn’t think of it as a person.” But the more I think about it, the more helpful I think it is to think of AI as a person when we ask if what it is doing is okay. Suppose Google said, “We plan to hire a full-time person to read all of your email and decide what ads to show you”? No! That would scare the $h!t out of me. Or suppose a company said, “We plan to hire a large team of people to follow everyone in your family and keep track of where they go, what they watch on TV, who they meet with, what they spend money on, and then we will sell that information to whoever will pay.” No again! I think perhaps we should judge AI more as if it were a person.

Another pursuit of yours involves ancient civilizations and archaeology. Your foundation has sponsored light detection and ranging (LiDAR) scanning in the Guatemalan jungle that discovered 60,000 new Mayan buildings, suggesting that pre-Columbian populations were much larger than we’ve known – on the scale of millions of people. Has the scientific community run with this? What’s the latest on this project?

DH: Tikal in northern Guatemala is one of the famous Mayan ruins. Serious excavation began in the 1950s, and it has been almost fully explored. But our LiDAR project found a building that had never been noticed. Archeologists are very good at spotting the difference between a natural hill and a man-made building, but this building was in the style of a completely different civilization from many hundreds of miles away. They thought it was just a hill, but LiDAR revealed the truth. Excavations began before the pandemic, but of course that is slowing things down. The current theories are that the building might be an embassy (here), a trading post (here), or perhaps the result of a royal marriage to a princess from a distant land.

You have a deep affinity for Deep Springs College, where you spent two years as a student and ranch hand (1980-82) and where you served for years, more recently, as chair of its board. What is it about Deep Springs that has kept you so active in promoting its mission?

DH: Deep Springs College is a two-year school that has about 30 students on a desert ranch in the middle of nowhere. I attribute some of the success of NetApp to the can-do attitude that I learned there. When you are on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, you are often on your own. There’s nobody else to fix your problem or do your job — you just roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. My time at Deep Springs was, of course, the inspiration for the title of my book: How to Castrate a Bull.

I was a wandering student and ended up attending four different colleges and universities over eight and a half years. In the end, I think Deep Springs had the most influence on my personality and my life.

My chairmanship ended right as the pandemic began. We were on a decade-long transition from all-male to coeducation (including many years of lawsuits), and I stepped down from the board when that project was completed successfully.

Alright, Dave, since you mentioned it. The full title of your book – and yes, to prep for this we read it (scored via the Amazon Marketplace for $5.60) – is How to Castrate a Bull: Unexpected Lessons on Risk, Growth, and Success in Business, published in 2009. Our take: it’s crisp, snappy, and sprinkled throughout with tons of cool insights. [Our favorite line from a review, after browsing about one-hundred reviews: “This book has wise witticisms, much like a conversation with your grandpa after he’s had a few drinks.” Another memorable review: “An unexpectedly good book found randomly left behind at my friend’s place of work.”] You did a lot of interviews and media at the time about your journey up to that point. [For a sampling, see here, here, here, here, and here.] Now, with perspective and twelve years of distance from the book’s release, how does it hold up? Is there anything you missed or would write differently today?

DH: To be honest, it has been years since I read it!

At NetApp some called you the “keeper of the company’s conscience,” and in How to Castrate a Bull you called yourself the company’s “Chief Philosophy Officer.” You spend some time in the book and in presentations talking about values, and how an understanding of them can help provide a window to future (corporate or individual) behaviors. [And Dave helped apply those values at NetApp, which spent years at or near the top of Forbes’s list of best places to work.] What’s your take on current controversies surrounding private sector firms taking a principled stand (or not) – or weaselly straddling both sides of the fence but not admitting as much – in reaction to pending or passed legislation in various U.S. states that, in essence, restricts voter access in future elections, disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or pressures for companies to stop or curtail donations to those Members of Congress who opposed certification of the 2020 presidential election results?

DH: The Supreme Court says that in many ways, corporations have the rights of people. And yet, I see little incentive for corporations to behave morally. Perhaps we should treat corporations more like people. “Enron (or insert other company name here), you have committed too many felonies. Enough is enough. For the next five years, you and all of your senior management will produce nothing but license plates.”

Staying with the values theme, in your book and in talks you’ve given, you even tie values to game theory and how to iteratively build long-run models of cooperation as an expression of core values – at a company or elsewhere. In How to Castrate a Bull, you even invoke Robert Axelrod’s book The Evolution of Cooperation – which he wrote as a CASBS fellow during the 1981-82 year. In a blog you maintained for several years, among your book recommendations was one on ethics, morals, and choices in private and public life by the eminent philosopher – and former CASBS fellow – Sissela Bok. [In fact, Bok worked on her book Common Values as a CASBS fellow during the 1991-92 academic year.] And many prominent game theorists have spent time at the Center as fellows. Did you consciously realize at the time that you were integrating intellectual threads that apply social and behavioral science insights to your approach to work in tech?

DH: I have always been interested in the origins of morality. People do seem to have an innate sense of good and evil. There are even experiments showing the foundations of morality in other primates. As an atheist, I’ve always been curious how this might occur. My conclusion is that good morals represent good strategies for long-term success in human societies. Suppose you live in a small village and hope to live happily with your neighbors for the rest of your life. I have some recommendations that we might call “Dave’s Commandments”: Don’t kill your neighbors. Don’t steal their stuff. Don’t lie to them. Don’t sleep with their husbands or wives. I’m not saying that everything in religion matches the recommendations from game theory, but a surprising amount seems to.

These aren’t my own ideas of course. I enjoy reading and learning, and I try to apply the ideas to whatever I am doing.

That leads us to CASBS. Who gets credit for making you aware of the Center, and what drew you to it? What compelled you to join its board of directors, as opposed to remaining an admirer from afar?

DH: I was introduced to CASBS by Tino Cuéllar, a California Supreme Court Justice, faculty member at Stanford’s law school, and chair of the board at CASBS. I love CASBS and what the brilliant people associated with it are doing. Seriously. So many smart people studying so many different things! What’s cool about CASBS is that the goal is to go beyond merely understanding humans and human behavior and to apply these ideas to solving important problems in the world. How do we create fair and equitable societies? How do we deal with the social ramifications of technology like AI? How do we use research from the behavioral sciences to help with these questions? These are big and complex questions!

I’ve been interested in a cross-disciplinary style of thinking forever. I love the scientific questions about what it means to be human and how we came to be this way. I recently read a book on the latest research on Neanderthals called Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, and just started a book on the evolution of language. (That author argues that language goes all the way back to Homo erectus.) One of my favorite books ever is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which is a great summary of current psychological understanding of humans.
 

Serendipity struck at least three times in your various interactions with institutions of higher learning. First, there was Deep Springs College. Now, thankfully, with CASBS, here at Stanford. Interestingly, you finished your undergraduate career at Princeton. One of your roommates was a certain Jeff Bezos. Are you still in touch? Tell us something about the pre-Amazon Jeff Bezos that, in hindsight, you saw long before the rest of us did.

DH: I very occasionally see Jeff. We have met up at two or three Princeton reunions over the years. During the pandemic, one of my roommates scheduled Roommate Zoom Calls, and Jeff showed up to one of those.

Jeff was always super-smart, but also quick to laugh, including at himself. I remember the first time I heard that distinctive laugh coming from the TV. It was immediately obvious who that was, and sure enough, when I whipped my head around to look, there he was.
 

Finally, please caption this:

DH: Ten thought leaders and one guy sticking out his tongue.

Or: Find the introvert.

Q&A conducted and edited by Mike Gaetani