I vividly remember the evening three years ago. James was sitting across from me in my living room and he said, “I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.” The details weren’t yet clear, but he would obviously need to focus on health and not work. He thought he should resign from NetApp. I told him he was crazy. First, don’t mess with your insurance. Second, don’t make a decision like that while you are in shock. Why not take a leave of absence? Today he’s doing well, but I still choke back tears when I think about that evening.


I first met James over lunch at a job interview 27 years ago. He was employee 12 at Auspex, and I was interviewing to be employee 17. I think I was a problem employee because I burned through my first boss in about six months and then through a second one as well. James was my third boss and he stuck for many years. He never told me what to do, but I always told him what I was planning to do, and we would talk about it. Sometimes we disagreed and I got an important lesson: When you disagree with a super-smart person, chances are they didn’t just turn stupid. Probably there’s something they know that you don’t. Keep arguing, but remember that the goal is to learn that thing they know. (Sometimes I knew something James didn’t, but I learned not to assume it would go that way.)


In the very first days of NetApp, James was the one who went to Fry’s Electronics to find a 486 motherboard for our first product. Our original idea was to use a Motorola chip, because that’s what people built low-end servers out of back then, but James thought Intel was good enough and much cheaper. Our original idea was to use big batteries to keep the whole system running in case of power failure, but James convinced us that battery-backed RAM would be cheaper and easier.


One disagreement we had was on SAN (storage area network) and NAS (network-attached storage). I thought NAS was the hot new technology and would replace SAN in short order. He thought SAN was here to stay, and that NetApp would be positioned much better in the enterprise if we did both. His extra experience: Never underestimate the staying power of an entrenched standard. James kept knocking us off one path and onto a better one. Sometimes I felt that my title should be “spokesman for James.” He would say a smart thing once, and then I would keep repeating it until everyone else agreed.


James has been taking care of his health and working for NetApp, but he’s done other things too. To help raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society he ran his first marathon ever. He also rode in two 100-mile bike rides and has two more marathons planned. Last year, James took some time off. He and his wife took their daughter out of school to travel the world. They started in South Africa, worked their way north to Europe, over to Asia and then back to  Europe.


By fun coincidence, my daughter Mira is the same age as James’s daughter Chloe, and they were in the same first-grade class together. James called me up and said, “Chloe is getting really bored of her parents and misses her friends. Could Mira join us for a while? Uh, I guess you can come too, but Mira’s the important one.” And that’s the story of how I got to visit Tanzania and see elephants, zebras, and giraffes on the Serengeti with James.


A long trip around the world gives you time to think about life. James has lots of plans. He will spend more time on his work with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (He just joined the board of the Silicon Valley Chapter.) He will continue on the Advisory Board of the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. On the trip, James missed NetApp and he wants us to be part of his life. He will be an advisor to Scott Dawkin’s Advanced Technology Group. But still, he does want to officially retire, and this time I support him whole-heartedly.


Please join me in saying, “Thank you, James, and good luck in everything you do!”

Dave Hitz

As executive vice president, Dave Hitz and James Lau founded NetApp in 1992 with a desire to simplify storage the way Cisco simplified networking. Dave and James believed that general-purpose computing systems were too complex, so they built dedicated devices called appliances. These appliances were designed to handle one thing well: storage.

Prior to 1992, Dave worked as a senior engineer at Auspex Corporation, an enterprise storage solutions provider, where he was responsible for file systems and microkernel design. He also held engineering positions at MIPS Computer, focusing on file system and I/O subsystem design for the System V kernel development effort. Before his career in the computer industry, Dave worked as a cowboy, getting valuable management experience by herding, branding, and castrating cattle. Dave documented these and other formative business experiences in his autobiography, How to Castrate a Bull: Unexpected Lessons on Risk, Growth, and Success in Business.

Dave holds bachelor's degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from Princeton University.

Add comment