April 05, 2010, 4:05 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Nir Zuk, founder and CTO of Palo Alto Networks, is passionate about technology, and has little patience for large, slow-moving bureaucracies. He's founded small companies, seen them acquired by larger ones, and witnessed what happens as a result -- and he's determined to keep Palo Alto Networks' entrepreneurial spirit, no matter how large and successful it becomes.
Starting as a 16-year-old whiz kid in Israel, writing some of the very first computer viruses and then writing commercial programs using his Dragon 64, Nir has had a hand in developing some of the most innovative computer security technology in the business.
So where did you get your degree?
I don't have a degree.
That makes it much more interesting. How did you become so familiar with the IT industry and information security?
When I was in the fourth grade, a good friend of mine got his first computer, and when I was a couple years older, my parents got me my first computer, which was a Dragon 64. I taught myself how to program, and that's how I started. That's when I was 16.
Those were pretty primitive computers back in those days.
I did manage to convince my parents to buy me the one with the 30 megabyte hard drive instead of the 20 megabyte, because I needed the extra space. 30 megabytes was huge. I was 16, and I started developing for money and wrote commercial software. Back then, the first computer viruses were emerging, and I started writing viruses myself and got to learn how to do computer security from that side. And then, like anyone in Israel, I had to go to the military, and was recruited by a special unit that was looking for whiz kids that knew how to program.
What did you do in the military?
I was working with computers. I stayed there for five years, and during that time I started going to the university to study mathematics. I saw no reason to study computer science, since I already knew what I needed to know. I almost finished my degree, and left the military and was recruited into a company called Checkpoint. At that time, Checkpoint was very small with only a handful of employees. It was the developer of the first commercially viable firewall solution. I had to work hard, from 8 am to probably 10 pm every day, so I didn't have time to finish my degree. We invented a technology called stateful inspection, on which all network security technology today is based. I joined Checkpoint in '94, and in January '97 I moved to the United States.