Israel-born Nir Zuk (picture), the founder and CTO of California-based Palo Alto Networks, was an enfant terrible. According to a profile in Forbes, Zuk 'learned to read and write before entering school,' 'got his first pair of glasses in the third grade after years of fooling school nurses by memorizing the vision chart,' and when he was in the sixth grade, he became the chess champion of Israel's eighth-grade-and-under division. For his bar mitzvah, he 'begged his parents to get him a Dragon 64 computer'. With that in his possession, he went on 'to create some of the world's first computer viruses...just for fun.'
Who knew that this little guy would reinvent the network security business in a fundamental way?
Zuk joined the Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF) Unit 8200 in 1990. There, he worked with the future founder of security tech company Check Point, Gil Shwed. When Shwed got out of the military and founded Check Point in 1993 with fellow military men Shlomo Kramer and Marius Nacht, Zuk joined them in 1994, and helped build its flagship product, Firewall-1.
What did he learn in the Israeli army, I asked him when I met him in the US during a conference. "Can't talk too much about it," he said, shooting point blank. "Israel is a small country. It is only a little bigger than Singapore in population and it has too many enemies around it. You have to be smart about protecting it. You don't have too many resources, too many people. So you have to be smart in defending it." That was probably the main learning he had when he was with IDF.
What led him to found Palo Alto Networks?
In 1997, Zuk moved to California to oversee Check Point's US operations but within two years, he parted ways with that company. "I left Check Point in 1999," he said. "It became very difficult to be innovative inside Check Point. I wanted to continue to create new technologies. So, I started my own company to create new technologies."
That was his first company in the US-OneSecure. It was 'the first intrusion-detection and prevention outfit'. Unfortunately, within two quarters, the company met with dot com crash at its doorstep.
"It went pretty well but it was at a bad time--it was during the dot com crash. We did Ok, meaning we were growing our business and eventually we sold the business. What we did was similar by the way to what we did at Check Point in the early days is to keep the company small and efficient."
Because of the tech bubble burst, Zuk's company was sold over to Netscreen for $40 million in 2002. "We sold the company because our competitors were nervous and there was an opportunity to make money," he said. "We might have become a much bigger company if we had stayed independent."
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