Childhood in Tirol
My mother’s family is from Tirol, a mountainous province of Austria. Her family tree goes back to the early seventeen hundreds and is firmly rooted around the town of Schwaz, which is about 20 miles east of Innsbruck, the capital of Tirol. My mother was an elementary school teacher until she married my father in 1953. She is now 92 years old.
My father’s family is from ‘Sudeten Deutschland’, which is part of the Czech Republic. His family tree also goes back to the early seventeen hundreds. In the 1930’ies, his parents moved to Luzern in Switzerland, and from there to Schwaz, where my grandfather accepted the position of music director. My father was a professor at the ‘Handels Akademie’, a business high school in Innsbruck. He spent his whole career there, teaching business math and computer science. He passed away in 2011.
I was born in 1956 in Schwaz. When I was four years old, my parents moved to Innsbruck, where I grew up. I have five brothers and one sister – I am number two; my sister is number three. We siblings have been very close to each other during our child hood, and later in life. We have institutionalized yearly brothers’ trips; occasional siblings’ trips that I go on with my sister; and every third year we organize family trips, where all the descendants of my parents together with their partners and significant others get together for a week.
Tirol is a very catholic country and I was brought up catholic. After I turned fourteen, I turned away from organized religion and started my mindfulness and spiritual journey, which I am still on today. My parents’ household was conservative – with my father being very strict, serious, and stern; while my mother was always joyous, uplifting, and supportive.
Our upbringing was simple: I slept with three of my brothers in one bed room; for vacation we went to our grandparents in Schwaz; and I took on jobs like skiing instructor, math tutor, and delivery driver to earn some money. Yet, I never felt that we were missing out on much. As a matter of fact, I very much enjoyed the freedom of just going out into the woods by ourselves to roam, play and explore. We could run out right from our apartment. We also took advantage of the beautiful mountains all around us, getting into skiing, climbing, ski touring, biking and hiking early on.
A highlight of my upbringing was music. I studied classical piano and violin, and all of my siblings played various instruments as well. I enjoyed the many times, we played and sang together – particularly during the Holiday season.
When I was 14, life at home became increasingly challenging, as my father and I became more and more incompatible. I decided to find a way to leave Innsbruck in order to have a better chance for self-actualization and coming into my own. I found an organization called American Field Service, which enables non-US high school students to stay in the US for a year – attending high school and living with a family. When I was 16, I applied. I was ecstatic when they accepted me and especially when I found out that I will spend the school year of 1974/75 on the island of Maui in Hawaii.
Gap year in Hawaii
What a change in scenery: from the mountains of Tirol to the volcanoes and beaches of Maui. When I arrived on Maui, I was 17. My guest family – a prominent family on Maui – were descendants of one of the original missionary families. They ran multiple businesses, from land management and development to newspaper and media businesses.
Their house was in Spreckelsville, a sleepy unincorporated community on the northern coast of Maui. It was a beautiful Hawaiian style home, right on the ocean – with lots of open spaces, cross ventilation and verandas. The garden was full of coconut trees and home to two big and scary dogs. And my guest family had a well-tuned baby grand piano, which I loved to play.
During the school year, I commuted to Seabury Hall high school with my guest siblings – a 25-minute car ride each way. Since I already graduated from high school once before in Austria, the high school itself was easy for me; with the exception of English – where I was not graded until half way through the year, at which point in time I got an A.
I enjoyed getting into new sports, like karate, boogie boarding, body surfing, and I also dabbled in surfing. I learned how to skate board, and skate boarded down Haleakala. A doctor, who fixed my broken arm, lent me his skiing equipment and I went skiing on Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, I participated in a ski race, which I won. That’s how I became Hawaiian ski champion for that year.
Since I enjoyed so much learning about Hawaiian culture, I decided to share my culture. I produced multiple Tirolean events: for the community, for the school, and for friends. I had my grandmother send me (via snail mail at that point in time) recipes for commercial size apple strudels which I prepared with willing and capable helpers. I provided for Tirolean music by teaching my Hawaiian friends how to sing Tirolean songs, and I accompanied them on piano or guitar.
When I arrived in Honolulu at the beginning of the school year, a friendly young woman by the name of Lisa showed me the way to the local terminal. When I visited an AFS friend on Oahu later that year, it turned out that Lisa was her guest sister. Lisa and I quickly became friends and started dating. We married 8 years later in Tirol, but that’s a story for the next section.
Lisa’s great grandmother was Hawaiian. Their Hawaiian family name is Nakapa’ahu. They are originally from the island of Kauai, and later moved to Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. More recently Lisa’s dad moved the family to Kailua on Oahu, where I saw Lisa again after our first brief encounter at the airport. During my year on the islands, Lisa and I did many adventures together, like hiking down from Haleakala to Hana, jumping into the Seven Sacred Pools, exploring the bars of Lahaina, camping on the beaches of Maui, and exploring the island of Oahu. I knew back then that Lisa is the love of my life.
At the end of their year abroad, all AFS students must return to their home country. And so did I.
Study, work and family in Vienna
Shortly after I re-entered my old world, I had to decide what to study. I was talented in math and music. I did not have the imagination to envision a satisfying career in music, and pure mathematics was too dry for me. I learned about the opportunity to study computer science in Vienna, which peaked my interest. At that point in time you could not study computer science in Innsbruck, which was great, as I needed my freedom and independence and living at home would not have provided that.
The first couple of years of studying computer science was not that interesting, but that dramatically changed in year three and beyond, when I immersed myself into the beautiful world of systemic thinking, complex algorithms, distributed data models, interpreters, compilers, artificial intelligence, and many other interesting topics. After I earned my masters in computer science, I decided to stay at the technical university Vienna to do a PhD.
Studying in Austria is practically free. But I still had to pay for my apartment, food, and living expenses. Therefore, I kept on working on the side, initially as a skiing instructor and math tutor and later as a technologist at the university. When I started my PhD, I became a full-time assistant professor.
During my studies, the iron curtain was still in place, but Vienna – even then – was a vibrant city. I enjoyed being part of different intentional living communes, with students from very diverse fields like the arts, physics, law, music, acting, and engineering. I read many books on quantum mechanics, modern science as well as Buddhism and shamanism. I relished the long philosophical discussions and debates, the arts scene, and hanging out in the Viennese coffee houses and bars.
During the breaks I continued and intensified my mountain activities, particularly ski touring during the winter months and climbing during the summer months. In summer, I usually took one longer solo trip. I fondly remember my adventures in North Africa, particularly Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. On one of these trips, I had an intense outer body experience which was both scary and exciting: scary, because I was anxious to maintain connection to my body and to get back into it; and exciting, because I experienced first-hand that I am not my body.
After I came back from Hawaii, Lisa and I stayed in touch. In the summer of 1976 we spent three wonderful months traveling through Europe. And after that we kept on seeing each other in various places, including the US East Coast, Hawaii, and Europe. In 1981 we decided to get married. Lisa moved to Europe in 1982, and we married in 1983. We lived in Vienna, where our two children were born: The first one in the hospital and the second one at home.
Lisa is an architect. Before moving to Europe, she had a thriving and successful business in Honolulu, working with clients all over the Pacific rim countries. After moving to Europe, Lisa not only studied German at the Goethe Institute, but also wanted to put her entrepreneurial skills to work. At that time, it was very hard for a non-Austrian professional woman to succeed. Austrian society was very regulated, both for architects and for entrepreneurs. After a couple of futile attempts to start businesses and to get back into architecture, Lisa suggested to immigrate to the US.
At that time, I just finished my PhD, and was on a track to becoming a full professor. But I did not really enjoy research that much and thought I would do well in a more entrepreneurial environment. Therefore, I suggested to Lisa to immigrate to Silicon Valley, and she agreed. It took me a few months to line up interviews, but in the end, I did get three offers, and chose Hewlett-Packard, who helped us move to Silicon Valley in 1986, the year I turned 30 years old.