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Head in the Cloud

At 29, Jeff Hammerbacher has been a pitcher, a poet, an autoworker, an investment banker and a Facebook wunderkind who walked away from a fortune. His next project? Curing cancer.

Author PETER COHAN Photography Toby Burditt

JEFF HAMMERBACHER is a man of varied interests. The son of an auto assembly-line worker from Kalamazoo, Mich., the 29-year-old has tried his hand at poetry, philosophy, psychology, venture capital, baseball and, yes, automaking. He began his academic career as an English major, but ended up graduating from Harvard with a degree in mathematics. As a teen he’d been a star pitcher and looked set for a career in the major leagues; he ended up working as an analyst at Bear Stearns. You could call him hopelessly scattered, or you could say he’s a genius. Frankly, it’s a tough call.

In 2006, with his stint at Bear Stearns but a memory, Hammerbacher was hired by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (fittingly, in a friend-of-a-friend scenario), and developed a wondrously efficient system to handle the massive amounts of data coursing through the website. Not only was Hammerbacher fast becoming an important player in the rarefied world of Silicon Valley, but he was also on his way to becoming very well-off.

Then, in 2008, he chucked it all.

Speaking from his Palo Alto office recently, Hammerbacher seems at a loss to explain his decision to quit Facebook (currently valued at upward of $100 billion). “To be honest, I didn’t run through any real calculus,” he says. “I just felt like it was time for something new.”

Quitting, he jokes, was “an egregious act of wealth destruction,” but he had faith in himself — and as it turned out, the move did little to diminish his reputation in the industry. Itamar Rosenn, a symbolic-systems analyst, calls Hammerbacher “scary-smart, a maverick, individualistic, dynamic and a sponge when it comes to new ideas. His interests evolve quickly.”

Shortly after leaving Facebook, Hammerbacher joined one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms as an “entrepreneur in residence.” A month later, he quit. His mother, who had once shooed him out of a Michigan auto plant and back to Cambridge after he’d dropped out of Harvard, couldn’t have been happy. He was starting to look like a man whose interests evolve maybe a little too quickly.

But he had a plan. In sifting through the trillions of bits of data that had threatened to overwhelm Facebook on a daily basis, he’d adopted a baby-steps strategy, breaking impossible tasks into ever-smaller parts until each one became relatively simple. The same approach, he realized, could be applied to everything from telecoms to biotech to financial services. So, with newfound focus, he founded a company of his own: Cloudera.

Before long, Hammerbacher teamed up with another digital high-flyer, Doug Cutting, who’d developed data processing software called Hadoop, which provided the platform Cloudera needed to operate. The company has since attracted $36 million in venture capital, and its founder is again on course for dot-com riches.

You’d assume, then, that this means he’ll be out within the month. But this project is different. While Hammerbacher is loath to portray himself as some sort of modern-day Marie Curie — he refuses to even comment on this aspect of his business — his talents are currently being applied to one of the greatest puzzles of human existence. The basic idea being this: If you can tell a half-billion social networkers which celebrity they most or least resemble, maybe you can do similar things with cancerous cells.

To simplify it a bit, let’s say you’re asked to compare two 100-link chains and find the single link that differs between them. You could compare the two chains one link at a time and find that the 98th one differs (the serial approach), or you could cut the two chains into 10-link pairs, and give a pair to each of 10 people to search for the link that differs — all at the same time (the parallel approach).

Cloudera uses the parallel approach to help cancer researchers find mutant proteins. The system breaks long DNA chains into chunks that it sends to small computers (instead of expensive and cumbersome supercomputers) that compare the smaller strands. As a result, researchers can find the needle of mutant protein pairs in a haystack of normal ones much faster. And that can help them come up with better tools to diagnose and, ultimately, treat cancer.

For Hammerbacher, the wandering polymath, Cloudera has provided focus at long last — a mission. He quips, echoing the poet Allen Ginsberg, that “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” Chasing a cure for cancer, as it happens, may be just the thing to finally hold his attention.

PETER COHAN, president of Peter S. Cohan & Associates, is a former runner-up for the New England Poetry Prize (and a terrible pitcher).

 

ABOUT-FACE
Four other restless brainiacs who quit Facebook

Contrary to what you might expect, Facebook’s staggering market value and cultural icon status have not equaled employee retention. In recent years, many of its most veteran (and vested) employees have gone off to pursue new things. Here are just a few.

CHRIS HUGHES
After cofounding Facebook as a Harvard student, Hughes left in 2007 to oversee social media strategy for the Obama campaign. Then, in 2010, he started Jumo, an “online platform to connect [those] working to change the world.”

DUSTIN MOSKOVITZ
Another Facebook cofounder, Moskovitz left in 2008 to launch his own software firm, Asana, meant to be “to your work life what Facebook is to your social life.” He took Justin Rosenstein, a top Facebook engineer/evangelist, with him.

RUCHI SANGHVI
Hired in 2005, Facebook’s first female engineer was key in rolling out the site’s news feed — a hugely controversial feature at the outset, with much of the ire directed at Sanghvi. She left last year to become a freelance adviser and investor.

CHRIS PUTNAM
By pulling off a series of playful Facebook hacks, Putnam got more than the firm’s attention — he got a job as a software engineer. After creating Facebook Chat and Facebook Video, though, he left last year, and has yet to reveal his next act.

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