The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet
When Danny Lewin, the 31-year-old cofounder of Akamai Technologies, settled into seat 9B on American Airlines Flight 11 to Los Angeles, he was trying to find a way to save his fledgling company. After a record-setting IPO in 1999, Akamai’s fortunes began to tumble soon after and the company was hanging on by a thread.
Lewin, the young American-Israeli math whiz with a thousand-watt personality, had thrown his entire being into building Akamai into an engine that would drive the growth and capability of the Internet. Unfortunately, Akamai, a real company with a sound product and business model, was caught in the same irrational bubble as the countless dot-com ventures that had burst on the scene and proved as evanescent as morning mist. When that bubble burst, those startups went down in flames, and it looked like Akamai might as well. On this morning, Sept. 11, 2001, Lewin, despite his company’s foibles, believed his future would be bright.
The world knows what happened next. Flight 11 was the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center in New York City. What few know, however, is that Danny Lewin, a former member of the Israeli military’s most elite special forces unit, tried to fight off the terrorists that morning, and based on evidence from transmissions from the plane, Lewin was the first passenger murdered on 9/11. Everyone who knew Lewin was convinced that he leaped out of his seat and used his training to try to take down one of the terrorists.
In Molly Knight Raskin’s new biography of Lewin, “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, The Genius Who Transformed the Internet” the incidents of 9/11 form a coda to a life that was indeed remarkable.
Lewin, born in Colorado, was uprooted at age 14 by his parents so the family could make aliyah (to immigrate) to Israel. After a rough indoctrination to the Israeli lifestyle, Lewin embraced his new country, and though he was not obligated, joined its military. A bear of a man who could bench press 300 pounds when he was 16, Lewin had more than a stunning intellect. He was a physically imposing man who was accepted after a grueling selection process into Sayeret Matkal, the most elite of Israel’s special forces.
“By the 1990s, the selection process for Sayeret Matkal had expanded significantly,” Raskin writes, “but for soldiers who were not Israeli-born, recruitment to Sayeret Matkal was almost unheard of. Still, Lewin made the first of many decisions in his short life to defy the odds.”
The two-year training period was daunting, but Lewin had the right stuff and was assigned an array of dangerous missions. He emerged as a leader of his unit. On one visit home in Jerusalem, Lewin met a young Belgian woman named Anne Pardes and quickly fell in love. They were married when Lewin was 21 years old. With a child on the way and a yearning to continue his education, Lewin requested a leave from the military to attend the Technion in Haifa. While there, he came across the work of a little-known M.I.T. professor and math genius named Tom Leighton. He knew immediately that he had to study with this man. He chose to leave his wife and two young sons in Israel and head to M.I.T
Once at M.I.T. and under Leighton’s wing, Lewin’s intellect and matchless enthusiasm affected everyone he met. Though they began as teacher and student, the two men eventually joined forces to start Akamai. The company was based upon an innovative algorithm conceived by Lewin and enhanced by Leighton that aimed at dramatically increasing the speed and reliability of the Internet. The goal was to abolish the “World Wide Wait” and allow servers to host corporate Web sites.
By October 1999, though Akamai was less than a year old and had not reached profitability, the company joined the IPO frenzy and hit the jackpot. Opening at $29 per share, the stock soared on its first day of trading and closed at $145 a share. Lewin and Leighton went home that night worth nearly $2 billion each on paper. The stock closed out the year at $327 a share. The fantasy didn’t last long, however. The dot.com bubble began to burst in March 2000 and Akamai shares tanked. In 18 months, the shares had dropped so far that the stock was delisted from NASDAQ. Akamai’s obituaries were being written.
Though Raskin provides an excellent account of the birth and early struggles of Akamai, she is less successful in illuminating Lewin as a fully developed character in his own story. Raskin relies on countless interviews with friends and colleagues but eventually comes up a tad short. We read again and again a rehash of an early quote from M.I.T. Professor Alfred Bruckstein, who encountered Lewin in 1992, several years before Lewin enrolled at M.I.T. as a student.
“His brightness was a given, but it was his enthusiasm that I remember the most,” said Bruckstein. “His eyes were scintillating. He was immersed, interested and had this fantastic drive.”
Lewin, with an unmatched understanding of algorithms, an eclectic and little-understood subset of math, was able to spark a fire inside Leighton that lured the professor out of the ivory tower into the world of tech commerce. Akamai today is a $7-billion company with 3,500 employees around the world, and Leighton was recently named CEO. Using its unique technology, Akamai regularly controls between 15 and 30 percent of all Internet traffic.
According to Raskin, “Leighton said he thinks often about Lewin, but no longer in the context of Akamai. Over time, he said, the feeling that Danny might charge into the room — smiling and wild-eyed with a big new idea — has faded. When he does think of Lewin, Leighton often recalls the time when they could talk for hours about their shared dream of proving mathematical theorems for a living. It was the moment in time before they took what they both knew, as theoreticians, to be a rare chance.”