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The Brief, Remarkable Life of the Genius Who Transformed the Internet

Before his young death on board the Boeing 767 that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Danny Lewin wrote a set of algorithms that would end the "World Wide Wait" online.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Da Capo Press

 
 
 
 

The following are excerpts from No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius who Transformed the Internet, ( Da Capo Press, 2013): 

Everyone at Akamai knew that if they had one shot in life, they were looking right at it. If they stayed in the game, kept up the pace and trounced the competition, they could become the next dot-com dream. And they could become rich—absurdly rich. The speculative bubble was still on the rise, fueled by a steady influx of Internet IPOs with no revenue or profits and market values in the millions. Amazon.com, the Internet bookseller, had not reported a profitable quarter since its IPO in May 1997, but in the first week of trading in the new year, its share price soared by nearly fifty percent.

Although they’d spent the better part of two years building Akamai, [Tom] Leighton and [Danny] Lewin still harbored similar, long-term life plans of a quiet, cerebral career in academia. Suddenly, though, they were at the helm of a breakout company moving at a breakneck pace.

Lewin told The Jerusalem Report, “It’s frightening. I have this company of one hundred ten people, headed by one of the biggest businessmen around with lots of money in the bank, and I’m just a graduate student.”

For the professor and the student, it was a swift, unlikely journey from ivory tower obscurity to breakout star of the boom. But Leighton and Lewin were in it together, and the experience only cemented a friendship that began with an awe-struck student in pursuit of a preeminent professor. They were not just business partners; they were best friends….

Lewin quickly assumed the role of Akamai’s rallying force: the indomitable, often fanatical chief technologist who approached his leadership with the intensity and determination of an army captain. Unable to contain his physical prowess, even in an office setting, Lewin rarely sat still. When he became excited or upset, he strode boldly up and down the rows of cubicles, swinging his large arms and reaching out at employees to tap them on the head, offer up a high-five, or encircle them in a hug. Sometimes his antics were sophomoric; he played office pranks, like tossing pieces of candy at people across the boardroom table and duct-taping a colleague to his desk chair. When he was mad, everyone knew. Not because he was mean, but because he so often put on theatrical displays of anger like slamming his head against the wall, putting someone in a head lock, or shouting out an exaggerated threat to the competition (a favorite was “We’ll rip their hearts out!”).

Beneath the histrionics, however, Lewin also possessed business savvy. Much of it came from his experience in the Israeli army, a place where he learned to function well as part of a team under even the most trying circumstances. “We all knew that when Danny [laid] down a certain direction, we were supposed to follow it, even if the timeline was incredibly short or challenging,” said Jeff Young, director of corporate communications for Akamai. “You wanted to get it done. You’d think about how much work it was going to be, but then you’d think about the fact that Danny hadn’t slept in three days and figure, if he hasn’t slept, the least I can do is work harder…You just had this feeling that, if you could just follow this guy, you were going to be set.”

Lewin was also candid about the fact that he still had a lot to learn. “He had the wisdom to know that he didn’t know everything,” said Laura Malo, longtime executive assistant at Akamai and the company’s third female employee. “As the business grew, rapidly, there was a lot of interaction with big CEOs of companies and Danny would have to meet with these people, so he learned over time to sort of calm down and listen to them and sort of wait for a response before really making his point.” Malo added: “But then, when he would come [out] of the meetings, he’d whisper something like, ‘We’re gonna kill ’em!’”

 
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