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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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For most employees, the around-the-clock commitment to the company came easily. In addition to the looming prospect of an IPO, the atmosphere in the office was often exhilarating. Every day seemed to mark another milestone. Most of Akamai’s employees spent more time at 201 Broadway than they did at home, staying until all hours of the night and returning early the next morning juiced up on coffee and the adrenaline of being at the center of the boom. “All of these amazing things were happening and you wanted to be there,” said John Sconyers. “You never knew what would happen, but you knew if you weren’t there you might miss it.”

The heart of Akamai’s headquarters was, and still is, the Network Operations Command Center, known internally as the NOCC. The NOCC still looks like something out of NASA command—a dimly lit room filled with banks of flickering computers. Larger screens line its walls, displaying what appear to be impressive numbers like “1,507,193 hits per second.” From the NOCC, Akamai boasts a bird’s-eye view of global Internet traffic; at the time, it was a perspective no one else in the world could boast. In that one room, the company has the capacity, using data from its global network, to gather information about congestion before most ISPs even know traffic is mounting. The center of the NOCC is a digitally rendered image of a spinning globe, which twinkles with thousands of tiny lights resembling stars, each one representing a city where Akamai has servers in one or more locations.

Outside the NOCC, Akamai’s home at 201 Broadway was nondescript—clusters of cubicles and offices—but it had all the trappings of the trendy startup. MIT whiz kids who were barely old enough to order a beer came to work on rollerblades and skateboards. Every Thursday, a delivery truck pulled up and stocked the kitchen with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, popcorn, soda, and frozen pizzas. A group of programmers, otherwise known as the “Java Weenies” for their caffeine-fueled all-nighters, spent their time producing the interface and graphics for the system and taking naps in a hammock suspended from the ceiling. Will Koffel, a student at MIT, was one of them. he recalled juggling the coursework for his dual degree at MIT with a part-time job at Akamai, where he worked the overnight shift overseeing operations in the NOCC. Koffel would attend class from 8:45 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., study from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., and work at Akamai from 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. “My rule was that if I fell asleep before the sun rose, then it wasn’t an all-nighter,” related Koffel. He said Lewin was in the office so often and at such odd hours that he finally began to wonder if he ever slept at all. One night, he recalled, Lewin was at the office at 3:00 a.m. in what Koffel called “Field Marshal mode,” coordinating all kinds of efforts and keeping everyone awake and on track. Koffel asked him, “Danny, how long have you been here?” Lewin replied: “Three days.” When Koffel expressed his surprise and asked him what his secret was, Lewin told him a story about his time in the army, when his commanders would make everyone in his unit stand in full gear and a backpack for twenty-four hours straight. Every time someone would flinch or collapse, they’d add another hour to everyone’s time.

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Early on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lewin kissed Anne goodbye and drove from his home to Boston’s Logan International Airport. he arrived just in time to catch American Airlines Flight 11, scheduled for departure at 8:00 a.m. and bound, nonstop, for Los Angeles. It was a trip he had taken so many times—more than thirty in the past year—that he knew the flight crew by name, the numbers of the most comfortable seats, and the makes and models of the aircrafts. The plane was partially full—81 passengers,

 
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