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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 fromNo 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!’”

[...]

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.

***

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,

9 crew members, and 2 pilots, Captain John Ogonowski and First Officer Thomas McGuinness.

Like Lewin, many of the passengers seated in business class were traveling for work on the daily scheduled flight: a television producer, actress, photographer and several businessmen. But Lewin was a standout among them, dressed more like a college kid—in his Gap blue jeans, t-shirt, and grey Nike sneakers—than an Internet entrepreneur. Lewin settled into his seat, 9B, and pulled out his Blackberry to make a phone call before departure. Co-workers say Lewin almost always made calls up until the moment one of the flight attendants reprimanded him for failing to shut down his device. Around 7:30 a.m., with the plane still sitting on the runway, he called Akamai’s in-house attorney, David Judson. Lewin knew Judson was an early riser and often one of the first to arrive at the office. He wanted to check on some paperwork Judson had been preparing for an upcoming deal. Judson said Lewin sounded full of energy despite the sleepless night and looming layoffs. They spoke for about fifteen minutes, until Lewin abruptly ended the call in preparation for takeoff.

“I’ve gotta go,” Lewin told Judson. “They’re telling me I have to hang up my phone.”

American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Logan on schedule at 7:59 a.m. The plane headed due west and held on course for sixteen minutes until it passed Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, instead of taking a southerly turn, it suddenly swung to the north. Just before 8:14 a.m. the plane failed to climb to its assigned cruising altitudeof 29,000 feet.

At this point, it’s possible Lewin suspected—perhaps before anyone else on the flight—that something terrible was about to happen. Having trained in the IDF’s most elite counter terrorism unit, he had learned to identify signs of attacks well before they were carried out. He also knew conversational Arabic, enough to have picked up on verbal cues if the five Middle eastern passengers gave any.

Around 8:15 a.m. a bloody hijacking began on board. Five terrorists—all of them wielding box cutters and knives—rose from their seats in business class and began to threaten passengers and the crew. Most of what we know about the hijacking comes from reports by two flight attendants in the coach cabin, Betty Ong and Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, who calmly and courageously relayed details of the hijacking as it unfolded to authorities on the ground. At 8:19 a.m., Ong told flight control, “The cockpit is not answering, somebody’s stabbed in business class—and I think there’s Mace—that we can’t breathe—I don’t know, I think we’re getting hijacked.” In a separate call, Sweeney reported the plane had been hijacked and two flight attendants had been stabbed. Sweeney also confirmed that a passenger in business class had been stabbed to death, his throat slashed by one of the terrorists. The passenger, she said, was sitting in 9B—the seat assigned to Danny Lewin.

Based on the evidence gathered from these phone calls and authorities on the ground, the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that, in those first twenty minutes of the flight, Mohamed Atta—the only terrorist on board trained to fly a jet—probably moved to the cockpit from his business-class seat (located within arm’s reach of Lewin’s seat), possibly accompanied by Abdulaziz al-Omari. As this was happening, according to the report, Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Atta and Omari, was stabbed in the neck by one of the hijackers—probably Satam al-Suqami, who was seated directly behind Lewin, out of view.

Between 8:25 and 8:32, in accordance with the FAA protocol, Boston Center managers started notifying their chain of command that AA Flight 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York Center’s airspace. At 8:44, Sweeney made her last call to ground control: “Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent . . . We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.”

Seconds later, Sweeney said, “Oh, my God, we are way too low.”

Silence.

At 8:46 a.m., the Boeing 767 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board.

Published with permission from Da Capo Press. 

Molly Knight Raskin is the author of No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet. 

 
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