I Didn’t Know Danny Lewin, But I’m Grateful For Him

by Bill Brenner on September 12, 2014

As an Akamai Technologies employee, I practically inhaled Molly Knight Raskin’s book, “No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet.” It’s a spectacular look at the history of the company, and it captures the Danny Lewin I’ve heard about from colleagues who knew him.

Mood music:

I was laboring unhappily at a newspaper on Sept. 11, 2001, when Lewin died aboard American Airlines Flight 11. It’s largely believed he was the first victim of that day, stabbed while trying to stop the terrorists from hijacking the plane.

Back at Akamai, as the surge in online traffic threatened to grind the Internet to a halt, Danny’s colleagues worked feverishly to keep the web from crashing. They succeeded, and it’s one of the many inspiring stories to come out of that horrible day.

At its core, the book is the story of Lewin’s friendship with Tom Leighton, which took root at MIT. Lewin was a mathematical genius who wrote a set of algorithms that would be used at Akamai to create a faster, more stable Internet. Leighton was his soft-spoken professor and mentor. Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Leighton, who is now Akamai’s CEO. You can listen to the interview here.

But the thing I most identify with is Lewin’s restless, relentless personality. He was loud and pushed his goals with the speed and power of a freight train. I’m pretty useless when it comes to mathematics and code writing. But I identify with that drive. It’s one of the byproducts of my OCD — sometimes a curse, many times a blessing that has helped me achieve success in my own profession. There’s no record of Lewin having OCD. He was shaped by a history much different from mine.

He served for four years in the Israel Defense Forces as an officer in Sayeret Matkal, a unit dedicated to fighting terrorists. He had unlimited energy that kept him going with little sleep. He was a devoted husband and father.

He was also loud and could be ridiculously demanding of people, something I relate to.

Learning about him has been a pleasure. His story inspires me to work harder and take nothing for granted. I’m grateful for that.

There’s a cool footnote to this story: Danny’s remains were identified in 2004 and buried in Sharon Memorial Park, a massive Jewish cemetery south of Boston. It happens to be where my brother is buried, along with both my maternal and paternal grandparents and my great-grandmother.

It’s just one more bond connecting me to a man I never met; a man who influences me all the same.

Lewin book

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