My partner and I watched a couple of documentaries on the recent twentieth anniversary of 911, and Danny Lewin, the likely ‘first victim of 911’ featured in one of them. He was one of the two founders of Akamai Technologies, where my partner has worked since 2015, and is a key part of Akamai’s origin story. So much so that every new employee is given the book ‘No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius who Transformed the Internet’ by Molly Knight Raskin as part of their induction. My partner therefore fished it out for me to read (and I really ought to have read it years ago, as I finally now understand what Akamai actually does).
Akamai are the company responsible for ending the ‘world wide wait’ and for coming up with a solution in the late 1990s when it seemed that the Internet would collapse with the weight of traffic. It’s a company that no-one has heard of, but is one that sits behind most of the websites we all use on a daily basis.
Danny Lewin came up with a new mathematical model of ‘consistent hashing’ – a way of organising data optimally to radically reduce the time to load websites. This gets over the problem of a single website having many elements each stored at a server often thousands of miles away, and it taking a long time for all of these pieces of data to be gathered to load together into a single webpage (this is much better explained by Knight Raskin). He took it to his MIT Professor Tom Leighton, hoping that the theory could be applied in practice to the internet. Leighton was encouraging and together they began a partnership that would result in Akamai. This book is as much a history of the company as a history of Danny and his relationship with Tom Leighton, his co-founder and now CEO.
But on to Danny himself. He was brought up in Colorado in a Jewish family and had an unremarkable upbringing until his parents decided when Danny was 14 to ‘make aliyah’ – to emigrate to Israel. This meant starting again professionally, learning Hebrew and assimilating into Israeli culture. This was a move that Danny was understandably unhappy with, leaving his friends and comfortable American lifestyle behind him. He chose to join the Israeli military and then married aged 21 and four years later decided to move back to the US to study at MIT, bringing Anne and his young family with him.
It was only five years later, after Akamai’s fortunes has risen to dizzy heights in the dotcom boom, making many millionaires along the way, and had then hit an all time low in the crash that followed, that Danny Lewin boarded flight American 11 from Boston to LA on September 11th 2001 and was killed after taking on the hijackers from his business class seat as they took control of the plane and went on to fly it into the World Trade Center.
Danny was aged 31 and never got to see the success that Akamai has since become. But as this book shows, his legacy continues to transform all of our everyday lives and he is not forgotten.