#24 No Better Time The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet

Summary Notes


In "No Better Time," author Molly Knight Raskin chronicles the remarkable life of Danny Lewin, an American-Israeli mathematician and entrepreneur who co-founded Akamai Technologies and tragically became the first victim of the 9/11 attacks. Lewin's journey from a gifted child to an elite officer in Israel's army, and later a pioneering computer scientist at MIT, showcases his relentless drive and innovative spirit. His work in developing algorithms revolutionized the Internet, but his life was cut short at age 31. The book captures Lewin's infectious enthusiasm, his role in addressing Internet congestion through Akamai, and his untimely death, which underscores the profound loss of a visionary talent.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Danny Lewin's Story

  • Danny Lewin was a passenger on the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11.
  • He was an extraordinary individual who achieved a lot in a brief span of time.
  • His life included moving to Israel, serving in an elite Israeli army unit, becoming a computer science student, and founding a company that made him a billionaire.
  • He wrote algorithms that significantly impacted the Internet.

"It is the story of Danny Lewin, who was almost certainly the first victim of the 911 attacks. It's the story of an extraordinary, gifted young man who believed anything was possible and let nothing stand in his way."

The quote summarizes the life of Danny Lewin, emphasizing his role as a victim of the 9/11 attacks and his exceptional character and achievements.

Danny Lewin's Relationship with Professor Layton

  • Danny Lewin worked closely with Professor Layton at MIT's Laboratory of Computer Science.
  • Their relationship was marked by enthusiasm, passion, and innovation in mathematics and computer science.
  • They tackled Internet congestion issues, leading to the foundation of Akamai Technologies.

"Lewin joined Layton's algorithms group, which was grappling with a challenging set of problems centered on this new mode of communication, the Internet, and some barriers to its growth."

This quote highlights the focus of Lewin and Layton's collaboration, addressing the growth challenges of the early Internet, which ultimately led to the creation of Akamai.

The Impact of Books and Ideas

  • Danny Lewin was profoundly influenced by a book on parallel algorithms by Professor Layton.
  • The book inspired him to seek out Layton and eventually apply to MIT, changing the direction of his life.

"Lewin became fixated on the book and its author, MIT professor Tom Layton, inspired solely on what he'd learned from the pages of this massive Tome."

This quote illustrates the transformative power of books and ideas, as Lewin's discovery of Layton's book led him to pursue a life-changing academic and professional journey.

Danny Lewin's Military Background

  • Lewin served in an elite unit of the Israeli army, compared to American Navy SEALs.
  • His military experience encompassed intense physical and mental training, showcasing his exceptional drive and determination.

"The soldiers in the brigade must also possess above average intelligence and technological savvy."

The quote describes the qualities sought in the elite unit Lewin served in, emphasizing intelligence and technological expertise, which also benefit founders and innovators.

Lewin's Entrepreneurial Drive and Passion

  • Danny Lewin's energy and drive were likened to that of Steve Jobs, who also had a "go" speed.
  • His problem-solving approach involved intense dedication, often working through the night and finding inspiration in dreams.

"Steve Jobs had one speed: go."

The quote draws a parallel between Lewin's relentless drive and that of Steve Jobs, suggesting a shared intensity in their approach to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Danny Lewin's Physical and Mental Strength

  • Lewin was known for his exceptional physical condition and mental resilience.
  • He voluntarily took on extra challenges, such as doubling his load during military exercises, to test his limits.

"Lewin was known as a strong walker in these types of exercises, rarely showing any visible signs of fatigue."

This quote reflects on Lewin's physical and mental fortitude, which was evident in both his military and later entrepreneurial endeavors.

Lewin's Academic Pursuit and Move to MIT

  • Danny Lewin was determined to study under Professor Layton after reading his book.
  • His commitment to academic excellence led him to relocate his family to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his studies at MIT.

"While he's studying, Danny just randomly finds this book. He becomes so enthralled with the ideas in it that he seeks out the person that wrote it."

The quote conveys the serendipitous nature of Lewin's academic pursuit and his unwavering determination to follow his intellectual passions, culminating in a move to MIT.

Podcast Structure and Presentation Style

  • Danny Lewin's podcast aims to maintain an informal and authentic atmosphere.
  • Editing is minimal to preserve the feeling of a conversation between friends.
  • The podcast preparation involves extensive reading and note-taking to discuss book ideas.

"I really want this to be like an informal recording, almost like if we were sitting down together as friends and I was just telling you the ideas I liked in the book."

The quote emphasizes the podcast's intention to be conversational and unpolished, simulating an informal chat about book ideas with listeners.

Danny Lewin's Philosophy on Boredom

  • Danny Lewin believes life is too short to be bored.
  • He finds the concept of boredom, especially in the information age, perplexing.

"Life is too short to be bored, only boring people are bored."

This quote captures Lewin's perspective on boredom, suggesting that with abundant information and opportunities available, boredom is a choice.

Danny Lewin's Parenting Approach

  • Lewin engaged his children with word games, using the dictionary to find unusual words.
  • He pinned definitions of words like "obstreperous" on the fridge for his children to learn.
  • Lewin humorously used the word "obstreperous" to describe others, not himself.

"Every week, he would comb the dictionary for the quirkiest, strangest sounding word he could find, write its definition on an index card, and pin it to the fridge."

The quote illustrates Lewin's unique method of parenting, which involved using word games to educate and entertain his children.

Danny Lewin's Potential and Vision

  • Despite financial challenges, Anne Lewin never doubted Danny's potential for success.
  • Danny had a clear vision of the internet's potential, even at its early stages.
  • He foresaw the ease of accessing global information as transformative.

"Can you imagine what we'll be able to do if someone makes it easy?"

This quote reflects Danny's foresight about the internet's possibilities and his desire to simplify access to information worldwide.

The Genesis of Akamai

  • The idea for Akamai originated from a class project during Danny Lewin's academic pursuits.
  • The focus of the project was to address internet congestion and the "worldwide wait."
  • Lewin's concept of consistent hashing was initially doubted for its simplicity and practicality.

"Consistent hashing is a pathetic idea, but it's my idea."

Danny Lewin's self-criticism reveals his insecurity about the potential of his idea, despite its eventual significance in solving internet congestion.

Validation of Consistent Hashing

  • Professor Tom Layton recognized the significance of Lewin's consistent hashing idea.
  • Layton was impressed by the simplicity and elegance of the solution to a complex problem.
  • The concept of consistent hashing marked the beginning of the end for the "worldwide wait."

"You've done it. This is really important and you've got to give it a name and state the definition of the problem because this sounds useful."

Layton's response to Lewin's idea indicates his belief in its importance and utility for the internet architecture.

Entrepreneurial Spirit and Drive

  • Danny Lewin demonstrated tremendous drive and fearlessness in learning and pursuing goals.
  • His persistence was evident in his approach to sales calls, even when faced with rejection.

"If he didn't know something, he'd go to learn it."

The quote underscores Lewin's relentless determination to acquire knowledge and overcome obstacles in his entrepreneurial journey.

Akamai's Business Plan and Strategy

  • Danny Lewin and Tom Layton sought to validate their idea through a business plan competition.
  • Despite losing the competition, they remained committed to developing Akamai.
  • They faced challenges in convincing internet service providers to adopt their technology.

"The plan is to become a successful company in the right way. That is, have a product, have a market, and have customers who are buying your product."

Danny emphasizes the importance of building a company with a solid foundation, focusing on product development and customer acquisition.

Akamai's Business Model Development

  • Venture capitalist Todd Daggers advised against selling software and suggested offering a service.
  • Akamai's algorithms were seen as proprietary and difficult for competitors to replicate.
  • The decision to build an annuity business with a high margin was a turning point for Akamai.

"Instead of giving other guys the software or Akamai's secret sauce and letting them skim the cream off the market, I thought Akamai should be the cream."

Todd Daggers' advice reflects a strategic shift in Akamai's business model, focusing on leveraging their unique technology to create a sustainable and profitable service.

Akamai's Progress and Challenges

  • Akamai faced financial difficulties and needed to establish a clear business plan.
  • The team tested their technology's fault tolerance and efficiency with success.
  • A clear business model was elusive until they decided to build the technology themselves.

"We ran out of options, explained Layton. But a clear business plan was still eluding them."

The quote from Tom Layton highlights the challenges Akamai faced in developing a viable business plan and the necessity to pivot their strategy to succeed.

Akamai's Foundation and Success Factors

  • Akamai was co-founded by Danny Lewin and Professor Layton.
  • Lewin believed Akamai would succeed due to tenacity, not just technology, staff, or business plans.
  • Both founders recognized the high failure rate of new businesses but were driven by the urgency of the dot-com boom era.
  • Lewin's passion was a key element in convincing investors and was valued as highly as monetary investment.

"We're going to succeed because we're tenacious as hell." This quote emphasizes Lewin's belief that determination and resilience were central to Akamai's potential success, highlighting the importance of tenacity in entrepreneurship.

"That might be the one time where being really skilled at mathematics is probably not good for you, realizing once you do the math in her head, according to the rule of venture capital, only one out of every 60 new businesses succeeds." This quote reflects the founders' awareness of the statistical odds against startup success, yet they proceeded with determination, indicating a realistic yet optimistic mindset.

Danny Lewin's Charisma and Fundraising Prowess

  • Lewin's dynamic presentations were described as "theatrical," captivating potential investors.
  • His ability to explain complex ideas passionately and convincingly was a major asset.
  • Lewin's performance reminded angel investor Akamai Freesen of watching top musical talents at the start of their careers.
  • Freesen was so convinced by Lewin's belief in Akamai that he immediately invested half a million dollars.

"His belief in this thing was so profoundly convincing that I believe too, on the spot." This quote captures the moment an investor was persuaded to financially back Akamai purely based on Lewin's convincing and passionate presentation, underscoring the power of belief and persuasion in securing investment.

Venture Capital and the Value of Passion

  • Akamai raised significant funds from venture capitalists, but not without challenges.
  • One firm, Venroc, backed out due to a personal clash with Lewin, which later became known as a costly mistake.
  • The "critics don't know shit" segment suggests that personal biases can lead to missed opportunities in venture capital.

"If the firm had taken a 10% stake in Akamai for $10 million, it would have been worth $2 billion." This quote highlights the magnitude of Venroc's missed opportunity, illustrating the potential high returns of venture capital investment and the cost of letting personal judgements interfere with business decisions.

Akamai's FreeFlow Product

  • FreeFlow was Akamai's first product, creating a virtual path across the internet for content delivery.
  • It offered fault tolerance, ease of installation, and maintenance benefits.
  • The service included a performance guarantee, refunding customers if FreeFlow failed to deliver content faster than their own service.

"With FreeFlow, Akamai created its own private path across the public Internet." This quote describes the core functionality of Akamai's FreeFlow product, highlighting its innovative approach to improving internet content delivery.

Simplifying Complex Technology

  • Akamai hired public relations firms to communicate the benefits of its complex technology in simple terms.
  • The ability to explain advanced technology in layman's terms was crucial for market acceptance and customer understanding.

"My goal was to express it in layman's terms so that your grandmother could understand it and my grandmother could." This quote from a public relations professional illustrates the importance of clear communication in technology marketing, emphasizing the need to make complex concepts accessible to a broad audience.

Pricing Strategy and Sales Skills

  • Akamai struggled to set a pricing model due to the novelty of their business model.
  • Vice President of Sales Gallaher proposed a higher price point than initially planned, which proved successful with the Discovery Channel contract.
  • Sales and coding were seen as essential skills, with sales being universally valuable.

"The pricing was based on each client's peak usage, which meant that if it reached five megabits per second at any time during one month, Akamai would receive $10,000 for that month." This quote explains Akamai's pricing strategy, which was innovative for its time and based on actual usage, reflecting a customer-centric approach.

Danny Lewin's Sales Impact

  • Lewin was Akamai's most effective salesperson, turning skeptics into believers.
  • His passionate presentations led to significant sales and the establishment of Akamai in the market.

"Once he got the customer to this frothy pitch level excitement, he'd basically leave the room and I'd close the deal." This quote from Gallaher, VP of Sales, highlights Lewin's ability to generate excitement and interest in Akamai's product, setting the stage for successful sales closures.

Akamai's Market Validation

  • Akamai needed to prove its software during high-traffic events.
  • Successful handling of traffic surges during March Madness and the Star Wars trailer release validated Akamai's technology.
  • Akamai became the exclusive distributor for Star Wars trailers, gaining industry credibility.

"Akamai's FreeFlow handled up to 3000 hits per second for the two sites, 250,000,000 hits in total, and the system never exceeded even 1% of its capacity." This quote demonstrates the effectiveness and reliability of Akamai's FreeFlow product during a major event, proving its capability to handle massive traffic without issues.

Steve Jobs' Acquisition Attempt

  • Steve Jobs directly offered to buy Akamai, but the company declined, preferring a partnership.
  • The anecdote illustrates Jobs' straightforward approach and Akamai's confidence in their business model.

"Hi, this is Steve Jobs, and I want to buy your company." This quote exemplifies Steve Jobs' direct and no-nonsense approach in business dealings, contrasting with more typical, indirect negotiation tactics.

Steve Jobs' Career and Communication Skills

  • Steve Jobs had a reputation for being difficult but showed significant growth and achievement in the latter part of his career.
  • Jobs' ability to communicate clearly was admired and seen as a goal to aspire to.
  • His most important work was done in the last 10-12 years of his life.

"I've been also watching old Steve Jobs videos...he was certainly a dick, but a lot of those stories took place when he was way earlier in his career, as opposed to the last ten years of his life. And I would say the last 10-12 years of his life is when he did the most important work."

This quote reflects on the evolution of Steve Jobs as a professional and as a person. It suggests that while he had a difficult personality early in his career, his later years were marked by significant contributions to his field.

Danny Lewin and Professor Layton's Career Shift

  • Despite their initial academic career plans, Lewin and Layton found themselves leading a rapidly growing company.
  • They felt unprepared for the business success and challenges they faced.
  • The metaphor of a lobster being boiled was used to describe their unawareness of the drastic changes in their lives.

"Although they'd spent the better part of two years building, Akamai, Layton and Lewin still harbored similar long term life plans of a quiet, cerebral career in academia."

This quote highlights the contrast between Lewin and Layton's initial career aspirations and the unexpected trajectory that led them to helm a successful company.

Akamai's IPO and Market Fluctuations

  • Akamai Technologies experienced a significant rise in market valuation post-IPO.
  • The dot-com bubble burst affected Akamai's stock value and customer base, leading to financial instability.
  • Danny Lewin dealt with personal challenges alongside business struggles.

"With Akamai stock, down from $327 just 18 months ago to $7.60...Danny and his wife get divorced or separated...his business is on the verge of collapse."

This quote illustrates the volatility of the tech industry during the dot-com bubble and the personal and professional hardships Danny Lewin faced during this period.

Family Dynamics and Personal Challenges

  • Danny Lewin's relationship with his father was strained due to differing beliefs and life choices.
  • Charles Lewin's visit to Danny was a significant event, given their past disagreements.
  • Danny's personal life was complex, involving efforts to reconcile with his wife.

"Charles gets into something called Zionism...he gets really pissed at his son for leaving Israel...Friends of Danny speculated that to leave Israel to him would be to leave the life he created for his family when he made the bold decision to make Aliyah."

This quote delves into the familial tensions between Danny Lewin and his father, highlighting the impact of personal convictions on family relationships.

Danny Lewin's Last Days

  • Lewin remained optimistic and forward-thinking despite the impending layoffs at Akamai.
  • He had plans to restructure the company and was working on reconciling with his wife.
  • Lewin's final moments were spent in preparation for a business trip and family reconciliation.

"With more layoffs ahead...Lewin approached the Tulmolt with his usual cheer and buoyancy...He wanted to make his marriage work and spend more time with his sons."

This quote captures the personal and professional resilience of Danny Lewin during a tumultuous time for his company and his family life.

The Tragedy of September 11

  • Danny Lewin was on American Airlines Flight 11 during the September 11 attacks.
  • His background in counterterrorism might have made him aware of the hijacking before others.
  • Lewin's death was a profound loss, leaving behind a family and a company he helped build.

"Based on the evidence gathered from the phone calls and authorities on the ground, the 911 commission report concluded that...Lewin, who was seated in the row just behind Ata and Amari, was stabbed in the neck by one of the hijackers."

This quote provides a harrowing account of Danny Lewin's final moments and the impact of the 9/11 attacks on his life and legacy.

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