Remembering tech entrepreneur Danny Lewin, one of 9/11’s first casualties

By Marco Greenberg , written on September 11, 2013

From The News Desk

Looking for an inspiring role model to help you strike it rich on the Internet?

Consider a guy who barely graduates high school, enters the military for four years, gets married at 21, then heads off to college while working a couple jobs on the side, changing diapers for his two babies, and still serving in the reserves.

If you’ve followed military families coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ve probably heard of many brave young men and women who fit that description.

But what if the guy I’m talking about did all the above and was also a captain in the most elite commando unit in the Israel Defense Forces, worked at IBM’s Research Lab doing breakthrough research as an undergrad, and stood out as the smartest guy in the room at grad school at MIT (where he swept the floors of student housing to make ends meet). What’s more, he invented algorithms that enabled the Internet to fulfill its potential, became a billionaire on paper at 29, and less than two years later was onboard Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles.

Five members of al-Qaeda hijacked the plane 15 minutes into the flight, as it leveled off at 26,000 feet. Danny Lewin was in seat 9B, in business class, sitting a row behind Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari, two of the hijackers. There was a struggle. Danny was stabbed, most likely by Satam al Suqami, who sat directly behind Danny. He probably never saw him coming.

Of course, we don’t know everything that happened on that plane that fateful day. But we do know that American Airlines flight attendants Betty Ong and Amy Sweeney contacted American Airlines ground staff while the plane was being hijacked. They reported that two other flight attendants had been killed, and the passenger in seat 9B – that’s where Danny was sitting -- had had his throat slashed. Afterward, the FBI told Danny’s parents that Danny was killed while trying to block Atta and Omari from getting into the cockpit after they had stabbed a flight attendant.

Anybody who knew Danny knows that he was most certainly one of the first people murdered on 9/11 – I believe he was the first -- and died fighting the terrorists on Flight 11 hours before the heroics of the passengers on Flight 93.

This was part of the all-to-brief life of Akamai cofounder Danny Lewin, as recounted in a new book: "No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet." Although she never met Danny, author Molly Raskin, who conducted more than 100 interviews, captures his indomitable spirit and the thrill he must have felt onboard the Internet 1.0 roller coaster.

I first met Danny when he was 16, in a gym in Jerusalem where he was lifting ungodly amounts of weight for someone his age. He had been dragged there from Denver kicking and screaming when he was 14, and scored a free membership and a few extra shekels by sweeping the floor. But it wasn’t just his discipline and moxie that struck me. He also displayed an intellect and curiosity of an accomplished adult twice his age. We became close friends then later business associates. I witnessed Danny’s evolution from teenager to soldier to computer science student to Internet tycoon, blending the best of his dual American-Israeli identity.

Those who knew Danny remember him as an ebullient taskmaster who was ahead of even his most brilliant colleagues, often ending emails with what became his signature sign-off: “You’re behind.” His speed was legendary, along with his hunger to tackle the really hard stuff, and getting shit -- a lot of it -- done in record time.

But a lot of people are smart, fast, rich, pile up achievements, and are at the right place at the right time in business. Instead, Danny yielded greatness that has withstood the test of time. Together with his MIT Professor, Tom Leighton, a fellow Akamai cofounder (now CEO of this S&P 500 company) they laid the foundation of a network that today delivers up to one-third of all Internet traffic, enabling us to enjoy rich content online. Danny helped turned what was once impossibly slow, herky-jerky video into a far faster and smoother experience.

Danny never took a single business course in his life, and couldn’t write a business plan. Instead he used his relentless off-the-charts competiveness to create something huge out of nothing and like a young artist creating feverishly, turning his back on convention and transforming a blank canvas into an original masterpiece.

As you either build your own start up or dream to one day, there are some non-obvious and counterintuitive attributes of Danny’s leadership style that you might want to consider. 

Do you consider your technology too complex for lay people to really understand?

Danny repeated his mantra over and over. It’s so simple that my grandmother understood it. In the days of painfully slow dial ups, Tim Berners Lee (the inventor of the protocols that led to the World Wide Web and who sat down the hall from Danny at MIT) challenged professor Tom Leighton and his grad students, including Danny, to make the Internet faster. Danny translated that into “End the World Wide Wait.” That’s it. What’s not to understand?

Do you believe that being a big data geek and a tad socially awkward is the winning profile for hitting it big in tech?

Danny was a lovable social animal, with his EQ almost matching his IQ, a high-fiving, back-slapping, bear-hugging, rebel-rousing, “obstreperous” (one of his fave words) leader, who also tapped those skills when courting investors and customers.

Do you think hiring and working with friends is generally inappropriate and something to avoid?

Not only did his professor Tom Leighton become his best friend and business partner, Danny took pride in hiring friends whom by definition he admired and held in high esteem. Case and point, Lior Netzer, who served in the same army unit as Danny and today runs mobile at Akamai.

Do you hand out praise sparingly as not to over inflate egos of your employees or customers and are similarly stingy when handing out equity?

Danny was way ahead of Dale Carnegie, author of "How to Win Friends and Influence People." He didn’t just make people feel important; they were fellow titans, studs, zillionaires, who had joined him on a mission of a lifetime.

Do you believe a CEO needs to be all about focus and return on investment?

The night before he was killed, Danny was up until 3:00am doing a painful RIF, and like a commanding officer resisting leaving wounded soldiers on the battlefield, he pleaded not to let go of his favorite employees. While he was messianic in his singular focus on winning, Danny was agnostic on how to get to victory and would jump in the weeds and hang out in the cubes with the foot soldiers.

He’d employ any person, jump on a plane for any good-sized pitch, try any new argument and was a decathlete who could outperform most athletes in their given events. He was a better sales guy than the company’s star cowboy that ran sales, a better recruiter than anyone on the HR team, had more instinctual financial acumen than his team of top investment bankers, and was better at positioning and PR than I was.

Are you told that you can’t lose your cool and shouldn’t diss or obsess about the competition?

Danny could lose his cool but not his child-like curiosity: Yes, he was “cool,” but he would get animated, emotional, and retained the little boy cheering us on to bury the competition, which at the time was Sandpiper, which he had renamed “Sandpooper.”

Do you believe a leader shouldn’t divulge insecurity or mistakes?

Danny would admit to doubts about a particular paper or performance and sleepless nights, from how he would pay off student loans to how he would resurrect Akamai after the stock market crash.

Do you think tech CEOs should stick to tech and keep their point of view on more topical issues private? 

If he were alive today, I assure you Danny would scoff and snicker at how we in America sugarcoat and brand, “The Events of September 11,” as if it were some made-for-TV special or a kumbaya like vigil. He would mock phrases like “we regret this unfortunate loss of life” and instead insist on calling it for what it was: mass murder perpetrated by Islamic radicals. Moreover he’d implore us to work harder, smarter, and faster to help prevent tomorrow’s attack, whether another Boston Marathon bomber or cyber terrorism.

I’m sure he’s pissed that his life was snuffed out at 31. Twelve years later, so are we.