Finding the Next Danny

I first met Daniel Lewin in 1986. Fifteen years later, I was asked to speak at his memorial.

Daniel Lewin. Akamai

Seven years ago next Thursday, I ventured outside my Upper West Side apartment to quickly get some cash and emergency supplies. A few minutes earlier, two planes had barreled into the World Trade Center, a few miles to the south. Like many fellow New Yorkers, and not knowing if more attacks were on the way, I had gone into survival mode.

Little did I know that one of my best friends had been on one of those planes.

I first met Daniel Lewin - "discovered" is probably a more appropriate word - when he was working part-time at Samson's, a weight-lifting gym in Jerusalem. Danny was only 16 years old, but displayed strength of almost biblical proportions, and a sense of independence more fitting of someone twice his age.

The year was 1986, and I was doing a semester abroad at Hebrew University in what was still a very much pre-Internet, pre-cable, pre-cell-phone era, when a social network meant not a fleeting online interaction but real people you got to know and hang out with. Danny told me about his parents, who had decided a few years earlier to bring him and his brothers on aliyah from Denver, a move he said he had vehemently resisted. On arrival, he had been thrust into a public-school classroom knowing no Hebrew, but the frequent taunts made him a quick study, and now, he said, he had a circle of cool Israeli and American friends whom I had to meet. The gym, he explained, was just a way to earn a little extra money and work out.

Fifteen years later, I was asked to speak at his memorial.

In purely objective terms, Danny was an extraordinary human being. If there was a mathematical formula that combined ability, ambition and accomplishment, and factored in age (he was murdered at 31 on the first plane to be hijacked, American Airlines flight 11, from Boston to Los Angeles), then Danny would be in a set of one.

After breezing through high school (rumors were he never actually graduated) and matriculation exams, he went to serve in Sayeret Matkal, what may be the IDF's most elite commando unit. He married at 21, received his B.S. from the Technion while simultaneously raising two little boys with his wife, worked long hours as a teaching assistant at the Technion and researcher for IBM in Haifa, and reported to grueling reserve duty. When I lived in Israel in the '90s, Danny would frequently invite me to spend Shabbat with the family, and I can still picture him shoveling down his food with one hand, grading tests with his other and all the while arguing with me about politics.

In 1996, he accepted a scholarship to study computer science and mathematics at MIT. It was hard for him to leave Israel, but he took the leap, and moved with his family to Cambridge. Two years later, while working on his Ph.D., he founded Akamai Technologies, which offered a new and revolutionary way to deliver content over the Internet.

Danny had an infectious smile and recognizable laugh, and bundled warmth, passion and sheer physical power (he would greet me with a shot to the shoulder that I can still feel) with unyielding optimism and loyalty. Danny had too much to accomplish to sleep more than four hours a night, and his energy seemed to be matched by a boy-like innocence (he occasionally put his faith in people who did not deserve it), impatience and competitiveness. His impact on people was so strong that, even today, battle-hardened CEOs and IDF sharpshooters get choked up when talking about him. In part, because his rise was so quick, so spectacular and so tragically short.

When he came down to New York in 1998 for my wedding he slept on the floor - the furniture for our new apartment had not yet arrived and a hotel was out of the question as Danny didn't have a credit card. A year later, following one of the biggest IPOs of all time, he owned stock that was worth billions.

I often told Danny, much to his irritation, that he could either be the next Bill Gates, or a future prime minister of Israel - at a time when the latter was considered a compliment. And it was true. He was born to lead, and his business instincts were uncanny.

Last year, in a cover story on Akamai, Forbes magazine detailed how the algorithms Danny developed with his MIT professor, and Akamai partner and co-founder, Tom Leighton, were responsible for laying the groundwork for today's speedier Internet. When Danny died, his company was still reeling from the tech crash and was fighting for its life. Since then, his brainchild has more than recovered, and now handles as much as 20 percent of all Internet traffic and just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Danny lived up to his often-stated mission to make the "world wide wait" a thing of the past, and hundreds of millions of Web users are still benefiting from his genius.

When the 9/11 Commission issued its report, four years ago, based in part on transcripts of conversations between flight attendants and ground control, it confirmed what we knew in our gut, that Danny fought back on AA Flight 11 and was mortally wounded trying to stop the terrorists. Yes, the men and women of Flight 93 were heroes, but Danny resisted alone and with no warning as to the larger plot that was unfolding.

What would Danny say about his legacy?

I can imagine him blaming himself for spending too much of his precious last few years away from family and friends, and dismissing the possibility of a movie or book about his life with a quick flick of the wrist. "But remember me," he would say. "Hug my boys, beat the competition, protect Israel, and America, too, find the next Danny and fund him."

Marco Greenberg is a communications strategist based in New York City.