9/11 Tribute: The Smartest Person I’ve Ever Met

by Craig Playstead September 11, 2016
photo by Dr. Wendy Longo

For a guy who was probably closer to being a Sweathog than ever being on the dean’s list, I’ve been around some insanely smart people. Not like the kid in your middle school who carried a briefcase, but world-changing smart. I’ve seen Bill Gates give talks at Microsoft, along with Steve Ballmer, CEO’s, tech Gods, and I even helped stream Steve Job’s keynote in 2001. But only one guy left my mouth hanging wide open.

Before my stint at Microsoft, I was hired by Akamai Technologies as a Digital Content Project Manager in early 2000 to integrate media from partners such as Microsoft and Apple on their network, and also stream live events. They were tech darlings and their reputation for world-changing technology may only have been equaled by the fact that they blew through money faster than John Candy blew through Ding-Dongs. My short time of at the company left a huge impression on my life. Partly because it was the first time I was left in charge of anything important, but also because of Danny Lewin, the CTO, and co-founder. He was the heart and soul of the company and had a rare combination of mathematical genius, business acumen, and world-changing ideas.

He was also the first person to die on 9/11.

Danny was about my age, but that was about all we had in common. He was on a different level. While I didn’t have any real relationship with him, I tried to chat him up when the big-wigs came across the country to speak to our group and glean anything I could. Generally, I like to play the cynic when it comes to book-smart in the business world. After working in the real world for a couple decades, you learn that stuff like GPAs and where you went to school means next to nothing. And partly because I sucked at school. But when Danny Lewin gave us his famous talk that he used when he pitched venture capitalists called, “How the Internet Works (it was much more like a Ph.D. class).” I was floored.

He spoke in a way most geniuses usually don’t. He knew exactly zero of us were as smart as he was, but explained complicated algorithms, load balancing and other crazy stuff he cooked up in a way that even a guy who flunked out of high school geometry (actually, I dropped it) not only understood, but was able to explain and apply. That’s true brilliance: being able to explain what’s in your head in a way others not only understand, but can act on. And when he spoke, his passion for math and his company infected you. And not in a rah-rah, bullshit way. In a way that says, “the world has no idea what we’re capable of, and you’re going to help us get there.” At one point I was actually reading network white-papers on my commute. Me, a writer and content guy. I wanted to know more and was proud to be a part of it (side note: I heard about 20 of those speeches in the five years that followed and exactly none inspired me to even stay after 5 PM).

I saw Danny give that talk three different times and took crazy notes, scribbling faster than Bukowski after his 23rd drink. He also told us stories of hardware companies coming in to sell their boxes and his guys (hackers who barely spoke) would physically tear their computers to shreds to show how shitty they were. They didn’t meet our standards.

So, needless to say, I was already blown away by the guy. Then I learned the rest of his story as he was buying drinks at a Vegas off-site (that deserves its own post. Two people I worked with got married on that business trip. And they weren’t dating). After others had been sufficiently “loosened up” by a little Vegas juice, the stories started flying. The reaction to each one was either: “no fucking way,” or “are you serious?”

I’m not going to get into all of it, but sufficed to say that not only was he in the top of his mathematics program at MIT, he was also an Israeli Commando. Yes, you read that right, an Israeli Commando. His family had moved to Israel when he was 14, and not only did he complete his military service, he joined one of the most elite counterterrorism units of the Israel Defense Force (IDF). I’ll let you look them up on your own. The stories were buzzing about 100-mile marches through the desert in full dress and all kinds of other stuff people like us couldn’t do. Now, he wasn’t just a brilliant math and technology mind, he was Rambo.

Put all that together with the fact that he was still young, a little intimidating, could talk circles around most of Silicon Valley, had a loving family and had founded a company that had changed the Internet using his algorithms. Not bad. There were only two things in his way. One was that the Internet bubble had burst with such force that companies were disappearing faster than Miley Cyrus’s morals, and … 9/11.

I didn’t even have time to decide what to eat for breakfast on 9/11/2001 before the world changed. My family slept as I watched everything unfold on TV a coast away. Numb. One of my main jobs at Akamai was making sure my content partner’s video streams, such as MSNBC, were up and running. 24 hours a day. That meant calls at 4 AM if something went sideways. Not only did the world go sideways on 9/11, so did the Internet.

While Akamai’s technology helped “unclog” the Internet in the early days, this was different. Everyone jumped on to gather as much information as possible. It was the first time the infrastructure of the Internet was put to the test for something important. Not a basketball game or a movie release. This was real.

I was on a conference call later that morning to plan how in the world we could accommodate millions of people using our technology to try and understand why their world was crumbling when they told us the news. They thought Danny Lewin was on American Flight 11. The first plane. They were just waiting for confirmation. The company that had to keep the Internet propped up and information flowing for the country had just lost its heart.

The next few days were a blur. Danny’s memorial service was streamed inside the company and it was the first time I really heard, first-hand, what it was like to live with the constant threat of terrorism as his family spoke about living with it daily in Israel. It was sad, unfair, and his young kids were robbed of their dad.

Over the next few months, the stories trickled out about what happened aboard the plane, you can read about it across the web. There’s even a book out about him. It’s all hard to read.

In the months that followed, the company had to reorganize, and like most others at that time it meant layoffs. Lots of them. I was proud to have lasted until the 8th round and actually fired myself after there was no one left to tell me I was out of a job. I’ll never forget the look on the poor HR girl’s face when I walked in and said, “I’m Craig Playstead and I’m here to fire myself.” It was part horror, a dash of confusion with just a whisper of shame.

The company saw the stock price go down to around $2 a share from a high of over $300, but stayed afloat. They recovered by focusing on security, helping many government agencies secure themselves after 9/11. In the decade that followed, they’ve built a great company that you use all the time, but never know it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Danny Lewin would have gone down in the same breath as the tech titans of today if he were still around. Zuckerberg, The Google Twins, Gates, the list goes on. He was in that league. While the world didn’t get to listen to his talks on a grand scale, they felt his work when they listened to Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone or found a date on Match.com.

The imprint he left on me still burns. He stoked the fire and woke a curiosity and love of technology in me. While Zuckerberg has given endless pictures of fringe friends at nameless pumpkin patches, he gave birth to a huge part of my career.

Story originally published in 2014

photo courtesy Dr. Wendy Longo CC BY-ND 2.0

 

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