Remarks made by Tom Leighton to commemorate the naming of the STOC Best Student Paper Award in honor of the late Daniel Lewin
May 19, 2002. Montreal, Canada.
Danny Lewin grew up in Denver, Colorado. At the age of 14, he moved with his family to Jerusalem. After graduating from high school, Danny joined the Israeli Defense Forces. During his three years in the army, Danny applied for and was selected into one of the IDF’s most challenging and elite army units, where he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
After his army duty, Danny enrolled in the Technion, where he double-majored in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics. In 1996, he came to MIT to study Theoretical Computer Science.
During his first year at MIT, Danny quickly distinguished himself as a star student. In addition to taking courses and serving as my Teaching Assistant, Danny co-authored several papers in algorithms and complexity theory, two of which were later published in STOC and FOCS. One of these papers was on the problem of distributing web content in the internet. As part of this work, Danny discovered consistent hashing, which is a very elegant and useful way of hashing in distributed networks. His Master’s Thesis on this subject later won the best thesis prize in EECS at MIT.
In the Fall of 1997, Danny got the idea of writing a business plan based on his thesis work and entering it in MIT’s $50K Contest. Danny thought it would be a good idea to have someone with gray hair on the 50K team and so he talked me into doing it with him. He used to joke that the prize money would be his best chance to pay off his mounting student loans.
As it turned out, we didn’t win the $50K—in fact, we lost to a nonprofit business plan—but we did learn a lot about the potential applications of our work on content delivery, and we did talk to a lot of potential customers, partners, and venture capitalists. And, by the Fall of 1998, we decided to form a company called Akamai Technologies, whose mission was to use algorithms to make the web work better.
Danny was Akamai’s first President and its central driving force. During our first year in business, Danny worked 15–20 hours every day doing anything and everything to make Akamai successful. As a direct result of his tremendous creativity and drive, the web really does work better today. Akamai currently serves over 10 Billion hits per day and it carries 5–20% of all web traffic, including just about every major event with a large web audience. Through Danny’s vision and tireless efforts, Akamai is also the leading pioneer in the next generation of web services and distributed applications.
By 2001, Danny was widely recognized as one of the most influential technologists of his generation. One well-known trade publication ranked him as the seventh most important technologist in the world, one notch behind Steve Ballmer and several notches ahead of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Marc Andreessen.
Danny was killed on September 11. He was on American Flight 11 on his way to meetings in California when his plane was hijacked. In true Danny form, he fought back against the terrorists in an effort to defend the stewardesses and the cockpit. To this day, those of us who knew him well can’t figure out how only five terrorists managed to overpower him.
During his short life, Danny made extraordinary contributions to the internet and to computer science through his work in algorithms and complexity theory. The impact of his work will be felt throughout the high-tech industry for many years to come. Danny’s success in transforming the way that the web works has also brought substantial credit and respect to our field from a wide cross-section of the technical community.
Danny Lewin was a truly remarkable human being. The naming of the STOC Best Student Paper Award in his honor will be a lasting tribute to his memory and a fitting reminder of his extraordinary accomplishments.