While I was a General Manager at Vitesse Semiconductor, traveling to our office in Woodstock, VT was always an interesting adventure. The town of Woodstock is your stereotypical quaint New England town that looks like it came straight off a postcard or out of the set of a Hollywood movie. The office there was a converted ski lodge off Route 12 on the outskirts of town. It wasn’t a big building. There were 2 offices upstairs, and a meeting area, break room, and space for about 10-12 cubicles spread across 2 rooms downstairs. From one of the upstairs offices, you could see the old rope tow that took you up the slight incline that had once serviced a single run ski slope.
I would travel to the office once a month, and due to the limited (and expensive) lodging options in town, I would typically stay in Lebanon, NH. It was a 30 minute drive (or so) along Route 4. It was a scenic drive, but it had become more difficult once I made the decision to shut the office down. I had decided to consolidate our multiple offices in the New England area in Boston. It was a tough decision, but one that I knew had to be made to preserve the viability of our division as the market had taken a downward turn in recent months.
As I entered the office, I settled into my usual Vermont office routine. I arrived around 8:30 or so, found an empty cubicle, setup my computer, and checked the news and email while I waited for the rest of the office to show up. On this particular morning, a Tuesday, I wanted to get through the news and email quickly since I was going to be busy working with the remaining staff to see who was interested in making the move to our Boston office.
My go to news source back in the day was the WSJ Online website, which I went to first thing to do a scan of the headlines. The front page indicated that trading on Wall Street would be delayed this particular morning due to the crash of a small plane into one of the World Trade Centers. I didn’t think much about it and went about my business, continued reading email, and prepared for the rest of my meetings. About 30 minutes later, the office manager told me that he heard from home that a second plane had crashed into the World Trade Centers. Yes, it was September 11, 2001. I would be stranded on the east coast for the rest of the week, over 3,000 miles away from my family in Southern California.
On the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center was Daniel “Danny” Lewin, co-founder of the company Akamai Technologies. It is believed that he was stabbed on the plane and was most likely the first casualty in the 9-11 attack. The book No Better Time: The Brief Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, the Genius Who Transformed the Internet written by Molly Knight Raskin chronicles his life, the founding of Akamai Technologies, Danny’s role in building the company, and the events of that fateful day.
Lewin was American born, but his parents decided to move back to Israel when he was in his early teens. Lewin would finish his schooling in Israel, serve as an officer in the Israeli military, and eventually end up at MIT as graduate student in mathematics. While at MIT, he developed algorithms that revolutionized the way content was delivered on the internet. With the help of his professor, he and his fellow students formed the company Akamai Technologies and commercialized the technology.
The bulk of Riskin’s work is about the starting of the company and how Lewin’s relentless drive and perseverance willed Akamai to success. I can personally remember the early days of Akamai as Vitesse was heavily involved in supplying the components that powered the emergence of the internet in the late nineties. It is not an exaggeration to state that Akamai was one of the key players in the growth of the internet, and it remains a key player even today.
For an entrepreneur, it’s a great story to read. It speaks to the ups and downs of forming a company, the courage it takes to press forward in the face of adversity, and the determination (and work) it takes to make a company succeed. It’s no doubt that Lewin’s background, especially his experience serving in the Israeli army, helped him will Akamai to the success that it experienced. Unfortunately, it is also what might have led to him being the first casualty of the 9-11 attacks.
Personally, I found the book very interesting having lived through that time. I can vividly remember and related to many of the events that Riskin details in the book. I also found it very spooky, as I was doing a lot of travel between LA and Boston during 2001. In fact, I had taken the Tuesday AM United flight between Boston and LA at least once over the summer of 2001, if not more. Not only was the book a reminder of the go-go days of the late nineties during the dot-com and internet boom, but also an eerie reminder of the 9-11 events and how precious life is.
I would highly recommend the book to others who were involved in the dot-com and internet industry during the late nineties, or for those who are starting a VC-funded business. It speaks to the drive and passion of succeeding at a startup. It also shows the challenges and headwinds a startup faces, and how it takes determination and force of will to overcome them. If you fall into either of the previous groups, No Better Time is a Must Read. For others, not so much. It gets pretty technical at times and probably won’t make a lot of sense.
As for the rest of my 9-11 story, I ended up spending the rest of the week in our Boston offices and meeting with customers. I had a Friday afternoon flight and was hoping they would open up air travel by then. Unfortunately, they didn’t. I ended up driving my rental car from Boston to my parents’ house in Pittsburgh. It was a long drive Friday evening, but it felt great getting to be with family after the events of the week.
Fortunately, I was able to get one of the first flights out of Pittsburgh to Los Angeles on Sunday evening. It was a surreal experience as there was a distinct air of suspicion on the plane before and during the flight. You could tell that everyone seemed just a little on edge from the events of the previous week. There was also relief and applause when the plane landed safely in Los Angeles. It’s a flight that I will never forget. And at the end of the trip, it was great arriving at home to see my family after a week in which I wasn’t sure when I would see them again. It’s amazing the effect one event can have on our outlook on life.