Friday, December 7, 2012

How Long Does It Take To Get To MIT?

34 years. At least in my case.

I applied to MIT in 1978, intending to major in mechanical engineering so I could work for NASA. They turned me down, as did CalTech.

They made the right decision. Based on my poor showing at Northwestern, I didn't have the necessary academic discipline. I should have followed the example of my roommate, who completed a 5-year accelerated BS/MS in biochemistry before getting his PhD at Stanford.

I eventually learned that discipline (see my simple recipe for how to crush calculus), but by then I was off on my software career and going to MIT was a distant dream.

Well, I finally made it. Monday I started a new job at Akamai Technologies in Cambridge, MA, a  block from MIT. Ok, so I'm not technically at MIT, but I'm as close as you can get without actually being on campus, working at a company founded by an MIT algorithms professor and one of his grad students. I'm in the zone: The MIT Zone.

Walking around the area makes your skin tingle. You see big high-tech and bio-tech names on all the buildings, Google, Microsoft, VMware, Biogen Idec, Amgen, many more. The place vibrates with intensity, and it's not just the subway running underneath. Some of the finest minds in the world are concentrated here, doing things that affect the whole world.

You may have noticed a dearth of woodworking posts here over the last two months. That's because I spent the first month preparing for the interview, studying books and papers. Then I spent a couple weeks just decompressing; even under the best of circumstances, changing jobs is stressful. The last two weeks I've just started to get back into stride.

I wasn't looking for a new job, but this is another LinkedIn success story. An Akamai recruiter contacted me via LinkedIn, and as I started looking into their technical publications, I realized this was really cool.

According to Akamai's website, they serve up to 30% of all web traffic; they have a distributed network of over 119,000 servers spread all over the globe, handling over 2 trillion daily Internet interactions. That's over 23 million per second.

Companies like Apple and Facebook are the high-profile rock stars of the Internet, but Akamai is the group of session musicians everyone relies on, the low-profile professionals working behind the scenes, like Glen Campbell and The Wrecking Crew. Their list of representative customers is full of big names.

Founder Tom Leighton of MIT's CSAIL, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, got to thinking about the technology that became Akamai when fellow MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee talked to him about what was slowing down Internet traffic.

Yeah, Tim-the-inventor-of-the-World-Wide-Web, that Tim. Leighton and co-founder Danny Lewin eventually realized the only way to put this technology into practice was to start their own company.

Who wouldn't want to work at a place like this, with people like this, on problems at this scale? I jumped at the chance. The people I worked with at Dell/EqualLogic were all great people, working on a great product at a great company, but this really hooked me. Perhaps you can tell I'm excited to be working here!

They've seen dark times. The worst was when Danny Lewin was killed on September 11, 2001, aboard American Airlines Flight 11. A small park next to the Akamai building honors his memory.

On the business side, Akamai was one of those companies whose stock shot to stratospheric levels during the tech bubble, only to lose nearly all its value when the bubble burst and many of their customers went out of business. But the company survived, and that resilience is another thing that attracted me.

Bostonians tell you it's the hub of the universe. I'm starting to believe it. The inexorable pull of its gravity well has drawn in not only me, but also two of my roommates from distant places and times. That college roommate from 34 years ago in Chicago works five blocks away. I just recently discovered that my roommate from when I worked at Texas Instruments in Sherman, Texas 30 years ago has been in the Boston area for 17 years.

The commute between Cambridge and the suburbs does mean I'll have less time for woodworking during the week. At least I can do it riding the train and reading a book instead of fighting traffic for an hour or more. The commuter trains even have Wi-Fi, so I can check email or work on the blog.

I always said I would never work in Boston (yep, never say never), and the traffic was the reason. But I live just a 15-minute walk from a commuter rail station, and Akamai is a block from the subway. The monthly rail pass costs just a little more than a month's worth of gas, and I won't be putting a thousand miles a month on my van, so I won't have to buy a new one before the kids finish college. I can be green while saving green.

Another perk is that I'm just a short subway trip from Boston Harbor. In the Spring I can get a weekday membership at Boston Sailing Center and take a J-24 out after work, bringing it back in after dark. I'm sure I can find willing hands to man the sheets and halyards; if not, I can single-hand a boat easily enough. Night sailing along the waterfront is glorious.

Quick update: commenter TJIC also pointed out I'm just a short subway trip from North Bennet Street School in the North End! I can take some short courses at one of the finest woodworking schools in the country.

But wait, there's more! My wife says you can't make this stuff up.

I first heard about Akamai when I worked at a startup named Verivue, building video streaming servers. There were some parallels between what we were trying to do and what Akamai was doing with their content distribution service. Unfortunately, it didn't work out; Verivue shifted technical strategy and laid me off with half the rest of the company two years ago today.

Two days ago, Akamai publicly announced they have acquired Verivue. How's that for amazing? Just goes to show how small the high tech networking community is. I said back then I would be happy to work with those folks again, because I like and respect them, despite getting laid off. While unpleasant, that wasn't personal. If it ain't happenin', it ain't happenin', so move on to something that is.

I don't know who will end up doing what where, since the company Akamai bought is different from the one I left, having completed their technology shift. But if I run into any of them in the hall, I'll shake their hands, we can all roll our eyes at life and then go build cool stuff.

So begins a new adventure! By the way, if you're interested, they're still looking for more people.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not express the positions, strategies, or opinions of Akamai or any other company mentioned here.


  1. Good luck with the move, Steve. Congratulations.

  2. Steve,

    I applied to MIT as a precocious 16 year old - and got turned down. Off to Cornell instead, then ten years of startups, and then I ended up in the "MIT zone": a startup founded by Tom Knight and other MIT profs, where half the grad students were either MIT grads or current MIT grad students. The "vibrates with intensity" is quite right! The years I spent at that startup before its retrenchment were stunningly fun. It's good to be a big fish in a little pond, but sometimes it's good to be a small fish in a stunningly well stocked pond as well. ;-)

    I've been back in a small pond lately (running my own small firm one town over in Arlington), but I do fondly remember that adventure.

    Good luck with yours!

    (and on woodworking topics: make sure to check out Rockler on Mass Ave just outside of Porter Square, swing by Anderson McQuaid out by Alewife, and sign up for short course at North Bennet Street School. Welcome to the neighborhood!)

  3. What an impressive career you have going , Steve. Congratulations!

  4. CONGRATS Steve!

    It's always a joy reading of personal success. Keep makin' 'em! (Successes, that is.)

  5. My wife went to MIT when we were still dating. I ended up leaving our area and going with her. I even stayed in her dorm with her for a while. You want to be intimidated, humbled and impressed all at the same time, hang out in the lounge of an MIT dorm for an evening. Everyone I met there proved to be some of the smartest (and coolest) people. They even included me despite my clearly not being of MIT caliber.

  6. Steve, congratulations.

    Akamai is great - good products, super support, not to mention that fantastic content distribution network.

    You're working for a super company.

    Cheers - Miles

  7. Steve, congratulations.

    Akamai is great - good products, super support, not to mention that fantastic content distribution network.

    You're working for a super company.

    Cheers - Miles


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