If you watched the Super Bowl or President Barack Obama’s inauguration online, you can thank Dr. Tom Leighton, CEO of Akamai Technologies, a global manager of Internet traffic based in Cambridge.
Though you probably haven’t heard of Akamai, the content delivery network is the reason you can quickly and safely access The New York Times on your mobile device, or download music and movies from Apple’s iTunes Store.
Akamai’s goal is to make the Internet fast, reliable, and secure for its customers. To give you a scope of their clientele, the company serves all major U.S. sports leagues, nine of the 10 largest newspapers, all branches of the U.S. military, 97 of the top 100 online U.S. retailers, and all 20 of the top global e-commerce sites. Akamai has over 210,000 servers in over 120 countries and is within more than 1,450 networks around the world.
So why haven’t you heard of Akamai? The company isn’t a brand for individual consumers; it only works with huge companies. Furthermore, Akamai also doesn’t spend money on marketing, Leighton said. After all, it began as a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the tech boom of the late 1990s, a time when no one (including Leighton) could have predicted what Akamai would become.
Today, Leighton may be the CEO of Akamai, but the former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of applied mathematics said he never hoped to have such a prestigious role within the company. “I’m happy it worked out this way even though it’s not something I aspired to or ever thought I’d do,” Leighton said.
Boston.com met with Leighton recently to find out what it’s like working as (unofficial) protector of the Internet — someone most of us owe much to, yet know absolutely nothing about.
Describe the origin of Akamai.
We’re a spin-out from MIT. We were a research project starting in ’95. I was running the algorithms group in the lab for computer science and I was a math professor working on math problems for large-scale networks. Tim Berners-Lee [the creator of the World Wide Web] was there as head of the Web consortium. He was worried about Web congestion — a problem we still see today. If everyone goes to a website at the same time, it gets swamped with traffic, becoming a “hot spot,” or a problem.
A group of graduate students and I were working on ways of routing Web traffic so you wouldn’t have congestion using applied mathematics and algorithms. If you distribute traffic, there’s no flash crowds or hot spots. We wrote papers and the students wrote theses. The work wasn’t done to make a company.
We started thinking of it as a company when we — me and Danny Lewin, my student — entered the MIT 50K Entrepreneurship Competition in 1997. We made the initial entry and got positive feedback, meeting venture capitalists and learning about forming a company. We didn’t really want to because we didn’t have business experience, but we wanted to make technology and get it out there. We really thought it could solve the congestion problem, but we couldn’t convince carriers at the time to use the technology. The only way to get it used was to start a company and create a service, which we ultimately did in 1998.
But you weren’t immediately CEO. How did you get into that role?
It was not something I thought I’d ever do. I was the chief scientist forever, for 14 years since the start of the company till 2012. I worked closely with Paul Sagan, [the company’s second CEO] and George Conrades [the first CEO of Akamai] and learned a lot from them, learned a lot about the business. When Paul decided he really, really wanted to retire, I said, “Okay, I’d be interested in being CEO.”
Fortunately, the board of directors decided to make me CEO at the end of 2012.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It’s lots of meetings and lots of travel. We have offices in 65 cities, so I spend time with teams around the world meeting with customers and partners. Earlier this week, I met with senators and cabinet officials in D.C. because there’s lots going on with the Internet in terms of major issues around privacy and security.
These are all things we help the industry work through. I also spend time with investors helping them understand what we do. We’re not a consumer brand but everybody uses us every day. People usually don’t have any idea, but when they’re surfing the Web, their machine is connecting with our servers near them and we provide a better experience for them on the Web. A few years ago, we saw groups in the Middle East defacing websites. We stopped that. There’s still a lot to be done with security and stopping theft.
How many clients does Akamai have?
It depends on the day, and it’s hard to count the total, but Akamai’s content delivery network platform delivers a decent fraction of over 25 percent of the world’s Web traffic.
We support millions of domains and websites. All the major commerce sites use us, and almost all the major banks, media sites, and Western governments use us. People that have a big brand they want to protect for reliability and video quality use us. The debates you may watch online, any sporting events you may watch online, we’re doing that. If you don’t want to get hacked, we uniquely defend against sophisticated attackers.
What kind of employees do you hire?
People that thrive in a smart, hardworking, collaborative environment. Team players who want to work on the really hard problems. We’re up against very well-funded and determined adversaries. How do you make it so everyone can watch a secure video online? It’s a hard thing to do. So we want people who want to tackle those hard challenges and work as a team to solve them.
How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I think it’s important to make sure everyone knows what the company is about, where we’re headed and why, and what problems we’re trying to solve. So I think it’s important to have communication and a teaching aspect to leadership. I think being transparent is important, and having respect for each other and for one another’s ideas is really important for innovation.
It doesn’t matter so much what your rank is here. What matters much more is what your ideas are. I love when someone less than half my age teaches me something, or explains, “Maybe we have a problem here. Here’s how we could solve it.” We’re in an innovative and collaborative environment where it’s not about the individual, but the customer.
What is the best part of your job?
Getting to work on hard technical problems. Today, I’m not the individual contributor anymore, but I get to make sure we get funding for really strong folks to solve those problems. The chance to fund [employees] to solve problems on behalf of our customers and for the Internet population as a whole is the best part.
What is the hardest part of your job right now?
Our grand challenge is how do we enable a world where two billion people can go home at night and watch prime quality TV on the Internet at night.
The math argument says there are too many people trying to watch too much video, which was a problem Tim Berners-Lee foresaw in 1995. The challenge is trying to get that stream to each individual user. How do you make it so that it scales? It’s a huge technical problem we have great folks working on.
The other big issue is Internet security. I’ve had my taxes stolen, records for the government stolen. Almost everyone has had something important stolen and they don’t even know it. So the next step is keeping it so [hackers] don’t steal your tax history, your medical records, your credit cards.
That sounds stressful. How do you unwind?
I don’t think you do unwind. You’re always thinking about things going on at Akamai. We’re right in the midst of so much. Think of mobile cloud computing. We’re ground zero here, which makes it a fun place to work. People here are making a difference.