Processing History and Coding the Future with Silicon Valley Veteran Dan’l Lewin By Wayne Parker, Host of the StoriesHere Podcast - January 21 - 2020
Enter the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and you'll see one of the first autonomous self-driving automobiles, designed and built by the Google subsidiary Waymo. Nearby, an exhibit on the first 2000 years of computing includes a working IBM 1401 punch-card machine. Another exhibit is interactive, focused on making software for everything from Photoshop to MRI machines to iPods to gaming.
It’s all housed in a 120,000 square foot building in the heart of Silicon Valley, about a mile plus from where the first integrated circuit was designed by William Shockley and steps away from Google headquarters.
At the center of it all is Dan’l Lewin, who over the course of a 40-year career has had a front-row seat for everything from the birth of the personal computer to the digital revolution. In 2011, San Jose Mercury News wrote that “without much fanfare, Dan Lewin … has become one of Silicon Valley's most influential figures.”
Today, Dan’l is the president and CEO of the Computer History Museum. He stepped into the role in 2018 after 17 years at Microsoft.
The opportunity offered him a chance to “transplant myself and grow again,” he says. “I'm all about meeting new people and learning new things. I like telling stories, and the museum presents an opportunity to unleash insights from the past.”
In our wide-ranging podcast conversation, Dan’l talks about his road to the Valley, his early career working with Steve Jobs and his plans for taking the Computer History Museum into the next era.
The two Steves
Dan’l grew up in Buffalo, New York. His father served in the Marine Corps in World War II, and his mother was a homemaker. But that’s the extent of anything typical about his upbringing.
After the war, Dan’l’s dad Donn Lewin became a professional wrestler in the early era of broadcast television. As a child, he often went to work with him.
“I was hanging around in dressing rooms with these performance artists, each of whom had a unique character. Everybody had a gimmick, either based on ethnicity or size –– people with dwarfism to Andre the Giant.
“I just grew up in a very different place,” he says.
After college, Dan’l landed a job at Sony’s business recording systems division, working out of a small office in Cupertino, California.
“It was the beginning of the microprocessor revolution, which evolved very rapidly into the personal computer,” he says.
A week after Dan’l started at Sony, he met “the two Steves –– Jobs and Wozniak –– who left their garage and rented the office space next to my little 600-square foot-office.”
Within a year, Dan’l was Sony’s district sales manager for all of Silicon Valley. In those days, Sony was “the definitive U.S.–Japanese company in terms of consumer electronics as a result of design,” says Dan’l. “And Steve Jobs was very keen on design. I got to know him over a three- or four-year period, seeing him nearly every day.”
When Sony’s 3.5-inch floppy disk hit the market, Jobs was intrigued and wanted to take a closer look.
Years later, Apple integrated the floppy into the Macintosh. By then, Dan’l was a key member of the 10-person team that launched the Mac. When it came out in 1984, Jobs tapped him to lead its push into the higher education market.
In 1985, as Apple struggled to compete with IBM, Jobs was forced out of the company (“a whole other set of stories,” says Dan’l). At that point, Dan’l was running “the lion's share of Apple's business,” because two-thirds of its customers were in education. Shortly after Jobs’ departure, he called Dan’l and pitched an idea: build a system from the bottom up geared toward the education sector.
“I spent a day with him and then quit my job the following week,” says Dan’l. Jobs’ new company, NeXT, and its eponymous workstation would go on to struggle commercially but exert a lasting influence through technical innovations. In fact, Tim Berners-Lee used a NeXT computer to invent the World Wide Web in 1990.
After NeXT, Dan’l worked for a series of startups. “Some were successful, some failed miserably,” he says. “All good accumulated experience, all Silicon Valley-centric. So I developed a network of relationships in the Valley.”
That was useful for his next job, at Microsoft. Dan’l already knew Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates from way back in the early days of Apple, when Microsoft developed third-party apps for the Mac. But Microsoft had recently fought and lost an infamous antitrust case and was “focused on what we call technical diplomacy,” Dan’l explains. So he was tasked with “making peace with the industry” as well as building out the company’s presence in the Valley.
By the time he stepped down in 2017, he was ready to do something new, he says. Just a few months later, he found it at the Computer History Museum.
Analog to digital
“At Apple, I got to work with the engineers who invented everything that we live with today,” Dan’l says. “So when I was given the opportunity to come to the museum, I didn't want to do anything that I'd done before.”
He approaches his position with a strong understanding of historical context.
“These cycles tend to take about 50 years. If you go back to the beginning of the microprocessor, or if you look at other cycles like the one from railroads to aerospace … we're basically entering the next phase, from 1970 to 2020.
“We're moving into a digital world where computing is ambient and life as we know it doesn't exist without computing. The museum is at an incredible juncture where it has the definitive collection of artifacts for this 50 year window.”
Although it’s a vital repository for objects like the Enigma code machine, the Fairchild Semiconductor lab’s patent notebooks and, of course, early Apple computers. Dan’l points out that the museum is more than a resting place for defunct technology. The Museum collects oral histories, awards fellowships and hosts events like lectures and panel discussions.
And CHM is undergoing a transformation that includes a “fundamental rebuild” of its technical infrastructure, says Dan’l. Its previous leaders focused on the priorities of their eras — securing the building, creating core exhibits, positioning the institution as a convening forum for talks by industry leaders. Dan’l sees his role as taking it into the digital era.
“For me it's a long road,” he says. “I'm not snapping my fingers and leveraging money. I'm building and working within the resources we have.”
Dan’l says he’s about 18 months into a 10-year evolution. For now, he’s focused on gathering stories and figuring out how to use technology to present them in engaging ways.
“It's a wildly fascinating opportunity to make this –– which is our goal –– a programmable institution. We are the computer history museum. We should be programmable.”
Perhaps the most compelling exhibits at the Computer History Museum might not be historical artifacts at all.
As Dan’l explains, the institution plans to “reposition itself” as CHM. “C stands for computing, H stands for humanity and M stands for meaning.”
“What does it mean to be a human in a world of computing? Because life as we know it doesn't exist without computing,” he says. “History is really not about the past. It's about the present having a conversation with the past.”
Dan’l says the museum will be doing “unexpected things” as it evolves. “Music, art, culture, wearables, fashion … environmental issues, energy, health. They matter, from a cultural perspective. Culture comes about as a result of people's communication and language.”
This article is based on an episode of StoriesHere with host Wayne Parker. StoriesHere is a podcast series featuring great stories from museum leaders. Topics covered include history, nature, science and more. Visit the website to browse the episode archive and subscribe through RadioPublic, Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.