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Photograph by D.J. Case

Pitt’s CGS students will have the chance to be mentored by someone who helped build the information superhighway. While David Holtzman didn’t invent the Web, it was up to him to make sure it didn’t crash.

The Web Master

Cindy Gill

David Holtzman
Several hours before sunrise at a beach house near Ocean City, Md., a cell phone rings. The phone belongs to David Holtzman, a 38-year-old computer ace. He’s the senior vice president of engineering at a small technology firm that has a very big client—the National Science Foundation (NSF). The foundation entrusted his firm, Network Solutions in Washington, D.C., to maintain the Internet.

Right now, Holtzman is busy maintaining his family. He’s a single parent on vacation with his five children, the youngest a sixth-grader, the oldest still in high school. Jarred awake in the early morning hours, he figures the call is from a long-distance friend or, maybe, from family in Pittsburgh. He flips the phone open. Instead, he hears a vaguely familiar voice—someone from his office.

The staffer is clearly worried. Something is wrong. E-mails and phone calls are coming into the office. That’s not unusual; Network Solutions is staffed 24 hours a day.

But tonight’s messages aren’t typical. They all report the same thing: A lot of e-mail is being returned “undeliverable,” and Web sites worldwide are disappearing from the Internet. It’s up to Holtzman’s group to figure out what has gone wrong and to fix it.

Holtzman (CGS ’80) received that call in July 1997, when his firm was the conduit for any Web site to connect with the global digital superhighway. The company’s contract with the NSF meant that every person, organization, company, or entity—in other words, everyone—who wanted to have a Web site name, or domain name, on the Internet had to deal with Network Solutions and David Holtzman.

As head of engineering technology, he managed the master root server, which is the Web’s control center. It’s the dot in .com. “There’s one server that rules all the other root servers,” he explains. “It’s kind of like The Lord of the Rings, where one ring rules them all.” His oversight responsibilities included maintaining the master server’s hardware and software and issuing all Web site names and their delivery locations. “I ran all of it,” says Holtzman, “.com, .org, .net, .gov, .mil. The dot itself.”

Today, the Lord of the Dot is embarking on a new role, mentoring students in Pitt’s College of General Studies. He has a lot to share with them, including what he learned in crisis situations, like the time he received that panicky call at the beach. Holtzman can offer a unique perspective to the students, because he, too, is a CGS graduate, having earned his BA degree in philosophy. He strongly encourages today’s CGS liberal arts majors to do what he does—enter a creative realm that stimulates entrepreneurial thinking.

In many ways, Holtzman had no choice but to be creative. Even with his resourceful outlook and his capacity for quick thinking, that phone call pushed him to his limits. At the time, things were just beginning to flourish on the Web. The government, the military, universities, and some businesses were using the network, in varying degrees, for daily communications. Commerce was beginning to migrate there, too. Holtzman saw the boom coming long before he took the Network Solutions job. His foresight was possible, in part, because of where he had been.

In 1976, after a tour in the navy, he began studying philosophy in Pitt’s CGS. Philosophy offered a way to consider “big ideas” and grapple with historical and social issues, things that intrigued him. His liberal arts studies nurtured his curiosity about all kinds of things, including the emerging world of personal computers.

When he graduated in 1980, a philosophy degree was not a ticket to employment in a flat economy. He was a stockbroker for a while. Then he re-enlisted in the navy, where he worked on a submarine as a codebreaker. Later, as an intelligence analyst and Russian linguist, he specialized in keeping tabs on the Soviet Union. Think The Hunt for Red October. His work exposed him to the National Security Agency’s sophisticated computer systems. “We were dealing with gigabytes, maybe even terabytes, of information in multimedia form. It was voice, it was data, it was Morse code, it was in different languages, in different places. It was very similar to what’s going on with the Web today.”

Even then, in the early 1980s, he figured that the military’s mega-use of technology would make its way to the public. “Technology generally doesn’t retreat,” he says. He used the bonus money from his military re-enlistment to buy computers for his home.

In 1988, with five children all younger than 8, he turned down a decent-paying promotion and walked away from a military pension to get more involved with computers. “I had seen the growing, intrinsic use of computers. It clearly wasn’t going away. I couldn’t imagine that the same stuff we were doing for large amounts of government data wouldn’t somehow transition into ‘real life.’”

For the next few years, he worked in various firms, building his expertise in digital systems and adding to his technology repertoire. He built multimedia applications on CD for Jane’s Information Group, which tracks military equipment worldwide. While at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, he built the Minerva data system, which the company sold to IBM. The system eventually became the search engine for the popular Lotus Notes. He helped create the first digital-rights management system at IBM, called Cryptolopes, which ensured ownership protection for digital content. “I wanted to get to Ground Zero,” he says about his motivations in those years. “I wanted to find the Haight-Ashbury of what was about to happen.”

On the surface, Network Solutions was an unlikely epicenter. It was a largely unknown company that had started doing business when Jimmy Carter was the nation’s president. The firm essentially survived on government work for information services that eventually led to the NSF contract. Holtzman was always on the lookout for a prime opportunity, and he routinely had job offers, including executive-level positions at Fortune 500 companies. He ultimately joined Network Solutions because of its exclusive contract to run the fledgling Internet’s master root server and issue all domain names.

After he got that phone call at the beach house in the summer of ’97, Holtzman had a global crisis on his hands. Why had thousands of Web sites disappeared from the Internet? Why was e-mail being returned in droves?

The disruption had profound consequences. Online media outlets, including newspapers, were cut off. Businesses, corporations, and nonprofits lost connection with online customers and information-seekers. E-mail was spotty at best. Beyond the immediate impact, if the Internet crash wasn’t fixed quickly, it could shake the public’s confidence in the Web altogether.

Within a few hours, Holtzman discovered the problem. A distracted employee hadn’t noticed a “fatal” error generated on the master root server file. The corrupt file was then delivered to other computers, effectively removing e-mail addresses and Web sites from the world’s digital highway. “It flamed out about 40 percent of the Internet worldwide within four hours,” recalls Holtzman. The next day, The New York Times reported on what happened with a story headlined: “Internet Glitch Reveals System’s Pervasiveness, Vulnerability.”

The New York Times didn’t have worse news to report thanks to Holtzman’s efforts. On the phone from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he gave early-morning guidance to his staff back in Washington, D.C. Shortly after sunrise, the master file was reconstructed and Internet service was restored. That incident was Holtzman’s trial by fire at Network Solutions. “I was absolutely in the eye of the hurricane,” he says. “It was frightening. I had to live with that pressure on a daily basis, and it caused me to change [the Web’s digital delivery infrastructure].”

Holtzman designed a system that could handle the Web’s explosive growth. The impact of this foresight wasn’t lost on Michael Sheridan, then an executive at Sun Microsystems. Sheridan, who helped create the pioneering Java programming language, believes the Internet might not exist in its current form without the efforts of Holtzman. “David brought a lot of order to chaos. And that was crucial in actually making the Internet work,” he says.

When Holtzman first joined Network Solutions, the Web had roughly 700,000 domain names. Within four years, his firm had issued more than 20 million domain names. He initially supervised seven engineers; that number grew to 380. The firm’s employee rolls boomed from 125 to more than 1,800 during his tenure. The worth of the company grew from a few million dollars to a market-cap value of $28 billion.

“Many people predicted that the Internet would simply collapse,” recalls Sheridan, now a partner at a venture capital firm. He says Holtzman’s role at Network Solutions made the Internet usable and scalable, meaning that it could get to huge numbers of people and not crash. “David created a system in which that didn’t happen, and it could easily have happened,” he says.

Holtzman offers a more modest view. “I was the Forrest Gump at the middle of it all,” he jokes. He became, in fact, a technology guru, making speeches, giving commentary to media outlets, and serving on boards of corporations; he even advised the Clinton White House and negotiated with presidential aides to set regulatory standards for the Internet’s commercialization.

For Holtzman, though, it’s not simply about the technology. “To me, computers have never been interesting as computers. They’ve been interesting as doorways to new social worlds. The Internet is the biggest reality show of all time. Instead of six people on an island, we’ve got 600 million of them, and they’re all trying to create these organizational structures together.”

Holtzman’s curiosity about other worlds and other ways of thinking has been essential in his success. In recognition of his accomplishments, the University last year named him a Legacy Laureate, one of the top honors given to Pitt’s most distinguished alumni. That isn’t his only tie with the University these days. Later this year, he will share his perspectives regularly with Pitt’s CGS students in a new online course called Entrepreneurial Mentorship.

“David will be taking them through an intellectual exercise of critical thinking and problem-solving as they transform an idea into a business proposal,” says CGS Dean Susan R. Kinsey. The course is part of the school’s goal to help students use their creativity to integrate classroom learning with their professional aspirations. She emphasizes, too, that Holtzman wants to help his hometown: “For him, growing new entrepreneurs in this city and region is a real alternative to traditional avenues of employment.”

Certainly, nothing was handed to Holtzman. He grew up in a working-class family in Churchill, Pa. When he couldn’t afford college, he joined the navy. Then he used the GI Bill to pursue his philosophy degree in CGS.

“On a very simple level, philosophy teaches you to think in an analytical way,” he says. “Philosophy training dissolves the boxes we tend to put our thoughts into.”

He’s a champion of liberal arts studies, which may surprise some people, because he’s a technology expert. He says he draws heavily upon his Pitt philosophy degree, even more than his degree in computer science from the University of Maryland. “If you want to be a technologist, get a liberal arts degree but understand computers.”

Holtzman continues to make choices for himself that are outside the box. He left Network Solutions in 2000, near the height of the technology boom. The Web standards he established are still in use today.

Meanwhile, he raises issues that percolate from the nexus of technology and society, drawing on his philosophy background. “Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should do it,” he says. That’s his mantra for government leaders, corporate boards, businesses, his children, and the rest of us, too.

He produces an online newsletter, GlobalPOV, where he and others air balanced views on prickly topics such as privacy, digital security, and identity theft. He’s concerned about intrusive marketing tactics like psychographic profiling. He has written a book on the disappearance of privacy in the age of the Patriot Act. His commentary has appeared in The Washington Post, Business Week, The New York Times, Wired, and CNET, among others.

Holtzman remains interested in, well, everything. “Try playing Trivial Pursuit with him. It’s awful,” jokes his oldest daughter, Lauren (A&S ’03). He travels frequently. He’s learning to sail. He’s dabbling in fiction writing and working on a screenplay. “I’ve got this quasi-personal business life, which makes me absolutely happy.”

In the technology industry, he’s known as a futurist, but he’s not sure what’s next for him. All he knows is that he has at least one or two “acts” left, and they’ll be the best yet.

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