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WHIZ KIDS INC.
HIGH-TECH SKILLS EARN BIG BUCKS

A typical 17-year-old in many ways, Adam Long looks forward to his next birthday -- but not for the typical reasons.

For him, turning 18 next month will mean becoming the legal owner of the Web hosting company he started four years ago.

"One day, my father brought home a Web editing program," he said. "I . . . figured out how to make simple Web pages, and one thing led to another."

Long, a prodigy who started designing Web pages at 14, is not alone. Many teens who can't drink or vote can create software beyond their years -- or at least beyond the abilities of their elders. Immersed in a digital world since the cradle, they are plugging into real jobs, with real pay and responsibilities, in an economy desperate for technology skills.

"It seems like there's a lot of that going on -- more than people realize," said David Straitiff, president of Buffalo technology company and chairman of InfoTech Niagara.

While his friends work in department stores and tanning salons, Long runs a Tonawanda company called Internet Media Solutions, which serves up the Web pages for about 3,000 clients. Although his father owns the business on paper, Adam writes the computer code that keeps the company's $75,000 Web servers running.

Adam "is responsible for the whole thing, hook, line and sinker," said his father, Bill Long. The business employs four members of the Long family and provided Adam with '99 Jeep Cherokee, complete with a global-positioning system and high-decibel stereo.

"Better on the road than in the house," his father grumbled.

Most tech prodigies are boys, mirroring the gender gap in the adult world of programming and computer science. Advocates of women in technology say the gap -- perhaps rooted in a male-oriented computer gaming culture -- is shrinking slowly.

Some prodigies ride their talent to wealth and fame. Napster creator Shawn Fanning was 18 when, lolling on his uncle's couch, he tapped out the code that gives the record industry conniptions. Rishi Bhat of Chicago was 15 when he developed "SeigeSoft" identity-protection software, which netted him $750,000 last year when the rights were sold to a Vancouver, British Columbia, company.

Other teens not extolled in the business press are helping, nevertheless, to build the new economy. For every 40-year-old who has trouble getting his printer to work, a teenager somewhere seems to be building Web sites or trouble-shooting the network in his parents' office.

Steven Wright started working at Fisher Towne & Associates last summer, a few days before his 16th birthday. He walked in and applied because the Web design and software company was near his house. "I thought that would be a convenient place to work," he said.

He was hired to do "lightweight" page creation chores, but quickly showed he could code with programmers in their 20s and 30s, according to his boss.

"We're going to start lurking around his school," said Greg Towne, company founder.

A senior at Amherst Central High School with two calculus courses under his belt, Wright was immersed in technology at home -- his father sold computers for Honeywell and Lang. He remembers playing computer games at age 7, which led to his being drafted to build a lacrosse Web site for a school group.

Now he is saving his $13-an-hour pay towards a motorcycle while planning to enroll in the University at Buffalo next fall.

The downside of being a teen tech worker? It makes high school classes seem, well, academic.

"I spend all day with people who have families, who are in their 20s," he said. "Then to sit in biology class."

His class schedule jigsaws around his job, allowing him to work in the office early in the morning and return in the afternoon.

Long has a similar arrangement, which he calls a "work-release program," at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute, cramming his classes into the middle of the day.

The boys also share an affinity for the programming language Perl, a wellspring of Web innovation that has a strong following among the young. Bhat used Perl to develop the SeigeSoft technology.

Teens might work as hard as adults in technology, but not as long. In New York, 16- and 17-year-olds can work only 28 hours a week during the school year and a maximum of 40 in the summer.

But if a digital child labor crisis is looming, it's not apparent to Michael Fitzgerald, assistant director of the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in Buffalo. He said he doesn't know of any child labor violations at area tech firms. And the office environment of a computer programmer is safer than many typical teen workplaces, such as restaurants or grocery stores.

The danger lurking for whiz kids is the risk of pigeon-holing themselves into a particular technology too early, missing the broader background of a university education, says Raj Acharya, chairman of computer science at the University at Buffalo.

"For the ones who are exceptionally bright, I don't think it's that big a problem," he said. But for a garden-variety genius, taking a job early might cut off opportunities later.

"If you have the background in mathematics and science, you have a body of knowledge that helps you adapt to changing technology," he said.

But the pull of the working world can be strong -- especially to teens whose idea of wealth is gas money and two compact discs a week.

A self-taught designer of Web pages, Josh Larsen was 19 when he was hired to do network chores at North American Health Plans in Buffalo. For a recent high-school graduate, the $23,000 salary was a powerful lure -- it brought him all the way from his home in Utah, outside Salt Lake City.

"I always wanted to go to school," Larsen said. But funds were short, and the job "paid well, right away."

Recently he was let go by the insurance company after overhauling its internal computer network, but he is not concerned about finding another job.

A college degree "doesn't seem necessary in this field," he said.

Teen computer prodigies might waste their talents on burger-flipping jobs if not for companies' desperate need for info-tech skills, corporate recruiters said.

"There are a lot of companies that do not have the resources to have their own IT (information technology) staff, but who have to use the Web to compete," said Jim Cipriani Jr., president of Systems Personnel Inc. in West Seneca.

A typical case, he said, involved an accountant friend who drafted his technically talented son to help set up the office computer network. Job done, the accountant bragged about his teenager's accomplishment at the country club. "The next thing you know, one of the other guys there says 'hey, I need somebody like that,' " and a tech consulting career was born.

"The extreme shortage of technical talent has driven some companies to look at young kids," said Colleen Switala, a corporate recruiter in Amherst. "I've heard of (campus recruiters) going into the dorms at Purdue and hiring them right out of the dorms -- for huge sums of money, for a college student."

At the threshold of adulthood, Adam Long says the profitable venture he has built didn't come easily. He lacks math aptitude and didn't learn Web design right away, he said -- he was stumped at first trying to load images onto a Web page.

For now he looks forward to moving out on his own after graduation while continuing to build his company. As for college, "I'm kind of leaving that area open," he said. "I taught myself everything I know so far. I believe you can learn anything you want if you pick up a book and work at it."

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