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January 2, 2000

21st century boy

London's Keith Peiris likes the same things as any 11-year-old kid: Baseball. Hockey. Being CEO of his own Web design firm.

By Brodie Fenlon -- Special to the Londoner


 In 1988, the year Londoner Keith Peiris was born, a movie starring Tom Hanks was a North American box-office smash.

 The film was Big, a story about a 12-year-old boy who, having wished he was a man, wakes up one morning to find himself in an adult's body.

 As the boy races up the corporate ladder of a toy company, thanks to his youthful appreciation of playthings, he faces the pros -- money, fame and freedom -- and cons -- stress, loneliness and the jealousy of others -- of adult life.

 Next month, Keith Peiris celebrates his 12th birthday.

 He, too, has climbed a corporate ladder of his own making, thanks to an appreciation of computers and programming.

 As president and chief executive of Cyberteks Design, the Web site design company he founded with the help of his parents, Keith has already seen his share of fame and jealousy.

 The fame was instantaneous for the Grade 6 pupil at Glen Cairn public school. Since June, when Cyberteks Design was incorporated, Keith has won, or been nominated for, more than 11 awards for his Web sites.

 He's been sought after by London television, radio stations and magazines. The London Free Press ran his photo on its front page in November.

 The world has also been calling. Peiris was guest of honour at a speech by the president and chief executive of California-based Macromedia Inc., an industry leader in graphics and design software.

 In October, Peiris placed second among the best sales, marketing or promotional Web site at Nova Scotia's Atlantic Digital Media Festival Awards; he was their youngest nominee to date. He has also been nominated for a YTV achievement award, to be announced in April.

 And in the hour and a half it takes to interview Keith for this story, his company home page -- www.cyberteks.net -- receives more than 60 hits from visitors around the globe, many of whom send Keith glowing reviews by e-mail.

 But as the accolades accumulate, so do the occasional outbursts of resentment -- even jealousy.

 Take, for example, this e-mail, sent to Keith a day after his front-page story in The Free Press:

 "You can't be 11," the author wrote. "(Your Web) stuff is templates off of some program. Anybody can do that and those colours are too bright . . . If you know HTML (Web site coding), show me something.

 "By the way, I am a designer, too, and I know better," he added.

 If anyone can handle such an attack, it's Keith Peiris.

 Today, he sits barefoot in his basement office in his parents' Deveron Crescent townhouse. Two Pentium computers, a laptop, photo scanner and battery back-up unit hum soothingly nearby.

 Keith's deep brown eyes, brushed by wisps of jet-black hair, are trained on the visitor across the desk. When he speaks, his voice is strong and startlingly confident.

 "My life is basically the same as any other 11-year-old kid," he says. "I play baseball. I play football and basketball at school . . .

 "It's just that on top of that, I do Web design."

 Indeed, Keith is an avid video gamer -- NHL '99, Duke Nukem 3-D and Need For Speed are favourites -- and he collects hockey and Pokmon cards like most kids his age.

 But when he talks about the interactive 3-D revolution and pixels, or virtual reality and polygons, or applets and Java, or the U.S. government's anti-trust lawsuit against Bill Gates and Microsoft -- "Hey, that's business. I mean, the people are choosing Windows," he says -- he sounds wise beyond his years.

 "I started by building my own little home page about two years ago. It was about me, what video games I like. I just played around," he says.

 "Back then, I used to copy GIFs (images from other Web sites), then change them and say I made them."

 Keith had long been interested in art and design, often spending hours sketching his hero, Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy, from his collection of Roy hockey cards.

 By dabbling in more advanced Web design software, such as Microsoft's FrontPage and Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Keith found a limitless, electronic canvas.

 The best way to learn, he found, was to simply goof around. "I had no idea what I was doing," he says. "I just kept pressing buttons and eventually I learned about it."

 Interested in making animated images with sound and special effects for his Web site, Keith downloaded a trial version of Macromedia Flash, an advanced Web design tool from a California firm founded by University of Western Ontario graduate Robert Burgess.

 Keith could not know then that in a few months, he would meet Burgess in person -- at Burgess's request.

 In the meantime, Keith's dad, Deepal, bought the software for his son. Keith learned it, designing a company home page and others for the Canada Wide Science Fair 2000, Northdale public school and Coral Technologies.

 Deepal Peiris couldn't hide his pride in his son if his life depended on it. When his son speaks, he listens intently, often nodding, occasionally bubbling up with laughter.

 Deepal is sales and marketing manager at Coral Technologies. He and his wife, Sriya, were married in their native Sri Lanka in 1980.

 Sriya, who works at Life Imaging Systems Inc., came to Canada in 1978 on a scholarship. After earning her PhD in chemistry at Montreal's Concordia University, she took a job as a research assistant at Western. She and Deepal immigrated in 1981.

 Deepal, then an assistant analyst in an oil refinery lab, found his qualifications weren't recognized in Canada. At 30, he had to start over.

 "I worked at a security company," he says. "I worked at Harvey's flipping hamburgers. I delivered pizza. I had to study accounting and computers . . . It was difficult, but everybody goes through difficult stuff at any stage of their life."

 His perseverance paid off. By 1987, Deepal was a junior accountant at a London firm. Within a few years, he was president of a local computer systems integration company.

 Deepal hopes if Keith learns anything from him, it's the value of a strong work ethic.

 "For an immigrant, it's harder (to get ahead) than a local Canadian," he says. "But if you work hard, you'll be accepted by the majority.

 "I want Keith to work hard and to learn everything. If you learn whatever you can, somebody will recognize you down the road."

 Sriya quit her job when Keith was born and stayed home until 1994. Asked the secret to raising a child like her son, she credits the attention she gave him as an infant.

 "I sat with him when he watched cartoons," she says softly. "I'd ask him questions. I'd never just let him sit there alone."

 Those questions, she says, and incessant reading -- up to 15 kids' books a night before bed -- sharpened the boy's inquisitive nature.

 "Some parents neglect their kids, but my mom didn't," he says. "She sacrificed her job for me. I think she's the greatest person."

 Keith's equally appreciative of his father -- "the best marketer in London," he calls him -- who supported the business and helped his son move from a desk in the dining room into a well-equipped office.

 "My father told me how to start this business. He's helped me a lot with the marketing end of it. I wouldn't be here without him."

 It was Deepal, too, who suggested they attend the New Media '99 Convention and Trade Show in Toronto last June.

 Keith was especially eager to hear the keynote address by Macromedia president Burgess.

 Only after they registered did they notice the fine print: admission was limited to adults 18 and over.

 "We are fighters -- we don't give up easily," says Deepal, who wrote Burgess and conference organizers asking that Keith be allowed in.

 "Two days later, I got a call from the director of public relations for Macromedia saying, 'Our chairman wants your son to be the VIP guest at his keynote speech.' We were so surprised," Deepal says, laughing.

 Security guards at the three-day conference were warned a child would be among the guests and Keith was furnished with a magnetic swipe-card to get him inside.

 The real honour came when, after Burgess spoke, he called Peiris to the stage.

 With the boy beside him, Burgess told more than 1,000 industry experts in the audience that Keith was one of the youngest designers in North America using Macromedia Flash in commercial Web sites.

 "I knew he was good," says a beaming Deepal, "But I never thought he would be recognized by other people."

 Asked for an independent evaluation of Keith's Web sites, Paul Lock, no-nonsense founder of London Web site design company Bigspot Inc., says the 11-year-old shows "massive, massive potential."

 Scanning Peiris's Web pages, Lock points to the odd rough edge -- a home page that reloads each time it's clicked, or a button that appears to jump -- but adds, "Those things will only come with experience.

 "He's organized the material well," says Lock. "(The sites) had some entertaining stuff. He used all the resources that he had. He used some stock stuff and made some new things himself.

 "I wish I could get that much, frankly, from an entry-level (college) graduate."

 To prove his point, Lock pulls out the resume of a graduate seeking work at Bigspot. It lists the programs the applicant has used to design Web sites. Macromedia Flash isn't on it.

 "This guy," says Lock, waving the resume, "who's been out in the market place for 41/2 years, doesn't know as much as this 11-year-old.

 "The fact is, Keith's waded into a fairly heavy piece of software and has found his way already. I mean, it's obviously a breeze for him."

 Meanwhile, Keith is up for five Web site awards at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Tex., in March. Keith announced his own nomination in an e-mail news release.

 In February, he'll learn if he's a finalist for a YTV youth achievement award -- what the cable channel's executive producer Joanne Jackson calls, "the Nobel prize for kids in Canada."

 With 1,200 nominees aged 19 and under, the awards are highly competitive, Jackson says. Keith was nominated in the business category.

 "I can't tell you where he stands," she says.

 "But I was in to look at his Web site . . . for the Canada Wide Science Fair 2000 and it's pretty impressive. It looks very, very professional."

 Outside experts will judge Keith and his firm's creativity and business plan. If the awards he has already won are any indication, those judges are bound to be impressed.

 Among his honours are the Webmasters Web site excellence award, the Critical Mass award, Starsaber's award of excellence, the Lunar Graphics award 1999, Quatec's Web site design award and the Jeff Hobrath Art Studio Web award.

 Lest he spend his life hunched in the blue glow of a computer monitor, Keith balances his work life with sports -- especially playing goalie for his hockey team.

 Unlike Tom Hanks's character in Big, he knows how important it is just to be a kid sometimes.

 "I can't be glued to the computer for all my life," he says. "If I did, I would become really, really lazy.

 "And I need to have fun sometimes. I mean, it's fun doing Web sites, but I have to get out of the house."

 Still, Keith says he plans to run Cyberteks Design his entire life -- with a short break for university.

 He's proud of himself and his awards, but he doesn't let it go to his head.

 "I know the praise is because I'm doing great work," he says. "But any day, there's going to be someone younger than me who makes it even bigger."

 Brodie Fenlon is a Free Press reporter.

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