Keith Peiris insists he is
just a "normal kid". But as the 12-year-old computer
prodigy takes the Internet world by storm and is poised
to expand his multi-million dollar empire into China, it
is something of an understatement.
The youngster heads one of the leading Web design
companies in Canada and has pressed the flesh with the
likes of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Hong Kong
Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Last week he was among a 350-strong, nine-day trade
delegation that accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Jean
Chretien to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
He was in constant demand during his three-day stay
in Hong Kong - a whirl of power talks, interviews and
speeches - but after a quick fax to the Canadian
Consulate requesting a meeting, I field a call from
Keith's father, Deepal. "You want to interview my son?
Come tomorrow at 8am - you'll have half an hour."
The next day I'm waiting at the exhibition hall of
the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) in Kowloon
Tong. The room is empty, but it will soon be teeming
with technology-obsessed youngsters determined to hear
their new idol accept yet another award: this time
HKPC's first "Outstanding Digi Youth" award.
It is 8.10am and he still hasn't arrived. Suddenly a
sea of suits spills from a lift. But still no sign of
the young Peiris. Then I catch a glimpse of a small
figure striding among them. Dressed in bespoke business
suit and scarlet tie, he looks a little like a schoolboy
on his way to a wedding banquet. His black shoes shine.
His gelled-back ebony hair gleams in the morning light.
He nods at me, but shyly lowers his head as he climbs
into a chair. He's fidgety and a little nervous. At 1.5
metres, his legs dangle from the chair. He really is
just another kid, I decide. But as soon as I start
firing questions at him, his demeanour changes. The
child vanishes and the self-assured business mogul takes
over. He may have the voice of a pre-pubescent
12-year-old, but his delivery is that of a cocksure
"Call me Keith," he offers softly. "I feel uneasy if
people call me mister."
Before me is a child as comfortable with interview
technique as most his age are with surfing the net.
While they click on their favourite sites, Keith is
earning a six-figure salary designing them.
He is clearly a quick learner. "First I felt nervous.
Now, I am getting used to it [talking like an adult],"
President and chief executive officer of Cyberteks
Design, Keith owns 95 per cent of the company. His
mother, Sryia, owns the other five and his father is
employed as vice-president of operations. Peiris Snr
says his son pays him "a fair wage" to administer the
Although his age draws the media spotlight, it brings
with it a built-in prejudice, Keith admits. Some clients
change their minds when they discover he still hasn't
hit his teens. "It's happened many times. People don't
think they can trust a 12-year-old boy, but the problem
fades away as they see the quality of work. I am better
than 80 per cent of my competitors," Keith says.
Peiris Snr says jealousy often rears its ugly head.
"Sometimes people have sent e-mails to him, saying
things such as 'you don't know what you're talking
about', but we don't read them now."
Keith has two full-time, four part-time workers and
seven sales people, all of whom are at least twice his
age. "My staff consider me an adult," he says. "I am the
boss, they don't mind taking orders from me." His father
did ask job applicants if they had a problem working for
a boy, adding that several top people from major
Web-design companies had applied to work under his son.
After school Keith and his father would interview
It all started for Keith at age 10, after toying with
software downloaded from a Web site. He taught himself
design and now produces lively, user-friendly sites
which have won numerous design awards and accolades.
Those talents are showcased at his eye-cathing Web site,
bristles with interactive animation and music. The
interview runs smoothly, but suddenly someone calls and
Keith rushes off. "Excuse me, I have to connect my
notebook for the speech, I will be back in five
minutes," he says. He never returns. It is already
8.30am and time for the day's other interview with a
local television station.
I find Keith in an upstairs room where a 40-something
producer rehearses questions with him.
"Hey, Keith, do you have fun in Hong Kong?" he asks
cheerfully, while playfully jumping several times on the
ground. Keith, however, is not amused, and as the
cameraman shouts "rolling", Keith speaks of information
technology, Silicon Valley and China's entry to the
World Trade Organisation.
"China will become an economic power house in the
next decade. The Chinese Government is doing great
things to improve the economy," he says, sounding every
inch a China analyst.
Moments later, a group of excited children pour into
the room, all clutching pieces of paper. Arranged by the
broadcaster in advance, the youngsters have a group
picture taken with their idol . . . and a few lucky ones
get to ask him a question.
All of the children appear startlingly intelligent.
They speak in terms and of issues that would flummox