National Post Business Magazine - April, 2000

Debbie Hoffman is a truck-drivin' daughter-of-a-gun out of Haines City, Fla., byway of Romeo, Mich. Last December, the 49-year-old Hoffman, who has been limiting her personal haulage to 75,000 miles a year since becoming a grandmother for the sixth time, decided that she needed a presence on the Internet in order to expand her business. If she went into e-trucking, she reasoned, she could hire drivers and match clients to the appropriate vehicles in her fleet — drop-deck stretches, double-drop stretches, flatbed stretches, etc. — without having to spend any more nights than necessary behind the wheel, away from home. That would be a nice break after almost 30 years of lowing rigs as long as a city block and as wide as a salesman's smile. 

It was not a new dream. Hoffman had been trying for more than two years to find the right person to design an action-packed, attention-grabbing ho me page for Double D Truck Specialties, which is one of the few female-owned companies of its kind in North America. But she still had not settled on a webmaster, "So I would cruise the Net, looking for people who had won awards," she says .on the phone from Haines City", an inland town., due south from Disney World. "I saw this name, Keith something-or-other, up in Canada. And he had won all these awards and stuff. So I called him up. 

"That day:, I told eveiybody about who I had called and they kept asking me, 'Has he called back yet? Has he called back yet?' And I said, 'Don't worry — he'll call back, as soon as he gets home from school."

At three minutes to seven on a snow-white Saturday morning, the webrnaster takes to the ice. He is in the uniform of the Scotiabank team of the Red Circle Club minor hockey league of London, Ont., wearing white sweater number 33, in honour of Patrick Roy, the NHL nonpareil. The webmatter, Keith Peiris, who was born on February 27, 1988, during his hero's third season with the Montreal Canadiens, is a left-handed goalie, a rare subspecies of the breed., It was clear from the boys earliest years, when he would fill notebook after notebook with excruciatingly detailed pencil sketches of Curtis Joseph, Arturs lrbe and other millionaire rubber-stoppers, that he would choose the same position for himself. And he did.

After a goalless 15 minutes, in which he makes 10 superb saves with his stick, glove and pads – the first one only seven seconds into the game – the boy surrenders a power-play goal to the Fanshawe Optimists. But Scotiabank soon equalizes, and the match seesaws from there into its final frantic episode, tied at three goals each. 

Each time the puck goes down to the other end of the rink, Keith Peiris rises from his crouch and skates from side to side in his crease, as fidgety as a ferret, tapping the goalposts with his gloves, sweeping the scrapings with his big, wide stick. Such are the rituals of the major-leaguers, down-loaded from Hockey Night in Canada, then programmed into the receptive souls of our tykes and atoms and mites. 

With five minutes gone in the third period, the Scotiabank defence gives the puck away and Keith Peiris is beaten cleanly, high on the glove side, by a wrist shot from 20 feet out. So it's four to three for the Optimists. 

Now an Optimist player has been slightly injured and is lying in the near corner, attended by his coach. This eats up two-and-a-half minutes of Scotiabank's chances at a comeback. (The clock runs continually in house-league hockey, since two more teams must take the ice at eight.) Eventually, the casualty rises and skates off, and his  teammates  and  opponents  pummel  the boards with their sticks and gloves in hockey's customary salute to the valorous. 

Some of the players' parents and supporters are shivering and shouting in the bleachers of Stronach Arena in northeast London. The less hardy remain in the well-heated foyer behind the south goal. Keiths father, Deepal Peiris, is here, a round-faced, voluble, chipper man in a baseball cap and a wool-and-leather jacket with the IBM logo. "I quit my iob on January the fourth," Peiris suddenly announces, as the seconds tick away. (It was the week the London Free Press published two full pages, including several enormous photographs of Keith in a Team Canada hockey sweater, on the prodigy and his family.). He had been working as the sales and marketing manager at Coral Technologies in London. But now the father had decided to take a hiatus. “I am going to go to Fanshawe College and hire two or three employees,” he says. “Keith’s business is growing, and we need more workers. I have had an idea. If I find the right people, I am going to offer them shares!” 

When Deepal Peiris was turning 12, he lived a mile and half from the Indian Ocean, in the doomed paradise of Sri Lanka. “My life was cricket,” he says of a time when there still was no suggestion that the immemorial enmity and jealousy between Tamils and Sinhalese would explode—as it did in 1983—into one of the world’s longest and most horrid civil wars. Deepal’s father was a well-known journalist for the Ceylon Daily News, but the rabid political controversies that were the father's meat did not intrude on the boy’s reverie. 

A decade later, Deepal was working as a laboratory assistant in Colombo when he met a charming and brilliant young chemist named Sriya, the daughter of a rice farmer, who was advancing toward her doctoral degree with a thesis describing the usefulness of compounds of carbon-13 and tellurium-125 in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. They married — by their own choice, not parental arrangement, as had been the case with some of their siblings —and Sriya’s studies led her to Concordia University in Montreal. In 1981, Deepal joined her in Canada. While the wife studied, the husband fried hamburgers at Harvey's and delivered pizzas. 

The hockey game is nearly over as he relates this pilgrim’s progress. Then, at the far end of the arena, there is a scramble) a shout, sticks are raised and our goalie springs from his crease, arms pumping. Scotia.bank has tied it up. 

Then the Optimists come back down the ice. With nine seconds to play, the Optimists have the puck at the lip of the Scotiabank crease and are whaling away at it like lumberjacks. Suddenly, it corner free, and Keith makes a desperate, head-first dive, reaches out his

glove and smothers it. Great save. Tie game. 

The net-minder repairs to the Huron House Restaurant for a postgame breakfast of orange juice, home fries and ketchup. His father, meanwhile, hands me a folio of newspaper and magazine clippings, Internet printouts, testimonials, and press releases bearing the crimson, silver and navy emblem of Cyberteks Design —"Your Partner in Cyberspace" — the company of which his only child, despite his tender years, is president and CEO.

The boys resume fills three pages, small type, single-spaced. It is weighty with awards and commendations, nominations and references) and media coverage citations from here to Halifax.

"Little web designer making big waves," one headline reads.

December 16, 1999, London, Ontario – An 11-year-old web designer, Keith Peiris, President & CEO of Cyberteks Design, is nominated for five website awards at the Southby Southwest Interactive Festival….

December 14, 1999, London, Ontario, Canada— 11-year-old web designer, Keith Peiris, president and CEO ofCyberteks Design, has reached the semi-finals of the YTV Achievement Award (Business)…

December 14) 1999, London, Ontario, Canada— ll-year-old web designer, Keith Peiris, president and CEO of Cyberteks Design is nominated to the Millennium Dreamers Award (Age 8-11 category….

December 10, 1999, London, Ontario, Canada — I I-y-ear-old web designer attracts customers from USA—Keith Peiris, president and CEO of Cyberteks Design has already got two customers from USA… 

"One day, he came home from school at four-thirty, and there was a reporter waiting for him," Deepal says. "At six o'clock, he  went to do an interview at the University of Western Ontario radio station. Later that same evening, he was honoured at a school board meeting. "I asked him, Is it too much?' And he said, I love it, Daddy.” 

The World Headquariers of Cyberteks Design is the basement of a town house in the southern suburbs of London. The lefthanded goalie has showered and dressed, and now he is wearing cargo pants and a red Nike T-shirt, barefoot and full of fun. 

"He doesn't learn much in school, but he must go for social skills and other stuff," his father is saying. 

"So I’m wasting eight hours for social skills” the son retorts, enjoying the banter. “You don’t have to learn to spell, because there’s Spellcheck. You don’t have to learn match, because there’s calculators. Who needs school?”. 

We’re sitting at one of his four computers, which is a 20.6-gigabyte monster with a ViewSonic monitor, a 450-megahertz Pentium III processor, a 40X CD-ROM drive and a Logitech mouse that the boy wields with daunting alacrity, clicking from one website to another as insatiably and restlessly as he prowls the Scotiabank crease. 

“In 1981,” Keith says, “Bill Gates had a quote that said, ‘Six hundred kilobytes should be enough for everyone.” At this, he laughs. These days, 600 kiolbytes won’t run a respectable wristwatch. 

The webmaster has installed a counter that tracks how many hits his home page takes each day. It’s only 11.30 in the morning, it’s the weekend, and already 272 people have found the time and a reason to go to www.cyberteks.net. We study the contacts by time zone and country: Latvia, Hong Kong, Argentina, Austria, Singapore, Australia, Italy, Denmark, Japan. It’s still early; California has yet to awaken. The site is averaging more than a thousand hits a day. 

“I’m impressed that this amount of people come to my website,” Keith says. “Ofcourse, eventually, everybody comes to your website.” 

The CEO swivels around to look me in the eye. “I’m sure you know what pixels are,” he says. “Of course,” I deftly lie. 

We’re going on a guided tour of the Double D Truck Specialties website that Keith designed for Debbie Hoffman. It is, importantly, a Flash site, meaning that Keith has employed a software package, developed by a California company called Macromedia Inc., that combines sound and high intensity moving graphics into pages that are dynamic and appealing to the viewer, but still relatively quick to download and view. “She needed a website and saw us on Macromedia and sent us an e-mail,” Keith relates. “So we called her and asked her how much she wanted to spend. In that contract, my dad didn’t get involved at all.” 

“How did you know how much to charge her?” I ask him. 

“I’ve gotten quotes from lots of Web design companies. I try to stay in the middle.” 

We go to www.doubledtrucks.com and are asked whether we want to jump on to the Flash version, or to plod along like pack mules with the prehistoric, 20th-century text frames. “She had a logo, but I redesigned it,” Keith says. He’s come up with a pair of capital D’s in a crescent, a nice coppery shade, and as we navigate around the page, the logo flies off and colourful hexagon appear, moving to a techno-pop sound track and the roar of mighty engines starting up. We look at Hoffman’s biography and her range of transport services, and I note her telephone number before the boy’s attention span expires, which takes about four seconds. 

The Macromedia connection is central to Keith’s design process, and to his status as a tyro cynosure. A year ago, the youth was a bright but not yet celebrated Web-dabbler when he came across a free trial version of Flash, downloaded it and began to experiment, borrowing graphics he liked from other sites and making them throb and sing. He liked it so well that his father bought the whole package, which costs US$299. 

As it turned out, the chairman of Macromedia, a University of Western Ontario grad named Rob Burgess, was to deliver a talk at a computer industry gathering in Toronto. Deepal ordered two tickets, then noticed that admission was restricted to acolytes 18 and over. When he sent an e-mail of mild protest to Macromedia, alerting them to the fact that there was an 11-year-old in Canada mastering Flash, the result was a VIP invitation to the conference. 

Then came the moment that has become the Peiris family’s equivalent of young Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden with JFK. 

Burgess called Keith to the stage and introduced him as one of the younger Flash users on the planet. A photograph was taken that showed the two vituosos shaking hands, Burgess in black jeans and a bright red sport shirt, Keith in a dark suit and tie. A Cyberteks press release was issued: June 4, 1999 – California based Macromedia Inc. Chairman and CEO, Robert Burgess, introduced Keith Peiris to the audience at keynote speech at the NewMedia ’99 Conference and Trade Show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Canada. On the worldwide Web, Cyberteks has been added to the Macromedia Flash Gallery Collection, a listing of a dozen major companies whose sites employ the firm’s software. Among the others on the same page are CNN, Kodak, Cisco Systems and MSNBC. It is the link from the Gallery Collection that brings nearly all of each day’s hits from Latvia and elsewhere to the World Headquarters of Cyberteks Design. 

“Why do you think Burgess did that?” I wonder in the basement in London. 

“What he’s trying to show,” Keith answers, “is that if I can use Flash, any ---pardon my language—idiot can use it.” 

“He’s never read the manual? Oh Jesus!” 

I’m with instructor Bob Parlee of the Canadian Business College, whose motto is: “There are no limits to where your talent can take you.” Mr. Parlee, who teaches Macromedia Flash to young people  seeking a toehold in tomorrow, is sitting at a PowerMac 180 in  a classroom in Toronto, downloading the Cyberteks Design home page. Heads are turning all round, and it is not because of my Ermengildo Zegna tie. It’s the music pumping out of Keith’s Flash site. 

“Very Trancy,” one student observes sagely. “Very House.” 

“The kid’s good,” Parlee says. “The kid’s really good. There’s nothing that really jumps out at you as spectacular, where you’d say, ‘Holy shit!” He has elegance. He has a simple elegance to his design.” 

More pulsating music; then, as we navigate over to Debbie Hoffman’s Double D Trucks, rapid-fire images of giant rigs and the roar of engine starting. 

“I love the way he does these little things,” Parlee says. “This kid’s got a future. Forget the future—people are going to want this kid, now. He’ll make a whole lot more money than I’ll ever think of making.” Deepal Peiris reports that Keith has earned about $ 15,000 so far from his Web based endeavours. (A child on a $ 5 weekly allowance will need 58 years to catch up.)  This does not include the multi-layered, bilingual, richly informative site Keith designed for the Canada Wide Science Fair to be held in London this spring. This job was gratis, an investment in name recognition and corporate good will. “Flash isn’t a difficult program to learn,” Parlee says, tapping his head. “You can learn basics in two days. But what you do with it is all up here.” 

He hands me an introductory folder from Macromedia that lists the skills a student would be expected to have mastered after only two days in the classroom. There are 54 items in the list, including; how to use the Polygon Lasso and Magic Wand to make a selection; how to create a Shape Tween; how to use the Scene Inspector; how to add sound to a button; how to stream sound; and how to use Drag Movie Clip for extra interactivity. 

“He may be good now,” I tell the awestruck instructor. “But soon he’ll discover girls.” 

“Yeah,” Parlee sighs. “Poor boy.” 

We are up in the living room now, with two parents and I, out of the boy’s hearing. “How old was he when you realized he was smarter than you?” I tease them. “About four,” Sriya Peiris replies. “But he has changed his mind lots of times. First, he wanted to be a NASCAR race driver. Then a hockey player. Now computers.” 

“Most people buy computers and they are  afraid of them,” Deepal says. “They think they will damage father’s, mother’s, or somebody else’s work.” 

“I am a little bit scared,” his wife agrees. “I think if I press the wrong button, it will break.” 

“When he was very small, I bought him computer and said, “Don’t be afraid to break it,” says the father. “He does it all by himself, trial and error. He doesn’t look at manuals. He doesn’t call anybody. He just tries it.” 

“How have his friends reacted to his fame?” I ask. 

“Some kids don’t like him,” Deepal says. “I ask them why and they say, “Keith wants to be Number One, that’s why we don’t like him.” 

“Before the publicity, he was the most popular kid in his class,” Sriya notes. “But when it all started coming out, the others started saying, “You do everything perfectly. We don’t want to be your friend.” A few boys come around to play Pokemon games, and there is the hockey, of course, every Saturday and Sunday at dawn. But still, the mother seems a little distressed. “Iwant him to be a kid, too,” she says. “I want him to have friends.” 

“If he has money, he’ll have lots of friends,” her husband declares. 

While I’m upstairs talking to the parents, a prospective client comes to call. Allan Pike is a ReMax real estate agent in London. He needs a Web presence; he has heard about Keith from a friend, and the last voice I hear as he heads down the carpeted stairs is Pike, saying to the child, “So, you’re a whiz at computers, are ya?” 

“What was it like, talking business with an 11-year-old boy?” I ask Allan Pike, a few days later. “It was weird,” he replies. “It was extremely—intimidating is not the word—it was awkward, weird, different. It’s just a personal hurdle I have to get over.” By coincidence, Mr.Pike’s 10-year-old son, Jeffrey, is Keith’s teammate on the Scotiabank hockey club in the Red Circle league. But that is not what led the father to Cyberteks Design. “I have a fellow who fixes my computer whenever it crashes,” Mr.Pike says, “and he recommended I speak to this particular young man about a website. I didn’t know anything else about him ---didn’t know how old he was, didn’t know he was on my son’s hockey team, never made the connection. I had no idea. It was a total shock. What he’s doing on a computer, I could never do, but there’s a lot of things I can’t do on a computer. I’m not really that great at computers. I can only go by what other fellows tell me.” 

“Would you want Jeffrey to be running a company at this age? I ask. 

“He can have a hobby or a small business on the side,” Pike replies. “But I don’t know if I’d want him to be a CEO at age eleven. I want him to be a kid.” 

“Why does a trucking company need a website? I ask Hoffman. 

“Because who picks up the Yellow Pages anymore? She replies. When Hoffman’s own children were Keith Peiris’ age, she had an arrangement with the school board in Romeo, Michigan, that permitted each of them, in turn, to leave for six or eight weeks to ride with Mama on the road. Raymond, the oldest, had been born when Mama was fifteen. To no one’s surprise, he and his two sisters all grew up to be truck drivers. Now Debbie Hoffman has an 11-year-old granddaughter named Tonya. “I said, ‘Lookit, Tonya---this website was designed by a boy the same age as you,” the grandmother tells me. “Can’t you do something like this? You know what she said? She said, ‘Grandma! I’m only eleven years old! Give me time, Grandma, Give me time.”