Young Entrepreneurs Cash in on the Web

Students in Davis, Calif., are using their Internet expertise to create Web pages for profit.

by / September 30, 1996
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Junior and Senior High School students of Davis, Calif. Many of these students are engaged in creating Internet Web pages, and they are making money for their efforts.

Davis is home to the University of California at Davis. The city is full of bicycles, education, and computer technology and offers an ideal environment for developing the next generation of technological leaders.

This pleasant college town is another cul-de-sac on the information highway that is tucked away behind a router. The Davis Community Network (DCN), , serves as the Internet launch point for many of the city's young techies.

The ages of these Web wizards range from 13 to more than 18 years. One, who is too young to drive, has equipped his bicycle with a cellular phone. Because of their age, many bill themselves as consultants. This allows them to circumvent the archaic labor laws associated with employing children under age 16. In this situation, the labor laws have not kept pace with the advancements in technology. Writing HTML code for Web pages does not require a sweat-shop environment for these young workers. Working as consultants allows them to be paid for their efforts.

These youthful entrepreneurs command fees as high as $1,000 to set up a Web page. Their customers include various departments at UC Davis and businesses located on the bustling Davis Virtual Market (DVM) section of DCN. DVM is a very busy area, sustaining 308,454 hits last June.

Graham J.M. Freeman, a senior at Davis High School, develops Web pages and volunteers as a member of the DCN Web team. He learned to write Pascal code at Davis High School under the tutelage of computer teacher Janet Meizel. When the Internet explosion came along, he taught himself to write HyperText Markup Language (HTML) code. These ASCII instructions are used by Web browsers for displaying pages.

In the same fashion as other inquisitive programmers, he obtained and dissected existing HTML files. "If I see something I like, I view the source and try to determine how I can adapt that code without actually copying it," said Freeman.

For Freeman, content takes precedence over graphics. His pages are designed to be functional with all the popular browsers and platforms. The pages must be pleasing under Netscape, Explorer and Mosaic. Both Windows 3.x and Windows 95 platforms are used to test newly developed pages. Users of the text-only Lynx browser are also accommodated by Freeman's pages. He said, "I don't really rely too much on graphics. Eye candy has its place, but I personally don't want it."

Freeman noted that many personal Web pages are lacking in content, even his own. "I have a cat. I breathe," he joked. However, content was uppermost in his mind when he created a Web page for his mother's political campaign. During the campaign, her Web page received more than 30 hits per day. He noted this was low compared to commercial pages, but good for a local page.

In keeping with his preference for content, Freeman avoids gizmos and gadgets such as counters and animation. "Unobtrusive animations don't bother me. The ones that do bother me are those that keep reloading. The stop light goes on and off constantly," he said.

Counters are devices that keep track of the number of visitors to a given page. Counter programs usually reside on a remote server elsewhere on the Internet. When a user visits a counter-controlled page, a signal is sent to the counter server. The page count is updated, and a graphics image of an odometer showing the number of hits is sent back to the visited page and displayed. This lag time is often the reason the counter doesn't display until long after the page
has finished loading.

Many coders are purists and avoid HTML visual creation tools like Hot Dog Pro. Freeman is no exception, as he prefers to write HTML directly in ASCII text. Adobe PhotoShop is one of the few tools used by Freeman. Its extensive editing and image manipulation functions seamlessly integrate HTML text and graphics. As he develops his code, he loads it directly into Netscape to see the results. Developing under Windows 95 is simpler than Windows 3.x, because of Windows 95's built-in Winsock function. Older versions of Windows require an external Winsock program such as Trumpet to be loaded before Netscape can operate.

Freeman is exposed to CGI scripts as part of his volunteer work with the DCN Web team. These scripts differ from HTML code in several ways. Unlike HTML, which executes on the client machine, CGI scripts execute directly on the server. Running CGI scripts requires the approval of the server administrator. Because they run directly on the server, they are potential security and system integrity risks. "CGI scripts are a lot more complicated," noted Freeman. Most are written in the Perl script language under UNIX, to perform interactive functions. Search engines, news retrieval and counters are common CGI applications.

Burnout is an issue on Freeman's mind. "HTML coders get burned out after awhile, like comics artists," he said. "It will be a sad day when the author of Dilbert burns out."

When asked about continuing with HTML coding, Freeman said, "It's oversaturated now. Everyone and their dog is providing Web service." Freeman wants a career outside the computer field, where his computer skills will be an asset to him. He is uncertain of his direction right now, but believes it will not be Web publishing.

Mark Baysinger is another Web page author and self-described computer freak, who graduated from Davis High School last year. He will be attending the University of California at San Diego this fall as a computer science major. Baysinger also studied under Janet Meizel at Davis High School. His programming career began early when his father brought home a Commodore personal computer. This machine was quickly outgrown, and gave way to an IBM-compatible machine.

Baysinger has done a lot of CGI script programming. One of his projects was the guest book for the Davis High School Web site. Another was an order form for a comic book vendor on DVM. He participated when Davis High School placed their newspaper, The Hub, online. His CGI scripts, written in Perl, took the news text files and formatted them with a table of contents.

PhotoShop is the artist's tool favored by Baysinger. He creates images with other tools then imports them into PhotoShop for touchup and text overlays. PhotoShop's GIF plug-in module exports the completed graphic to a GIF file as a transparent image. The "multiple layers" function in PhotoShop is important to him. He uses it to make drop-shadow effects.

For Baysinger, interactive screens are the most exciting part of Web page design. He said, "If you look at the Davis High School online newspaper and click on a page, it pulls the articles for that page. Clicking on an article formats it for the screen right there as you're looking at it."

Today, Baysinger is creating Web pages for DVM. He is uncertain about doing this in the future. "The people at DVM want me to continue," he said. "I don't know how much free time I'll have." His busy college schedule will probably limit the amount of time available for extra activities. Living out of town in San Diego won't pose a problem. He can still perform his Web page maintenance across the Internet.

Burnout is not a factor for Baysinger. There is always a new technology out there for him to examine and learn. The constantly changing face of the computer industry helps keep burnout to a minimum. "It's really hard to predict the future," noted Baysinger. "If we could, we'd all be Bill Gates."

Young entrepreneurs like Freeman and Baysinger are tomorrow's movers and shakers. They, and others like them, have taken technical skills and transformed them into the beginnings of promising careers.