Computer kids

Nov 17, 1999 at 12:00 am

Donald Amboyer pulls out of the driveway of his $1,000-a-month beachfront condo, driving his 1994 Nissan 300 ZX and wearing the latest that the Gap has to offer. No, he’s not a lawyer stumbling through a midlife crisis. He is an 18-year-old computer wizard. And his parents didn’t buy him the house, the car or the clothes. With a salary upward of $60,000 a year, he earned the money to buy all these things.

Amboyer, who grew up in Shelby Township and now lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is not all that unusual. He’s one of a new generation of computer experts who makes piles of money in the computer business and calls the shots for much older co-workers – but who may be too young to buy a beer.

Amboyer’s day job is as director of architecture and development for The Ultimate Software Group Incorporated. He creates and maintains Internet systems for the company, and develops payroll software for its human resources department. It might not be what you’d expect an 18-year-old to be doing, but Amboyer has been working with computers since his parents gave him one when he was 6. He quickly went from playing games to learning how it worked, and by the time he turned 14, he had begun his first online business venture, trying to get several Birmingham art galleries together to sell their art online.

The project fell through, but Amboyer used his technical knowledge and business experience to land a job at VPM studios, a Shelby Township video production company, at the end of 1996. At VPM he did online video editing and Web site development. Amboyer spent a year and a half there, balancing a 30-hour workweek with school.

In the summer of 1998, he took a job at Ford Motor Credit, helping to set up a Web site to aid Ford customers seeking car loans.

Following that job, Amboyer got several offers from companies such as, Vibe magazine and a design studio in Boston. He says he decided to go to Fort Lauderdale because, "I was afforded a better opportunity because I was working at a company that was strictly computer-oriented, so I could learn from everyone else around me. With the other jobs I was offered I would have been one of very few working with the Web."

Along with his success there were also many setbacks, especially in high school. His job was his first priority, so his grades fell. This led to many fights with his parents.

His social life suffered, too. "Some of my peers in school thought of me as being an outcast, and because of this my social skills didn’t develop as well as many other teenagers," he says.

Brad Ogden, a 17-year-old resident of Sterling Heights, has been able to find a balance between his school and social life, and his work running Virtual WebPages, a company that sets up Web pages and acts as a network consultant for businesses.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Ogden routinely stays up past 1 a.m. to get both his schoolwork and business work taken care of. A lot of it comes down to time management.

"I try to spend every minute of every day working on something," he says. "If I finish with one thing in class I’ll spend the rest of that time on homework, or designing a Web page. When most kids are out to lunch, I’m working."

When Ogden started his business in 1997, he encountered a couple of stumbling blocks, such as the need for his parents to co-sign all of his transactions.

"They thought that I was in over my head financially," he recalls. "They ... saw all of these amounts in excess of $1,000. They were afraid that it might be one of those usual teenage ideas where the ambition dies out quickly." Now that his parents see how successful he is, they aren’t quite as apprehensive. Virtual WebPages now brings in $8,000-$10,000 a month.

Ogden even has time to keep up a relationship with his girlfriend, Lenka Lovas, who says, "He keeps his business to himself. It never really gets in the way of our relationship."

Ogden has had to make one sacrifice, however. He carries a cell phone everywhere, just to keep in touch.

Sterling Heights resident Steve Kirka, 16, has also turned his computer skills into a profitable venture. Kirka founded SK Computers Corporation three years ago with $20 and a computer his grandparents gave him for his birthday. SK Computers now brings in over $100,000 a year, and Kirka manages a staff of 12.

One of these employees is James Anderson, a 35-year-old programmer. "I have a lot of respect for Steve because of what he can do and what he can teach me," says Anderson. "And he has respect for me because of what I can teach him. Steve is very determined and very dedicated to doing the best that he can. The other day we had a major problem with one of the computers and Steve dropped everything in order to fix it."

Kirka’s dedication has always been at the heart of his computer hardware and software sales business – so much so that he worked at his computer through most of our interview.

Despite this dedication, he found that there were still pitfalls, especially at the beginning. The biggest one, he says, was the business itself. "I had to learn how to run it. I also had to learn how to deal with customers, and things of that nature."

Once Kirka got the business running he found it was not all fun. The balance between school, work, and his social life has been the toughest part (he stays up well past midnight every night to get his work done), but as he puts it, "You have to find a medium."

So what do these three plan to do in the future? Ogden and Kirka plan to go to college, but Amboyer has different ideas.

"I’ve found that this field is driven by talent, not necessarily what sort of degrees you have on the wall," he says. "So I think that I can keep doing what I’m doing and maybe use what I learn to start my own studio in a few years."