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November 9, 1997

From high school
to Silicon Valley

By Timothy C. Barmann

Last year, Angus M. Davis had many of the concerns of a typical high school student. He studied English, calculus and marine biology during his senior year at Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth.

But today his concerns are anything but typical for a teenager. His mind is focused on how he will help shape the future of the World Wide Web.

At age 19, Davis is the youngest employee at Netscape Communications Corp. in Mountain View, Calif., one of the fastest growing high-tech companies in the country. Netscape is largely responsible for making the Web a household word. Most people use its software to explore the Internet.

While many of his classmates went off to college to prepare for a career, Davis has already jumped headfirst into his own.

He's a researcher in a five-person group at Netscape that plots the company's technology vision. It's "one of the company's hottest units," Davis said.

Davis, who is from Providence, has found himself rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers of the computer industry in Silicon Valley.

He said he's been to meetings with James Clark, a co-founder of the company, and with executives from other prominent software companies, including Be, Macromedia and Sun Microsystems.

And Davis has had occasion to go to lunch and to the movies with Marc Andresseen, the young co-founder of Netscape, who is credited with developing the first point-and-click Web browser while still a student at the University of Illinois.

"This experience is wildly exciting and interesting," Davis said.

His first contact with Netscape came while he was working as a programmer for InteleCom Data Systems, one of the Rhode Island's largest Internet providers. Davis helped do the programming behind the Web sites of several of IDS's clients. Short of a computer class he took in high school, his programming skills are self-taught.

At a conference Netscape held for developers last year, Davis met the editor of an online magazine the company produces for Web site developers. Davis had developed an expertise in some of Netscape's technologies while working at IDS. He volunteered to write an article for free for the publication. That led to another article and another. That eventually led to Davis landing an internship that began in June.

Three weeks later, Davis met Mike McCue from Netscape's technology group at a party. Davis said he discussed some of his ideas with McCue about future technologies, and apparently McCue was impressed. He told Davis he was looking for someone to help out in his group and told him to talk to him about the job later. Finally, near the end of his internship in August, Davis was hired as a full-time employee.

His work entails meeting with customers and partners as well as developing prototypes of what may become future Netscape products.

"We've worked on really critical projects for the company," he said.Among them was a project code-named "Aurora," which was Netscape's answer to some new technology that Microsoft was about to unveil in late September.

Davis said his job was to write the computer program to bring to life a working prototype. He worked from pictures of how the program should function.

That project culminated in a virtually sleepless weekend, just before a major computer conference in San Francisco, where it was to be unveiled to the press and to the public.

Davis said his work continued to the very last minute. He made final touches to the programming on a laptop computer, while riding in McCue's red Hummer on the way to the conference.

"I remember keeping my fingers crossed to make sure everything would work well" during the demonstration, he said.

It did.

"You can't get enough of that exhilaration," he said. "It would be wonderful to wake up every day and make that kind of impact and get that sort of rush; unfortunately, our minds and bodies can't do it."

"On days like that, you've got your hand on the wheel of the software industry. It's a pretty cool feeling."

Trailblazing is nothing new to Davis. He was featured in this column about 19 months ago after he developed a Web site that served as his college application to Emory University in Atlanta, which he planned to attend before the Netscape opportunity arose. Davis's online application was an elaborate multimedia presentation. At the time, the school said Davis's was the only online application it had received.

And during his internship at Netscape, Davis turned a few heads when he suggested bringing in a program manager from archrival Microsoft to join him for an informal talk at Netscape's major developer's conference over the summer. Davis's idea was to ease fears of developers that they would have to make two versions of their Web sites: one that would look best on Microsoft browsers and another that would look best with Netscape browsers.

The talk that the pair gave before about 80 attendees even made the computer press. The unusual cooperation between the two companies was described by Internet Magazine as a "lovefest" between Netscape and Microsoft.

"Dramatizing their level of cooperation, Davis and [Scott] Isaacs went so far as to embrace each other and proclaimed in unison: `We love each other,' " wrote the magazine's online editor, Albert Pang. (Davis says that they did hug, but the "we love each other" comment was never made.)

In the few months that Davis has been at Netscape, he has already won the praise of his colleagues.

"Angus has a rare combination of technical ability, the ability to write, and has such a positive, can-do attitude," said Paul Dreyfus, the editor of Netscape's developers' magazine, who oversaw Davis during his internship.

"Working with Angus has really been one of my professional highlights," said Dreyfus, 42, who has worked for high-tech companies for 20 years.

But being ahead of the crowd has its drawbacks. For one, Davis said he has found himself feeling somewhat out of place, being the youngest person at the company.

As an intern, he was the sole person in his department who hadn't yet gone to college.

His biggest concern, he said, has been finding people his age to socialize with.

"There aren't many 19 year-old kids working at Netscape to go hang out with," he said. "I mingle with Stanford (University) students and meet them at parties and whatnot, but it's not the same if you're not an true member of their community, going to their classes and living in their dorms."

He lives by himself in a Palo Alto condominium, about 20 minutes from work.

Davis said he's rethinking his decision to put off college and may attend nearby Stanford next year. But he's not sure that he wants to attend college as a night student, because he would miss out on the experience of enrolling as a full-time day student and living on campus.

"Sometimes I'm envious of my college friends and their lives. But then, I get to go home every night to my condo where I have lots of space, and work is great, so my situation has its own unique advantages."

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.