San Mateo County Times

Teen-agers in charge at E. Palo Alto Web firm
Friday, April 9, 1999

By Liz Garone

EAST PALO ALTO -- Plugged In Enterprises (PIE) appears to be a typical Web design firm with high-powered Silicon Valley clients, state-of-the-art computers and super-fast Internet connections.

But, look who's running the company: teen-agers who work part-time and arrive by skateboard or bus.

And the office is on pothole-ridden University Avenue in East Palo Alto's Whiskey Gulch.

PIE is representative of a new, revitalized East Palo Alto, according to Julian Lacey, PIE's manager.

"It's just a matter of time before East Palo Alto is no longer known as the city that once was the murder capital of the state of California," he said. "Instead it will be known as a place where people can come and get goods and services."

PIE grew out of Plugged In, a nonprofit, community resource center that provides public access to computers and the Internet at rock-bottom prices.

Its mission, "helping low-income communities be part of the technological revolution," reflects that of Plugged In, said Executive Director Magda Escobar.

"I think people come to Plugged In because they like the idea of getting a beautiful and effective Web site while helping teens learn new skills," Escobar said.

PIE's list of clients is impressive, including Pacific Bell, Stanford Research Institute and Hewlett Packard.

"I always remind them (the students) that this is a business, and it must be run like one," said Lacey, who was a Plugged In volunteer before he became manager.

While most of Plugged In's operations aren't money makers, PIE is. Clients pay $125 an hour for services. Rates are negotiable and vary depending on a client's ability to pay and whether the business is a nonprofit.

"We always have enough work," Lacey said.

Micki Burton is a manager with Pacific Bell. She works with PIE students on maintaining and updating a community partnership site they designed for Pacific Bell.

"I find their receptiveness to new ideas the most refreshing aspect in working with them, said Burton, who labels herself a non-techie. I don't have to explain everything in technical terms for them to understand me."

PIE gets financial help for its education programs from a number of local sources, including Cisco, Sun Microsystems, The Sand Hill Challenge and the Butler Family Foundation.

Four 10-week training sessions are offered each year with a total of 36 teen-agers participating. After the training, a number of the teens apply to become members of the center's paying staff. Starting pay is minimum wage, and students can work their way up to $9.50 an hour by learning new skills.

Student staff members work an average of 12 hours per week. Some of that time is spent in meetings with clients where Web page designs are discussed. Much of the time is spent in front of the computers, first designing mock sites for the clients' approval, then working on the final product.

"For me, the best times are when I'm trouble fixing," said Salvador Barragan, 17. "You find the bug, you fix it. That's satisfying."

Barragan originally planned to get a sociology degree. He now plans to combine it with a computer science degree.

"I want to do something valuable where I'm helping out the community," he said. "I'd like to set up a similar technology program where I'm teaching people."

At only 13, Mikhael Cook represents the future of PIE since three of the staff's senior members, including Barragan, will be moving on later this spring.

Cook has been designing Web pages since he was 11. He is too young to be paid, so he trades his time for hardware and software. His most recent acquisition was a digital camera.

"Even if I didn't get any stuff, I'd probably still come here and do it," said Cook. "It's something I really like doing."

Dominic Bannister Jr., is a four-year veteran of Plugged In. Like Barragan, he is planning on a computer science degree, something he said he would never have considered before getting involved with PIE.

"I see a lot of my friends just going down the drain," said Bannister, 17. "That's not going to happen to me. I know now I am really important to this world."

John Mireles, 18, is the senior member of PIE's teen staff. Before coming to PIE, he was a graffiti artist. Mireles' experiences at PIE have given him the confidence he needs, he said.

"This place has really gotten me over my fear of presenting myself as an artist. Now I know my work has value," said Mireles. "I never see myself going back to making bagels and selling coffee."

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