The Computer-Geek Meets Mr. Personality

As technology invades all aspects of life, success will go to people like Portman Wills who are able to interact with more than just a computer.

by Ted McGraw

When Portman Wills was three years old he showed signs of becoming a musician. He loved to pound away on the keys of his favorite instrument--his dadís computer. The fact that nobody was able to hear his music made no difference to him. He continued to play and soon became intrigued in more than the simple shifting sound of the keys. The thick awkward keyboard was no Steinway, but this did not keep Wills from teaching himself to write his first program by the age of five.
By the time he was old enough to get a driverís license, he had not only attended school in both England and the United States, but was also creating professional Web pages for PSI Net, a technology-consulting corporation, for two years.

You could say that Wills was just a computer-geek who turned to computers for company after several moves by his family forced him to leave numerous friends. However, grouping this University of Virginia Echols Scholar in such a category overlooks an enormous aspect of his character. In fact, this Internet junkie is just as skilled speaking the wonders of the Internet in front of 200 of his peers as he is sitting behind a computer screen. Portmanís rare mixture of technological know-how and charming personality give him the keys to success both today and in the future world where the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranked oral communication, computer skills and leadership as three of the top five attributes employers value most.

In an event that will certainly give this 18-year-old freshman all three of these strengths, Portmanís peers elected him as the on-line manager for the inaugural term of the Cavalier Daily On-line Edition--an Internet site that is an interactive web edition of the University of Virginiaís student-run daily paper.

Portmanís first steps toward this position started one night in January when this no-name kid in a bright orange oxford shirt walked up to the podium at about five minutes to midnight. It had been a long evening for the Cavalier Daily staff, who had come together to amend their constitution. The debate on the floor concerned the expansion of the impressive, but stagnant on-line edition. An amendment was proposed to set up a system that would enable the site to emulate the expansions of Internet newspapers like the Washington Post. None of the aspiring journalists could deny the emergence of the Internet as an important news medium. But the students sat unsure if resources from their tight budget could be stretched. If so, who would be capable of guiding this curvy path of technological expansion?

Up stepped Wills. In a quiet tone he mentioned something about not being a good speaker. What followed was a direct contradiction. After proclaiming himself a computer-geek, Mr. Personality suddenly came alive. With animation in his voice and a quick hand gesture, he exclaimed how he tends to get a little excited when talking about the Internet. Quickly his apologetic posture was replaced by a passion for the subject he had risen to defend. Enthusiasm rushed out with every word as he rattled off the pros of pouring all possible resources into improving the Internet site. His energy and enthusiasm revitalized the tired audience. After speaking, he discretely reclaimed his seat among his fellow techies in the back corner of the auditorium. But his poise and self-assurance remained in the front , as the students voted in the Internet amendment with force.

A week later at elections, having replaced his bright shirt with a double-breasted blazer and a white V-neck sweater, Portman stood as a commanding presence. He began by anxiously explaining how an early morning mishap with a tube of toothpaste left him no choice but to wear the flashy sweater. Having gained the audienceís attention, the enthusiast began where he left off the week before. Praising the ability of the Internet to be updated throughout the day, Wills pointed to the availability of free space in an on-line edition as compared to a print edition. And just as his enthusiasm captured the audience the week before, nothing had changed. Although he ran against a candidate two years older, his charm and innocent excitement ensured him the position.

Today, less than one month after being elected, Wills spends most of his time planning for the next stage. And is he doing a lot of planning. "I want to give those people who read the Cavalier Daily everyday, a reason to go to the Web edition," he explains. "Right now there is no reason for someone with a print edition to go to the Web." However, Wills plans to change that very soon. "The first job is to re-write the software," he adds. "We need something that will expand with the paper."

Portman is quick to point out that his predecessors produced a very good site. "It is one of the best sites Iíve seen in my life as far as consistency," he says. "It just needs to be updated so that it can expand with the times." Updating the software will allow the Internet production staff to work much faster. "The software that we have now just takes too long to use," Wills explains. The solution--create new software. The programs Wills and his staff plan to write will save them hundreds of hours in the long run, not to mention a lot of money. According to Wills, an outside consultant would probably charge $200 an hour to do this same programming.

Of course, Portmanís ability to work with people makes money less of a problem with the on-line edition. Unlike its printed partner, publishing on-line costs no money to print, has no delivery charge, and has the potential with tracking software to earn money through advertising. By enticing advertisers to buy space on the site, Portman can generate hundreds of dollars a day without increasing the cost of the product one cent.

With all of these positive aspects, many think that Internet newspapers could be the wave of the future. Portman, however, has a comforting position on this subject for those who fear the extinction of print. "I love the Internet more than anyone else I know, but I still paid $40.48 to get my Washington Post delivered every morning," he points out. "You canít take the on-line version to the bathroom with you and you canít take it to breakfast."

For practical reasons, even this on-line edition manager sees the value in print. "At most, the on-line edition will enhance the print edition," Wills compassionately adds. "I donít think one has to kill the other."

From his room in Webb dorm on the Charlottesville campus, Wills is equipped with not one, but two computers. While sitting at this virtual computer lab in Webb, Portman spends a good deal of time on the Web. By the first week of school he had not only gone home and helped his old high school principal with the computer lab that Portman himself worked to create, but he also set up a dorm Web page. Over Christmas break he took no rest, completely redoing the Web page for the student council organization on campus.

Wills dynamic personality pushes him to participate in other organizations as well. He is a member of the University Guide Service--an organization in which members go through a competitive selection process. They must be great communicators as they represent the University to everyone that visits the historical and picturesque campus. As you might expect, he is setting up a Web page for this group also. "Eventually I want to have a link right off of the Universityís main site," he says. "Students will be able to take a virtual tour of the campus from their computer."

With all of his computer experience, you would assume that Wills is set for a career involved directly with the Internet. At this point, however, he is not so sure. "I really donít want to work with the Internet after I get out of college," he says. "When I graduate, I will have been working with the Internet for nine years...I feel like Iíve done that."

For this modern Renaissance man, the world is an open door. "Thereís so many great jobs and industries out there that I would hate to spend a lot of time in one," he adds. Some of his ideas include teaching elementary school, being a door-to-door salesman, and taking time off to raise a family. "You know how you break up into groups in elementary school; I was always the motivator in the group," Portman recalls. "I think that would be a great job to have. I could go through a company like IBM and pat people on the back and tell them what a good job theyíre doing, but who would hire me to do that?" He might be surprised. According to Emily Bardeen, associate director of career planning and placement at the University of Virginia, employers are most interested in what a person has done and how effectively they can communicate. With this in mind, Portman seems to be a great model of someone who is set for success with whatever he chooses.