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Software wiz follows dream out of college

Rarely does dropping out of college beef up a resume. But for 22-year-old Haverhill High alum Wayne Chang, leaving the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for the professional world of computer science has brought him success that most college students can only dream of.

Chang's swift ascension to the post of director of corporate communications at Pacific Northwest Software, a Seattle-based developer of high-end software, is just the latest development in a career that has gained him national recognition in the world of software writing -- as well as a little notoriety.

In elementary school, he created his first computer game. In high school, he was hired by a dot-com after he managed to hack into its system. ''My family didn't really know what I was doing," he said. ''They just thought I was on the computer a lot."

But Chang is best known as the founder and creator of i2hub, which he started from his UMass dorm room in 2003. The online peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration system allows students to download and share files -- many of them pirated MP3s -- using the lightning-fast speed of Internet2, a consortium run by more than 200 US universities.

I2hub has become wildly popular on college campuses across the country, with students swapping thousands of songs, movies, and other illegal files. It has also become the target of regulatory ire, with the Recording Industry Association of America filing lawsuits against 83 Massachusetts students for sharing up to 13,000 songs on i2Hub. The defendants included students at Harvard, MIT, and UMass.

I2hub itself may also be vulnerable to lawsuits, after the US Supreme Court's ruling in June that companies could be held responsible for encouraging copyright infringement, and could be held liable for their customers' piracy.

While some companies are backing down for fear of lawsuits, Chang is working to improve his system, arguing that i2hub has in no way encouraged students to break the law. ''I feel that the ruling doesn't really apply to us," said Chang. ''We've always been built on collaboration. We didn't build the network to foster illegal . . . trading."

He also pointed out that the system has a less controversial use: education. ''Students have found homework help, classmates, and even significant others," said Chang.

At his new job, it's not unusual for Chang to spend one day closing a deal with a major airline, and another discussing his work at a symposium in Costa Rica. His company's client list range from Microsoft to the US Postal Service.

It may seem strange for someone barely old enough to drink to be closing multimillion dollar deals, but it's an every day reality for Chang.

''We're not afraid of putting young people in positions of responsibility," said Pacific Northwest President John Taves. ''But they've got to be good and very impressive."

Born in Taiwan, Chang was sent to live with relatives in the Bradford section of Haverhill at the age of 6 by his parents, who hoped to give their son a better life. That same year, Chang received his first computer, an Apple2e or ''green-screen" monster with limited functioning. Within a year, he had created his first computer game.

By the age of 15, Chang had created several programs used across the world, such as Instant Profiler, the first AOL Instant Messenger service. But it was Chang's knack for finding security loopholes in major software programs that turned him into a Robin Hood-figure of sorts, exposing the glitches he found with the software he wrote.

As a high school freshman, his program, MyAdvantage, revealed defects in the program of a large dot-com company called AllAdvantage, which paid Internet users for displaying ads on their computer screens.

''He was more like a hacker," said Taves, whose company worked on AllAdvantage. ''He found security problems with a program."

When AllAdvantage discovered Chang's program, Chang says they originally wanted to sue him. ''But when they found out I was only a 15-year-old kid, they gave me a job instead," he said.

Throughout his years at Haverhill High, Chang helped develop software for companies like Napster, working for as many as eight at a time. Carrying a cellphone to school, he often darted from class into the boys' bathroom to take conference calls. After school, Chang would work until 2 a.m. on the computer, logging an average of four hours of sleep a night. Homework, if done at all, was completed in-between classes and during lectures.

Chang's uncle, Richard Yee, owner of the China Blossom in North Andover, noticed Chang was not like his cousins. ''All the kids spent time on the computer, but Wayne was somehow different. He always seemed concentrated on something, or some program, just like an inventor," said Yee. ''Maybe Wayne found a new world through his computer."

He was voted ''Most Likely to Succeed" in the 2001 senior superlatives at Haverhill High, but Chang's success has not come without a cost. ''I have basically given up life," he said. ''I feel like I've given up a lot of my childhood and teen years to work, but I wouldn't be where I am now."

A computer science major at UMass, Chang left last December because he felt there was little left for him to learn and he realized software companies would hire him without a degree.

Despite his demanding schedule, Chang always makes time for his Boston-area family members and his girlfriend of almost two years, a UMass student. He also still has family in Bradford. However, Chang has lost nearly all contact with his parents, and hasn't seen them in almost 15 years.

As for his education, Chang says it will have to wait. Business is booming, and he's determined to snatch it up.

''I got everything I could out of school," he said. ''I may want to get a degree at some point, but to me, it's more of a retirement place -- it's a lot of fun there."

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