Like many of his peers, Eric Shaffer's experience with computers goes back about as far as he can remember, to his pre-kindergarten years when he started playing games on a PC with a Windows 95 operating system.

But unlike most, Shaffer, 16, an incoming junior at Rancho Cotate High in Rohnert Park, needed to peek inside the thin metal box and get to know the processor, motherboard, hard drive and other components.

"I always wanted to figure out what made them tick," he said.

Shaffer's digital-world exploration hasn't stopped, and this summer he's assembling a custom-built desktop computer with a serial port to link with a 65-pound Sun Microsystems server he got for free from a cable company in his hometown of Evanston, Wyo.

"I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with it," Shaffer said. Most likely, he will use the server to host websites he intends to create.

In late June, Shaffer went to Anaheim to compete in s Future Business Leaders of America national competition in the category of computer problem-solving. He qualified for the event by finishing first in both a Bay Area regional and a subsequent statewide competition.

The national test consisted of 100 questions with multiple-choice answers to be completed in an hour.

Shaffer said he nailed a question that asked: "What wireless communications specification has peak speeds of 100Mb/s (megabits per second) for high mobility communication and 1Gb/s (gigabit per second) for low mobility communication?"

The answer is 4G, and Shaffer said he had memorized the specifications just so he could argue with anyone who said their cellphone was 4G because most phones use a faster protocol called 4G LTE (long-term evolution).

He was stumped by one that asked: "Which of the following is a type of EEPROM (Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory)? a. DRAM b. HDD c. SRAM d. USB Flash Drive."

(The answer is A) Shaffer finished 32nd out of 71 contestants at the nationals, and expects to enter the FBLA competition next year in the technology concepts category.

At Rancho Cotate, he runs track distance events — posting a 5:20 time in the mile — and will try cross country running this fall.

He hasn't picked a college yet, but said he will probably major in computer science and pursue a career in technology.

Many of his friends just "click and go" on their digital devices and have no idea of their inner workings, Shaffer said. In a digital age, everyone should know how to troubleshoot computers "or know someone who does," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or