Former Husker and NFL Pro Tony Veland Scores Touchdowns for Tech

Posted on - Community

Not everyone can be an athlete, but everyone can learn.

That’s the advice one-time Nebraska Husker Tony Veland has. Veland, Director of Community Engagement for AIM Institute, played for the University of Nebraska from 1991 to 1995, first as a quarterback, then as a free safety. After graduation, he was drafted into the NFL. He played free safety for the Denver Broncos from 1996 to 1997, and the Carolina Panthers in 1998.

Now he works hard to spread the word about AIM and to attract investment into its vital tech education and career development initiatives.

“I can’t write a line of code,” Veland says. “But what I can do is provide opportunities to kids who want to get into the tech space.”

Veland is taking part in a giveaway to raise money to do exactly that. Tomorrow’s Touchdown 4 Tech drawing offers you the chance to win four free tickets to the sold-out Nebraska spring game on April 13. Every $20 you donate to AIM’s youth-in-tech programs will earn you an entry into the drawing. Veland will announce the winner on Facebook Live at 10 am CDT tomorrow.

The Computer is the New Ball

Coming of age in the Benson area of Omaha, Veland played a lot of sports.

“I grew up in a low-income neighborhood,” Veland says. “I had my mother and father around, but we didn’t make enough money to afford me being able to go to college without some type of scholarship. So I knew that, in essence, I was going to have to create my own way.”

Athletics helped him pay for his college education. They also earned him automatic credibility with the audiences he engages as AIM’s Director of Community Engagement and as a motivational speaker.

“Sports are a unifier. If you take music out of the equation, it’s probably one of the biggest unifiers out there. People just love and gravitate toward sports. And when you have somebody who’s done well in the past, people tend to respect them. All of a sudden, you have some influence.”

After leaving the NFL, Veland became a financial advisor for many years. He enjoyed the job, but eventually started to feel a different calling. A friend told him about the work AIM Institute was doing with their youth educational programs. Veland loved the idea of using his influence to spread the word about AIM.

“When I had a chance to hear what AIM does, it was just attractive, the ability for me to do something every day that would have a direct impact to kids who need opportunities.”

In fact, during the Touchdown 4 Tech video shoot, Veland took time between takes to address a student audience at the Brain Exchange building in downtown Omaha. The Brain Exchange is an AIM program that provides tech education to youth who might not otherwise have access to it.

He gave the students a message of hope and solidarity.

“Even the great athletes have gone through their trials, and I think people need to hear that sometimes. And I think people also need to know that there are people are care.”

Tony Veland’s Top Tips for Life

  1. Work hard at whatever you do.
  2. Surround yourself with good people.  
  3. Set goals.
  4. Network!
  5. Find a mentor.
  6. Learn to believe in yourself.
  7. Learn how to conquer adversity.

Digital Citizenship in a Flood

Posted on - Community

The worst flood in recent memory hit Nebraska last month, causing over $1.3 billion in damages and forcing at least 4,000 people to evacuate their homes. Although traditional news outlets reported on the devastating event, social media coverage quickly outpaced traditional coverage. People’s timelines and newsfeeds became saturated with images of calamity: floodwaters rising to the eaves of family houses, torn-up roads like bombed-out lunar surfaces, a single cow struggling across muddy water.

Users began marking themselves safe on Facebook. They shared information about supply drives, donation platforms, and other ways to help flood victims. And they bemoaned the fact that national news outlets did not seem to be covering the disaster in sufficient detail.

It was digital citizenship in action.

The Meaning of Digital Citizenship

Digital citizenship is a broad term, encompassing issues of cybersecurity, cyberbullying, civic activism—any form of online behavior, basically. It is “the responsible use of technology to learn, create, and participate.” What you do online reflects who you are offline, for better or worse.

While a lot of the conversation around digital citizenship necessarily deals with keeping oneself safe online, one thing is sure: social media can be a powerful force for good, especially in times of crisis.  

Helping a Funny Guy Out

When Missouri River floodwaters inundated the western Iowa home of comedian Tyler Walsh, he was devastated. Walsh and his girlfriend, Bailey, lost everything. Forced to evacuate, they had nowhere to go.

That’s when comedians Zach Peterson and Dusty Stehl stepped in to help. They rebranded Stehl’s weekly comedy open mic at Omaha’s Barley Street Tavern as a special edition fundraiser for Walsh and Bailey. People could give money in person or donate to a GoFundMe account to help cover some of the couple’s expenses.

“I got the idea for the fundraiser when I was on Facebook and became overwhelmed with all the pictures I saw of the flooding,” Peterson said.

Peterson reached out to Stehl, who immediately agreed the fundraiser was a great idea.

“Tyler is a frequent guest host of the Barley Street Tavern Comedy Open Mic, so he’s well known,” Stehl said. “He’s a good guy, so he’s well-liked.”

Peterson and Stehl shared the event on their social media networks, as did many local comedians.  

About 40 people came out to the fundraiser, packing the cozy Barley Street Tavern venue last Wednesday. Thirty-five comedians did sets. Onstage, Walsh tried out new, flood-inspired jokes, to loud support.

“He had a great set!” Stehl said.

Between in-person donations and contributions to Walsh’s GoFundMe account, the night helped raise nearly $2,000 for the stricken couple.

“I want to say the biggest thank you in the world to the Omaha comedy scene,” Walsh posted on his Facebook account the following morning. “Thank you so much, thank you to all the comics that came out, raised money, and reached out. It’s all incredibly overwhelming how much everyone has done for us. Omaha comedy is truly a community I am proud to be a part of.”

The fundraiser is a powerful example of good digital citizenship. Social media activism leveraged heart-wrenching photographs, grassroots reporting of disaster, the urge to help out, and crowdfunding technology against great catastrophe, and helped soften the hard times for a family in crisis.

Things to Watch Out For

AIM Institute’s Lana Yager teaches a course at the Brain Exchange on digital citizenship, called Gen Cyber. Gen Cyber helps youth think not only about ways they can stay safe online, but also about developing empathy for others and using their tech skills responsibly.

Though Yager hates to think about it, her experience in cybersecurity tells her there will probably be those online who try to cash in on flood victims’ misery.

“I could see a lot of fraud,” Yager said. “These are people who have critical needs right now. I can’t imagine all they’ve lost. And your insurance company can’t get to you for how many months? Or you don’t have flood insurance.”

Yager said she could envision a scenario where fraudsters offer victims false promises of help in exchange for valuable personal information. The perpetrators could then turn around and sell that information to anyone willing to buy it.

What concerns Yager more, however, are the victims who don’t have access to their computers or smartphones having to use public wifi to sort out their personal affairs. Unsecured networks are terrible places to traffic sensitive personal data, such as insurance or banking info.

“I can’t imagine there won’t be people out there capturing that data,” Yager said.

Flood victims should try to the greatest extent possible to conduct their online business solely through secured networks. Those in position to help might think about allowing someone affected by the flood supervised access to their wifi to pay bills or deal with insurance issues. For those able to donate, Facebook has instituted a crisis response button for online donations.

As floodwaters recede and residents return to see what they can salvage, the true extent of the damage will emerge. The need for good digital citizenship will remain high. Do what you can.

Tyler Walsh’s home. Click here to donate to Walsh and Bailey.

Women in Tech: Noni Williams

Posted on - Tech Education, Women in Tech

Whenever someone would ask Noni Williams what she wanted to do with her interest in math and technology, she would start to answer honestly. She wanted to be the problem solver she saw herself as when she was the little girl at the front of the classroom, scratching out algorithms and bad poetry in her notebooks. But before she could finish answering, the asker would usually interject: “Be a teacher?”

Williams noticed nobody ever interrupted her male peers with that question. It was like they were trying to send her the message she would only ever be able to teach the world’s future innovators, not be an innovator herself.

“The best it seemed I could hope for was to grow up to be a teacher to inspire some little boy to change the world,” Williams says. “Teaching is not a consolation. It is a calling. And it wasn’t mine.”

Her childhood notebooks were filled with mock-ups for inventions and algorithms for solutions to questions she did not yet have the capacity to communicate—not drawings of blackboards and rows of kids smiling at their desks.

When Passion Intersects with Technology

Now, as the Manager of Solutions and Continuous Improvement at United Way of the Midlands, she spends her days solving tech problems for the organization.

“I’ve been introducing a lot of automation into this job, trying to bring us into the 21st century in terms of using data efficiently,” Williams says. She recently built an app that houses vital demographic and organizational data that colleagues can use to answer the questions they need answered when they meet with funders.

Williams loves being able to use data to solve problems, and to write programs that automate tedious processes. The time saved through automation frees her to focus on more exciting problems.  

Overcoming Small Minds and Smaller Hearts

She didn’t always know she wanted to pursue a tech career. During college, she originally majored in civil engineering. Despite her obvious talent and aptitude for the discipline, the attitudes she encountered there frustrated her.

“Be a woman in the room,” Williams says. “Be a woman in the room and dare to be anything but exactly right. You’re met with glares and sighs for wasting everyone’s time. Have a slightly different thought process in front of the class and you’re told that you’re wrong.”

It was exhausting not being given a chance to grow along with everyone else.

“I got tired of being shot down in front of everyone. So I spoke up less. Which I guess is what the unconscious, or conscious, culture of those classrooms wanted in order to maintain the status quo.”

So she switched her major to Mathematics after two years because she likes numbers and problem-solving.

At the time, however, Williams wasn’t keen to embark on the computer science curriculum required for her math major. “I left my computer science classes until the end of undergrad because I didn’t want to take them,” Williams says. “A year later, I was like, ‘I really like coding.’ It became fun for me.”

Eventually, Williams decided to pursue her master’s degree in math with a concentration in data sciences. Now she is a crucial member of a powerhouse nonprofit, working on the algorithms and dreams she began scribbling into her notebooks years ago. She’s leading the innovation, silencing the interjectors.

It hasn’t been an easy road. But Williams dealt with her challenges by never losing her sense of wonder, by writing poetry to contextualize her frustrations, and by leaning on supportive friends and family, she says. “I kept people around me that knew what I was capable of and would not let me forget it. With a creative outlet and a strong support system, I felt unstoppable. And I still do.”

Tech Is for Everyone

For women considering a career in tech, Williams has good advice.

“Think about what types of problems you like to solve. What challenges you in an exciting way? What feels good? What skills can you grow here? What relationships can you build? Seek these out.”

She also advises women not to feel hemmed in by their past.

“Do not let your past employment determine how much your time is worth. Consider your skills, your experience, your education, your geographical location, and the position or contract work you are applying for. Do your research about what the typical compensation is. Ask for what you consider to be fair.”

Williams also has advice for women who aren’t necessarily thinking about a career in technology, who have perhaps been misled into believing tech was not for them.

“Tech is for everyone,” she says. “I have friends who majored in psychology, English, computer science, math, various types of engineering, horticulture, business agriculture, biology, etc., that work in tech. You may not realize it, but your voice and your perspective could be extremely valuable in the tech world. Tech needs you!”

Spring Break! AIM Accompanies Upward Bound Students on a Five College Campus Tour through Oklahoma, Texas

Posted on - Tech Education, Youth

Recently, AIM Institute accompanied 28 Upward Bound students from Bryan and Papillion-La Vista high schools on a spring break college campus tour through Oklahoma and Texas. The trip capped eight months of planning and a school year’s worth of TRiO-Upward Bound programming. (TRiO and Upward Bound are grant-funded programs that help prepare underserved students for college. AIM provides TRiO-Upward Bound programming to multiple schools across Nebraska and Iowa.)

Students and their chaperones visited five universities: University of Oklahoma (Norman); Sam Houston State (Huntsville, Texas); Rice University (Houston, Texas); Texas A&M (Corpus Christi); and University of Texas (Austin).

Apart from the campus visits, students went on a variety of field trips, including the South by Southwest (SXSW) gaming expo, a contemporary arts museum, a rodeo, and the beach at Corpus Christi. The trip gave students the opportunity to experience different campus environments, possible career fields, cutting-edge technology, and arts and cultural opportunities they would not experience otherwise.

“It gets them out of their bubble,” said Jonathan Holland, AIM’s Senior Project Director for TRiO. “It allows them to see different universities that they might not even know exist out there, and helps them expand their horizons. We also picked cultural experiences to widen their knowledge and have them participate in things you just can’t do in Omaha, Nebraska.”

The group embarked on their journey Sunday, March 10, and returned Saturday, March 16. Here is a brief overview of the trip.

Monday: University of Oklahoma

The group visited the University of Oklahoma in Norman and toured the Radar Innovations Lab of the Advanced Radar Research Center, where students got to witness a mini-tornado and experience an anechoic chamber, a room designed to completely absorb sound and electromagnetic waves.

“We got to see a lot of cool stuff there on how they are working to advance weather prediction,” Holland said.

Tuesday: Sam Houston State University

Students interested in criminal justice and forensic science found the Sam Houston State tour particularly interesting because the university has a strong criminal justice program, Holland said.

That evening, the group attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo—the world’s largest rodeo.

“Cowboys do exist,” Papillion-La Vista student Haian said of the experience.

Wednesday: Rice University

A significant number of students were interested in Rice because of its generous financial aid package. Starting in the fall, the university is offering free tuition for anyone whose family makes under $130,000 per year. All Upward Bound students meet this threshold. Rice will also offer free tuition, grants, and stipends for room and board to students whose families make under $65,000 per year.

After Rice, the group went to the Museum of Contemporary Arts-Houston. Some students found the work confusing, and others enjoyed being asked to think outside of their comfort zones. Everyone participated in an art workshop where they made projects dealing with space and spatial relationships.

NASA came next. The group toured the Space Center Houston, saw the Saturn V rocket, and sat in on a Q&A session with retired astronaut William S. McArthur.

Thursday: Texas A&M Corpus Christi

According to student evals and chaperones’ real-time observations, the Corpus Christi leg of the trip may have been the most enjoyable. Students toured the Texas A&M campus located on Ward Island in Oso Bay.

“We have a lot of kids that are interested in looking more into the college and thinking about attending,” Holland said. “They have a good engineering program and a good marine biology program.”

The university also offers a unique selling proposition that not a lot of other schools have. “They said at least ten times in their tour presentation that they’ve been on Shark Week for the last five years,” Holland said.

Next, the group visited the Lone Star Unmanned Aerial Systems Center for Excellence & Innovation, an FAA-approved site for drone testing and research.

Finally, the group went to the beach. A majority of the students had never been to a large body of water before. Multiple evals cited the feeling of waves as their favorite part of the excursion.

Friday: University of Texas

On the last full day of the trip, the group traveled to Austin to tour the University of Texas and attend the SXSW gaming expo, where students interacted with gaming culture by listening to game developers and testing out new video games.

“It was exciting meeting and seeing game developers because I got to learn a little about how games are developed,” Papillion-La Vista student Chelsea said.

Bryan student Kimberly agreed. “I’ve never been to a gaming expo. Seeing all those video game nerds was cool.”

Worth the Stress

Despite a bus breakdown outside Salina, Kansas, on the way back, the trip proved successful and informative, even life-changing.                                                   

“My senior year became amazing because of Upward Bound,” said Papillion-La Vista student Ayomide.

Likewise, the trip had a major positive impact on AIM staff chaperones.

“Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on our goals when we are buried up to our necks in the grind,” said Manager of Development and Technical Operations Nate Work, who helped guide the trip. “But what we do makes a huge difference to those kids.”

Holland concurred: “My favorite part was looking at some of the evaluations on the last day and seeing how grateful, thankful, and excited the kids were. Getting those was super awesome. It made all the stress and sleepless nights worth it. We’ve already started thinking about ideas for next year.”

Some Highlights from the Trip

Part of the Saturn V rocket on display at NASA.

Students tour the Museum of Contemporary Arts in Houston.

Student work made during an art workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Arts.

More student artwork.

Touring the anechoic chamber at the University of Oklahoma’s Radar Innovations Lab.

Heading home.

AIM Institute Brings Ozobots to Abraham Lincoln

Posted on - Tech Education, Youth

On Thursday, March 14, the AIM Brain Exchange participated in a tech-themed lunch & learn for students at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs. AIM’s Brain Exchange team brought pizza, soda, colored markers, easel paper and Ozobots—tiny, bubble-shaped robots made to teach kids about programming in a fun way.  

“I call it coding visually,” said Lana Yager, an instructor in Technology Experiences for the AIM Brain Exchange.

Students drew trails on paper using a thick black marker. A sensor inside the Ozobot would read the trail and instruct the robot to follow.

To make things more interesting, students could add sequences of color-coded patterns along the way. Those patterns represented instructions that tell the Ozobot how to move.

For instance, “Red-Green-Blue” would direct the robot to go at a snail’s pace. If a student were to draw that sequence on the trail somewhere, the sensor inside the Ozobot would read the sequence and force the robot to slow down until it rolled across another sequence instructing it to do something else.

A sequence of “Blue-Green-Red,” on the other hand, would tell the robot to go super fast.

Thus, the principles of coding were illustrated IRL.

Sparking Interest in Tech with Pizza and Robots

Yager was heartened by the positive reaction at yesterday’s tech lunch.

“You never how kids are going to react, especially high school kids,” she said. One student who previously hadn’t seemed very engaged with school showed up. “I didn’t think he was going to like it at all, but he really liked it. He said several times, ‘This is fun, thank you.’ And he brought a girlfriend with him, and she really liked it too. So that’s cool.”

AIM’s Brain Exchange program participates in tech lunch & learns twice a month at Abraham Lincoln. The events are a hit with students.

“Last time, we did virtual reality,” Yager said. “That was fun.”

So fun, in fact, that during yesterday’s Ozobot-themed lunch, one of the students asked if they would get to do VR again next time.

Perhaps, Yager said. VR is a growing field with applications ranging from gaming to medicine. And the more exposure to technology students receive, the better.

The Brain Exchange, a program of the AIM Institute, is committed to providing tech education to youth who might not otherwise have access to such vital experiences, to dispelling the myth that technology is “too hard,” and to igniting curiosity and interest in tech.

Thursday’s lunch & learn was funded through the Upward Bound program, which provides fundamental support to students in their preparation for college entrance.

Women in Tech: Kaitlyn Hova

Posted on - Women in Tech

Growing up, Kaitlyn Hova thought programming sounded extremely dull, thanks to her father, who worked as a software engineer for various credit card companies.

“He worked in an office, and it was just the most boring life I could ever imagine,” Hova says. “I was never going to be a software engineer, ever. I just had no idea that you could do so much with it.”

Now, the Omaha native is senior UX developer at Women Who Code, a global 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. She and her husband also operate their own business, Hova Labs, whose work runs the gamut from web design to 3D printing. (Recently, Developer Week, a developer & engineering technology conference, gave Hova Labs a “Best in 3D Printing” award for their Hovalin, a playable, 3D-printed violin that can be made with about $70 worth of raw material.)

Kaitlyn Hova is also a neuroscientist and a Berklee-trained violinist who has performed with Rod Stewart, Josh Groban, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, and multiple rock and indie bands.

In other words she’s pretty much a superhero.

An Unlikely Path toward Tech

Originally, Hova pursued a career in music. She started performing at thirteen with various big-name artists that came to Omaha, then quickly discovered she could make better money playing weddings. But she faced a major age-related hurdle.

“I found out no one was actually going to hire a violinist who’s thirteen years old to play their special day unless you have a website. A website makes you legitimate. So I started coding around then.”

The gigs started rolling in.  

She didn’t realize you could do programming for a living. Coding had always been a means to an end: a website for her music, a customized Myspace page, a database for a college project.

Eventually, after a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she came to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study neuroscience.

Building a New Social Network

Hova was born with a neurological condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia involves the crossing of senses. A person with synesthesia might see sounds, taste colors, or hear smells. Like most people with the condition, she didn’t realize she was any different. She thought everyone saw colors when they heard music.

When she found out synesthesia was relatively rare, she wanted to know everything about it. After graduating with her degree in neuroscience, she decided she wanted to research synesthesia more extensively. Unfortunately, many graduate programs in neuroscience did not offer the option to study the condition. It’s hard to find funding for synesthesia research, because many people do not even know they have it. And there was no aggregate database of synesthetes, which made it hard to recruit study participants.

So she built The Synesthesia Network, an educational social network for people with synesthesia, universities that want to study synesthesia, and curious minds who want to learn more about synesthesia. Since then, she has given TED Talks on synesthesia, and developed a synesthesia violin that pairs notes with different colored lights to approximate the type of synesthesia that she experiences.

Developing the Synesthesia Network required learning an unfamiliar coding language.

“I already had all the front-end experience,” Hova says. “I could build it, design it, no problem. But I didn’t know how to work with databases.”

So she took a coding bootcamp to learn Ruby on Rails and build the back-end database behind the Synesthesia Network. This experience helped her realize she preferred to build software and dynamic web apps rather than static websites. She switched careers,  moved to San Francisco, and now spends her days coding, dreaming up new ideas, inventing fun projects, being a new mom, and advocating for women in technology.

Advice for Women Considering Tech Careers

Hova knows what it feels like to feel excluded from tech. From a young age, she thought of software engineering as a boring dad enterprise, not as a powerful tool to unlock her creativity.

“Girls, myself included, are usually pretty creative,” she says. “You want to solve creative problems. So don’t think of software as ones and zeroes. Think of it as: each coding language and platform you use is like a different tool in your toolbelt to build whatever you want. You can still have that creativity. But coding gives you the tools to build the thing that you want to build. Like, literally anything.”

It might be difficult at first. “But you’ll learn patterns along the way, and it gets easier.”

“It’s kind of like puzzle-solving all day. You’ll get a problem, and you’ll go, okay, how do I solve that? And that’s all you do. It’s fun!”

What We Do

AIM Institute is building an inclusive tech talent community. From offering tech educational experiences to youth through our Brain Exchange, to helping career changers and tech professionals upgrade their skills via the Interface School, we believe there is a path for everyone in technology.

Make Believe Studio’s Keith Rodger on AI, Education, and Technology in Music

Posted on - Community

From the earliest flutes carved out of bird bone and mammoth tusks 43,000 years ago to the AI composers of today, music has always exploited the latest technology. Keith Rodger thinks about it constantly. As recording engineer at Omaha’s Make Believe Studios—as well as music producer, musician, songwriter, part owner of the Make Believe Recordings label division, and DJ by the name of Kethro—Rodger has mastered multiple forms of technology in his quest to make and record music.  

“I’ve always been a huge advocate for technology in music, ever since I was a kid and discovered the synthesizer,” he tells AIM Institute. “I was always like, ‘This is what music is going to be. This is how people are going to think about music and think about making music.’ I just had a feeling these devices are going to be the ones that really motivate people.” He gestures around at hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of beat machines, grooveboxes, synthesizers, compressors, keyboards, consoles, and computers. A tireless love for technology and music have carried him a long way.

Teaching Himself to Make Music with Technology

“I’m not gonna lie, I grew up extremely poor. My mom could never afford to buy me a $500 synthesizer. Like, it’s just never gonna happen.”

Instead, he underwent a kind of self-education through experimentation via whatever technology he could get his hands on. In junior high, he learned how to program beats and make music on a pirated copy of Fruity Loops software on his family’s PC.

“Our computer was not fast enough to even run it,” Rodger says. “So I could only get like eight tracks of music recorded before the computer would start to glitch out.” He laughs. “But I learned how to sequence, and I learned how to make stuff and print parts (musical notation).”

In high school, his friend would come over when she was done with her homework and let him use her Macbook so he could experiment with Garageband, a popular Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW, for beginners. (A DAW is a complete music production and recording environment. It’s like a digital version of those giant mixing consoles you see in recording studios. DAWs also have built-in synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers for writing and programming music).

Rodger also took a bunch of art classes at Millard North, even though he felt he was bad at art, because the art rooms had Macbooks loaded with Garageband software.

“Real talk: I’d be in art class and literally just pulling up Garageband, and you’d hear tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch.” He simulates the sound of a techno beat and laughs. “The teacher would yell, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ ‘I’m just trying to make a song!’”

For kids who are inspired to make music, Rodger recommends not waiting to start.

“Just go for it. There’s tons of programs out there. Get whatever is accessible. Don’t wait six months to go get the big thing. Get the cheap little software on the device that you have and master it.”

Garageband is free, for instance. Fruity Loops is available for $13.99 in the App Store. Don’t have an iPhone or iPad, or can’t afford to spend any money? Check out Audacity, a free, open-source DAW that works on Windows, Mac, and Unix-like operating systems, and has been used to record albums by artists such as Tune-Yards.

Doing What He Loves Most

Now, Rodger works in a multimillion dollar studio every day, recording other artists and making his own music.

“I’m in the process of editing a record right now, so I’ve just been putting on Netflix and Twitch in the background, and I just go to town. I’m pretty far. This song should be done in a few hours.”

He’s also creating his own sample pack of different sounds for artists to patch into their own digital recordings. He enjoys the idea of creating things for people to use. His custom samples are yet another contribution he’ll make to the musical conversation he joined in his youth.

In recent years, he’s also transferred his musical knowledge to the realm of film. He formed his own video production company, Kismet, with some business partners, for instance. And in 2017, he scored “Camp Life,” a documentary on world-famous Omaha native boxer Terence “Bud” Crawford.

Imagining the Future at Make Believe

“The future of music is going to be heavily influenced by artificial intelligence,” Rodger says. “They’re already making AI programs that can make songs. There’s a college in the UK that was able to make a computer that could improvise jazz music with a live jazz band. You give an AI program ten years of learning music, and then you pit it against an orchestra, it could probably play something more complicated than humans could ever comprehend.”

Rodger believes humans will use AI programs to create new types of jobs. He envisions a world where AI programs write pop and commercial music, and collaborate with humans on shaping new sounds. AI may even play the role of a recording engineer by helping humans record, mix, and master music: some of the main roles Rodger is paid for. “Right now, working in the studio industry, it’s quite scary. Jump on board now or be lost at sea forever.”

Rather than burying their head in the sand, though, Rodger and Make Believe Studios want to join the AI revolution. “We embrace it all, full-steam ahead. To have a virtual Make Believe would be tight.”

Over time, Keith says, as more people hear the Make Believe sound on artists’ songs, Make Believe could sell an AI version of itself to musicians and producers who want that sound. “You could come here and make your record, or you could have virtual Rick Carson (Make Believe founder) make your record.”

Artificial Intelligence, Real Creativity

Rodger offers a possible scenario where AI would benefit his creative process. “If I’m sitting at the piano trying to record something, and I got Keith number 2 in here, I can be like, ‘Hey, let’s patch this in and add a little bit of EQ (audio equalization); I want it to kind of shimmer.’ And the AI just does it to my liking because it understands my moves.”

AI will also prove instrumental to music education, he adds.

“It’s going to help people understand music in a whole different way. Like children learning how to make music for the first time. Nowadays, if you can’t afford a teacher, you can go on Youtube. But in the future, it’s gonna be so personal to where you feel like someone’s there with you.”

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mistakenly listed Keith Rodger as co-owner of Make Believe Studios. He is, in fact, a part owner of the Make Believe Recordings label division.

Eric Swanson, aka Deejay Sweetlife, engineers happiness through technology thanks to AIM and the Interface Web School

Posted on - Tech Education

He wanted to know “how the things that control us work.”

He took a 12-week Java class at the AIM Interface School. Then he took another one on web development.

And then, everything began to fall into place.

Over the years, Eric Swanson has gone from marching the storied lawns of West Point to playing guitar and spinning records in Omaha nightclubs, from owning his own medical staffing business in Pennsylvania to hosting an intensive summer coding camp for underserved youth.

Now he’s a Happiness Engineer at Flywheel, a WordPress hosting site headquartered in downtown Omaha.

When he speaks to us at a Harney Street coffee shop, his voice blooms with enthusiasm: for his job, for technology, for teaching, and for AIM’s role in developing the tech talent ecosystem here.

“For whatever’s going to happen techwise in Omaha, AIM is going to be central and integral to it,” he says. “The startup costs here are so low, and the resources are so high, that things are about to blow up. And AIM plays an overarching role in that.”

“Kent’s an Awesome Teacher”

Once he knew he wanted to understand the technology he used everyday, Eric vacillated on the best course to follow. He couldn’t decide whether to attend another local code school or the Interface Web School.

“As soon as I met the faculty at Interface, it was: ‘This is the one for me.’”

Eric found the classes intense, supportive and convenient. Like other Interface students, he developed a strong rapport with his instructor, Kent Smotherman.

“Kent’s an awesome teacher. His teaching style really resonated with me. He loves what he does, and you can tell. There would be off-days when he would be doing volunteer work at the Omaha Chess Club, and I’d be like, ‘Kent, dude, I’m stuck on this. And he’d say, ‘Come on out.’ There were a lot of times outside of class that I would meet up with him to try to grasp the concepts.”

Interface Gave Him the Opportunity to Give Back

With knowledge and connections developed through Interface, Eric landed an opportunity to teach the Highlander summer code camp for underserved youth. Highlander is a tech educational collaboration between the AIM Institute and Seventy Five North, a revitalization corporation developing sustainable mixed-income communities in North Omaha.

The idea was to take 16 at-risk youth and turn them into junior developers. Eric wrote the course curriculum in about three weeks, keeping in mind some of his students could barely turn on a computer at first. The camp ran from Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, for eight weeks during the summer.

He feared disaster. “I thought, they’re not gonna come. Or if they did, they’re just gonna be like, ‘Whatever,’” he says. “Never happened. We didn’t lose a kid. They were there like clockwork.”

Students learned HTML, CSS, and the principles and psychology of web design. They participated in the Agile methodology and built their own websites. Many shifted the direction of their lives.

“That course changed so many of my preconceptions,” he adds. “By the end, seriously, they could go toe-to-toe with anybody from a development standpoint.”

One of his main goals was to cultivate a class of at least fifty percent young women or young women of color. The course exceeded that goal. Eric was inspired by how powerfully Highlander affected the young women’s outlook on themselves and on the society that had tried to keep them from realizing their potential.

“For a lot of these girls, they had just never been exposed to the idea that they could do tech. So when they found out that they were good at it, they were just floored. Everything they had been told up to that point was a lie to them. They were all, ‘Wait a minute. I can do this.’ Just the level of talent, it was always there. Nobody told them that they had it. There was nobody ever put a yardstick up to figure out how much they had. But it was there, man. It was there.”

He removes his horned-rim glasses and rubs his eye with the heel of his hand. “I even get choked up thinking about it.”  

Landing His Dream Job Started with AIM and Interface School

Eric’s Interface School web developer instructor, who also worked at Flywheel at the time, recommended he apply for a Happiness Engineer position at Flywheel. But, still stinging from prejudicial attitudes he’d encountered during his job search, Eric doubted his chances.

“Before, any time I went for an internship, I would be so super-qualified, and never get a call back. I think for me, I was like a box to check.”

But the way Flywheel interviewed him felt so easygoing he wasn’t even sure he was being interviewed. The company just kept asking him back to hang out. For a while, he thought they were going to ask to partner with him on the Highlander code camp if he ever taught it again.

Finally, he scored an interview with CEO Dusty Davidson on the same day as his Highlander class graduation. A few hours later, a Flywheel representative called to tell him he had the job.

“When I regained consciousness,” he jokes, “I thought, why do they want to hire me? They saw something in me that I didn’t know was there.”

“But all of this starts with AIM and Interface,” he continues. “Interface gave me the skills I needed. My instructors liked me and really came through for me. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if there wasn’t an AIM.”

As an innovative not-for-profit that grows, connects, and inspires the tech talent community, AIM is happy to have played a role in Eric’s success. It’s why we do what we do. So if you want to change your life, deepen your understanding of a world increasingly driven by technology, and participate in the enormously valuable tech workforce, the Interface School is the perfect place to start a journey that, like Eric, you may never want to return from.