Eric Swanson, aka Deejay Sweetlife, engineers happiness through technology thanks to AIM Code School

March 1, 2019

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

He took a 12-week Java class at AIM Code 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 AIM Code School.

“As soon as I met the faculty (at AIM Code School), it was: ‘This is the one for me.’”

Eric found the classes intense, supportive and convenient. Like other AIM Code School 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.”

AIM Gave Him the Opportunity to Give Back

With knowledge and connections developed through AIM Code School, 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 Code School

Eric’s AIM Code 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,” he continues. “AIM Code School 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 AIM Code School is the perfect place to start a journey that, like Eric, you may never want to return from.