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Eric Hankins

Eric Hankins, one of Red Nova Labs’ senior software engineers, has been with the team for more than two and a half years. While he’s proven his brilliance and determination through the development of a number of our products, he’s renowned for coming to work dressed as a pirate and posting humorous descriptions of his day on our company’s private social network.

I asked our engineering director, Tim Banks, what he thought of Eric’s accomplishments. Here’s what he had to say: “One of Eric’s greatest qualities is that, when he’s bringing people up to speed on a project or feature, he’s good at explaining them in such a way that everyone understands them.” Among other strengths, Tim raved about Eric’s ability to build and automate the infrastructure on which our applications run.

In fact, mentioning Eric’s name to anyone seemed to provoke nothing but positive reactions. I interviewed the popular coder and here’s what he had to say.

Amy: Of course, the first thing I did was go to your bio page, where I found a lot of interesting information. My first question is about the Sim City 2000 website you made when you were 13. What’s the story behind that project?

E: It was the thing to do at the time. I was 13, Yahoo had just come out, and Yahoo Mail gave two megabytes of email storage space. It was a lot. Being 13 and really into computers, I just thought, “Hey, I need to put some information on the Internet about Sim City 2000.” It was horrible information – the same easter eggs that every other website had posted. But, you know, it was my website. So to me it was the best.

A: Did you try your hand at any other websites after that?

E: The next website I built was about StarCraft a couple years later. It had the rotating gifs and everything. And here I am now, 15 years later. I knew my calling early in life, even though I’m pretty sure the only visitors were me and my friend from down the street!

A: Hey, when you know, you know. So your bio says that you went to the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Did you grow up in Nebraska?

E: No, I grew up in Colorado Springs. I was born in Germany. I got a scholarship to Nebraska at Omaha and I thought, “Oma-where? That’s out in the corn fields!” I literally thought the whole town smelled like cows, which of course isn’t really true. It took me a while to fall in love with Omaha.

Eric's moving map

A: But you did fall in love with Omaha. What won you over?

E: The downtown area, actually. It has cool buildings and an artsy scene, and it’s a fun place. Omaha is also a good size. It’s not like Kansas City where it’s so big that you can’t hold the whole city in your head. If someone in KC says that they’re from the Northland, I sort of vaguely know where that is. But Omaha, you can know where everything is and where everyone’s coming from.

A: That’s a good point. Also, I didn’t know you were born in Germany! Where did you live?

E: It’s a little town called Büttelborn, outside of Darmstadt. My wife and I went to Europe a year and a half ago with my parents, which was cool because we got to visit the hospital where I was born and all that. And you know that saying, “You can never go home again”? We went to go see the house where I used to live and it was so classic. The house was torn down and there was an apartment building there. It was the most stereotypical thing.

Eric in Germany

A: How long did you live in Germany?

E: Three years. Then I moved to Atlanta for five years. Then Virginia Beach for a year. After that we landed in Colorado Springs.

A: So you graduated from the University of Nebraska. You stuck around in Omaha for a while and you worked at a startup. Tell me about that.

E: Right after I got out of school, I interned with a company called Intuit. They make TurboTax, QuickBooks, and a few other products. Three months after they hired me, they shut down that branch, so we all got laid off. So I was laid off three months after school. But the branch VP had a startup idea. He thought, “I have an idea for a software startup and I happen to know a lot of people who are experienced in developing software, who are now all out of work.” So he raised some angel capital and hired a lot of us on and bought the lease on the office from Intuit, with all the computers and all the cubes.

Literally what happened is we all went home at the end of August. We came back a week later, they changed the sign on the door, and we all sat down at our same computers and same cubicles and started working on this software with the same people. It was kinda cool. I worked there for four years before I moved down to Kansas City. That was fun because what the company did was put ads and content on your print-at-home boarding pass. So when you were going to go flying and you printed your boarding pass at home, we printed stuff on it. So the work that I did was seen by hundreds and thousands of people. I also got to go offsite with the airlines and do the client integrations. It was a good experience.

A: And then you came here. How was the transition from one startup to another?

E: It’s a different kind of business because StorEdge is massively more complicated than what I was doing before. When you’re building boarding passes you have high exposure, and that’s exciting, but the thing that you’re doing is taking some content, looking at ad relevance, and putting it on the boarding pass. But product development here is exciting because there are all these factors, like move-ins, move-outs, PDF file generation, reports, analytics, and graphs. And you’re helping someone.

StorEdge product development

The thing is that people hated our product at Sojern because nobody wants ads on their boarding passes! The airlines loved it because it was additional revenue for them, but none of the people wanted it. The cool thing about StorEdge is you’re building a product that people want. It’s a really great product and people are going to love it because of what it does for them. It’s fun to build something that people care about and want to use. At the end of the day, that really drives you.

A: I like how you’re wording all this. You’re giving me so much quotable content to work with! So is the startup life the life for you?

E: It is. When I first started working, I thought I’d like to work at some 5,000-person company, and that would be great. And that is great if you want to be a cog in the machine where you do exactly one thing every single day for your whole life. If that’s the life you want, I recommend working at some big, giant company. What I realized, though, after working at the first startup, is I really like small businesses because you get to wear so many different hats. That was a great experience because I got to do everything from deployment engineering to architecture of the product to everyday coding. And I got to do everything from database design all the way up to the front-end where you’re laying out the views and you’re writing the JavaScript. You’re worrying about request time and performance tuning, and you’re doing a little bit of everything. That’s exciting. I don’t want to be the guy that thinks, “I can only do database architecture. And if you ask me to do JavaScript, I don’t know anything about JavaScript.” The startup life – well, maybe more of the small business life – is the life for me.

Eric as a pirate

A: That reminds me of that pirate tune, “yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.” Speaking of pirates, I’m thinking of that day you came into the office dressed as one. I’m also thinking of Halloween when you were a monk, complete with shaved head and everything. Is dressing up one of your passions?

E: It wasn’t until I was married.

A: Really. What changed?

E: My wife is a participator. She loves to participate in things. She’ll often participate in our work events vicariously through me. It was totally her idea. Krispy Kreme, on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, said that if you dress up like a pirate, they’d give you a free dozen donuts. She loves participating, and man does she love getting stuff and getting a good deal. So she thought, “I get to get something free by dressing up and participating! Only it will be Eric doing these things.” And so I did.

A: How did she get you to agree to that?

E: We have a term for that. It’s called being married.

Eric as a monk

A: Is that the same story as the monk costume?

E: Same story. She asked, “What are you going to dress up as?” I told her I wasn’t going to dress up. She says, “No, no, no, you have to do it.” Especially when she found out it was a costume contest. But I’m the type of guy that, if I do something, I’m going to do it all the way. So she was like, “Yeah, put on this robe.” (It’s actually a snuggie, a snuggie that I turned inside out.) I told her, “Well, if you’re going to be a monk, you have to shave your head so that you look like a monk.” She said that she thought that would be a really bad idea, and I was already buzzing the top patch of my hair off.

A: Wow, I wouldn’t have known because you always look like you completely own the role. Who would’ve known your wife was the mastermind behind it? Hey, did you ever find out what that chunky thing was in your coffee?

Eric's coffee post

E: No. I just ate it. I don’t know what it was. Often I’ll eat a granola bar and little grains will fall in my cup. I just thought it might be a piece of my granola bar, so I didn’t think about it anymore.

A: Let’s hope that’s what that was. I was going to get some coffee until I read that post. Well, we’ve mentioned your wife, Joanna, a couple times. What’s the love story?

E: So the love story goes like this. We lived on the same floor of our dorm in Omaha. We were actually next-door neighbors. We became part of the same group of friends – all of my roommates and all of her roommates – along with some other people from the floor. She was a freshman and I had just started my junior year. We were just friends for a while because we were part of the same group of friends.

And then my group of friends took a social dance class. One day, I realized that I liked dancing with Joanna a lot more than I liked dancing with any of the other girls. And I just thought, “Huh. That’s weird.” Sort of like the typical engineer mind. And then I was talking to some of my guy friends and kept saying, “I really like talking with her, and I really like dancing with her, and I like hanging out with her and – GASP! I like Joanna!” From then on, I couldn’t get her out of my head. So we dated for about two years and then we got married in 2009.

Eric and Joanna

A: Adorable. I really like that. Well, thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with me! Before we conclude, is there anything that you’d like to share that we didn’t cover?

E: No, I think we got it all! One thing, though, I should probably send you a picture of me with a Mohawk.

A: Perfect.

Eric's Mohawk