Business, Big Nerd Style
At Big Nerd Ranch in Atlanta, Ga., New College alumnus Aaron Hillegass wears the big hat.
As the founder, former CEO and now chief learning officer of the training and software development firm, he embraces his “nerd-dom” with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for sharing that knowledge with others. His specialty is crafting creative and approachable ways to teach the development of mobile apps and software — a brilliantly unique approach to teaching that sets Big Nerd Ranch apart.
“The puzzle in any business is to figure out how to use your passions to make money,” he says. “One without the other is unsustainable. At Big Nerd Ranch, we are passionate about learning. Through learning we develop expertise, and we sell this expertise through our classes and our consulting.”
Hillegass is consistently named one of the top 25 most influential people in the Mac community by MacTech. He is also the author of Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X and coauthor of Advanced Mac OS X Programming and iPhone Programming: the Big Nerd Ranch Guide. Under his leadership, Big Nerd Ranch has grown to more than 80 employees, including New College alumni Nate Chandler, Jeremy Sherman and Brian Stanwyck.
“To succeed in business you need a unique specialty, something that sets you apart from competitors,” Hillegass says. “You also need to think creatively. My experience at New College helped me with the creative process to come up with ideas and be critical enough to throw out the bad ones.”
Those good ideas have made Big Nerd Ranch a global success with corporate training on five continents and an impressive client roster of Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T, Boeing, Facebook, Google, Intuit, Pixar, Procter & Gamble and UPS. In fact, Big Nerd Ranch ran an intensive program last summer for Facebook staff to learn how to code native apps for iOS and Android, according to a report on Engadget.com. The training ran for eight hours each day for five days, with the goal that participants could start writing code for the apps the very next Monday.
And a merger last fall between Big Nerd Ranch and Highgroove Studios, a nearby web services company, has allowed Hillegass to realign with his passion for teaching and training.
From NCF Geek to Big Nerd
“I learned to write at New College,” he says. “The way we marketed the company was by writing books, which established me as an expert in the field. Then I could sell all sorts of training.” Hillegass’ first book, Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X, was published originally in 2001 and is widely considered the bible of Mac programming. It is now in its fourth edition with translations in French, German, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
While a New College student, he took his first professional programming job implementing signal processing algorithms at MITRE Corporation, a military contractor in the Washington, D.C., area near his hometown of Alexandria, Va. He also did an Independent Study Project there on neural networks.
After graduating from New College in 1991, Hillegass attended graduate school at the University of Washington, but he left early for an opportunity at NeXt Inc., the company founded by Steve Jobs. Apple purchased the company in 1996, and in 2000, Hillegass was asked to teach Apple engineers how to write apps for a new operating system — Mac OS X.
One year later, Hillegass cofounded Big Nerd Ranch with his childhood friend, Emily Herman. They focused the company on Apple technologies, a big risk at a time when Apple’s stock was trading under $10. “What looks like a great idea now looked a lot like lunacy then,” Hillegass recalls.
But having worked at NeXT and then Apple, Hillegass believed three factors would create a great opportunity: “Apple, with its purchase of NeXT, had a great technology platform to build upon. Steve Jobs, who had come along as part of the purchase, was creating a culture that could execute his vision. And as a consumer brand, Apple had no interest in the messy business that is professional services. I created Big Nerd Ranch to fill that hole.”
And he has done just that. At Big Nerd Ranch trainers are more like mentors. They teach classes in remote conference centers, and students eat all their meals together and walk together in the afternoons.
“I wanted to create an environment for concentration and experimentation. The closest thing I could find was the idea of a monastic retreat,” says Hillegass, who was inspired after spending a summer volunteering at the Omega Institute, a retreat center in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “I wanted to call it ‘The Big Nerd Monastery,’ but I thought that would make sales difficult. I tried to find something that evoked a similar feeling, and the dude ranch was as close as I could get.”
The Ideal “Nerd”
“We try to find someone who is sharp enough to learn new things. We’re in a very fast-moving industry. You need someone who can absorb new ideas and use them. I look for people who are self-starters. I want to be able to give them a big task, and six months later find it done.”
New College alumnus Jeremy Sherman began at Big Nerd Ranch in 2008 within six months of graduation. He says his New College degree prepared him to learn quickly on the job by poring over the software guides to get up to speed. Now as a software engineer, he develops Mac and iOS software, applications, background processes that collect data and USB extensions for different USB devices. His Area of Concentration (AOC) at New College was Mathematics and Computational Science.
Alumnus Nate Chandler joined Big Nerd Ranch in September 2011 developing apps for Mac and iOS. As a New College student he completed an Independent Study Project in bioinformatics programming at Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. With an AOC in Mathematics, he also worked on faculty research in algebraic topology with Professor David Mullins. His current employee profile reads, “It’s no wonder Nate is such a skilled software engineer — his brain is always working. This is a man who studies higher mathematics and reads philosophy in his free time.”
Nearby in Atlanta, Brian Stanwyck had started working at Highgroove Studios within three months of his 2011 graduation from New College. He didn’t know that soon he’d be working for a fellow Novo Collegian developing web apps.
“I didn’t know until the day of the merge that Aaron was a New College alum,” Stanwyck recalls. “It was pretty cool actually, because it was a point of contact, something familiar between us, all of us.”
Stanwyck was in several New College classes with Chandler, including an abstract algebra class in which Stanwyck was a teaching assistant. “Nate probably knew more than me,” he says.
Stanwyck’s title now? “Nerd. That’s what’s actually in my employment contract.”
Hillegass says his experience with New College students has been very good. “They fit that mold of hardworking, brilliant and kind. Every spring I call Dr. [Pat] McDonald to beg for the names of some soon-to-be-graduates with technical ability. I am always looking for employees who want to spend their lives learning.”
Love of Learning
“Getting a company going is hard — you wake up each morning thinking, ‘I've got to make something happen! Today has to be different than yesterday.’ Once you have a healthy growing company, you wake each morning thinking, ‘Boy, I hope nothing happens today. Yesterday was great — I hope today will be exactly the same.’ That is, when you start a company you are trying to set fires, and later on you spend your energies trying to put out fires. Few leaders enjoy both situations.”
His solution was found in Charles Brian Quinn, owner and CEO of Highgroove Studios, which was providing web services in the cloud for large companies.
“For nearly all mobile applications there are two pieces: the client and the web service,” Hillegass explains. “The client is the app that runs on your mobile device; it can be written for iOS, Android, Windows 8 or HTML5. Big Nerd Ranch is an expert in writing clients. The web service is a process that runs in the cloud. A mobile client talking to a web service in the cloud is cornerstone of what pundits call ‘The Post-PC Era.’”
With the merger, Big Nerd Ranch now offers its clients end-to-end solutions for mobile applications that access data in the cloud. And Hillegass has returned to what he loves: coding, teaching, writing and mentoring the younger engineers.
“It’s wonderful. I love my job so much more. It’s wonderful in every way. I feel genuinely useful in my new role, and I get to facilitate ways we can all learn from each other.”
One of those ways is “Clash of the Coders,” a recent 48-hour programming contest in which all engineers at Big Nerd Ranch competed. “They put themselves into teams, learned something new as they created any app they wanted, and the creators of the best app were showered with a dazzling array of prizes,” Hillegass explains. “And while I recused myself from winning, I did get to code all day, with breaks only for meals. Just like the old days.”
Hillegass admits that it has taken a leap of faith to pass over the reigns of the company he founded, but he trusts in Quinn’s leadership.
“In a gesture of kindness, Charles has given me a bad-ass title: Chief Learning Officer. I suspect, however, that I will simply be known as ‘the old nerd.’”