Business, Big Nerd Style
By Lynn Riechmann
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
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.
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, Procxter & 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
At New College, where
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.
But having worked at NeXT and then Apple, Hillegass believed three factors would create a great opportunity:
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.
The Ideal "Nerd"
Brilliant, hardworking and kind — these are the traits Hillegass values in his employees.
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,
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.
Stanwyck was in several New College classes with Chandler, including an abstract algebra class in which Stanwyck was a teaching assistant.
Love of Learning
Before the merger with Highgroove Studios, Hillegass found himself envying the jobs that he was giving to other people and began searching for someone to run the business side.
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.
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
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.'
For job opportunities at Big Nerd Ranch, submit resumes to email@example.com. Hillegass says
Lynn Riechmann is associate director of creative services at New College of Florida and the managing editor of New College Magazine.