Hello everybody. Today I’m very proud to present you the interview that gave me Aaron Hillegass, president of the Big Nerd Ranch, the famous training, consulting, and publishing company in Atlanta, GA (USA), this week…
- Well I think that most of my readers knows you but please could you tell us a little about your professional experience before founding The Big Nerd Ranch?
In the early 90’s, I developed applications on Wall Street that ran on the NeXT operating system.
I took a job at NeXT, and I was there when the merger occurred.
During the dot-com boom, I did mostly WebObjects consulting for companies like UPS and Nortel Networks.
After seeing Mac OS X for the first time, I started work on what would become «Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X» and the first class that Big Nerd Ranch would teach.
I created Big Nerd Ranch in 2001 to fill a gap: training and consulting for Apple technologies.
As you can imagine, there were few things that looked as dumb as creating a professional services company for Apple technologies in 2001, but I got lucky:
The iPhone SDK came out.
Suddenly Big Nerd Ranch had a very special place in an exploding industry.
We developed training and consulting services for iOS and Android.
Fortune 100 companies started hiring us to solve their mobile development problems.
We’ve grown to be 50 employees teaching and consulting in North America, Europe, Latin America, and China.
- How was the change from being an ‘usual’ employee in 2 famous US companies like Next and then Apple, to be an entrepreneur in Atlanta?
In a big company you do one thing, let’s say that you work on the linker. You can spend your entire career working on linkers at Apple. You will become one of the greatest linker engineers that has ever lived.
In a small company, you do everything: coding, sales, cleaning the toilet, etc. In a small company, all your efforts go toward trying to please your customers. In a big company, you spend a lot of energy dealing with the organization itself — pleasing your manager, impressing your peers, keeping your people on message, etc.
- Everybody here is asking about your hat : something to say :-) ? Are you still working with Roy Jackson for that :-) ?
As my father died slowly in the hospital after being trampled by a herd of wild horses, he gave me the hat.
Not really: it is a silly marketing gimmick. When I started the company I couldn’t afford a booth at a conference.
So, I needed some way for people to be able to find me.
So, the night before they took the photo for the back of the book, I went out and bought the hat.
It has worked well — everyone who knows my books can recognize me in a crowd.
- Did you work personally with Steve Jobs? If yes, what can you tell about him?
When I started at NeXT, I asked if I could go see Steve Jobs. My co-worker said, «Sure, his door is usually open. But, I should warn you that Steve is like plutonium: he’s very powerful and makes the place run, but you don’t want to stand too close.»
I worked on a demo for Steve’s keynote at Internet World 1996. He could be quite infantile and unpleasant. That said, Steve hired brilliant, dedicated people and gave them a clear vision of where he thought the world should go. The power of this combination can not be overstated.
- For those that don’t know about Big Nerd Ranch, can you give us a quick history?
The best way to create a profitable business is to identify a wasteful process and make it more efficient. The process introducing an engineer to a new technology was incredibly inefficient.
So Big Nerd Ranch was created to fix technical training by creating a great environment, giving the student great materials, and putting a great teacher at the front of the room.
Today consulting represents over half our revenues. The consulting we do informs our classes and keeps them relevant and up-to-date.
Most recently we started publishing the «Big Nerd Ranch Guides». Pearson distributes them for us, but we write, layout, and print all the books ourselves.
- How was the idea about creating The Big Nerd Ranch? What is the hidden secret with that name ;-) ?
When we decided to teach our classes in a quiet, distraction-free environment, we wanted a name that would invoke the idea of the monastic retreat from the world. I didn’t think «Big Nerd Monastery» would sell well, so we chose a name that would invoke the idea of the dude ranch. (Think «City Slickers») Thus we named it «Big Nerd Ranch». People generally like the name and it is quite memorable, but I do frequently find myself saying, «No, really, that is the name of the corporation.»
- Why Atlanta, thinking that most of the software industry is on the West Coast (Silicon Valley)?
Atlanta has the busiest airport in the world. If you drew a graph of the world’s transportation system, Atlanta would be awfully close to the center of civilization. It is easy for people to reach us, and it is easy for us to reach them. Cost of living was a very serious consideration when we started. If I had started Big Nerd Ranch in Silicon Valley, I would have run out of cash in the first 18 months.
- You recently opened new offices: why? can you tell us more that? some pictures to show us?
I lived through the dot-com collapse. I watched the failure of companies that had spent their cash on parties, trips, and luxuries. I swore that if I ever owned a company, earnings would be converted into useful, durable assets. We bought an abandoned ironworks from a bank that had foreclosed on it.
We renovated 6,300 square feet into a great work environment. We did this entirely with retained earnings. Big Nerd Ranch is debt-free and pays no rent. Our office sits on a full acre of land. We are currently working on plans to add an additional 8,500 square feet on to the west end of the building.
- Did you start the company alone?
I started the company with Emily Herman. When I hired her I said, «I’m the nerd. You’re the business person. I’ll do great stuff; you make it profitable.» I’ve claimed the CEO role, but Emily and I still work together.
- How many employees are there right now, and what kind of structure do you have?
We have 50 employees total. Most are in Atlanta. Most are engineers. I have four managers; each oversees one revenue stream: consulting, corporate training, open-enrollment training, products. These managers pull people from the pool of engineers to fulfill the needs of their clients. An engineer may be teaching in London this week and writing an application for a Fortune 100 company next week.
- What do you think that make The BNR so special?
I think we, as an organization, have a deep need to be genuinely useful in this world. A lot of things flow from this, for example, the desire to achieve expertise and a long-term view of our relationships with our clients. But it all starts with the urge to be useful.
- And thinking about the hundreds of book about iOS/OS X programming, why do you think you are the most famous in the world?
I cheat. Most people who write books have one or two people test them before they are shipped. Our books are read by a few hundred people before they are published.
- What are the most popular classes you host?
The 7-day Beginning iOS is our most popular class. It is a really fun class to teach because it assumes so little. Most people in the class have only done a little bit of programming, and they are making a major commitment to becoming iOS programmers. They work hard for 7 days, and we send them home iOS developers.
- In general, who can attend your classes? What kind of programming experience must have the participants?
It depends on the course. We have beginning-level courses and courses for experts. But all the classes are challenging. Many people are astonished by how much knowledge we can impart in one week.
- Most of us (the iOS developers) have read your books: do you think it’s enough to be a «good» developer o what would you say to convince them to attend your classes?
If you’ve already read and understood «iOS Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide«, you don’t need to take our beginning class, but you would love the sequel: «Advanced iOS Programming».
- How is the creation of a class? Do you use your experience as developer/instructor for your books or is it the opposite?
Writing a great class is very difficult — it involves a deep understanding of the technology that you are teaching and a consuming empathy for the student. The best writing comes entirely from experience — if I have to look something up while writing a chapter, I probably don’t know it well enough yet.
- Is it not too difficult to run a business that combine developer training, contract programming and book writing?
I like that my job has many facets. Writing a course is exhausting; it is nice to take a break to code or teach. Teaching usually involves travel; it nice to stay at home and code or write. Coding can get lonely, it is nice to get in front of a class and do the show.
- What would you tell to a programming beginner afraid of the complexity of Objective C and the iOS SDK?
«Complexity is why we get paid the big bucks.»
- A lot of Spanish developers and readers of my blog are asking what (the hell ;-)) do they have to do to work with you in the Big Nerd Ranch ? :-)
We are always hiring. We have an office in the EU (Amsterdam) and we do a lot of teaching and contract work in Latin America.
Please send a resumé to firstname.lastname@example.org
- You have been an Unix, NeXT and iOS/OS X developer and instructor. How do you see the OS landscape in general nowadays? And what do you think it could happen in the future?
– More complex, performance-oriented applications will be written in the platform’s native tongue.
– Servers: Servers will be written using open source technologies like Linux, Ruby on Rails, Erlang, and PostgreSQL.
- About the future of the AppStores: what do you think about the «cases of sandboxing problem»? I’m talking about the apps that have been obliged to go out because of that «new feature» of OS X… Would it be a problem for more apps?
The owner of an app store (whether that is Apple, Amazon, Google, or Microsoft) wants great products in their store. It sometimes takes a while, but the store will often gradually change the entitlements to make these great products available. For example, between 10.7 and 10.8, Apple did significant improvements to their entitlements system for the Mac app store.
- Do you plan to write another book? If it’s the case, on what subject?
I’m kicking around two ideas for books:
1) Our clients need a lot of help writing good web services for our apps to talk to. We’ve outlined a course about web services and databases; and it is pretty compelling stuff.
2) A lot of our clients are starting to talk about the forthcoming Windows 8 tablets. I’m in the process of learning more about C# and XAML. These technologies are rather compelling.
- A heavy percentage of the readers of my blog are developers from Spain and they ask you: How do you see the Spanish developers? And if you think it’d be profitable for you to give classes in Spain like the ones in Atlanta?
I’ve always been impressed with Spanish programmers.
I’m sorry that the Spanish economy has been so rocky lately — these sorts of disruptions can really limit the opportunities available to a gifted engineer.
We would love to offer classes in Spain. (Our materials are already translated into Spanish, and we have several native Spanish speakers as employees)
However, it is not obvious that the demand is sufficient, and we lose money on classes that don’t fill up.
- Where do you run courses out of Atlanta?
We teach our classes at a small conference center nestled deep in a forest.
- Do you have anything planned for France (my country of origin) and/or the French related markets?
We do not. I’m sorry.
- To end the interview : have you ever been/visiting (to) Spain ?
I love Spain! I have a good friend in Valencia. When I visit, I’m always reluctant to leave the Rioja, the Manchego, and the Serrano Ham behind.
The women of Spain are distractingly beautiful. My Spanish is frightful, yet everyone is very patient with me. In my mind, there are few places as comfortable and welcoming as Spain.
This is the end of this very interesting interview. Thanx again to Aaron (and LeAnn Boucher from PR of the Big Nerd Ranch). Have a nice day…
Louis-Philippe (AKA Louesfera)