While lots of people may qualify and proudly identify as a Nerd, there are only a few who can claim it as an actual job description. Aaron Hillegass is one of those amazing Nerds, and he’s got a propellered, 10-gallon hat to prove it.
Aaron is the founder of and chief Nerd at Big Nerd Ranch, which, according to its website, has its “Intergalactic Headquarters” based in Atlanta, Georgia. In addition to building a successful app development and corporate training company, Aaron has authored several books on programming and software development.
Aaron has been coding since before coding was cool. In other words, he’s been at it since before there was a PC or Mac in virtually every home (or back pocket) in America. So we asked Aaron if we could pick the brain underneath his big hat to see how he navigated an often bumpy academic and professional landscape to become the accomplished programmer, teacher, entrepreneur, and writer he is today.
Of course, like every creative Nerd, Aaron wasn’t comfortable sticking to the same old interview format. After fielding our long list of questions, he decided to deconstruct, simplify, and rebuild the interview into a structure that allowed him to best express himself.
Without further ado, here’s some great career insight and Nerd inspiration from a coder of the highest order:
RN: When and how did you first get into programming? Did you have any early mentors?
Aaron Hillegass (AH): When I was 10, the local science museum offered a class on computer programming. My father, who was a civil engineer, said to me, “Aaron, until now, only big corporations could afford to have a computer. This is the beginning of a great democratization of computer technology. It doesn’t matter what career you eventually choose, you will use a computer.”
So I signed up for the class. Every week, we would go down into the basement of the science museum where there were a bunch of Commodore PET computers. (The PET had no hard drive – you saved things to an audio tape. The PET had 4K of memory. It had a small screen with green pixels.) There was a grumpy man who worked at the phone company who would give each kid a mimeographed sheet with a BASIC program typed on it. We would type in the program, run it, and then start to modify it.
The next year an Apple 2 computer showed up at my school, and because I knew some BASIC, I was given special permission to use it.
In 1979, a computer didn’t come with much software. Our school had no word processors, presentation software, or spreadsheets. If you wanted the computer to do something, you wrote the code yourself. Thus, most people who used a computer in 1979 knew how to program it. This is a very different attitude than people have now.
All through school, I did computer programming as a hobby. I wrote a couple of games, which were never good enough to sell, but pleased me immensely.
The end of high school came, and I decided to study audio engineering. This involved study in the school of music and the electrical engineering department at the University of Miami. Ken Pohlmann was head of the audio engineering program and was, at the time, the leading expert in digital audio. He had cobbled together an interesting career writing, teaching, tinkering, and consulting on digital audio, so I decided that I was going to create a career just like Ken’s.
After my first year of college, I had the worst summer job ever: I worked the night shift at the customer service call center for US Airways. Basically, people screamed at me all night over the phone.
My friend George had a great job at the Mitre Corporation Advanced Signal Processing Lab, and I asked him what I needed to know to get a job there. George said, “We always need people who can develop C code on a UNIX machine.” So I got a book on C and UNIX and then threw a fit in the office of the Dean of the Electrical Engineering School until he gave me access to a UNIX machine.
The next summer I got my first job as a professional programmer. The mathematicians at the lab had theories about how different algorithms would help with speech recognition. My job was to translate their ideas into code. I worked with neural nets, hidden Markov models, and simulated cochlea.
After another year, I decided that I didn’t want to be an audio engineer. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do, but I was pretty sure it involved a lot of math.
RN: How did you get started down your new career path?
AH: I changed my major to math and transferred to New College of Florida. And I went to graduate school at the University of Washington to study differential geometry. Like most math grad students, I paid my way by teaching calculus to undergraduates.
I never finished my Ph.D. There were no jobs for math professors at the time. The gloomy dampness of Seattle made me reluctant to get out of bed. I was tired of being broke, so I dropped out.
I took a job at a software start-up in Austin, Texas. The company was always “just about to get” venture capital, and thus I was always just about to get a real paycheck. When my girlfriend became a stripper so we could pay our rent, I took that as a sign I needed to find something more lucrative to do with my skills.
I took a job developing software on Wall Street working with a new security that was considered utterly boring: mortgage-backed bonds. Twenty years later mortgage-backed bonds would bring the world economy to its knees. I made a good salary, but, more importantly, I learned to write code for the NeXT Computer. (You’ve never heard of NeXT? Do you have an iPhone? You have a NeXT in your pocket, my friend!)
NeXT hired me to teach other developers how to write applications for the NeXT Computer. My desk was about 80 feet from the desk of Steve Jobs. We were not buddies, but we knew each other and worked together on one project. I spent a lot of time writing our courses and traveling around the world teaching them.
In 1997, Apple bought NeXT and the NeXT operating system evolved into macOS.
How did you come up with the idea for Big Nerd Ranch?
AH: I left NeXT and became an independent consultant. I wrote my first book, Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X.
While I was consulting, I noticed an interesting niche: When a technology company ships a complicated and powerful technology, they typically also set up a professional services division to do training and consulting on that technology. For example, Oracle sells a database and Oracle has a professional services division that will help you use that database. Apple, on the other hand, was shipping really powerful technology, but as a consumer electronics company had little interest in the professional services business.
So in 2001, I created Big Nerd Ranch (BNR) to fill that gap. BNR offered training and consulting on Apple technologies. This seems reasonable today, but in 2001 most people thought Apple was about to go out of business. We grew gradually for the first few years of our existence, and we became the acknowledged experts on all the stuff Mac developers needed to know: the programming language (Objective-C), the IDE (Xcode), and the frameworks.
In 2008, Apple announced their phone and an SDK by which developers could write apps for the phone. The iPhone was, essentially, a very small NeXT computer, and the SDK was based on everything that BNR was expert in. We found ourselves to be the most respected company in the hottest technology. We wrote books. We taught engineers at Facebook, Google, Uber, Spotify, and LinkedIn. We developed apps for AT&T and Honeywell. The company grew to 100 people.
Along the way, I got married and had a couple of kids.
RN: As a dad, are you encouraging your kids to pursue coding or other STEAM-oriented pursuits? In what ways have you tried to inspire them?
AH: Two important rules in our house:
1) You don’t get a Minecraft account until you are a decent programmer, and
2) You don’t get a cell phone until you are in high school.
I believe that children shouldn’t be entertained all the time; great things come from boredom.
My older son is a sophomore in high school, and I mentor the school’s robotics team. We went to the FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) World Championship last year. My younger son is in middle school, and I mentor the school’s math club.
Why do I give my time? My career has been both interesting and gratifying. I feel that STEM gives young people a path to careers that are challenging and rewarding for a lifetime. I’d like to help them get on that path.
Other parents ask me how to get their kids excited about science and technology. I always tell them that the most important part is to celebrate curiosity. When a child asks a question, there is nearly always an interesting idea or story around that question. You should help the child find that idea or story.
If you want something more concrete, the FIRST program is amazing. Young kids work on LEGO robots in the FIRST LEGO League (FLL). All kids can work on 18″ robots in the FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) league. And high schoolers can build 120-pound robots in the FRC league.
I always tell the kids, “This is difficult, right? That’s expected. If it were easy it would get boring.” A lot of people start down the path toward a STEM career, and then they find it is really difficult. They decide they just aren’t smart enough and give up. Someone should have told them, “This is supposed to be difficult. Work hard, ask for help, and overcome!”
What’s next for you in your career and for Big Nerd Ranch?
AH: These days I spend some of my time exploring technologies that I think will be big in the future. A company like Big Nerd Ranch is most valuable when we are helping clients adopt new technologies. I am working on conversational interfaces like the Amazon Echo and chatbots. I’m working with some machine learning frameworks – it’s fun to teach a computer rather than program it.
It’s an exciting time to be a Nerd!