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Achieving Nerdvana with Big Nerd Ranch

I spent much of last week in the deep woods southwest of Atlanta, in environs so unfamiliar they may seem at first comical. That is, virtually chained to a loaner iMac, I spent the better part of three days developing iPhone applications using an obscure programming language called Objective-C and Apple's developer tools.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm the Windows guy. But what you may not know, or remember if you've been handing around the SuperSite for a long time, is that I have a pretty lengthy if ever distant developer background. My first book was a Visual Basic 3 title, published in 1995 and aimed at the college market, and I subsequently wrote a number of other developer books concerning VB, Delphi and Object Pascal, Active Server Pages (ASP), and Microsoft's developer tools.

Over time, of course, I moved firmly into more mainstream tech topics and became what I am today: A tech generalist, with lots of surface information about lots of topics, but never with the time to really drill down into many areas in the manner to which I'd like. There is a part of me, and maybe there always will be, that wishes things had turned out differently, that I had pursued a career solely in software development. And while that's not what happened, I have at least always maintained a toehold in the industry that left me behind.

This is where Big Nerd Ranch first enters the picture.

Three years ago, when Apple finally opened up its iPhone to outside developers and announced a set of APIs that were of course based on those it had previously created for the Mac--remember, the iPhone's iOS is basically a scaled down version of OS X--I began an ongoing exploration into this environment and, over time, the resources inside and outside of Apple that were aimed at helping developers get up to speed.

I don't remember the date or time, but at some point I came across the name Aaron Hillegass. I saw that Aaron was a former NeXT/Apple employee, had written what was widely considered the best how-to book for Mac OS X developers, and that in 2010 he published a similar title for the iPhone. That he had made a career of training developers through his company Big Nerd Ranch, and that his books and training sessions were neatly co-dependent and co-developed, sealed the deal for me. Here was the expert I was looking for. Mission accomplished.

These moments cannot be oversold. While I had not met Aaron at the time, it was clear that his was the voice for the Apple side of the developer world. Finding people like this is important, and that's as true for technical topics as it is for the more physical work provided by electricians, plumbers, and carpenters. When you find someone good, you stick with them. You learn who to trust, and can tell instinctively when you've found such a source. Aaron was--still is--that source.

Over time, I dipped in and out of the iPhone developer content that was available to me, joined and renewed the Apple developer program, and kept an eye on what was happening in general with the company's mobile moves. These intervening years have been revolutionary for the tech industry, and not just because we're moving to a computing model that is mobile and highly connected. This new computing model is also more heterogeneous than was the PC world that preceded it, with multiple platforms, devices, and device types vying for consumer attention. And so far at least, the winners are not coming from the Microsoft camp at all. They're coming from Apple, and from Google.

Not coincidentally, in late 2010 and early 2011, my employers at Penton began exploring the possibility of expanding a successful series of road shows into new territory: Mobile and web development, based not on Microsoft's offerings, but rather from the leaders in those respective industries. I played a very small role in this project, but I did make one major contribution: We needed someone who could speak on behalf of the Apple developer world, but were realistic enough to know that Apple would never lower itself to provide an executive to a non-Apple event. Who, possibly, could fill this role?

Aaron Hillegass. Of course.

I'm not sure if it was my certainty at this selection or some silent, subsequent research into my choice that put him over the top, but my corporate overseers were immediately delighted with Aaron for the same reasons I was, contacted him, and arranged from him to actually keynote the show. And we were off and running. In May, I finally met Aaron after his session, and I'm sure I blurted out something silly about my prior explorations into his work and the unrealistic desire I had to actually take one of his company's week-long boot camp training sessions. He invited me to do so, which was of course a nice thing to do. But generally speaking, in such situations, an invitation of that kind is quickly forgotten by both sides and life moves on.

Not this time. Within days, I had heard from Big Nerd Ranch, and was peppered with possible dates to attend a training class. Since Big Nerd Ranch is located in Atlanta, Georgia, Aaron and I also met for lunch during TechEd 2011, which was conveniently and coincidentally located in Atlanta as well. I mentioned my desire to write up something about him and his work, and I agreed to attend a class if he'd have me, and if he didn't think it would be too distracting.

After a few email exchanges, I picked an August class for iOS development. It was just far enough in the future that I could sort of put it off and not think too much about it. Big Nerd Ranch made some reading recommendations, including a comprehensive Objective-C reference, and that was that for a while.

Then August came.

Historic Banning Mills

Big Nerd Ranch currently holds most of its developer training classes at Historic Banning Mills, which is both a stunningly beautiful and remote getaway and, at night would provide a stunning locale for the next "Friday the 13th" movie. Located about an hour southwest of Atlanta, Georgia by car, Historic Banning Mills is a bed and breakfast/corporate getaway complex, but its real claim to fame is a stunning series of zip lines running throughout the area--and over and next to the main lodge--with which adventure seekers of all stripes can spend a day of screaming, soaring fun.

Historic Banning Mills, the back of the main lodge

Aaron picked Historic Banning Mills for this remoteness, and though he plans to soon build a permanent home for his training classes--more on this later--the current location checks all the right boxes. Which is to say, there aren't many distractions, and while cell phone signals have eked their way into this remote corner of the world, they're still poor enough to drain batteries quickly as the devices' radios desperately seek a stable connection.

Students are provided with their own cute little cabin and a style of camping I've not experienced since I was a child. Aside from the outdoor setting, it's much closer to a hotel room than a tent: You get your own cabin  rustic sleeping accommodations, a bathroom with shower, and electricity, of course. You also get to access to Historic Banning Mill's comically bad Wi-Fi network, which I believe is literally engineered to downgrade in quality and usefulness the longer you use it.  Which is fine, because I spent precious little time in the cabin, sleeping mainly, though probably more than most of the other students.

My cabin at Historic Banning Mills

(Allow me to sidetrack briefly into a discussion of insects. Historic Banning Mills, as noted, is located in a remote location, in the deepest of southern woods, and I've made the requisite "Friday the 13th" reference, which is certainly appropriate. But aside from fears of a hockey mask-wearing guy jumping out from behind a tree at night, the most pressing and obvious observation to be made is the sheer noise generated from the insects in the woods. I was told that 2011 was one of those years that happens every decade or so when sneaker-sized cicadas borrow out for a summer of intense activity, and that that explained the cacophony. But it was an impressive display, which I tried with some success to capture on video via my camera.)

It's dark at night at Historic Banning Mills. Very dark

Anyway, the days at Historic Banning Mills basically involved waking and showering, heading down to the main lodge for breakfast (generally excellent, though one morning's "breakfast pizza" was mocked even by Mills employees), and then an all-day (9 am to 6:30 pm) class in which we'd cover 5 to 6 chapters in Aaron and Joe Conway's excellent book, iOS Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide. We'd break for lunch, and for an optional hike, after which everyone who participated in came back covered in sweat thanks to the oppressive Georgian summer heat, and then eat dinner. After dinner, virtually all of the students would then drift back into the classroom, both for the superior Wi-Fi (Big Nerd Ranch offers its own unfettered bandwidth there) and to continue training on their own, and help from the instructor, who apparently required no sleep at all.

So let's talk about the class.

iOS Boot camp: Full immersion in Objective-C, Cocoa Touch, and XCode

Big Nerd Ranch offers a variety of training classes, most of which are a week long. The most popular of these are for iOS (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), Android, and web development. The class I took, iOS Boot Camp, runs 5 days, costs $3850, and covers most of the content found in the aforementioned book, iOS Programming: The Big Nerd Ranch Guide. In a later interview, Aaron told me that he encountered some early resistance to basing the training classes on books. After all, why would someone spend thousands of dollars on an intense training class when they could simply purchase the book for a small portion of that price?

The answer to that question is simple. While anyone could purchase the book and work their way through the various exercises contained within, what's missing is the expert who can quickly answer those inevitable questions that bring progress to a screeching halt. And as I noted, I tried to learn iOS development previously using Aaron's book, and other resources. But what happens is that real life gets in the way. And no matter how dedicated you are, no matter how badly you need to progress, you don't. You go slowly, you give it up for long periods of time, and you eventually just give it up.

In some ways, this mirrors learning a foreign language. Sure, you can avail yourself of Rosetta Stone software, online services like Livemocha, various podcasts, books, or iTunes U content, but in the end, if you really want to learn that language, you're going to have to spend time in a country in which that's the language that people speak. You need to be immersed in it. You can't just skim across the surface and hope to pick it up magically.

With a Big Nerd Ranch class, you're introduced to the programming version of language immersion, and forced to really focus on just this one thing for long periods of time for several days in a row. You can't take this class and do other things effectively, as I learned to my dismay but not surprise, simply because it is too intense. And unlike with the go-it-alone approach, you're forced to follow along, forced to keep up, and you make progress where you otherwise would not.

iOS developer boot camp

Consider any programming book. Regardless of whatever else is going on in your life, how many chapters can you realistically make it through, manually typing all the code examples, compiling and fixing errors, and testing code along the way? One? Two, maybe? But in the iOS boot camp, we worked through roughly six chapters a day.

It was rough going, and by design. Aaron's philosophy is that learning iOS development--which involves not just a new programming language but also a specific set of frameworks or libraries, and a new development environment, is hard learning. That is, it's not like learning history, which is easy learning. With history, you can learn about some event and use your previous understanding of history to place things in context. But with hard learning, there's nothing to fall back on. And that's true even if you know other object-oriented programming languages--as I do--or understand other frameworks or development environments. It's hard because you will always run into concepts that don't make sense and require research or, in the case of a class, a helping hand who can quickly answer your question and get you moving forward again.

As alluded to previously, there are three concepts to understand here, and most are likely quite new even to experienced programmers. These are the Objective-C programming language, the Cocoa Touch frameworks for iOS, and the Xcode development environment.

Objective-C is an object-oriented extension to the classic C programming language which, as its name suggests, "objectifies" C by adding object-oriented capabilities to the language. Objective-C dates back roughly to the same period when C++ was invented, and though the inventors of both languages had the same basic goal, they went about adding objects to C in completely different ways. And while I find Objective-C to be somewhat arcane and even old-fashioned, those who use it regularly, including Aaron and the class' instructor, Juan Pablo Claude, find it to be elegant, simple, and effective.

Actually, the word that both Aaron and Juan used with me privately, and separately, was "pure." What they mean is that Objective-C is a strict superset of C, with dynamic typing, as opposed to the less flexible static typing found in C++. The object-oriented extensions to C in Objective-C are based on Smalltalk, both conceptually and from a syntax/implementation standpoint, and this of course holds a certain attraction to lifelong students of development topics; C++, by comparison, is quirky and hard to master, and its various deficiencies--despite its popularity over two or more decades--eventually led to the creation of simpler and newer languages such as Java and C#.

Of course, for most programmers today, being fluent in various C-like languages has its pros and cons when it comes to learning a new C-like language. But Objective-C is unique. In various discussions with the roughly 20 people taking the class, most agreed with me that Objective-C was a blast from the past syntactically, and many had preferences for various other C-like languages. We all found it odd that an object-oriented language of any kind would rely on pointers as thoroughly as does Objective-C, and that we would be forced to manually manage memory; the elimination of these things, it seems to me, is the hallmark of any modern OOP language.

But back to that purity. Juan Pablo told me that the majority of iOS developers love Objective-C and that its simplicity and purity are the reasons it is superior to anything offered in C++. It's lighter, and more dynamic, and, yes, purer. It adheres to the principles of object-oriented programming more closely than does C++.

I never intended to hold up C++ as the example of how an OOP language should work, in fact I had many, many issues with C++ and believe that the more modern C-like OOP languages--C#, Java, and so on--are in fact superior. But as the week wore on, and as crucially, in the days since, I became obsessed with this language. I've rewatched numerous Apple training materials, downloaded from iTunes U and via the company's developer program, simply because my exposure to continuous, daily Objective-C programming has put me over the hump. I get Objective-C. I'm even coming to love it in my own way.

Less problematic up front are Apple's Cocoa Touch developer frameworks, classes of objects that tie the Objective-C programming language to the UI and underpinnings of iOS, the operating system behind the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Cocoa Touch is based on Cocoa, the Mac OS X developer framework, which is in turn based on the NextStep and OpenStep APIs that Apple acquired along with Steve Jobs and NeXT in late 1996. They are excellent, and with each subsequent iOS release, they're simply getting better. If you can grok Objective-C, understanding Cocoa Touch is easy, even freeing, and a welcome relief from the difficulty of understanding Objective-C.

The iOS development environment, Xcode, is like Objective-C in that it requires a lot of upfront work and is, in its own way, a form of hard learning too. Anyone who's used Microsoft's excellent Visual Studio toolset understands the value of a first-class developer environment, and while Xcode, like Cocoa Touch, has improved steadily over the years, I believe these tools are many years behind the Microsoft software. Certainly, it's gotten simpler. In the past year alone, the previously separate Xcode and Interface Builder tools, the latter of which provided a crazy array of floating windows, were finally combined into a single application window, for example. But the connections one must make between objects in the UI is non-discoverable and hokey, in my opinion, and a far cry from the simple, "double-click an object to get its default event handler" stuff you see in more modern environments. One might suggest that Apple will get it there over time, but I'm not so sure: There is an interesting 1:1 relationship between Objective-C/Cocoa Touch and Xcode that is no doubt there entirely by design. And as noted, people who develop for iOS come to love Objective-C. I bet they come to love Xcode too.

Anyway, while I'm not willing to give any quarter on Xcode, I am warming to Objective-C, and Cocoa Touch is indeed fantastic. But navigating this quagmire, no matter how proficient you are in other environments, requires some help.

This is where Juan Pablo comes in. I can't speak for other Big Nerd Ranch instructors, but Juan Pablo is something special. I've had this theory now for a long time that expertise isn't so much about knowing something as it is knowing where to look, and I've applied this theory to everything from IT to software development. But Juan Pablo proved to me why this theory is in fact flawed with his quick, efficient, and effortless way of solving even the most complex of problems. He could scan an unfamiliar passage of code and point to the mistake, or find the messed-up connection in Xcode (seriously, it's insidious), and get you back on track immediately.

Juan Pablo Claude

I was really impressed by this, envious really. While many of the people I work with are specialists and thus deal with very specific products or technologies, I am, as noted previously, a tech generalist. Juan Pablo, like Aaron, is an expert. And like Aaron, he doesn't just understand this stuff, he can communicate it very effectively. This is a powerful and unusual combination.

I asked Juan Pablo how this happened. And as it turns out, he took a Cocoa programming class from Aaron about 9 years ago after a career in academic chemistry. This was a defining moment, because he had wanted to be a programmer, but was torn between the safe path--his previous career--and what he was clearly born to do. He made the right choice. And he's been working for Big Nerd Ranch since 2005.

I was curious about his schedule. Juan Pablo told me that he led training sessions about once a month and spent the rest of his time practicing what he preaches by writing code for the company's consulting projects. (In addition to his focus on iOS, he also teaches web development classes.) He's also involved with upcoming books and book revisions, as Big Nerd Ranch intends to provide an accompanying book for each class it teaches.

When I finally explained to him why I was so impressed with his abilities, he said that Big Nerd Ranch afforded him the opportunity to experience what had always eluded him in the academic world, a chance to really teach people and be there for their ah-hah moments. "Here, I get paid for those little victories," he said. "That doesn't happen often enough in academics." Plus, he noted that people's tendencies often betrayed how they'd go about solving a problem. In other words, he was born to teach.

"What's different is that everyone who teaches at Big Nerd Ranch actually likes it, the students are happy, and they get a lot out of it, and have fun doing it," he explained. "I'm doing more academics now than I did when I was in academics."

I only attended half the class--literally the first two and a half days--and I shudder to think how far behind I'd be with my real job had I stayed for the full week. And full disclosure: I didn't pay for the class; Big Nerd Ranch allowed me to essentially audit the class for free. But I'm proud, maybe more than I should be, to note that I actually kept up with it. The class is brutal, and long, and intense. But it's a fulfilling and worthwhile activity, and I have no doubt that those who do make it through the entire week come away as far more effective iOS developers.

Ultimately, that's the goal, and the reason why an expensive class will always make more sense than just grabbing the book or perusing other resources. If you're serious about this, you need to take the class. If this is your career and you're moving into mobile app development or think you soon will be, yes, you really should take the class.

Which leads me somewhat naturally back to Aaron Hillegass and the genesis of this intense teaching method. Where did this all come from?

Introducing Aaron Hillegass

It begins, as these stories often do, with a summer job after the final year of high school. Or, as Aaron calls it, "the worst summer job ever," doing customer service work on the night shift. Sensing that there were better opportunities, he asked around and a friend working at Advanced Signal Processing Laboratories said they were looking for C programmers who knew UNIX 88. So he learned C programming on UNIX, naturally. "I was a music major at the time," Aaron said.

Aaron Hillegass

Later, while he was in grad school, the University of Washington purchased some NeXT computers, and like almost anyone who's been in the presence of such machines, Aaron was immediately impressed. He learned Objective-C, which NeXT was using for its development environment (as Apple would later when it purchased NeXT), and helped tweak a pipe organ simulator for a professor. And then he devoted his career, essentially, to Objective-C.

NeXT's computers never gained much traction with consumers or educational institutions because of the machines' heady expense, but they were popular on Wall Street, where the futuristic and (for the day) simple development environment outweighed the price as well as competing products from Sun that offered more raw horsepower. So Aaron found work on back-end processing systems for mortgage securities in the 1990s, leading to a small side trip in which I established him as the origin of the current economic crisis.

This experience also led to a job offer from NeXT, which was looking for someone to train developers how to use its developer tools and frameworks. Aaron accepted, and he worked at NeXT from 1994 through its acquisition by Apple, and then left the company in 1997.

Geek cred: Aaron's awesome NeXTWorld Expo 1993 shirt

If you're familiar at all with the history of NeXT, you'll know that there are two sides to this story. On the one hand, NeXT was phenomenally unsuccessful, hemorrhaging cash for over a decade as it lurched from one strategy to another, trying to find a niche for itself in the ever-commoditizing PC market. You can find out more about this period of time from such books at Steve Jobs and the Next Big Thing or The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. Both are fairly critical.

On the other hand, however, we have the inside look at NeXT from people who were actually there. And according to Aaron--who was there--some of the very things that others have criticized at NeXT were, in fact, its greatest strength. And his experience there clearly influenced much of what he's now doing with his own company.

"NeXT was about creating something great and refusing to compromise on quality," Aaron told me. "We would keep working on a product until we did something that was better significantly better than anything else in the market. It was a great place to work. We had visionary engineers, of course. But it wasn't just that. Everyone there was excellent, all the way from the top down to HR, or marketing. Everyone."

One thing is certain. While NeXT was never successful in a traditional sense, it did indeed develop truly great products and technologies, all of which were in their own way well ahead of their time. NeXTStep eventually gave way to OpenStep when NeXT exited the hardware business, opening up this environment to NT and Solaris hardware; this software, of course, is the basis for today's Mac OS X systems. And in addition to its user interfaces, frameworks, and devotion to Objective-C and its pure OOP principles, NeXT developed WebObjects, a leading-edge framework for creating dynamic web sites.

Aaron trained developers on OpenStep and WebObjects, but when Apple purchased NeXT, he felt that everything had changed. NeXT was a relatively small company, but Apple was gigantic, 30 times as large as NeXT from an employee count perspective, and it wasn't exactly on a roll at the time. Those were Apple's "darkest days," as Aaron noted, when the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy: Its purchase of NeXT was seen as a last-ditch effort to obtain a modern platform that it could use to replace its creaky and aging Mac OS.

That effort was of course successful, and then some. But in 1997, Aaron was ready for new challenges and he left Apple.

I probed him about this era, noting that it must have been a tough time. Yes, since then, his devotion to Objective-C and NeXT's then-futuristic development technologies has obviously paid off, as the NeXT purchase by Apple led to Mac OS X and then far more spectacular success with iOS, which powers the iPhone and iPad. But surely there was a long period of doubt and downtime in-between.

Not at all, Aaron told me. After a brief Dot Com startup sidetrack, Aaron spent the ensuing years doing NeXTStep/OpenStep and WebObjects consulting gigs and worked up the web sites for some fairly major corporations, including UPS and Nortel. And then Apple came calling, looking for someone to help train its own developers in Cocoa, the updated version of the OpenStep frameworks for what would become Mac OS X. There, he got an early peek at OS X, and came away excited. Apple was on the right track, he thought. And now he had a great idea for his own company.

Big Nerd Ranch, now and in the future

Big Nerd Ranch enters the picture on February 28, 2001, just before Aaron's first book, which of course concerned developing Mac OS X applications with Cocoa. His years of experience training developers on NeXT and Apple technologies guided both, of course, as did his experience working at NeXT. Not surprisingly, then, he's surrounded himself with great people, not just Juan Pablo, but also others, some of whom I've interacted with, always in a surprisingly pleasant fashion. If you can judge a person by the quality of his friends, it is perhaps equally true that you can judge a company by the quality of its hires. And on this note, Big Nerd Ranch is indeed impressive and clearly a continuation of NeXT's policies of hiring only the best.

Curiously, however, Big Nerd Ranch is not located in the thick of things in Silicon Valley but can instead be found in ... Atlanta, Georgia? I was curious how this came to be. Aaron's wife happens to be from the area, but it's not just that. "We knew that if we stayed in Silicon Valley, it would cost a fortune, and there is a certain burn rate when it comes to employees," Aaron explained. "Atlanta is all about its airport, which is the biggest in the world. It is really amazingly useful, the center of the universe."

Also, there's no shortage of talent in the Atlanta area. Big Nerd Ranch reaches out to students and alumni of Georgia Tech, the University of Florida, and even places as seemingly far-flung as the University of Texas. "There's a lot of East Coast talent that's not being fully utilized," Aaron noted.

The Big Nerd Ranch learning philosophy is simply stated. "You learn by doing," he said. "I keep babbling and you are learning. You mimic me and then, over time, you can do it too. This is how you learn something difficult like Objective-C and Cocoa Touch."

Half of the company's revenues are from training classes, but half come from less well-publicized contract programming. "People don't even know we do this stuff," Aaron said. But aside from the money, this work offers additional benefits in the form of a virtuous cycle: It keeps Big Nerd Ranch's employees--who are also its instructors--up to speed on the technologies they're teaching as well.

And while most of the company's training sessions are held at Historic Banning Mills currently, Aaron and his staff also make many on-site appearances and perform training sessions at corporations around the world. And it's not just iOS and Mac OS X training. Over time, they've had a slate of web development training classes and, more recently, Android OS development as well.

(Pressed by readers, I did ask Aaron whether he'll ever offer Windows Phone development training. He is absolutely open to this, but has seen no demand for such a class yet.)

"Our onsite corporate training doesn't provide the full Big Nerd Ranch experience," Aaron explained. "You're not isolated for the week. But on the other hand, we can tune these classes to the company's needs. And it is a week long." Many companies have availed themselves of this onsite option, including Microsoft (go figure), Intuit, Adobe, and Google. And of course others I can't mention.

Aaron also has big dreams for the future. While its relationship with Historic Banning Mills has worked out well for Big Nerd Ranch, the costs are going up all the time, and Aaron has always longed for his own facility. In fact, the original vision for Big Nerd Ranch was that of a "developer monastery," where programmers would come, ensconce themselves away from the troubles of the world like the monks of yore, and devote their days to programming rather than the careful transcription of hand-made bibles. However, someone suggested (probably correctly) that a nerd monastery wasn't necessarily an easy sell. So the company became Big Nerd Ranch. Now all it needs is a ranch.

Yes, Historic Banning Mills is sort of a ranch in that it does have horses. But in sharp contrast to most of today's tech businesses, which are often virtual if not temporary by design, Aaron wants to leave a physical legacy with Big Nerd Ranch. And that means its own facility, a real ranch, designed to stand the test of time and continue on after Aaron is gone. To this end, he has purchased 13 acres of land near Serenbe, Georgia, which is a scant 20 minutes from the Atlanta airport and thus all the more convenient.

"Having our own place makes sense," Aaron told me. "We can have more control over the schedule and the customer service experience. We're not doing this to save money, but to have a physical place that people can associate with Big Nerd Ranch, and be part of our brand. For employees, it means being part of something that is not virtual, part of something more permanent. It's good for the soul, gratifying."

Not so gratifying is the recent economic turndown, which has led to banks that are risk adverse, even though Aaron can and does show them a steady stream of profits and success. So while the actual construction of this new facility has been put off, Aaron has at least benefited from the financial downturn by being able to attract far more experienced architects and designers than would have otherwise been possible: They, like many others, found that work dried up over the past few years and were willing to charge less for their contributions.

Touring the site of Big Nerd Ranch's next home with Aaron

Aaron drove me out to the site of the new ranch, which, like Historic Banning Mills, is located in a pretty, heavily wooded area that will afford quiet and privacy. His plans are impressive. There's going to be an L-shaped main lodge, with a world-class classroom, a dining room, gym, and common room. There will be 20 bedrooms for students, each with its own bath and screened balcony.

The site will be geo-thermally heated and cooled, both for noise and efficiency reasons, and because a recent commercial/residential site has been pushed back as well, the site will use its own well water (with an accompanying water storage tower one can only imagine will be styled in an Old West fashion) and septic. "The only thing coming in from the outside is the electricity," Aaron noted.

"I want this to be a monastery that’s going to last 400 years and look like the local vernacular," he added, "with a standing seem metal roof and a southern feel. It will be quiet and contemplative, and maintainable for the long haul."

Aaron has other plans for the future as well. Big Nerd Ranch has several new books in development, as well as updates to come of its classic titles. New books include an advanced Mac OS X development title--for an internals class--an Objective-C book that's being finalized now and should ship in October, and an Android OS programming title that will hit in 2012. "The Android book covers Android OS 3 'Gingerbread' and roughly mirrors our iOS content. We assume you know Java, and since there are so many good Java books out there already, we won't be focusing on that space."

Big Nerd Ranch is also going international. In addition to its Frankfurt, Germany-based training classes, the company has established a partnership with the Appsterdam movement in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and will be using that location as its hub for all of Europe. "Schiphol Airport [in Amsterdam] is basically the Atlanta Airport of Europe," Aarons said. "It's centrally located [and is humongous], so this is a natural thing. We can use this facility to reach out to developers in Europe. Not all commerce happens in the United States."

The plan for Europe, of course, is to replicate Big Nerd Ranch's success in the US. And they'll offer corporation training around Europe as they do now in the US.

And beyond Europe?

"Latin America and Asia next?" Aaron smiled at this. "You never know."

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