Interview with Aaron Hillegass of Big Nerd Ranch

Today we are very happy to feature an interview with Aaron Hillegass, the famous tech instructor from the Big Nerd Ranch. We have reviewed his Mac OS X books in the past and this time we are going to talk about the actual process of the classes going on in the ranch every so often.

1. In general, who can attend your classes? What kind of programming experience must the participants have?

Aaron Hillegass: The courses assume different levels of experience, but all assume that
the student is bright and motivated.

Aaron Hillegass We try to address the needs of many different audiences. For example,
our “PHP 5 Bootcamp” (taught by David Sklar, author of O’Reilly’s
“Learning PHP 5”) requires only HTML experience. “Core Mac OS X and
Unix Programming,” on the other hand, is for experienced programmers
who need a deep understanding of how Mac OS X works.

When you name your company “Big Nerd Ranch”, you tend to get students
who are comfortable with who they are. I spend a lot of time with our
students, and I am consistently surprised what a pleasant group they

2. Describe to us the nature of the classes. How does it work exactly? Is there any student participation in the process of the teaching?

Aaron Hillegass: Each class is a series of about 25 modules. Each module includes a 25
minute lecture and a one-hour hands-on exercise. Each class comes with
a student guide and a CD of materials. We break for meals, and we take
a walk in the woods every afternoon as the post-prandial grogginess
sets in.

We carefully limit the size of the classes to no more than 16 students
so that each participant has easy access to the instructor.

We don’t try to sell the technology. If you are at the class, we
assume you have bought in — a sales talk would just waste everyone’s
time. In fact, we try to demonstrate a tools weaknesses. For example,
during our PostgreSQL class, we go over the official TODO list so that
the students know exactly what is missing.

3. Which are the most popular classes you host for Mac OS X and which ones for Linux?

Aaron Hillegass: Introductory level classes are always more popular than advanced
classes, so it is tempting to eliminate the advanced courses
altogether. Our students, however, really appreciate that there is a
place where they can go to learn the tricky stuff. Also, we really
enjoy teaching heavy classes.

“Cocoa Bootcamp” and “Core Mac OS X Programming” are only offered on
Mac OS X. If you take our PostgreSQL, Python, PHP, or Apache class,
you can choose the platform that you want to work on. We have both
Macs and PCs, so some weeks we have Linux, FreeBSD, Mac OS X, and even
Windows in the classroom. We really enjoy the opportunity to see other
operating systems in action.

These days, many students bring their own laptops. This enables them to
work in the exact same environment that they will have when they return
to work.

4. Do you have plans to expand your classes to other subjects?

Aaron Hillegass: We are always looking for new instructors and new topics to teach.
This year we will add classes on Perl, Asterisk, and Administering
Mixed Linux/MacOS/Windows Networks.

5. Describe to us the actual ranch. Do you have animals, fields? How do the student cabins look like? How’s the common room? Is the town far away?

Aaron Hillegass: The ranch is not as rustic as it sounds. The rooms are large with
jacuzzi tubs and balconies. Yes, there are some horses, but we also
have a swimming pool and miniature golf.

It is nestled into the woods on the edge of a stream, and our afternoon
walks wander over several hundred acres of forest.

Town is pretty far away — when you are at the ranch, you are at the
ranch. It has been compared to a low-security prison, but I like to
think it is much more comfortable.

The classroom is large and comfortable. It has a view of the gorge and
the stream below. We have invested in 17″ LCD screens and ergonomic
work chairs so that a week in the classroom is as pleasant as possible.

6. Do you plan to write another book? If yes, on what subject?

Aaron Hillegass: I’ve found that teaching a topic for a few years enables me to write a
much better book. Thus, I’ve been involved with two really good books
(“Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X” and “Core Mac OS X and Unix
Programming”), but I will never have that many titles to name.

Big Nerd Ranch does some consulting, and last year we helped two
companies roll out applications that use Cocoa for their front-end and
PostgreSQL for the back. In the process, we have found PostgreSQL to be
a very mature and sophisticated database. Chris Campbell and I have
written a brilliant course on PostgreSQL, and I hope that in a few
years it will become a book.

7. I hear that there is no cellular reception in the ranch (which is a good thing for the most part). However, what kind of internet access is
available? Is there WiFi/ethernet on student cabins?

Aaron Hillegass: For a while, we had a satellite link, and the internet connection would
disappear on rainy days. I found that people concentrated better when
the connection was down, but they complained bitterly.

Today, we have a T-1 line to the ranch and a wireless network
throughout the lodge. There is an ethernet jack in every room. Your
boss will not be able to call you, but he can send you email — even on
rainy days.

8. You have been a Unix, NeXT and now an OSX/Linux developer and instructor. How do you see the OS landscape in general, today? And what do you think it could happen in the future?

Aaron Hillegass: In my experience, a good piece of software takes ten years to write.
You can ship something after two years, but it takes ten years before
it is truly complete. I try not to use software that is less than ten
years old. Cocoa, for example, is now over ten years old. Linux is
over ten years old.

Given that there are now operating systems, databases, web browsers,
and user interfaces toolkits that are truly mature, the
general-purpose purpose tools are complete. In the coming years, we
turn our attention to taking care of the needs of specific audiences.

Tivo, for example, is based on free software, but it is an operating
system designed specifically for TV-watchers. That is why it is so
reliable and easy to use.

Example: In the future, I believe there will be an AccountingOS
specifically for accountants. It will be based on free software, but
will include a fully integrated suite of applications designed for
accountants. The development costs of AccountingOS will be covered by
the American Accounting Association, and the hundreds of companies that
make accounting software will simply disappear. Eventually, of course,
AccountingOS will fork into TaxAccountingOS and AuditAccountingOS.

But, you shouldn’t trust my predictions, when I saw the first web
browser in 1992 (it only ran on NeXT computers), I said, “This is just
dumb. It is like FTP, but I can only get one file at a time. Why would
anyone want to use this…what did you call it?…’World Wide Web’?”


  1. 2005-02-09 10:01 pm
  2. 2005-02-09 10:21 pm
  3. 2005-02-10 12:27 am
  4. 2005-02-10 3:58 pm
  5. 2005-02-10 11:57 pm
  6. 2005-02-16 8:11 am