The real cowboys of computer programming

Marketplace Staff Apr 2, 2007

The real cowboys of computer programming

Marketplace Staff Apr 2, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: It wasn’t so long ago a computer would fit only on your desk and not in your backpack. When phones had to be attached to walls. And all they did was let you talk. Nowadays, you can carry as much computing power in your pocket as the biggest supercomputer had back in the 1970s.

But to help program all those gizmos, software designers are taking a cue from a simpler past. Philip Graitcer found a place where techies go to enjoy the silence.

PHILIP GRAITCER: We’re in the middle of a 14,000-acre nature preserve in middle Georgia. And inside a resort hotel dappled by sunlight and surrounded by swaying pines, Aaron Hillegass teaches 17 tenderfoots about the complex beauty of software coding.

AARON HILLEGASS: So we actually use a C function for this, and the C function is N S run alert panel. You give it the title . . .

Welcome to the Big Nerd Ranch. Hillegass founded it six years ago so computer developers could focus on learning programming skills far from outside distractions.

Hillegass was the head trainer at Next and Apple. To programmers, he’s kinda like Yoda, but taller. He says Big Nerd isn’t so much a ranch as a kind of zen hideaway.

HILLEGASS: Monks would retreat from the world so they could do their spiritual work, in quiet and in a community. So I didn’t think I could sell “The Big Nerd Monastery,” so we came up with the idea of the Big Nerd Ranch.

A couple other companies offer similar training. But those are day-long seminars held in rented meeting rooms. Compared to that, the Big Nerd Ranch is like Club Med. From the moment developers arrive until they leave six days later, all nerd needs are attended to.

HILLEGASS: The idea in a monastery is that prayers happen at a certain point and meals happen at a certain time. And there are no surprises, because surprises would be distracting from what you’re there for. So we always make every day exactly the same, and everyone knows what’s going to happen after the first day.

The ranch’s logo is a 10-gallon hat with a pinwheel on top. But at the Big Nerd Ranch, you won’t find horses. Or any other ranch activities, really. There wouldn’t be time. Nerds spend 12-hour days mastering computer application tools while munching cookies and downing unlimited Mountain Dews.

At 8:30, 12:30 and 6:30, there’s plenty of time to discuss computer applications some more over buffet meals. And everyday, precisely at 2 o’clock, there’s a nature walk.

Standard topic of conversation: computer applications.

[SOUND: Programmers talking]

It costs $3,500 for the week-long course. But most students’ employers pick up the tab. We’re talking big companies like Apple, Google, or General Dynamics. The payoff is programmers who can design bigger and better software. Well, “better” anyway.

Ashley Hottgraver is working on a not-so-big program she calls “Eggminder.”

ASHLEY HOTTGRAVER: You put in how many eggs you eat a day and you put in how many eggs you have in the fridge, and it will tell you — advise — when you need to buy eggs.

For students, of course, the real payoff is a chance to commune with their nerd brothers and sisters.

Patrick Usser works for a California sound production company.

PATRICK USSER: You know, you can go out and buy a book, but it’s not the same thing as being around a bunch of people who share the same interests. You can start talking to somebody about stupid things . . . like something that interested me about the spotlight API.

The “spotlight API,” by the way, is an application tool.

OK, so it’s not exactly singing cowboy songs ’round the campfire. But for nerds, this kind of thing makes them feel right at home on the range.

In Pine Mountain, Ga., I’m Philip Graitcer for Marketplace.

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