Expertise, community and fun: Why you should take a Big Nerd Ranch class

Terry Kavanagh's Headshot

Editor’s note: Terry Kavanagh is a two-time Big Nerd Ranch bootcamp alum who has attended classes at our Atlanta-area Ranch and Big Nerd Ranch Europe. Follow him on Twitter: @tepeka. __Alumni, if you’d like to share your experience with Big Nerd Ranch, let us know in the comments.


Mark Dalrymple wrote a post here recently on “leveling up,” or staying ahead of the curve on new technologies. His piece struck a nerve with me – it’s amazing that Mark, someone with programming chops I can’t even begin to aspire to, makes sure he’s constantly learning.

But Mark neglected to mention one really good way to get on top of a subject: taking a Big Nerd Ranch class. That’s odd, because I know for a fact that he still does that. I met him a couple of months ago when we both took the inaugural Cross-Platform JavaScript Apps with HTML5 class instructed by Chris Aquino at Historic Banning Mills.

It says a lot about Big Nerd Ranch that its staff are prepared to eat their own dog food and go through the same training courses that the rest of us mortals attend. Though it has to be said that it’s a bit daunting to see someone like Mark, who has literally written the book, sitting across the aisle from you.

But it’s also reassuring. It’s an indication of the quality of the week that you’re getting into: a full-on, intensive learning experience that packs your brain to overflowing. The HTML5 course was my second class with Big Nerd Ranch, and probably won’t be my last.

Why I keep coming back

For starters, I’ve really never found a better way to get on top of a subject. Reading books is good; following the examples and working through the exercises works. But when you don’t understand the point being made, or can’t complete an exercise, a book loses its value. Also, it’s just too easy to put the book away because you’re tired at the end of a long work day or because you’ve got another pressing project at the office that needs your attention.

My first Big Nerd Ranch course was the Beginning iOS bootcamp, taught by the excellent Scott Ritchie at the former European training location at Kloster Eberbach in Germany. I’d been to training courses before, but everything about the experience exceeded my expectations. For one, the location was superb–a medieval monastery with beautiful grounds for the daily post-lunch walk. But it was the class itself that blew me away. Scott really knew his stuff, explaining complex issues in an understandable way, and then explaining why things work the way they do. Better still, I’ve never seen a teacher handle questions from the class the way he did. Often, it doesn’t take too deep a discussion before a teacher reveals how thin his or her knowledge actually is. Scott knocked every pitch out of the park, all week long.

He’s got skills in iOS development _and _music: Scott Ritchie plays the low D whistle in the basilica of Kloster Eberbach.

But the value of a Big Nerd Ranch class isn’t just in the teacher, it’s in knowing that you’re going to be surrounded by smart people who are eager to learn. No one is there to waste time. Everyone wants to get all they can out of the course. Everyone is willing to help their neighbor. The atmosphere is intense, but fun. It’s hard work, but relaxed enough to ensure that you’re never daunted by the firehose of information coming your way.

And it doesn’t hurt that Big Nerd Ranch chooses great locations. You can justify the “retreat” by saying that you need to get away from the distractions of work and family life in order for the learning to sink in, but be prepared to explain exactly why you felt the need to go surfing in Monterey, ziplining at Historic Banning Mills or wine-tasting in Germany–or whatever it is they get up to at the European location in Holland. I’m just warning you: get your story straight before you get home.

So the next time I find myself stuck on a problem with a new language, or needing to take my understanding to the next level, I know I’ll return to a reliable source. And if I see another coding illuminatus like Mark sitting in the class, I’ll smile and nod and congratulate myself on a decision well-made.

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