The Nerdery geeks out with fun at work

Employees share a pint during one of the weekly Bottlecap happy hours. Right: The "Danger Room" is one of five themed conference rooms at the Nerdery's Bloomington office.
Jayme Halbritter

Tucked away in an outwardly unassuming warehouse in Bloomington, the Nerdery is a geek's dream come true.

Billed as the ultimate home for nerds, the Nerdery is consistently ranked as one of the best employers in the state. It was featured as one of the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces and ranked no. 1 on Mpls. St. Paul Business Journal's Best Places to Work.

At its core, the Nerdery creates websites, applications for sites like Facebook, and smart phone apps.

"We sell access to smart people," says Mark Hurlburt, vice president of marketing, referencing the approximately 400 "nerds" who call the Nerdery their intellectual, creative, and even social home.

The Nerdery creates a home away from home by giving its employees many of the benefits of contract work, including flexible hours, casual dress, a fully stocked breakfast bar, and permission to bring their dogs to the office. But software engineer Mark Seemann says the homey feeling goes beyond the office amenities.

"Those are the easiest things to see, they're the artifacts of the culture," Seemann said. "But the underlying message is that it's okay to be who you are when you are here. If you have a dog, bring them with you. If you like to eat breakfast in the middle of the day, go ahead."

Dogs have been a staple of Nerdery offices since the company's inception, when co-founder Mike Schmidt started bringing his dog Bentley to the office. Now more than 30 employees bring their canine friends to work every day and 20 others bring their dogs occasionally, according to a company survey.

The nerds don't meet in average boardrooms. The office has five conference rooms decorated in nerd fashion. "Springfield" is a replica of the Simpsons' living room, "Brick House" is made out of Legos, and "Starship" is Trekkie heaven.

"[The conference rooms] let you be happier and keep a positive attitude," says Seemann. "You're going to work better and think better if you're in the Simpsons' living room."

Employees are kept on their toes. It's not uncommon for them to break away from their computers after hearing announcements over the intercom such as, "Those who want to participate in a human pyramid, meet at Chris's desk at 12:15."

But the ultimate challenge is the biannual Pentathanerd Games. The games test employees in five nerdy tasks — including pun competitions — and one finale event. This year one of the tasks was a team Rubik's cube puzzle, during which one blindfolded nerd had to manipulate the cube based on the instructions of his team members. One team solved it in 70 seconds.

The acceptance rate for developers here is lower than Harvard's (4 percent), so it takes a special breed to be crowned a nerd.

Before they throw their hat in the ring, job seekers can see if they're a good fit for the unique work culture. "Try Before You Apply" events give wannabe nerds a chance to tour the office, meet current employees, and chat with nerd hunters about the application process.

The application for most positions consists of an eight- to ten-hour coding challenge and two or three interviews to see if the applicant's personality suits the office atmosphere.

"You have to be willing to learn technology and not only be a good worker but also a good cultural fit," Seemann says.

The playful work environment stretches back to the company's inception, when it was just a business started by three developer friends. Co-Founders Mike Schmidt, Mike Derheim, and Luke Bucklin met at Southwest Data Systems in 2000. The three became close and kept in touch even as they moved on to different jobs and across the country.

Derheim says they joked about starting a software business for years and spent less than a month talking about it seriously before they quit their jobs to start Sierra Bravo Corp. together in 2003. Sierra Bravo was rebranded "The Nerdery" in late 2010.

In October 2010, tragedy struck the Nerdery when Bucklin and three of his sons died after his private plane crashed in a Wyoming mountain range.

"There was certainly time needed for grieving," Derheim says. "We have a really great team, and it was their commitment to our vision that helped us to carry on after [Bucklin's death]."

One of the legacies Bucklin left behind was the idea of a company of co-presidents. In the wake of the tragedy, the employees determined that they didn't need a new president. Instead, every employee was named a co-president of the Nerdery. The change was inspired by an all-staff email from Bucklin urging employees to act beyond their job titles and launch their own projects and initiatives.

While search crews spent a week looking for Bucklin and his sons, Nerdery employees got bracelets that said "co-president," and some continue to wear them to this day. New employees are given a co-president bracelet and a copy of Bucklin's email on their first day. "Co-president" remains part of every employee's title.

"Being a co-president permeates every part of the company. You can feel it when you walk in. It's just an open, all-hands-on-deck philosophy," Derheim said. "We expect everyone to transcend their role and hold themselves to a higher standard."

A constant stream of new hires helps the Nerdery handle the increases in clients and project size, which continue to climb at a healthy rate. The company recently outgrew its current office space, something it has been doing almost annually.

"As tech people, we come from an understanding and perspective that everything we put in place today can change 180 degrees tomorrow," Derheim says. "You just learn to adapt." 

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