Whatling a techie with a small-town heart
By DOUGLAS BURNS
AJ Whatling is inspired by technology. And he loves small-town Iowa.
With software developer Pillar’s launch into Jefferson, Whatling will have an opportunity to bring both passions together.
Whatling, 30, a native of Leighton (pop. 162) in the Pella-Oskaloosa area, will be moving to Greene County as a mentor/guide, as well as a software developer with Pillar Technology’s Jefferson branch, what the company calls a Forge.
Whatling has been with Pillar at its Forge in Des Moines for two years.
“AJ will be leading the Forge Academy in Jefferson,” said Linc Kroeger, one of Pillar’s top officials in Iowa and a leader in bringing the digital revolution to Iowa.
The Forge Academy is the pre-apprenticeship training program initially focused on developing software craftsmanship skills.
As part of that, Whatling will work with the faculty and students of Greene County Schools (and other nearby 7th-12th school systems), Iowa Central Community College in Jefferson, and Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll to cultivate an increasing number of students to be prepared for the Forge Academy.
“AJ will also be key to the success of firing up our software craftsmanship teams in the Jefferson Forge to complete real-world projects for clients in creating their next-generation technology products,” Kroeger said in an interview with The Jefferson Herald.
One of those clients: the San Francisco 49ers.
“We want to make sure we bring these Triple A projects out to Iowa,” Whatling said.
Whatling graduated from high school in Pella before moving on to Iowa State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2011. He lives in Ankeny, but plans to move from his apartment there to Greene County. He’d like to live in the country.
“I have the flexibility right now to do something awesome,” Whatling said.
Whatling said he appreciates rural Iowa and is eager for the Jefferson opportunity.
“Even when I was in high school I learned to love the rural areas,” Whatling said in an interview.
Whatling was born in Des Moines and lived there for a decade as a youth.
“When we moved, I didn’t like the rural atmosphere, the smells, it was just kind of weird and different,” he said. “But then I grew to love it. There is something peaceful about living out in rural Iowa. In high school, I really decided I wanted to live in rural Iowa. I want an acreage. I want my red barn, a beautiful farmhouse.”
Whatling said he enjoys working with horses and chickens — and that his dream is to have an acreage near Jefferson.
“I’m really excited to come to Jefferson,” Whatling said. “I’m really glad to be coming here.”
Other people have rural-leaning interests, too, Whatling said, adding that Pillar gives them a chance to pursue a life here.
“People that have that same desire, these young adults, should not feel obligated that they have to move to Des Moines,” Whatling said. “We have the technology now. We have fiber-optics. So people can live wherever they want and they can do these jobs. I think that will be a help in keeping people in rural Iowa, in rural areas all over the country.”
Leading technology figures from household Silicon Valley brands like Microsoft and LinkedIn agree.
They visited Jefferson on Dec. 8 for a landmark event organized by Kroeger to bridge rural America and prosperous reaches of the West Coast.
The event has garnered national attention.
U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat who represents the Silicon Valley area of California in Congress, said 180,000 to 200,000 tech jobs that are being outsourced internationally can be done instead in rural places in the nation.
Khanna sees it as a way to reduce political polarization, much of which springs from a rural-urban divide.
“Mark down this night because it is the start of a revolution,” DMACC President Rob Denson said that evening at a reception at RVP-1875’s History Boy Theatre, where Whatling was first introduced to the public.
Whatling said the Forge in Jefferson is designed to employ up to 30 people when it opens in 2019 in the century-old former IOOF building on East State Street, now undergoing a $1.8-million renovation.
“A day in the life of a person working there will be roughly the same thing you see in the Des Moines Forge,” Whatling said. “And this is, you have software artisans for developing the software. You have people who are leading teams and helping ensure the delivery of that software and then you are going to have leadership roles.”