Alumni Spotlight: Apples and Onions

Alumni pursue creative careers at major companies
Two headshot style photos placed side by side. On the left, Hassan S. Ali depicted against a white backdrop. On the right, Aaron Ackermann with foliage in the background
I've been blown away…[by] how many different kinds of careers and how many different possibilities are out there for smart, hardworking, passionate people...
Aaron Ackermann
Class of 1998

UChicago students are renowned for their uniqueness. When students leave the College, they enter a wide diversity of fields, from startup coders to investment bankers to authors to public servants. But even amidst similar fields, jobs and experiences can differ greatly. This spotlight series shines a light on alumni whose careers are as unique as the College from which they graduated.

Hassan S. Ali, AB’07

Everyone loves The Onion for its biting satire. Its clever and socially relevant tone carries over into its branded content as well, due in part to people like alumnus Hassan S. Ali, a creative on The Onion Labs Team and The Onion’s Creative Marketing Director.

“[We] put a funny Onion-y spin on what the brand is trying to say,” he said about his approach to marketing. “It’s a good experience for someone who's visiting the website—[our work] doesn't seem like a normal, junky ad. [It’s] something that feels organic and natural.”

As an undergraduate at UChicago, Ali majored in economics but found he wasn’t interested in a traditional finance career. He recalled leaving an interview for a job at the FDIC and telling himself, “I am not doing this. This was not me at all.”

He sought a “happy medium” between his interest in economics and his creative pursuits, which were fueled by working at The Chicago Maroon and Fire Escape Films during the school year and landing summer internships at places like UChicago Magazine. “Advertising is a really good blend of [economics and creativity],” he said.

Despite not following a traditional economics career path, Ali said that his coursework has come in handy. “From econ, believe it or not, the biggest thing I took away was incentives,” he said. “In advertising we're talking about incentives too, what makes someone want to buy something [and] what makes someone want to laugh.”

At The Onion, Ali has been part of a variety of projects, including “Lawn BnB,” a satirical ad for Scotts Miracle-Gro that mimicked the Airbnb business model, but for lawns. “It went really well, people loved it. As a writer, it was really fun to work on,” he said.

Outside of his work at The Onion, Ali has dabbled in chatbots. One, called “Botline Bling,” allows users to simulate texting Drake. Another, called the “Boy Bye Bot,” is “a grown up version of the Rejection Hotline.” A person could give out the bot’s number, but when someone texted it, it would respond with strange texts and articles.

For students, Ali suggests they experiment with different fields and careers. “Your twenties are supposed to be for testing things out,” he said. “Do that, test things out, test industries out. Go on informational interviews.”

 

Aaron Ackermann, AB’98

When Aaron Ackermann, a director in Apple’s Marketing and Communications group, was an undergrad at UChicago, he had no idea that his current job was even a possibility.

“I've been blown away…[by] how many different kinds of careers and how many different possibilities are out there for smart, hardworking, passionate people,” he said.

While some companies use other creative agencies to do marketing, Apple produces everything “in-house.” The Design Team that Ackermann manages has a hand in creating many of the things you see and hear about Apple products, from packaging to billboards.

“I've been lucky to work on a ton of big projects and one of the things about Apple is that we're sort of never satisfied with what we've done. We're always trying to do better,” Ackermann said. He’s worked on product launches for the first iPod, the iPhone, and the first iPad, as well as the launch for the new Apple Store on Michigan Avenue, which opened last October.

At UChicago, Ackermann majored in Fundamentals: Issues & Texts, a major in which students structure their studies around a question of their own design. “I was interested in how people make big changes in their lives. Big shifts. And I was interested in particular the role that confessions played for some people….So I studied Rousseau, Don Quixote, Kierkegaard, and some Freud,” he said.

While the specific content of what he studied may not come up in his day-to-day life, the skills he learned at UChicago were timeless. Communications skills, he said, were especially helpful because they helped him figure out his own voice and think about ways he could contribute to a place like Apple.

After graduating, Ackermann said he “made the best decision I could...and went into a job where I thought I could learn a lot.” He started out at consulting firm Ernst & Young where he worked on a variety of projects that helped him identify the work he enjoys doing most.

He took what he learned in consulting and applied it to business development in design firms, combining his skills with his interests in art, design, and architecture. He worked at design firm Frog Design writing proposals, making presentations, and helping the firm decide which projects to take on. “That kind of skills plus enthusiasm...got me into a design role that led to Apple,” Ackermann said.

Ackermann then went on to get his MBA and eventually found his way to a job at Apple. “I've grown a lot within the company,” he said. “I feel like I've had five jobs since I've been here, but that's kept me here.”

Ackermann recommends that students reach out to other people for help—whether those are advisers in Career Advancement or another mentor.

“You're going to be learning more over these next few years as you go into your first few jobs, you're just learning, learning, learning constantly,” he said. “You want to choose good ‘professors’ out in the real world. You want to find good managers...and [if] you're not sure about the company but you really love the manager, you might learn a ton from that person.”

Tagged: Alumni, careers, apple, the onion, marketing