In 2014, I spent 12 weeks at the Recurse Center, formerly (and at the time) known as Hacker School. After finishing up my time there in May of that year, a lot of people asked me reasonable questions like:
- How was the Recurse Center?
- Was attending RC worth your time?
- What did you learn at the Recurse Center?
My response to these questions was “I don’t know yet! It’s too early to say.” Now that more than a year has passed, I think I might have some idea of where to start.
How was the Recurse Center?
Intense. I felt a density of emotion and experience that was significantly greater than that which I normally experience, which is a large part of why it took me so long to arrive at an answer to this question.
The Recurse Center wasn’t my first rodeo; I have an undergraduate degree in computer science and have worked through some pretty punishing crunch times as a professional maker of software. The thirst for knowledge and accomplishment I felt from my fellow batchlings at RC, and the urgency it fostered in me, was something entirely new to me. I came into the space fighting a lot of negative feelings about the work it was possible to do in the world as someone who makes software. Many (although by no means all) RCers are early in their careers, and it was hugely restorative for me to be around, and share in, their enthusiasm and love for discovery. I wanted to write code again, and I wanted badly for it to be good, not just good enough.
The intensity of this experience wasn’t always positive. I had a lot of feelings. Some of them were feelings about work and the world and my place in it that I had been trying to avoid having for a long time. Some of them were new feelings about making new kinds of friends and trying new kinds of things, and the kind of failure you can experience when you’re trying with all your might to succeed. I think it would be disingenuous to act as though these feelings and their expression weren’t a huge part of my experience at the Recurse Center.
RC was also the first environment I’ve experienced where emotions were first-class objects. Sometimes, when you’re programming (just as when you’re doing anything), you feel things; we commonly acknowledge frustration or elation, but other emotions are possible too. At the Recurse Center, it seemed all right to name them, understand them, and take the time they demanded.
Was attending RC worth your time?
Unquestionably. To quote from my application:
What do you want to be doing in two years?
I’d like to be spending most of my coding time working on an Open Source project that’s having a positive impact on information security[…]. I’d also like to be teaching or mentoring others who are interested in coding.
It didn’t even take two years to get at least partway there! You can see for yourself where most of my programming time is going. I can draw a direct line from my time at the Recurse Center to the work I’m doing now, and I think the work I’m doing now is worthwhile. I think that it generally has a positive impact on information security, but maybe it’s too early to say yet. (It hasn’t yet been two years, anyway!)
To be a bit less self-centered, I’ve made several amazing friends through the Recurse Center. Having even one of them in my life would have been worth three months of my time, and the positive effect of a number of friends is nonlinear.
What did you learn at the Recurse Center?
I spent three solid months trying to learn things! Luckily they won’t all fit in a single word, a single sentence, or a single blog post. The answer most people are looking for is something like “I learned some Haskell, Elm, and OCaml”, which is true but not very illuminating.
A large part of the reason I wanted to attend RC was a newfound belief that a better world was possible. I wasn’t yet convinced that I, personally, had any place in making software less broken or the communities around it more welcoming; I thought it was pretty likely that I didn’t have enough to offer to be part of that endeavor. I don’t think that any more, and I think that’s probably the most valuable thing I took home with me from New York City.
A lot of people who ask questions like the one above are actually working their way toward another question:
- Should I (or my friend or my child or my parent) attend the Recurse Center?
Do you want to? If so, I think you should.