The Recurse Center: A Q&A for Past Me

This spring, I spent three months at the Recurse Center. It's an experience that's hard to explain succinctly -- the best attempts I've seen refer to it as "a writer's retreat, but for programmers." I also referred to it as my sabbatical: I had been working as a software engineer at the same company since graduating from undergrad three and a half years earlier, and I was ready to see what other parts of the industry were like. Spending three months at the Recurse Center sounded like a great way to transition between the job I was in and whatever I chose to do next.

Between making the decision to apply and showing up for my batch, I did a lot of research into what the program is like. That research was mostly searching for the blogs of Recurse Center (or, at the time, Hacker School) alumni and trying to extract whatever tidbits of information I could from them. There were still some things that I was curious about, though, and I didn't want to spend all of my time bugging the few alumni I knew, so my curiosity often went unsatisfied.

This blog post is for that past me (or for anyone else who also deals with nerves by researching and overpreparing). A lot of it will overlap with the FAQ, the Manual, and other sources, but I'll try to fill some of it in with my personal experience where I can.1 Of course, RC is a constantly shifting experiment, so some of my experience might not accurately reflect how things work now.


What's the application like?

The application is here. I included links to this blog and my GitHub, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. My CracklePop was in Hy and the program I linked to was Pyet.

What about the rest of the process?

The FAQ goes into great detail about this. The first interview is a casual conversation that ranges over a lot of the stuff in your application -- what are your interests, what do you want to work on, why are you applying to RC. I did mine with Zach, and the experience was so low stress that all I remember about it is that Zach was very friendly and it was very pleasant. (Thanks, Zach!). The second interview is pair programming on something you wrote. I paired with Dave on refactoring my Redactron NaNoGenMo project. I was very nervous -- I think at one point I forgot how to reverse a sequence in Python using a slice. Despite my nerves, working with Dave was a lot of fun. (Thanks, Dave!)

What's the timeline on all of this stuff?

The folks at RC respond as promptly as they can (and guarantee a response within three weeks of your application submission). If you're asked to interview, the timeline will vary a lot depending on things like how open your schedule is for interviews and how swamped the RC folks are.

My timeline looked like this:

  • Day 0: Submit application
  • Day 3: Asked to schedule 1st interview
  • Day 16: 1st interview
  • Day 17: Asked to schedule 2nd interview
  • Day 19: 2nd interview
  • Day 19: Accepted

The big gap in getting to the first interview was because of schedule conflicts2 -- everything on the RC side was very prompt.

What is the admissions process looking for?

The docs are a little more circumspect about this one, so prepare for wild speculation.3 Trying to reverse engineer it from my experience so far meeting Recursers, the process seems to look at two very broad things:

Will you be able to guide your own growth as a programmer? There are lots of people at RC (faculty, the members of your batch and the batches you overlap with, alumni, and residents) who will be happy to help you learn what you'd like to, but you're ultimately responsible for deciding what that is and then actually going about doing it.

Will you be a good community member? You're going to spend three months in close proximity to a few dozen other people, and another month and a half each with the batches immediately ahead of and after you. Are you going to support the people around you? Will you be fun to pair with even when things get challenging? Are you still kind when you get frustrated?4 Will you follow the social rules to the best of your abilities to help make sure other folks have a safe space to learn in?

Of course, there are a lot of other factors that can come into play (if nothing else, there's only so much room in the space and so batches can only be so big). With that said, the Recursers I've met so far have had a wide variety of backgrounds but all fit that broad pattern: they're all intellectually curious people who want to be better programmers, and they collectively form the most welcoming and friendly community I've been a part of. If you're interested in spending time at RC, fitting that pattern can't hurt.

Between Acceptance and Arrival

What happens once you're accepted?

In terms of RC things, once you've confirmed, you just wait. A couple of weeks before your batch, you'll gain access to some of the subforums of the internal forum -- specifically, "Welcome" for introducing yourself and "Housing" to help out with the housing hunt if you still haven't found a place. At this point, you'll also be able to see some RCer-only sections of the Manual. You'll gain access to the rest of the forum, the internal chat, and a bunch of other fun things on the first day.

Living in NYC

How do I find housing?

Most Recursers end up subletting. There are lots of ways to find sublets, including AirBnB, Craigslist, and The Listings Project. Alumni and current Recursers will also post in the Housing subforum when they find out about housing options that may be a good fit for the incoming batch.

Where's RC and how do I get there?

The docs don't get more specific than "near the intersection of Broadway and Grand St in Manhattan," so I won't either. It's easy walking distance from lots of subway lines (among others, the A, C, E, J, N, Q, R, Z, 6 on Canal) and when the weather cooperates many Recursers choose to commute in by bicycle instead.

How much time is there to explore the city?

A lot and too little. Fridays are optional, so you have three day weekends whenever you want them. With that said, I found that I barely checked anything off of my NYC tourist list -- I just spent too much time working on projects, hanging out with Recursers, and recovering from spending the week working and hanging out.

Life at RC

When are people at RC?

Normal hours are 10:30a to 6:30p from Monday to Thursday, but Recursers in current batches have 24/7 access to the space and in practice there are often people in the space at all hours of the night and day.

What do people bring to RC?

Everyone brings something to program with. Beyond that, it's all about what will make your workspace comfortable and keep you happy and learning. What that means can vary a lot, but it sometimes includes things like headphones or external mice and keyboards. There are cubbies in the space to store things, and people will often leave gear on the tables overnight.

What do people eat?

Some folks bring their lunches in (there's a fridge and a microwave in the space), but there are also usually at least a couple of lunch groups that will coordinate over the internal chat and fetch lunch from nearby restaurants.

How strict is the time commitment?

While you're expected to be in the space during the normal hours (in for checkins at 10:30a and not out until after 6ish in the afternoon) from Monday to Thursday, the community recognizes both that life can get complicated and that self-care is important. No-one will judge you if you have some errand that's time-sensitive to run during the day or if you need to take a day off to recover from a particularly intense week.

What about the social rules?

The manual's section on social rules does a great job of covering it. In practice, the rules are easy to internalize and Recursers are excellent at catching themselves when they slip up on one of the rules. On the other hand, mistakes still happen -- I know that there are some habits I've found hard to break.5 Luckily, corrections are usually quick, direct, and unobtrusive -- no-one wants to shame you if you make a mistake.

How long does it take to get the hang of things?

This is something that varies a lot too! Nearly everyone I've spoken to agrees that the first week or two get spent being overwhelmed by the new experience. Beyond that, Recursers I've talked to have said they felt like they really hit their stride as early as right after that initial introductory period to as late as the last couple of weeks. I didn't feel like I was really productive until about halfway through my batch, and I've heard that echoed often. The nice thing is that the skills you work on at RC often translate well to being productive out in the world, so you can have your epiphany on the last day and still gain a lot from it.

Never Graduating

What does being an alum look like?

This is something I'm still working on figuring out! There are lots of opportunities to stay engaged, but being an alum is even less structured than being in a batch. Regardless of where you end up or how you choose to stay involved, the internal chat and forums are always available to you, and having that community in easy reach is a powerful tool.

Was it worth it?

Yes. 1

Other Resources

What are those blogs you used to learn more about RC?

There were lots! Here are some that I found particularly useful:

  1. This isn't the retrospective reflection on my experience post (or "return statement"). That comes later! 

  2. Holidays. 

  3. Seriously, I've only been involved in the process as a candidate. Nothing official here. 

  4. Via Liene Verzemnieks -- "One of my other personal conclusions was that the interview process also looks for 'What happens when you are frustrated? Are you still kind?' and 'Are you excited about this?'" 

  5. Sometimes I accidentally say "you guys" instead of "y'all" or "guys" instead of "people" or "folks". If you catch me at it or breaking any of the other social rules, please let me know. I want to be better! 

  6. Thanks to the magic of chat history, I can pinpoint not only the specific link that kicked off the train of thought that eventually arrived at my decision to apply to the Recurse Center, but also when and from whom I received it. (It was Computers are fast! via Cory Chapman on May 19th, 2014.) 

  7. I realized later that it was actually Sumana who had indirectly introduced me to RC, I just wasn't paying attention at the time -- it came up in a talk she gave at the PyCon Education Summit way back in April 2014. There are so many people to be grateful toward for getting me to the Recurse Center.