Mary Rose Cook

The Recurse Center testimonial

The Recurse Center is a three month long programmers’ retreat that I have been attending in New York City. The following is a testimonial about my experience.

There are eight elements of the Recurse Center.

First, it is unusually supportive and safe. You can ask a question to clarify something you feel you ought to know, because you will get a gentle, illuminating answer. You can write a piece of code that you worry is shitty, then shape it into something beautiful with a fellow Recurser. You are isolated from all the people whose opinion might matter to you: your friends, your family, potential employers, the internet. In short, there are no negative consequences to showing your weaknesses.

Second, it is structured. If you feel awkward in social situations, you find that you always have a place. When you program on RC days, there is always a desk to sit at. At the social gatherings, you discover that everyone at RC is kind and inclusive. No one is ever left standing on their own.

Third, RC is an uncontrollable situation. You are guided towards the things that it is important for you to work on. This invisible hand is the aggregate of the projects that other people are working on, the fellow students who walk up and offer to work with you on your project, the subjects covered in the RC library, the languages your fellow students discuss at lunch, the juicy problem your deskmates are wrestling with, and the gentle guidance of the faculty. This invisible hand plainly shows you what you have been avoiding learning, what you thought was too hard, what you didn’t know you needed to know, what you didn’t know interested you.

Fourth, it is a place where programming is the most important thing in the world. Imagine Florence in the fifteenth century, except, instead of painting, everyone is inventing how to program, and instead of being surrounded by Donatello and Ghiberti and Botticelli and Raphael, you are working with the startlingly sharp programmers who no one has heard of, yet. The fact that it is socially acceptable to think about programming and talk about programming and work on programming means that programming is uppermost in your mind. Which means that you get better at it very fast. (This element was copped from Paul Graham’s essay on aesthetic taste: paulgraham.com/taste.html)

Fifth, there are almost no constraints on what you work on. Your project doesn’t have to make money, doesn’t have to build your portfolio of open source code, doesn’t have to be useful, doesn’t have to appeal to some particular community, doesn’t have to be cool, doesn’t have result in something commensurate with the effort you put in. There is one constraint: work at the edge of your programming capabilities. Which is to say: work on something that makes you a better programmer.

Sixth, there are people who are better than you and people who are worse than you. Even if you are the most inexperienced programmer in the whole of RC, you certainly know more than others about a particular operating system. Even if you are the most experienced programmer, you certainly know less than others about a particular language.

Seventh, you get to talk to and work with people who have truly brilliant minds. Some are fellow students at RC. Some are drafted in as speakers or co-programmers. All are your peers.

Eighth, and most importantly, RC is an expression of the faculty: Sonali, Nick, Dave, Alan and Tom. They are the people you’d want teaching you because they explain things clearly and they know a lot. They are the people you’d want to be friends with because they are nurturing and fun and funny. They are the people you’d want to have with you if you got into trouble because they would impose themselves on the situation and start fixing it. In short, they examine their environment and make it better.

And:

Having David Nolen explain the ClojureScript compiler was one of the intellectual highlights of my life.

The hours at RC feel precious.

This is the fastest period of learning in my life.

I’m coming back.