The road to wisdom? — Well, it's plain and simple to express: Err and err and err again but less and less and less. –Piet Hein

A Week of Reflection and Programming for Fun

I recently got to spend a week back at the heart of an excellent delightful inspiring technical community: Recurse Center or RC. This friendly group consists mostly of programmers from around the world who have, at some point, participated in RC’s three-month “retreat” in New York City to work on whatever projects happen to interest them. The retreat’s motto is “never graduate”, and so participants continue to support each other’s technical growth and curiosity forever and ever.

I’m an RC alum from 2014! RC’s retreat is how I ended up contributing to open source software and eventually gathering the courage to join Mozilla. Before RC, despite already having thousands of hours of programming and fancy math under my belt, I held myself back with doubts about whether I’m a “real programmer”, whatever that stereotype means. That subconscious negativity hasn’t magically disappeared, but I’ve had a lot of good experiences in the past few years to help me manage it. Today, RC helps me stay excited about learning all the things for the sake of learning all the things.

A retreat at RC looks something like this: you put your life more-or-less on hold, move to NYC, and spend three months tinkering in a big, open office with around fifty fellow (thoughtful, kind, enthusiastic) programmers. During my 2014 retreat, I worked mostly on lowish-level networking things in Python, pair programmed on whatever else people happened to be working on, gave and received code review, chatted with wise “residents”, attended spontaneous workshops, presentations and so on.

Every May, alumni are invited to return to the RC space for a week, and this year I got to go! (Thanks, Mozilla!) It was awesome! Exclamation points! This past week felt like a tiny version of the 3-month retreat. After two years away, I felt right at home — that says a lot about the warm atmosphere RC manages to cultivate. My personal goal for the week was just to work in a language that’s relatively new to me - JavaScript - but I also happened to have really interesting conversations about things like:

  • How to implement a basic debugger?
  • How to improve the technical interview process?
  • What holds developers back or slows them down? What unnecessary assumptions do we have about our tools and their limitations?

RC’s retreat is a great environment for growing as a developer, but I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all effortless whimsy. Both the hardest and most wonderful part of RC (and many other groups) is being surrounded by extremely impressive, positive people who never seem to struggle with anything. It’s easy to slip into showing off our knowledge or to get distracted by measuring ourselves against our peers. Sometimes this is impostor syndrome. Sometimes it’s the myth of the 10x developer. RC puts a lot of effort into being a safe space where you can reveal your ignorance and ask questions, but insecurity can always be a challenge.

Similarly, the main benefit of RC is learning from your peers, but the usual ways of doing this seem to be geared toward people who are outgoing and think out loud. These are valuable skills, but when we focus on them exclusively we don’t hear from people who have different defaults. There is also little structure provided by RC so you are free to self-organize and exchange ideas as you deem appropriate. The risk is that quiet people are allowed to hide in their quiet corners, and then everyone misses out on their contributions. I think RC makes efforts to balance this out, but the overall lack of structure means you really have to take charge of how you learn from others. I’m definitely better at this than I used to be.

RC is an experiment and it’s always changing. Although at this point my involvement is mostly passive, I’m glad to be a part of it. I love that I’ve been able to work closely with vastly different people, getting an inside look at their work habits and ways of thinking. Now, long after my “never-graduation”, the RC community continues to expose me to a variety of ideas about technology and learning in a way that makes us all get better. Continuous improvement, yeah!