Flows of energy

by Marijn Haverbeke (license)

Being a Resident at the Recurse Center

Thursday, December 3, 2015 community education

I spent one week being a resident at the Recurse Center in New York this November. The Recurse Center is a somewhat unusual institution. They call themselves a “programmers retreat”. That more or less means they are a space where people who want to improve their programming skills (whether beginners or experienced programmers) hang around for a few months, doing self-directed learning, collaborating with each other, and getting inspired by the work, talks, and discussion of the people around them.

If that still doesn't make a lot of sense, see their website or read Martin Kleppmann's excellent description.

Being a resident there meant that I was simply present in the space for a week, gave a talk, and worked with people on their projects. Working with experienced programmers is a way to diffuse some of the knowledge of those programmers, as well as a good way to make people realize that those who are considered good programmers still have to constantly google for stuff and make stupid mistakes.

People

The environment you'll find in the Recurse Center office is an atypical one, for the tech world.

The result I can only describe as magic. People are getting things done, profiting from each other's expertise, doing stuff they never did before, and being immersed in (mostly the good parts of) tech culture.

Projects

In my week, I pair-programmed with about ten different people. Some of these sessions didn't really go anywhere, but a lot of them did. These are some of the things we did:

So that's definitely more cool programming stuff than I get to do in an average week.

Diversity

I mentioned that the crowd at Recurse Center is amazingly diverse. This is part of the center's focus, and they are doing a great job on it. The participants there, as well as the organizers, are more representative of society as a whole than any other tech group I've been around.

And that diversity works. It, along with the healthy social framing provided by the organization, creates a social atmosphere very different from your typical young-white-guy tech environment. There was no emotional vacuum. I didn't have to cringe at terrible or insensitive jokes. People weren't one-upping each other. There was no assumption of cultural homogeneity.

I do understand that diversity alone doesn't necessarily produce such an effect. I've worked in offices that were diverse by the numbers, but where the culture was still poison. You also need a healthy dose of political awareness. And you need to make sure power isn't concentrated in a specific group. And so on. Healthy culture is hard work. Thank you, Recurse Center organizers, for doing this work.