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.
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.
The environment you'll find in the Recurse Center office is an atypical one, for the tech world.
People are working on whatever interests them, not necessarily on useful stuff. Which means mostly fun projects that are easy to relate to.
The group is amazingly diverse, in a number of ways (more on this below).
There are social rules in place to actively combat alpha-techy behavior and competitive bullshit. Not having to worry about proving how great you are makes it a lot easier to learn.
Events like “check-ins” (a group of people telling each other what they are working on) and lightning talks make it easy to find out what other people are working on, and facilitate the flow of information between people.
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.
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:
Tweaked the structure of a functional-style space invaders game to be cleaner and more actually functional. Major insight: moving triggers for sound effects from deep inside the game logic to a separate piece of code that compared the state before and after the frame, and played the appropriate sounds based on that.
Worked on a small Lisp interpreter in Python. Moved it from a
parser to a more classical tokenizer and parser.
Worked on another small Lisp interpreter in C++. Implemented a pointer-tagging data representation, a parser, pretty-printer, and rudimentary evaluator. (I hadn't touched C++ in years, and it took us a bunch of segfaults to get a reverse iterator right.)
Wrote a simple virtual machine (the “little man computer”) first in Haskell and then in Python. Both ran example programs by the time we were done with them. The Haskell version included an assembler that went from textual programs to machine instructions. Reminded me how amazing Haskell programming can be.
Had a study/discussion group on the Raft consensus algorithm. Which was a good reason to actually read the paper. I came away with a better understanding of distributed consensus, and I hope others also picked something up.
Wasted an afternoon attacking a particularly horrid bug in the interaction between a particular node version and the Nock library. It was caused by irresponsible monkeypatching on the part of Nock. This was probably the session that most resembled normal programming—lots of debugging, not much progress.
Looked at an implementation of the WOOT algorithm for collaborative text editing on top of CodeMirror. Most of the session was spent getting me to understand how WOOT works, but we did make some progress.
So that's definitely more cool programming stuff than I get to do in an average week.
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.