It’s a tradition after attending Recurse Center to write about your experience. I attended Summer 2015, over two years ago, and I never wrote my What I Did at RC post.

The short version why is that I guess I didn’t have more to say at the time. What I did at RC is documented here, here, and here.

Everyday in tech I’m more convinced that software problems are less about technology and more about people. Or rather, there are technical problems, but we do not lack the resources to tackle them. I don’t mean to represent this as a unique position, just that it has become blindingly, painfully obvious to me personally. Best summed up this way:

So it’s been two years since I left RC, and for two years everything that is RC has been running quietly in the background of my brain, and more recently in the foreground, and so now feels like a good time to share what I’ve learned.

This is what I learned at Recurse Center about How To Be In The Tech Industry:

Follow the Social Rules.

RC has four social rules. They’re referenced all over their website. They’re posted in the space. They cover them on Day 1 for all attendees. You might think they’re pretty basic or “common sense” (lol), but having such things spelled out for everyone provides a pretty solid framework to fall back on when you’re not sure how to behave or what to say.

  • No feigning surprise
  • No well-actuallys
  • No backseat driving
  • No subtle -isms

Combined, these four rules make a safe space to not know, to ask for help, to feel ok asking questions, to take a risk. And they apply to so much more than programming. Recursers learn to use them in all social interactions.

Take, for example, the No Feigning Surprise rule. This rule forbids the “YOU DON’T KNOW????!!!!?!??!?!” response that a lot of people have when they hear that the person they’re speaking to doesn’t know a thing. Imagine you are troubleshooting a network error with ping. The person next to you asks what that command does that you just ran. You have two choices how to respond.

Choice 1. You could say “You don’t know what ping is?” in whatever tone you like, even if you are genuinely surprised that your partner doesn’t know. When you respond to someone like that, they might shrink and feel a little dumb. They might apologize for not knowing, shut down a bit, or pretend they do know. This doesn’t help either of you figure out the networking problem, and it really doesn’t teach your partner was ping is.

Choice 2. You could say “Oh! Ping is this helpful little command so we can see whether this host can even be reached.”

Do you see the difference? The latter leaves space for your partner to ask a follow up or try it on her own computer! Or whatever! The important thing is that no one was made to feel bad for not knowing. You and your partner will both have a better time if you don’t feign surprise.

My personal favorite example of this occurred outside the RC space. I was walking up Broadway with two RCers and for reasons that I no longer remember but that are probably about as sophisticated as “we were in NY at the time”, two of us started making Ghostbusters jokes – when to my actual, genuine surprise the other person walking with us asked, “What are you two talking about?”

Imagine. The actual Ghostbusters firehouse was a ten-minute walk away. My surprise was real and physical and all I wanted to say to her was YOU HAVEN’T SEEN GHOSTBUSTERS HOW HAVE YOU EVEN MANAGED TO BE ALIVE AND NOT SEEN GHOSTBUSTERS

But I swallowed it. I took a breath and channeled my surprise into enthusiasm: “Oh! It’s this funny movie from the ’80s about four guys who hunt ghosts? I promise it’s way better than that sounds. You’ll like it!”

Cool. I didn’t make my friend feel bad. I even felt better. It’s way more fun to introduce people to things you know and/or love than it is to make them feel bad or stupid for not knowing them. And seeing Ghostbusters is not that important in the grand scheme of things.

Computers are actually really neat.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate computers as much as the next gal, and for the love of all you hold sacred stop putting computers in e v e r y t h i n g.

Still. Computers are pretty neat.

Doesn’t matter which part of the computer experience you prefer. My thing is infrastructure. My first app was a little slackbot and while it was fun to write, what I really wanted to know was “How does it go?” I didn’t have the knowledge or even the vocabulary to ask about servers and clients or delivery and deployment, but I knew I wanted to peer behind the curtain.

To this day, I cannot be convinced to write an app with any enthusiasm, but sit me down and draw me a picture of a message bus and I’m on the edge of my seat.

The day-to-day work of a tech job is not the fun you get to have following your whim at RC. There are OKRs and COs and roadmaps and planning meetings and retrospectives and outages and outdated documentation and other people’s priorities. But computers are neat, and it’s fun to have the rug pulled out from under you sometimes. RC is great for stoking that enthusiasm and maintaining a culture where sometimes the best excuse to build something (or take something apart) is because it seems fun.

There are good, good people in tech.

Helpful people, kind people. People happy to answer a question. People who DM you when they see you need help. People willing to give others a boost. Not all of them are part of the RC family, but when all others fail, RC is there.

When you meet someone from RC, it’s a little like you’re already friends, no matter when their batch was or your batch was, or what projects you worked on, or which RC people you know, where you work, or where you went to school (if at all!). You have this one precious experience in common, and it’s exciting to meet someone who knows.

Plus, Recurse Center actually cares about building and maintaining its diverse community. Not only do they work hard to encourage folks from underrepresented groups in tech to join (it’s freeeeeee!), they offer grants so we can afford to live in New York for three months. And the above-mentioned social rules mean we feel included once we’re there.


RC is not a panacea. I talk a lot lately about how much I hate this industry, how the cost of living in San Francisco means it’s the only viable career option, and how once my children are off to college I’m fucking done. Tech is often a shitty place. But what I learned at RC is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

(Better two years late than never, right?)

Pssssst…. RC is always taking applications. <3