I spent 3 months at the Recurse Center (RC) in NYC last year. I’ve been meaning to write about the experience itself, and what happened after for awhile now, so here goes! I’ve also had a lot of similar questions from people who are curious about RC, and so I thought I’d gather the questions and my answers to them in a blog post.

What is Recurse Center?

In the words of the RC website:

The Recurse Center is a free, self-directed, educational retreat for people who want to get better at programming, whether they’ve been coding for three decades or three months.

I descibe it as a retreat for programmers who want to get back into learning. You take time off from work, away from deadlines and the stresses of everyday life. It’s kind of like going back to school, but you get to decide what you want to learn, and homework is never boring because you get to choose the fun stuff that you wanna work on.

Many RC-ers attend it with the intention of bettering their programming skills. You might be a web engineer who wants to dive deep into JavaScript (that was me). Or you might be a new programmer who wants to learn how to build mobile apps. You could also be a software person who wants to do more hardware. The possibilities are endless!

RC-ers come from varied backgrounds. During my batch, we had a range of people from academia, fresh university graduates, large tech companies, non-profits, who are self-taught, from non-technical background and so on. Most RCers are from the US, but we also had internationals from the UK, Canada, France, Netherlands, Brazil, and Malaysia (represent!). The diversity is amazing – I didn’t have to worry about fitting in because everyone is different, and there is so much space to just be yourself, which was pretty freakin’ amazing.

Why did you join RC?

I found out about RC in a period of my career when I wasn’t growing much. I was the sole front-end engineer on my team and frequently worked on projects on my own – the lonely programmer.

I have a lot to say about being a lonely programmer, but that’s for a different post. Back then, all I did was build websites and apps in AngularJS, often for a project that wasn’t mine. But knowing how to use a framework did not mean I was a good programmer. At some point, this became apparent. I didn’t really understand JavaScript, much less AngularJS. I just knew how to use it.

Being on your own also meant a lot of Googling and Stack Overflow-ing. I had no one to verify that I was doing things the best way. I didn’t know if I was growing, or if I was even growing towards the right direction.

I didn’t want to become just a developer who was good at churning out projects. Instead, I wanted to really understand the languages and tools I had. I wanted to write good code, and not just code as a means to an end. And what nagged at me the most was the feeling that I wasn’t being the best engineer that I could be.

I was lonely. And RC was a home for lonely programmers.

What did you do at RC?

I worked on a variety of projects. Some reached completion, and some didn’t (and that’s okay!). I did things that I’ve always wanted to do, but also ended up doing things I never thought I would, just because I heard about it from another Recurser. Some of my favorites are:

  • Learned how to create generative art with Processing.js [some works]
  • Visualized and animated NYC subway data on a map [blog post]
  • Learned how to do image processing in Python. I was new to image processing and had a hard time finding resources, so I wrote an image processing 101 guide for Code Words, the Recurse Center monthly publication.
  • Built a peer-to-peer video chat app with WebRTC [blog post]
  • Helped other Recursers with CSS-related thingymajigs [blog post]
  • Built a foggy window emulator in browser [play with it]
  • Learned how to scrape and clean large amounts of data [post on charts] [post on data scraping and cleaning]
  • Worked purely in vanilla JavaScript to better understand the nuances of the language
  • Pair programmed with other Recursers. We built retro arcade games with JavaScript, debugged mapping projects, and worked on tiny, fun apps.
  • Presented our projects during Thursday presentations. Thursday presentations at RC are easygoing, informal presentations where Recursers in the current batch can talk about anything ranging from whatever they’re working on to whatever they are currently excited about, to about an interesting bugs they discovered. This gave me a lot of confidence to start giving conference talks, more on that later!

My experience really just scrapes the tip of the iceberg of amazing things that happen at RC. Read other Recursers’ experiences on the RC site! Or read about the cool things people do on the RC blog.

RC is a giant happy family

My favorite part about RC is that they’re like family now. I’ve been back to NYC twice since my batch ended, and felt like I’ve never left. RC alumni keep in touch via our internal chat and forums, and it’s really easy to still be a part of the community even when you’re halfway across the world. RC has been described as “the world’s best programming community with a three-month onboarding process in New York.” which sums it up perfectly :)

FAQ about RC

The RC website has an excellent FAQ on logistical things like dates, cost, and information for internationals, how they’re self-funding and many others. I’m including a couple of FAQs here that are specific to my experience that would be helpful to hear for Southeast Asians.

Is RC for me?

The RC site has tons of information about whether RC may be right for you. This might help!

In a nutshell, if RC sounds good to you, and you’re thinking about applying, just do it!

Three months is a really long time to take off work!

You can now do RC for six weeks! More on that here

Wasn’t New York City expensive?

Yes, and no. It can be very easily expensive, but in the same part of Manhattan, you can find $3 lunches and dumplings for a dollar. If I had to break it down, my expenses were approximately as follows:

  • Flights from KUL to JFK = ~$1200
  • Rent: $1100/mo * 3 months = $3300 for a fairly nice room a 30 minute subway ride away from SoHo, where RC is
  • Food: $5-10/day * 3 months * 30 days = $900 I’m probably underestimating this here. Some days called for ice-cream and cookies.
  • Transport: $116/mo * 3 months = ~$350 for the MTA subway 30-day pass

In total, basic living expenses came up to $5750 for a 3-month stay. That comes up to MYR22k, or SGD8k. I’m pretty sure I spent more than that – these are just numbers for the basics.

RC also did offer grants from $500 to $7000 to those who are from underrepresented groups in tech. Read more about that on the RC blog.

How did you find housing?

I had luck with the Listings Project. It’s a newsletter that goes out every week for rooms for rent, targeted to the creative crowd. Protip: move fast if you see a room you like because they go fast. Have a short blurb about yourself prepared to email out. Some landlords/subletters might want to have Skype sessions so you can see the place.

How about visas?

If you’re Malaysian, you can enter and stay in the US for up to 6 months per visit on a B1/B2 (tourist) visa. Border immigration can be a pain, so be sure to get a letter of intent that you can present to immigration officers to explain what you’re doing at RC.

What was the admissions process like?

The RC FAQ has a good breakdown of the process. My interviewers were really nice and enthusiastic, and I learned a couple of new things during the pair programming session. It was one of the most pleasant interview experiences I’ve had.

Can you help me with the application?

Fortunately, the RC application process is straightforward and fuss-free. My only advice is to be yourself. Be prepared to communicate your intentions. Write about why you want to do RC, and what you would like to do (if you already know). Showcase your enthusiasm for not just programming, but also learning. RC extends further than just your programming skills. RC alumni are some of the kindest, most intrinsically motivated people I’ve met, and those traits alone .

If you do not get in the first time, do not be discouraged. Some 6% of RC alumni are 2nd time applicants. Not getting admitted simply means that RC might not be a good match for you right now, and you are encouraged to reapply in the future.

And that’s it. All the best!