A Recursive Christmas


My experience of applying for the Recurse Center (twice), and what I'm planning to work on there.

Tags: rc

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I'm happy to report that this January I'll be starting a 3-month programming retreat at the Recurse Center (RC)! It's basically like a writing retreat, but for programming. Since I got rejected the first time I applied, and I found it helpful when preparing my second application to read other people's experiences, I figured I'd do the same thing here. I'll also list the project ideas I have for my batch, which I find VERY EXCITING to think about.

By the way, in the spirit of Christmas, here's a Palestine-themed animation I made of nested Christmas trees. Source code here.

First Application

There are three stages to the RC application process: a written application, a conversational interview, and a pair programming interview. The written application is meant to determine your motivations and your programming background. I felt like my attempt at the written application was pretty strong, and indeed, I managed to pass that stage of the interview. I'll share my final written application in the next section.

The conversational interview is where I got rejected. They don't provide feedback after the interview, but I can guess what went wrong. My motivations for attending RC were not clear or well thought-out. I said I liked the structure provided by RC, and that I thought it would help me to stay motivated -- but the RC website specifically says that they're looking for self-guided and self-motivated people! I also thought the interviewer would appreciate my openness when I shared my one worry about attending RC and said that, in the aftermath of my PhD experience, I sometimes find difficult programming to be anxiety-inducing, which makes me procrastinate and avoid it. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been so self-deprecating. An empathetic interviewer might even have rejected me for the good of my mental health!

Ultimately, I don't know why I got rejected, and I can only speculate. Needless to say, I was gutted, because I'd been fantasising for many years about attending RC. The RC website says that 6% of attendees get in on their 2nd (or later) attempt, which is supposed to be encouraging, but seems like a pretty small percentage to me??? Still, I was determined to try again after the mandatory 3-month waiting period, and self-reflection had at least given me an idea of how to improve.

Second Application

I did a crapload of research for my second application. I combed through the RC website, and read upwards of 20 articles and blog posts by people who'd applied to RC. I used these sources for inspiration and to better prepare myself. I also seriously reflected on my motivations, and concluded that the reason I wanted to attend RC specifically was for the community it provides. Anyone can go into the mountains and do a programming retreat by themselves, but it wouldn't be half as fun or as beneficial as working with other people!

Here is my second written application, or something very close to it! Besides revising my motivations, I also tried to be more detailed about what I wanted to work on, and what types of projects I'd worked on in the past.

The conversational interview was shorter this time, down from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. It also felt way less intense than the first one. I was prepared for all the questions, since either they were taken from the written application or I'd encountered them during my preparations. The questions were:

At the end, I had the opportunity to ask my own questions, so I asked the interviewer what their experience at RC had been; how people divide their time between programming and interacting with others; and how flexible RC is in terms of people attending remotely (answer: 100% flexible).

I managed not to self-deprecate this time. The interviewer was really friendly, and I think there was a lot of crossover between what they'd worked on and what I wanted to work on. Also, I think I conveyed my enthusiasm and excitement for RC a lot better this time, since I remember smiling a lot (out of genuine enthusiasm) when the interviewer talked about their experience. Despite these positive signs, I had gotten good vibes from the interviewer during the first application, so my heart rate still doubled when I received a follow-up email from RC, to the extent that I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. I hid in the bathroom to open the email, just in case I burst into tears. I was relieved to find, however, that I had passed the conversational interview this time!

Next up was the pair programming interview. Beforehand, you're required to write a short program. During the interview, you then pair up with your interviewer to add a small feature to that program. I chose to write a toy version of Space Invaders, where the aliens were circles and the player was a rectangle. I also prepared by skimming this article on pair programming. At the start of the interview, I spent a lot of time talking through my program from top to bottom. Maybe too much time, but the interviewer gave the go-ahead and could've interrupted me if I was taking too long. We then worked on adding the ability to shoot bullets, just about managing to complete the collision-detection logic before running out of time. The point of this interview isn't to complete the task, but to find out what you're like to work with, so I wasn't worried about how much progress I'd made. My approach was basically to talk through every single thing I was doing and to regularly prompt the interviewer for feedback. In practice, this meant I ended a lot of sentences by saying "if that makes sense" or "if that sounds good to you".

I somehow ended up enjoying this interview a lot, despite being tired and sick with a headcold. The programming went smoothly, the interviewer was nice, and they were helpful in catching a bug or two. It is, in fact, fun to program with other people! Still, the pounding in my ears returned when I received the follow-up email today, and it was with relief and happiness that I read the good news.

The whole process took 1 week. My batch starts on January 3rd. For accountability, I'm going to post a weekly update, so stay tuned! I'm looking forward to meeting cool programmers and to 12 weeks of (hopefully) anxiety-free programming!

Project Ideas

Below are all the project ideas I have, grouped by the following categories: networking, systems, graphics, languages, software, workflow, music, computer science fundamentals, hacking, and maths & machine learning. (Yes, I have too many interests). I've compiled them over many years, from many different sources -- including my brain.

There's no way I'll complete even half of them, so my plan is to do whatever makes me feel most excited on any particular day and see what happens. The projects I'm planning to start with are marked with a star emoji ⭐. If you have any suggestions or want to team up with me on any of these ideas, please let me know!

Computer science fundamentals
Maths & machine learning

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I'd be happy to hear from you at galligankevinp@gmail.com.