How to improve your calls and reduce Zoom fatigue

Mai Schwartz

The core value of RC is the community: meeting people, programming together, and supporting each other’s growth and learning by sharing ideas and advice.

Because of this, we’ve spent a lot of time on video over the past year. And many of us have experienced “Zoom fatigue,” that hard to define but easy to identify lousy feeling you can get after too many video calls.

While Zoom fatigue is real, we think it’s too broad a term to be useful. Bad video calls — ones that are under-scoped, vague in purpose, un-facilitated, or awkward — are draining no matter their length. But thoughtfully structured group calls and productive pairing sessions can be energizing, even when they’re long.

This post is an overview of some of the practices we’ve developed to help make RC online as collaborative and dynamic a space as possible, while minimizing fatigue1.

Have a designated facilitator

When no one is explicitly in charge of a meeting, that role will often default to the person who is the loudest or has the most institutional power. A facilitator can help avoid this problem by making sure people are engaged, conversations are moving, needs are being addressed, notes are taken, etc. Like in real life, structure and facilitation make for more impactful remote meetings; better to have them and not need them than the other way around.

We’ve found that groups of up to six or so can interact pretty seamlessly on Zoom without a moderator, but only if they already know each other or have a shared connection. A facilitator is crucial for larger groups, or for meetings of any size where there are decisions to be made and everyone’s input is needed. Large meetings also benefit from a secondary support person to answer questions, troubleshoot issues, and post transcripts in the chat for accessibility (the latter is especially important for very large group calls, where it isn’t feasible to repeat things for someone who briefly lost their connection or was distracted).

Of course, just having a facilitator isn’t enough. The purpose of the call should be clear to everyone on it, and the facilitator needs to be skilled and comfortable enough in the role to keep the conversation rich and on-topic.

Facilitate actively

The facilitator is responsible for setting the agenda and, crucially, making sure everyone arrives at the call knowing what it is and why they’re there. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a rigid or detailed agenda, it just means that everyone should know what’s expected of them in terms of preparation and participation. Set these expectations in advance and check in about them briefly at the beginning of the call.

At the most basic level, the facilitator should keep a queue of who would like to speak. Zoom’s “raise hand” feature makes it difficult to keep stack, so we ask people to type “hand” into the chat instead. The moderator can change the order to prioritize people who have not spoken yet over those who have already gone. If using this turn-taking system, it’s helpful to announce who’s up, as well as who’s on deck to speak next.

Because we have less access to body language and other nonverbal cues online, it’s extra important to be mindful of who’s speaking a lot and try to make space in conversations for others to jump in. If you’re leading an event, be cognizant of the flow of the conversation, and try to make space for people who may be quieter to join in. Allow pauses and silences so everyone has a chance to contribute. Make it a point to ask explicitly: does anyone who hasn’t spoken yet want to share?

Include the physical environment whenever possible

Part of what’s exhausting and alienating about video calls is feeling as though we have to behave like the disembodied heads that others are seeing. Sharing in each other’s physical environments can help us feel more grounded and connected to ourselves and others. It’s the simplest manifestation of “bring your whole self.”

Concretely, this can mean welcoming the real world when it enters the frame. Whether it’s children, pets, family members, or household mishaps, you can choose to think of it as connection fodder, not distraction. It’s an opportunity to get to know your colleagues as real people and acknowledge that we’re all working in our homes for better or worse.

We’ve found it valuable to go one step further and create opportunities for this kind of connection by hosting Show & Tells. Since there are new people at RC all the time, we regularly hold events where we go around and each person shows off things from their home and shares stories about them. We’ve done these with pets, books, artwork, and “three things we can see on your webcam.” This makes it easy to discover shared interests, build deeper connections, and respond organically when our lives show up on camera.

Social events should feel different than meetings

The grid on a video call looks the same whether you’re having a budget meeting or a personal coffee chat. It requires intention and planning to change the context so that social events feel connected and alive, rather than draining. Our team hangouts got a million times better when we started experimenting with activities to do together.

For example, our team of seven each ordered a meal kit from Xi’an Famous Foods and we scheduled a one-hour lunch hangout to cook hand-pulled noodles together. We left our laptops on our counters and either used wireless headphones or ditched them entirely. It didn’t feel like a video call because we weren’t stuck in our chairs or even looking at our screens most of the time.

Since then, we’ve decorated cookies, assembled terrariums, made fancy cocktails, and played Minecraft together. We’ve also done trivia nights (fun for a big group, with opportunities to talk more in depth in small groups) and Recursers host regular events like Knit for a Bit and Art Night, where people hang out on Zoom while working on painting and craft projects. Get creative! Parallel play is great for all age groups.

Establish shared norms about how to use common Zoom features

Zoom has a lot of features that you can configure to support your specific needs, and we won’t go too deeply into that here. However, even the basic features can have a powerful impact if you use them thoughtfully.

Display names: Calls feel more real and connected when people use their name as their display name on Zoom (as opposed to “iPhone” or “J’s MacBook”). They can optionally add other relevant information such as their pronouns, what time zone they’re in, or their role, team, or company in large meetings where not everyone knows each other.

Chat: The chat is best used as a way to complement an on-going conversation, show support and encouragement, and as a way for someone who is hesitant to speak via voice/video to contribute to the conversation. Keep chats on-topic when others are talking to avoid distracting side channels that distance others from the conversation at hand (“Why is everyone laughing at a joke that I didn’t see?”) and create confusion (two different communication channels to pay attention to).

Muting: When we first got online, we followed the common norm of muting everyone by default. We now think this makes things feel worse, so we ask people to be unmuted unless they’re in a noisy place or need to type. It feels much more natural to address a group when there’s even a small amount of mumbled ‘mhm’s and white noise, especially when you’re screen-sharing and can’t see anyone’s face. Speaking to the void feels terrible for obvious reasons! During our weekly technical talks, we ask everyone to unmute and clap at the end of every presentation.

Sharing sound: Large group meetings can start out a little awkwardly. After a certain point, group size gets too large to make small talk, but you don’t want to start the meeting preemptively before a critical mass arrives, and so you’re left waiting. The solution? Play some music. We’ve found that having the host (or a helper) share their audio and play something while folks arrive can make the event feel much nicer. Once the meeting’s ready to go, just fade out the music.

Filters and backgrounds: Don’t use them. They’re distracting and they flatten the experience of talking to people. If there are good reasons to do so, like the privacy of others in your household, Zoom now has one that just blurs out your background. We think that works well to retain the depth and dimensionality of your space while hiding your unfolded laundry.

Think in terms of rooms instead of meetings

We rarely use ad hoc or personal meeting links for calls. Instead, we set up persistent Zoom meetings that mirror the rooms in our physical space and configured them to behave like physical rooms as much as possible. For instance, we disable Zoom’s waiting room feature and allow participants to join before the hosts so dropping in and out is as easy as possible.

We’ve built our own tool, RC Together, which lets us lay these rooms out on a map, so you can find them spatially, and see what’s scheduled there and who’s inside before joining. Different rooms have different norms; for example, anyone is always welcome to drop in to the couches area, but if there are two people in Shannon, you can assume they’re having a private conversation.

Virtual RC

What the space looks like on a typical day at RC

Knowing who’s on a call before you join, what they’re up to, and whether they’d welcome additional people, reduces the anxiety many people feel about video calls and lowers the friction to joining (and leaving!) conversations.

We’re still learning and refining our practices, and some of our best improvements came from sharing our struggles with the RC community and getting direct feedback. Being transparent about these processes and inviting everyone to participate in making your working culture more collaborative isn’t just helpful, it builds that culture in action. If you want to try out RC Together, reach out to us or email us to let us know how these suggestions worked for you. We’d love to hear from you!

  1. We know Zoom has plenty of problems, both technical and otherwise. It’s also by far the best tool we’ve found for talking to people remotely. We’ve tried many others, and Zoom works better than all of them when it comes to video and audio quality and cross-platform compatibility. Importantly, it works better than anything else on less powerful computers and not-great internet connections, and it keeps working even when there are hundreds of people on a call. For a good review of how improving your office setup can improve your video call experience dramatically, we like this blog post by Ben Kuhn.“

We’re offering $1,000 grants for our Spring 2 and Summer 1 batches

Rachel Petacat

We’re granting a total of $20,000 need-based grants to programmers who are women (cis or trans), trans, and/or non-binary to attend our upcoming Spring 2 and Summer 1 virtual batches. You may request a grant of up to $1,000 for a 12-week batch, or $500 for a 6-week batch. Apply here!

We are not currently offering grants for batches other than Spring 2 and Summer 1, though we hope to be able to do so again soon!

Last March, when we closed our space and moved RC online, we prepared for a significant loss of income. RC makes money from recruiting fees, and in order to keep RC in operation and our team employed – our main priorities – we budgeted for the year assuming that our income would go to zero. To do that, we needed to cut our expenses significantly. One of the things we did was stop offering travel and living expense grants for our batches.

While we aren’t out of the woods yet, thanks to a year that was better than expected and the generous ongoing support of our alums, we are happily in a position to support people with smaller grants for a limited time. We know these grants won’t cover someone’s living expenses for six or 12 weeks, but we hope they help offset some of the costs associated with attending RC online.

We’ve been delighted by the number of people from around the world who have been able to to join RC by attending an online batch. But we still have work to do to make RC more gender-balanced and accessible. Offering grants to support women, trans, and non-binary people is one of the best ways we’ve found to do that.

If you’d like to learn more about what participating in RC remotely is like, check out our Virtual RC page! And if you have any questions about applying to RC, email us at admissions@recurse.com.

What does it mean to do RC remotely?

Mai Schwartz

This is a question we — faculty, new Recursers, and alums returning for a remote batch — have been asking ourselves since March. Though Recursers are now programming, pairing, learning, and chatting from home, making the day-to-day experience of the retreat quite different than it was in our space in Brooklyn, in many ways what it means to do a batch hasn’t changed.

One powerful advantage of operating remotely is that the retreat is now dramatically more accessible than it’s ever been. Many Recursers who have joined the community since we went remote would not have been able to do so before, because some of the biggest barriers to attending have been eliminated. You no longer need to travel, find housing in New York City, or or leave friends and family for many weeks to attend a batch of RC.

On the flip side, part of what makes RC special is that people take time out of their lives in a deliberate and thoughtful way to do it. Many people travel from out of state and out of the country, putting aside the normal obligations of their lives in order to focus on their growth and learning in a totally different environment. They also frequently make considerable sacrifices to do it: of time, money, and other opportunities. This means that everyone in batch is fully committed, and that dedication permeates the space, creating a focused and inspiring atmosphere for everyone.

While we’re remote, the cost to Recursers of coming to RC is lower than ever: all you have to do is get in. But the cost to the community of admitting people who aren’t really committed to doing RC right now is considerable. Beyond the time commitment, part of the responsibility of being in batch is contributing to the atmosphere of learning and gentle social pressure to be productive, whatever that means for each person. Having disengaged participants undermines that effect for everyone. The faculty spends time and energy following up with Recursers who are checked out, and other people in batch don’t know which of their batchmates are really there.

Because coming to New York or leaving your job to physically be at RC full-time necessarily demanded some sacrifice, there was a natural filter in our admissions process for people who have really thought about whether — and when — RC is right for them. Now that we’re remote, this doesn’t happen as organically, so we’ve added a new question to the application about your other life commitments right now.

This step is meant to help us — and you — evaluate whether your goals are in line with what RC has to offer. This does not mean we’re looking for people who have no other commitments in life! All of us have those: rent, bills, organizations and communities we’re a part of, children and loved ones to care for. But we’ve found that RC doesn’t work well for people who aren’t ready to make a significant commitment to it. We say 6 hours a day, but that’s a proxy for the commitment we expect you to make rather than a strict requirement in itself.

In particular, we’ve found that people who are in school or working full-time struggle with remote RC, even if theoretically there are enough hours in the day to do both. Practically speaking, this might mean being on video calls for longer than you can tolerate, or dealing with conflicting incentive structures and demands on your time.

If you’re thinking about applying to RC, a good question to ask yourself is: what are my goals and intentions right now, and is RC a good container in which to work toward them? You might be a perfect fit for RC and right now just might not be the right time! We want you to attend when it’s right for you, and we want everyone in batch to be committed to their own growth and to supporting the growth of their peers.

Even though RC is now distributed throughout participants’ homes, it’s still a space to do ambitious work, become a dramatically better programmer, and meet kind, curious people who are doing the same. Having people in a remote batch who aren’t really there and aren’t contributing to the community damages the experience for everyone.

“What if I start my batch and realize I can’t continue?” We understand that unexpected things happen and your life circumstances can change. If you join a batch and find that you aren’t able to participate fully, just let us know you need to withdraw. We value clear, proactive communication, which saves us time and energy trying to chase you down and hopefully also saves you some guilt and anxiety. This is not a regular school or job, where you face discipline for “failing.” We view honest self-reflection and discernment positively, and you’ll be welcome to re-apply in the future.

At the end of the day, the RC community is as thoughtful, curious, intentional, and intellectually engaged as the people in it. We want people to come when they’re ready to benefit from what RC has to offer and ready to contribute to the environment. If that’s you, please apply!

We’re continuing to run batches online in 2021

Rachel Petacat

We’ll be operating RC remotely until further notice. All batches that are open to applications will happen in Virtual RC, and you’ll be able to attend from anywhere in the world. We still don’t know when we’ll be able to reopen, but we don’t expect that it will be before mid-2021. We hope to continue running remote batches when we reopen our space, too.

The best community to grow as a programmer

At its core, RC is a community of over 1,700 programmers who are committed to learning and becoming dramatically better. They have attended from more than 50 countries around the world, and they come from all sorts of backgrounds: Recursers are engineers, academics, parents, musicians, students, artists, retirees, and scientists.

The recent turmoil in the world has only increased the importance of community and learning how to direct yourself to build meaning in your life. RC has always worked best for people who are at pivotal points in their lives: When they are open to change, seeking new ideas and friendships, and reevaluating what they want. At the same time, operating online means RC is accessible to a much wider range of people than just those who can come to New York.

Before the pandemic, we were sometimes asked whether we offered remote attendance, and we always said no. We’re a small team, and our focus was always on making the in-person retreat the best experience it could be. Ever since it became unsafe to operate in person, we’ve been working to do the same for the online retreat. We’ve built new software to support easy ways to communicate and interact with other Recursers (learn more on our Virtual RC page), successfully held our batch orientation in our virtual space for the first time, and ran an Open Source Week with over a dozen events that were attended by more than 100 Recursers.

Virtual RC

The new Virtual RC

Now that we have to operate remotely, we’ve learned that there are some wonderful advantages to doing so. The most important one is that it gives us the ability to welcome more people from all over the world because it removes many of the obstacles associated with traveling to New York for many months, such as visas, travel costs, and the challenges of uprooting one’s life. People have attended Virtual RC from Ghana, Singapore, Russia, Israel, England, Argentina, Canada, Japan, and India. We were able to welcome people who were admitted many years ago but couldn’t make it to New York for batches.

We’ve also been able to welcome alums back all day, every day. They’ve been hosting some great study groups and events, like an Intro to Mathematical Thinking group, early checkins for people in different timezones, and a discussion group for former resident Martin Kleppmann’s book Designing Data Intensive Applications. If you attend RC online, once your batch ends you’ll be able to drop in to Virtual RC whenever you like to pair program, prepare for interviews, share your work, attend events, or work in our quiet space.

While you can participate from anywhere, our core hours are still set based on US Eastern Time (11am to 5pm ET, Monday through Friday), and we still expect RC to be your main commitment while you’re in batch. Aside from our mandatory first day events (which happen from 10 am - 12 pm ET), there aren’t other mandatory events, and people in different time zones have started check-in groups and run social events at times that work better for them.

The future of in-person batches

We don’t know when we’ll be able to reopen our physical space in Brooklyn. In order to open our space, we’ll have to be confident that it’s safe for people from all over the world to travel here. We expect that won’t be until there’s a vaccine, which means we probably won’t be able to meet in person again until mid-2021, or later.

We expect to know when we can reopen several months before we actually restart in-person batches. As soon as we are confident on a timeline for resuming in-person batches, we will post an update. Our goal is to allow both in-person and remote participation indefinitely, but do not yet know whether that will be logistically feasible.

If you’d like to join a supportive online community of programmers, apply to RC!

This is a follow-up to our previous post about hosting batches online through the end of 2020.

What we’ve learned from running RC remotely, and an update for future batches

Rachel Petacat

Update: As of August 2020, we are running all batches online until further notice.

We’ve decided to continue running RC batches online until the end of 2020. If we’re able to safely reopen our physical space earlier than that, we will. Anyone confirmed for a 2020 batch happening after we reopen will be able to attend in person or online. If you do a remote batch and would like to come back for an in-person batch in the future, you’ll be welcome to do so as an alum.

The reason we won’t put a date on when we’ll reopen is that we — and, realistically the rest of the world — don’t know when it will be safe to gather in person. The spread of COVID-19 is unfolding differently across the world. More than half of Recursers come from outside New York to do a batch, and more than a third come from outside the U.S. We will only reopen our space when it’s safe for everyone to travel here.

A few months ago, it would have been difficult for us to imagine running a successful remote version of an RC batch. So much of what makes RC a unique and transformative experience relies on attendees making personal connections with each other. We thought this also meant it relies on in-person interaction. We still believe that nothing can fully replace the serendipity found in our space (among other things, we have not found a good replacement for being able to wander up to someone and ask what they’re working on).

But remote RC is working, and it includes most of the best parts of RC because it includes the most important part: kind, thoughtful, curious people who are committed to becoming better programmers together.

What remote RC looks like today

We decided to move RC online on March 11th and we closed our space on March 13th. Over the following two weeks, we focused on building software and processes to help us onboard new Recursers starting on March 30th while we continued to run the retreat that was already in progress.

While everyone in the new batches had opted in to doing RC online, the people who were partway through their batches when we made the switch had not. They were also dealing with unprecedented uncertainty around their personal lives, travel, and jobs. Despite all of that, they showed up for one another and for the new batch: they held brainstorming sessions for features for remote RC, helped us write documentation for how to use our new tools, and went out of their way to welcome the new batches on the first day. Remote RC would not be what it is without their contributions.

We’re using Zoom and Zulip as our main tools of communication. Zulip has been our chat channel of choice since 2013. We started using Zoom last month for meetings, presentations, and one-on-ones, and for on-boarding. We set up Zoom rooms that corresponded to some of the areas of our physical space, and made an interactive map based on one a Recurser made for our space last year. We’ve tried to create an experience that maps to a retreat in the physical space as much as possible: Virtual RC allows Recursers to jump into those rooms, link to them from calendar events, and see who’s in a room before entering. This week we added AOL Instant Messenger-style statuses that people can update to share what they’re working on each day.

Virtual RC

Virtual RC in action (with example data!)

It was important that Recursers have different ways to find and connect with each other, feel confident using our communication tools, and be able to do focused solo work as well as pair programming.

In the physical space we have two floors. The fifth floor is our quiet space, where people do solo work, and where we have our wellness room, library, and the faculty desks. The fourth floor is our more social floor, where presentations, workshops, pair programming, lunch, and discussions happen. We set up a Zoom room for people who wanted to work quietly in the company of others, to replicate our fifth floor quiet space, and a kitchen area where people can socialize and chat about anything they like. Other rooms have suggested designations, but they’re meant to be used how Recursers see fit, just like our physical space.

We decided to keep our core hours of 11 am - 5 pm ET so people in current batches know when to be online, and some people have adjusted their hours a bit depending on where they are in the world. We’ve opened participation in remote RC to all alums, so they can drop in and host or attend events as it suits them. There are three check-in meetings throughout the day for people to share what they’re working on, and we have check-ins streams on Zulip for people who prefer to write about their work.

How it’s going so far

There are still a lot of open questions about how to make remote RC work for everyone, and plenty of improvements to make, but so far we’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well things have gone. We currently have 60 people in batch, and like any batch of RC they come from a wide range of backgrounds and experience levels. Unlike most batches, they’re also signing in from a wide range of time zones: we have folks attending from Bangalore, Accra, San Francisco, Barcelona, Denver, Utrecht, and Leeds.

For the first day of the first remote batch, we held our welcome talks on Zoom, and posted transcripts in the chat. We used Zoom’s breakout room feature to have a version of meet and greets, where everyone chats with a randomly selected person in their batch for a few minutes. During their first week, Recursers ran a pair programming workshop and gave tours of the RC software to help the new batch settle in.

In recent weeks, Recursers have hosted a Creative Coding Group meeting where they gave project demos, a debugging group, a game jam, Cracking the Coding Interview study halls, non-technical talks, a Haskell study group, and a discussion of C basics, among many other events.

Challenges ahead

Like many businesses, we are working to ensure we survive the pandemic and the challenging times that are likely to follow. We have operated exclusively off of recruiting revenue for nearly a decade, and like everyone in the recruiting industry, we’ve seen a sudden drop in hiring and an increasing number of layoffs. We don’t know if this slowdown will last just a few months or lead to an extended recession, but we are hoping for the former and preparing for the latter.

Towards that end, we have already cut our monthly spending by more than 20%. We have always been a frugal company, and we are even more so now. We have cut founder (but not employee) salaries, our PR and advertising budget, and cut or negotiated down as many other ongoing expenses as we can.

By far the hardest cut we’ve made is our grants program, which we are suspending indefinitely. For the last eight years, we have offered need-based living grants up to $7,000 to people from groups traditionally underrepresented in tech. While difficult, ending our grants program temporarily supports our top priority, which is to keep RC operating with our entire team employed.

We’re so grateful for our hiring partners, and are continuing to work as hard as we can to support them in hiring great engineers now and in the future.

The last four weeks have been difficult, and there will be more difficult weeks ahead. Right now we feel incredibly lucky to be going through those weeks with the RC community, which has proven itself to be even more kind, resilient, and supportive than we knew it to be.

Though we look forward to returning to our space again, we are also looking forward to meeting new Recursers from all over the world. We believe that RC being more accessible to more people will be a wonderful thing for our community.

We also think some of the benefits RC provides – namely, access to a supportive community of programmers all working to improve themselves together – are now more valuable than ever.

If you’re a programmer who’d like to do a batch of remote RC and join a supportive community this year, we hope you apply!

This is a followup to our previous posts about closing our space and hosting our Spring 2 batch online and hosting our annual alumni reunion online due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

RC is online-only until at least May

We have made the difficult decision to temporarily close our space. Starting Monday, our operations will be fully remote. We’re planning and expecting to keep our space closed until mid-May, and possibly longer.

From everything we’ve read, the time to take action is now. Limiting travel and large gatherings of people is one of the most important things we can do to slow the spread of the COVID-19, protect the health and safety of the RC community, and minimize our contribution to the wider outbreak. Additionally, making this decision now gives us more time to prepare and figure out how to run RC remotely before our next batch starts at the end of this month.

Reimagining RC online

For nearly nine years we have consciously chosen to run RC in person and not online. We’ve considered what a remote version of RC would look like several times. Each time we decided not to do it: the obstacles to creating something up to our standards and the cost to the rest of our business were too great. As a team of only seven people operating solely off revenue and not VC funding, we are judicious about what we prioritize and focus on.

Now, our priorities have been changed for us, and our new focus is clear: We must build an excellent, online-only version of RC. It must embody the most important parts of the in-person experience, reflect our core beliefs about education, and be something we are proud of.

We face different challenges running RC online than most educational institutions because our beliefs about education are radically different. The basic building blocks of schools and universities are teachers, classes, curricula, grades, and tests. While moving those things online isn’t easy, there are well-established analogs for doing all of these things online, from giving lectures to publishing educational materials.

RC’s beliefs about education and educational model are entirely different. We have neither lectures nor a curriculum to put online. Instead, the core of RC is our community — that is, the people who participate, the connections among them, and the creative and intellectual exhaust they generate.

At a glance, the educational value of RC seems, in many ways, tied to physical space. RC’s value to our community comes from being surrounded by a diverse range of people who are all similarly motivated to become better programmers, regardless of their current abilities. It comes from creating an environment that fosters the chance encounters that lead to productive collaborations, new ideas, and close friendships. RC’s value comes from the friendly social pressure of growing alongside peers who are also working at their limits. It comes from having a psychologically safe environment where people can focus their energy on learning instead of showing off how much they know or worrying about whether or not they belong. And most importantly, it comes from our shared sense of purpose and community, which supports all of our growth and work.

These things are all just as important online as they are offline. In figuring out how to best support Recursers as an online community, we believe we can do a good job of fostering the same kind of environment outside of our physical space as we can within it, by ensuring we preserve the things that are valuable about RC and the things that make the experience special: the serendipity of meeting wonderful people to work and create with, the time and space to focus on your own projects, and a community to support you as you learn.

And so these are the things we will be focused on in the days, weeks, and possibly months ahead, as we work to reimagine RC as an online experience.

Logistics for our current and upcoming batches

We shared the details below yesterday with all current Recursers, as well as people who are interviewing or who have been admitted to our upcoming batches.

If you have applied, are thinking about applying, or are confirmed for an upcoming batch

There are two options for attending attending our next batch:

  1. Participate online. You are welcome to confirm for Spring 2/Mini 3, and attend RC remotely during their official dates. We will work hard to ensure that these remote batches feel as much like RC as possible. Doing a batch will still be a full-time commitment. We’re determining logistics and will have more details to share in about a week.

    We may extend our online-only policy to the the full 12 weeks of the Spring 2 batch if we need to. Otherwise, you’ll have the option to attend RC in-person during the second half of the batch (May 18th - June 26th). We’ll make a decision about when to reopen and will send an update in mid-April.

    We’ll have a first day orientation on March 30th, software to support video chats and remote presentations, opportunities for collaboration, and core hours we’ll expect folks to commit to. If you attend remotely and want to additionally do an in-person batch in the future, you’re welcome to attend any batch that starts within the next year.

    If you’ve been admitted and requested a grant: Because of this change, we’ll be adjusting all grant requests for remote batches. Please email us at ops@recurse.com to let us know if you still require a grant to attend Spring 2 now that it will be held remotely, and how much you need (you should include what you need to set up your space for video, audio, and livestreaming if you need to purchase anything to do that comfortably). If we do not hear from you before March 25th, we’ll assume you no longer need a grant to attend. We are currently unable to offer grants to anyone in batches happening after Spring 2.

  2. Come to a later batch. You’re also welcome to defer to a later batch, if you prefer to do RC in-person. You may delay your attendance by up to one year. You can do this via the link we sent to you when you were admitted to RC. If you want to do this but aren’t sure which batch you want to attend, click “Join a different batch” and select a new batch when you’re ready.

If you’re in one of our current batches

If you’re a member of the RC community, please see yesterday’s internal announcement (RC Zulip login required). To recap:

  • We’ll be locking the doors and turning off Doorbot at 5pm on Saturday. You will not be able to access the space after that so make sure you take all of your belongings with you. Check your cubbies, your workspaces, side rooms, etc. Alums, we chose Saturday to give you extra time to pick up anything you have in the space.
  • If you’re around on Friday afternoon, we’ll collect your keys then. If the faculty isn’t here when you leave, please leave your key on one of our desks.
  • Please stop having mail and packages sent to 397 Bridge. Faculty will take turns coming to the space while it’s closed to check on things, but we will not be able to get your mail to you.
  • The space will be locked and not be cleaned. We’ve paid our cleaning person in advance for his normal hours for the next eight weeks, but we do not expect him to come in during that time. Please remove any and all food from the fridges, pantries, and your cubbies to prevent pest problems while the space is closed. We will throw out anything we find at the end of the day on Friday.
  • RC is still in session online. The Winter 2 batch will continue to meet remotely until March 27th, and Spring 1 will continue to meet remotely until May 8th. We’re working hard to figure out what tools and practices will help us stay connected, ensure a good day-to-day experience for Recursers, and especially keep the things that make the RC experience special. We’ll be using Zoom, with support for dedicated rooms to host workshops and events, as well as one-on-one meetings like coffee chats and office hours. We’ll provide more details on that on Friday.
  • A lot of how-tos remain and we know more will arise as we embark on this experiment together. Thankfully, many in our community have extensive knowledge about remote work and there’s been some great conversation on Zulip already about this. We welcome your ideas for how to make remote RC a success, and we’ll have an open meeting over Zoom next week. See Zulip for details.

We’ll get through this together. We know that many of you are sad or disappointed that you won’t be able to finish your batches in the space — we are, too. We’ll do our best to make the end of your batch as productive and valuable as possible. We’ll also look forward to seeing you all back in the space after it’s safe to reopen, and to having you as lifelong members of our community.

Never graduate,
Nick, Sonali, Dave, Rachel, James, Sydney, and Mai

This is a followup to our initial public response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Never Graduate Week will be held remotely and other precautions for COVID-19

Update: As of March 11th we are temporarily moving all operations online.

This is our response plan to the ongoing situation with COVID-19. We will update this post as the situation develops.

Our priority is to ensure the safety of our employees, current Recursers, and alumni community, while helping to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Precautionary steps we’re taking

Canceling public events. We are canceling previously scheduled public events. This includes our March Localhost talks, company meet & greets, and the biomimicry panel we were scheduled to host later this month. We hope to resume hosting Localhost and company meet & greets later in the spring.

We are evaluating private events we run inside the RC community on a case-by-case basis. We’ll keep Recursers updated via our internal calendar, forums, and chat.

Allowing optional work from home for all employees and Recursers. We are pausing our normal policy that current Recursers should come into the space every weekday. All RC employees and Recursers are welcome to work from home, and anyone exhibiting symptoms (fever, cough, sneezing, shortness of breath) is required to stay at home.

Stopping work travel. We are canceling work travel for employees. This unfortunately means our San Francisco events planned for April are canceled. We will reschedule our SF events later in the year when it’s prudent to do so.

Continuing to run batches, but changing how we start them. Our next batch will begin as scheduled on March 30th, however, we are redesigning the experience of our first day to avoid large groups in tight quarters. If you are in the upcoming batch, you will receive full details later this month as the start of your batch approaches.

Following best practices throughout our community. This includes encouraging all Recursers to wash their hands regularly, sanitizing common surfaces more frequently, and recommending friendly waves in lieu of handshakes.

Our biggest event will be held online

Never Graduate Week, our annual alumni reunion, is scheduled for May 11th-15th. This is our largest and most important event, which last year brought together nearly 400 Recursers from across the US and over a dozen countries around the world.

We will not be hosting our reunion in person this year. Given the situation and how quickly things are changing, we think it would likely be irresponsible to host such a large event in May. We also know that waiting to make a decision until later this spring would be more disruptive to people’s travel plans.

Many Recursers look forward to coming back every year for Never Graduate Week. For RC staff, NGW is a highlight of our year. Catching up with friends from years past is energizing, inspiring, and fun. NGW is special because it’s the only time such a large portion of our community has the chance to come together.

Rather than cancel NGW, we’ll take this as an opportunity to try something new. Instead of hosting it in one centralized place, we will be organizing NGW online and supporting small groups of alums to meet up and join in from around the world. There are significant drawbacks to not being able to come together in person. But with careful thought, hard work, and the support of our community, we believe we can organize an excellent NGW online.

Community and bringing people together is even more important in times of uncertainty. We look forward to this opportunity to learn how to do this in a more accessible way online.

What I worked on at RC: Thais Correia

Rachel Petacat

Thais Correia first came to RC in early 2018 for a one-week batch. In 2019, they returned for a full 12 weeks, and spent their time creating beautiful shaders and pieces of generative art. We talked to Thais about how they approached their time during their second batch of RC, and their thoughts about programming and making art.

Thais Correia

Thais Correia

RC: What did you work on at RC?

Thais: My main projects were:

  • Box Gazer: a web experience about paying attention to a pretty box as it bounces around your screen. It uses WebGazer.js for eye-tracking and Three.js for graphics.
  • I worked through The Book of Shaders and made dozens of different shaders while learning about shaping functions, matrix manipulations, randomness and noise, etc.
  • Bismuth Generator: a system for generating bismuth (like the mineral) shapes, using react-three-fiber for the geometry and shader rendering.

Apart from that I paired with folks on more shaders, 3D graphics, and TidalCycles, went to arts and shader meetings, and helped out with the RC Zine a bit!

Bismuth Shader

Bismuth Shader

Why did you decide to work on those things?

In the past, my relationship to learning and creating with code has mostly been about job security and financial stability. I’d ask myself “What do I need to learn to pass this class? What do I need to learn to do well in interviews? What do I need to learn to complete this project at work? What do I need to build to be put up for a promotion?” and whatever I made followed from that. But I’ve also always been inspired by other people doing creative work with code and by other fields and my interests outside of programming. Any idea I had or thing I wanted to learn, I’d write it down. So finally, at RC, I realized I had an opportunity to work on those types of projects! I picked the things that were least relevant to my career thus far, things I couldn’t even really imagine being paid to do, that seemed really fun to make, that would make me think about programming in a new way, and that I’d enjoy talking to other Recursers about.

Interdimensional Travel

Interdimensional Travel

What did you get out of coming back to RC for another batch?

Apart from the things people commonly say they get out of RC (time and space to do focused work, supportive community, inspiration from peers, etc), doing a mini batch and then a full batch was a uniquely positive experience for me. I had a really great time during my mini batch so my feelings leading up to coming back were all positive versions of excitement and not so much anxiety wondering what it would be like. Also, because I treated my mini batch like a sprint and was super focused during it, returning to the space put me back in a really focused headspace (well…. most days!). And lastly, it was extra special to be in the space and run into old RC friends during alum hours1 or events!2 There are so many people making art with code in the RC community. They’ve been a huge source of inspiration and encouragement for me and I’m super grateful for getting to spend in-person time with them.

Glitch Shader

Glitch Shader

What’s your approach to programming? To making art?

I think the foundations of my processes for both are really similar! First of all, I know I can’t do my best work if my mental and physical health aren’t well so I spend a lot of time and energy on my routines to maintain those. I’m a naturally curious person so I find inspiration easily from just living my day to day life. When something catches my interest, I tend to go on pretty deep dives to learn more. I write down all of my ideas, some times I’m even jolted awake by an interesting thought and I’ll write that down. I talk to people who are excited about what they do and I ask them lots of questions, trying to capture some of that excitement for myself.

When I’m on a project, creating documentation comes naturally to me. I take screenshots and progress photos, I write down thoughts and questions that come up, I save all my rough sketches and inscrutable notes from working out something tricky, I save resources and references that I use, and I summarize conversations I have related to the work in text. Finishing a project is always the hardest part for me. I have to set deadlines for myself and constantly fight the pull of perfectionism. I’m definitely still refining my work process and I love to hear about other people’s so please send me any writing you’ve done/read on the topic, whoever is reading this :)


You can see more of Thais’s work on Instagram and Twitter.

If you’re a programmer interested in learning and working alongside folks like Thais, apply to RC!

  1. While Monday-Wednesday is reserved for folks who are in batch, Recurse Center alumni can spend time programming in the space Thursday - Sunday, and mornings and evenings.

  2. We host lots of social events during batches, including game nights, end of batch parties, and technical talks. Recursers also self-organize events like non-technical talks, LED soldering workshops, and more.

$10,000 Fellowships for women (trans and cis), trans, and non-binary programmers

Rachel Petacat

We’re accepting applications for Fellowships of up to $10,000 for women, trans, and/or non-binary programmers to work on a project or research at the Recurse Center during our Fall batches. The Fellowships will be funded directly by the Recurse Center. We especially encourage people of color to apply.

The deadline to apply for fall Fellowships is 9 am EST on Monday, July 22nd.

Since the Fall 1 batch is happening soon, we’re offering more funding to offset travel costs: Fellows coming from outside of New York City for a six- or 12-week batch starting on August 12th will receive an extra $1,000 travel bonus. Fellows applying to the Fall 2 batch beginning on September 23rd aren’t eligible for a travel bonus.

Work on what you want to

Is there a project or research you’ve always wanted to start or contribute to, but you haven’t had the time or resources to do so? Now’s your chance: apply to RC this fall for a one-, six-, or 12-week retreat. We’ll provide up to $10,000 in funding (depending on batch length), a travel bonus for folks from outside New York City who attend the Fall 1 batch, 24/7 access to our space, and a supportive community of fellow programmers.

You can work on whatever programming-related project you want. The only requirement is that it must involve code, and the code must be open source so that others may freely use, learn from, and build on it.

In January we welcomed our first group of Fellows to RC, and were impressed by the work they accomplished: they recreated vintage plotter art, dramatically improved an important algorithm used to sort the human genome, built a blockchain for prayer, did research on using machine learning to improve traffic patterns in urban areas, maintained a Python library they’d recently open-sourced, and used our computing cluster to train language transfer models.

At RC, you’ll have a space where you can focus on your work without the regular obligations of a job or school. You’ll also have the freedom to approach your work however you see fit, and will retain all rights to anything you do here. Though we hope you make meaningful progress on your work, you don’t have to “finish” your project during your time at RC, and you won’t be reporting to an advisor or a boss.

Our space is located in Brooklyn, has two floors, a wellness and lactation room, pairing stations, and lots of natural light. One of our floors is set up for pairing, giving presentations, and group work, while our other floor has a library of books and is kept quiet for focused solo programming.

In addition to attending the retreat, you’ll join a community of over 1,500 kind, sharp, and intellectually curious programmers who have experience in a wide variety of programming topics. They have done academic research, given scores of conference talks, started companies, and created art, games, and music. You’ll be connected with folks who can pair with you, discuss what you’re working on, answer questions, and contribute to generative conversations about programming.

Why we’re doing this (again!)

Ensuring that RC is a supportive and diverse environment is crucial to our mission of building the best place to grow as a programmer because RC is community-driven. While our community has grown in size and diversity along many dimensions, it has been increasingly challenging for us to maintain a gender-balanced environment. We are still very far from our goal of consistently having RC batches be comprised of at least 50% women, trans, and/or non-binary people. Despite regular outreach efforts, our applicant pool skews male, and thus RC has as well.1 Because our batches are relatively small, our gender balance can fluctuate significantly.

Here’s a look at how the number of women, trans, and/or non-binary programmers we’ve added to the RC community has changed over the course of 2019:

Our previous round of Fellowships had a major impact on our overall gender balance in 2019

When we announced Fellowships for our Winter 2, 2019 batch, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of women, trans, and/or non-binary applicants in the following weeks, and our Spring 1, 2019 batch was over 50% women, trans, and/or non-binary folks. That was a long-standing goal, and we’re proud to have reached it.

Unfortunately, applications from those groups have dropped off considerably since the spring. Because of this, our upcoming fall and winter batches are predicted to be far from gender balanced:

While our overall 2019 numbers are good, our upcoming batches have very few women, trans, and non-binary people

Currently, we’re on track for 40% of new Recursers in 2019 to be women, trans, and/or non-binary. That’s an overall improvement, and one that we’re proud of, but it doesn’t show the full picture. Because we know that the experience of being in a batch with a good gender balance is dramatically better for Recursers, we don’t think it’s good enough for some batches to have over 50% women, trans, and non-binary people while others have only 20%.

We hope that our Fellowships will again help diversify our applicant pool and encourage more people, especially women, trans, and/or non-binary people of color, to apply to RC. In the meantime, we’re developing more long-term strategies to encourage folks from marginalized groups to apply to RC.

Details

The amount of money you’re eligible to receive for a Fellowship depends on the batch and the batch length you select. Fellowships are not tuition offsets; RC is free for everyone to attend. The deadline to apply for all fall Fellowships is 9 am EST on July 22nd.

Fall 1, 2019 batch

We’re offering $10,000 for a 12-week batch, and $5,000 for a six-week batch. We’re also offering an extra $1,000 to folks who receive a Fellowship and are coming from outside of New York City to attend to offset some of the higher costs associated with booking travel and housing on short notice.

Fall 2, 2019 batch

We’re offering $10,000 for a 12-week batch, and $5,000 for a six-week batch.

Mini 5, 2019 and Mini 6, 2019 batches

We’re offering $1,500 for these one-week mini batches.

To qualify for a Fellowship, you must:

  • Identify as a woman, as trans, and/or as non-binary.
  • Be able to attend RC for one, six, or 12 weeks starting on either August 12th or September 23rd, 2019.
  • Plan to work on code or research that’s open source, whether it’s your own project or a contribution to someone else’s, and share your work publicly however you think makes the most sense (as a blog post, paper, website, or something else).

Current members of the RC community who meet the above criteria are welcome to apply for a Fellowship.

The admissions process for Fellowships is very similar to our standard admissions process:

  • Apply the Fall 1, 2019 or Fall 2, 2019 (six- or 12-week batches); or the Mini 5, 2019 or Mini 6, 2019 (one-week) batches.
  • Mark that you’re applying for a Fellowship in the “Fall 2019 Fellowships” section.
  • Let us know if you’d like to be considered for a regular batch if you’re not selected for a Fellowship. You can still apply for a need-based grant to support your time at RC.
  • Write a clear description of the project you’d like to work on, your plan for approaching it, and any resources you’ll need in response to the “What do you want to work on at RC?” question.
  • If you’re invited to interview, you’ll do a conversational interview, where we’ll discuss your plan for RC in detail. If that goes well, you’ll be invited to a 30-minute pair programming interview.

Our admissions criteria for Fellowships is identical to our normal admissions criteria, with one exception. For a regular batch, we look for people who want to become dramatically better programmers, and we expect people doing a batch of RC to prioritize that, even above making progress on a project. For Fellowships, the focus is making progress on a project or research, even if it doesn’t make you a dramatically better programmer (though we hope it does!). We’ll be evaluating applicants in part on what they plan to do at RC, and not whether and how they want to improve as programmers.

If you think a Fellowship could be a good fit for you, we hope to see you apply. And if not, we hope you’ll share this opportunity with a friend or colleague who may benefit from it.

If you have any questions, email us at faculty@recurse.com.

This post has been edited to correct an error regarding the deadline for applying for a Fellowship grant for the Fall 2 batch.

  1. We do not take demographics into account when making admissions decisions: we hold everyone who applies to RC to the same bar. To reduce unconscious biases, we use pseudonyms and hide names and demographic information during our initial application review.

What we’ve learned from seven years of working to make RC 50% women, trans, and non-binary

In April of 2012, we announced our goal to make RC 50% women. Seven years later, we are close to reaching an improved version of this goal: 48% of new Recursers in 2019 so far identify as women, trans, or non-binary1. This post is a summary of what we’ve tried, learned, and accomplished over the past seven years, as well as our overall strategy and why we choose to prioritize this work.

Outline

Our strategy and why gender and other kinds of diversity are essential to RC’s success

Note: While the general approach outlined here can help increase many kinds of diversity, this post is primarily about gender diversity.

We believe nearly every aspect of RC gets better when RC becomes more diverse. The core experience of attending a batch and being part of our community, as well as our business model (recruiting), are all functions of the number, quality, and diversity of the people involved. This is what we mean when we say RC is community-driven. My cofounders and I have experienced RC across 60 batches: some with significant gender, racial, age, and other forms of diversity, and others with very little diversity. We believe firmly that the former are a better experience for everyone.

Additionally, we want RC to be a place where everyone can focus their time and energy on becoming better programmers, not worrying that they don’t belong or feeling like they have to represent their entire race or gender because they’re in the extreme minority. We focus on diversity so Recursers can focus on programming.

One set of things we want all members of our community to share are our admissions criteria. We want everyone here to be smart, pleasant, intellectually curious, self-directed, and to enjoy programming and want to get dramatically better at it.

The strategy I describe in this post informs nearly everything RC does, from how we approach marketing to how we structure our retreat and community. It boils down to: 1) Get as strong and diverse a pool of applicants as possible, 2) minimize bias and evaluate everyone on the same admissions criteria, and 3) build an environment where as many kinds of people as possible can thrive.

Most companies focus (if at all) on the first part of this process, and do little for the second and third parts. Getting a diverse range of applicants is essential, but it’s pointless if you then put them through a biased or ad hoc selection process, only to end up in an environment where only some groups can flourish or even want to remain.

1. Get as strong and diverse a range of applicants as possible

Since we take active, deliberate steps not to discriminate based on demographics during our admissions process, the makeup of our retreat and community is almost perfectly reflective of our applicant pool. If 5% of RC applicants identify as Black and 30% identify as women, then we can confidently expect the percentages of people in our upcoming batches who identify as Black and as women to be about 5% and 30%, respectively. As such, a core part of our strategy is biasing the top of our funnel — that is, getting more women and people of color to apply.

Here are some of the things we’ve tried.

We give money to women and people from other traditionally underrepresented groups. In April of 2012, we partnered with Etsy to fund living expense grants for women who can’t afford to attend RC otherwise. While RC is 100% free for all participants, living in New York is expensive. In 2014, we expanded our grants program to include people who identify as Black, Latina/o, Native American, and Pacific Islander.

By 2015, it had become increasingly hard to convince companies to contribute to our grants program, and we decided to begin funding grants ourselves, directly from RC’s operating budget. We have now disbursed over $1.5M in grants.

Grants have had a bigger impact on RC’s gender diversity than anything else we’ve tried. Continuing to provide grants to applicants who can’t afford to attend RC without them has been challenging but possible because we choose to prioritize it. For four months last year, my cofounders and I chose to take 60% pay cuts rather than cut our budget for grants. We were able to do this not just because we cared but because we knew that cutting grant funding would make our core product — the experience of attending a batch of RC — worse, and decrease our longterm odds of success.

We try to write clearly and frequently about our values. Writing is one of our organizational strengths, and in an otherwise unscalable business, writing lets us reach people around the world with a fixed investment of time and zero marginal costs. Next to the value of putting your money where your mouth is, this is the most important thing we learned from our partnership with Etsy. After starting our grants program, we saw an increase in applicants who identified as women and who did not need or request a grant. They said they applied because of the work we were doing and the clear way we explained it.

We’ve tried to critically self-assess the messages we are implicitly and explicitly putting out into the world, and we’re willing to make small and big changes. For example, we changed our company’s name four years ago in part because our old name (“Hacker School”) had unproductive connotations.

We’ve offered merit-based Fellowships. Late last year, we offered merit-based Fellowships of up to $10,000 to women, trans, and non-binary people working on open source projects, research, and art. Our announcement got a tremendous response, and our Winter 2 batch ended up being nearly 40% women, trans, and non-binary people, compared to the less than 20% we projected before announcing our Fellowships. The batch was also larger than any of our other recent batches, which is good for both our business and the experience of the people in the batch. (For more, see Alicia’s recent blog post.)

We’ve worked to make RC an experience people love and want to tell other people about. The number one way applicants hear about RC is from an alum who recommended it to them. The number two way is a recommendation from a friend or colleague who didn’t go to RC. Most encouragingly, applicants who identify as women, trans, or non-binary are 33% more likely to have heard about RC via word-of-mouth than cis-male applicants. Because of this we have experimented with a number of ways for our community to help spread the word about RC, but none have come even close to the impact that “just” having an experience people love and want to tell their friends about has.

Informational chats with prospective applicants. For the past several years, I’ve had a standing offer to have an informational chat with any woman or person of color that a Recurser thinks would make a good addition to our community. The chats are usually short and I answer questions about RC and our admissions process. I’ve done dozens of these now, but I have not tracked them. However, a number of the people I’ve met with have gone on to apply and attend RC. Speaking with prospective applicants has also been a good source of feedback, since it’s given us insight into parts of our admissions process we didn’t or don’t explain clearly enough on our website.

Not everything we’ve tried has worked. For instance, we’ve experimented with personal outreach to individual women and people of color. We did this in an ad hoc fashion for several years, and then last year tried a more systematic approach. Our team found over 100 women and people of color who we thought would make promising applicants, and sent personalized emails encouraging them to consider applying (while these were cold emails, we personally found, vetted, and emailed the people we contacted to ensure we weren’t being spammy). We tracked the (considerable) time we spent on this, and several months later, looked at how many of the people we’d emailed had applied and been admitted. We determined that the results weren’t worth the effort required and have stopped doing this.

Similarly, a few years ago one of my cofounders and I visited a dozen college campuses and gave talks about RC to their Women in Computer Science clubs. We met some great people (a few of whom have since become Recursers!) but we found that, at our size, the benefits of this weren’t enough to warrant the significant amount of time and money we put into traveling around the country.

Another example of an unsuccessful experiment is RC Start, a program we ran for most of 2016. We offered free, one-on-one mentorship to new programmers by matching them with RC alums for three sessions of programming help and advice. One of our hypotheses and reasons for trying RC Start was that we thought the applicant pool would have a higher percentage of women than the applicant pool for our retreat. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be true. Additionally, we realized that the program was a strategic mistake. My cofounder Dave explained this in detail in Why we stopped RC Start.

Though it’s too soon to say whether they’ll be successful or not, there are also a number of new things we’re trying. One of those things is targeted advertising. Before last year, we had spent effectively no money on advertising. Currently, we are experimenting with ads directed exclusively at female-identified Facebook and Instagram users. There are two things that make this particularly challenging. First, coming to RC is a major life decision, and so there’s commonly a long time between when people hear about us and when they apply (in fact, the majority of people who come to RC heard about it more than a year before they applied). Second, we’ve chosen not to use some of Facebook’s more powerful but troublesome features, like Custom Audiences (which would require that we upload personal information to Facebook) and Pixel (which would send all of our site traffic to Facebook).2 We don’t know yet whether or not we’ll be able to get new qualified applicants cost effectively through ads.

We’re also working to develop ongoing relationships with CS departments and Women in CS groups. This started on a small scale organically as people came to RC, had great experiences, and spread the word to their schools and departments. Recently, we’ve begun a more concerted effort to establish ongoing relationships with groups at a number of universities around the US.

We’re also investing for the long term. Last year we launched Joy of Computing, a site that features technical work by members of the RC community. We designed it to give the public a way to see the incredible diversity of delightful work Recursers do. Our long term goal is to build Joy of Computing into a new way for people to hear and learn about RC. We don’t expect this to have a meaningful impact on our applications for at least a year, and probably longer.

2. Minimize bias and evaluate everyone on the same admissions criteria

We have spent many years refining our admissions process and eliminating bias wherever we can. Here are some of the most effective things we’ve done so far.

We use pseudonyms and hide demographic information. In 2014, we updated our admissions review software to replace people’s names with pseudonyms (e.g., “Keyboarding Animal” or “Temperature Jeans” instead of “José Smith” or “Kimberly Lin”) and to hide demographic information during the first part of our application review. While far from perfect, this helps us shape our initial assessment of applicants without knowing their demographics.

We have explicit admissions criteria. This is one of the most basic things organizations can do to reduce bias in any admissions or interview process, and most companies do it half-heartedly or not at all. If you don’t have a clear idea (written down and understood by everyone involved in the process) of exactly what you are trying to select for, how can you fairly and consistently evaluate candidates, and how can you know if your process is filtering for what you want it to? We publish our admissions criteria on our website.

We document and explain our process. Once you have criteria by which you’re trying to evaluate applicants, you need to create and document a process for evaluating those criteria. You must also be specific about what precisely you mean by your criteria. For instance, if you say you’re hiring for “go-getters,” what does that actually mean to you, and does it mean the same thing to your colleagues? In addition to sharing our admissions criteria publicly, we have many thousands of words of internal documentation of the what, how, and why of our process for our interviewers to draw upon.

We train our interviewers. Many companies will say hiring is one of the most important things they do, and then ask their employees to just start doing it. You want your process to be as consistent as possible across interviewers so that regardless of if an applicant speaks with interviewer A, B, or C, the outcome is the same.

We prioritize facts over opinions. When we write notes and grades for our admissions interviews, we think it’s more valuable to write about facts than opinions, or even conclusions. Consider the difference between the notes “the applicant can’t program at all” and “the applicant asked to use Google to look up how to write a for loop. After 10 minutes, they were unable to write a syntactically correct loop in Python.” The ideal interview notes would include a complete transcript of the interview, since you can always reconstruct an opinion from the facts, but you usually can’t reconstruct the facts from an opinion. We also take the context of a person’s experience and past educational opportunities into account when making decisions. For instance, while RC welcomes and admits people with a wide range of programming ability, we expect different things in our interviews from people who have been Staff Engineers than from people who are only six months into teaching themselves to program.

To collect interview notes, we’ve written custom software and have a standard format, which includes space for each criterion to includes the facts the interviewer sees as relevant, as well as radio buttons for whether they got a positive signal, negative signal, or no signal for that criterion.

We record interviews for quality control and training. In 2017, we began to record video of our interviews (with applicants’ consent, of course). These videos have been particularly helpful when training new interviewers. For instance, before conducting or even observing any interviews, prospective RC interviewers watch recordings of past interviews and then write up notes and grades as though they had conducted the interviews themselves. Then, with RC faculty, they talk through and compare their assessments and decisions to the ones made by the actual interviewers.

We have ongoing support and a process for giving interviewers feedback. Our interviewers meet regularly to discuss challenges, ask questions, and give feedback based on their recent interviews. We also regularly audit all interviewers’ notes and grades and provide feedback on how the notes are written, as well as their admissions decisions.

3. Build and nurture an environment where as many kinds of people as possible can thrive

There’s no sense building a pipeline if it’s leaky, or a funnel if it only leads to a cesspool. No marketing or admissions efforts matter if you have a toxic environment that hampers people and drives them out.

Here are some of the things that have helped us foster a healthy environment.

We have explicit social rules. We have a set of four lightweight social rules that help make RC a friendly, productive place to program and grow. These include No well-actually’s and No feigning surprise. Our social rules are intended to give people a shared framework and an easy mechanism for addressing small annoyances before they fester and become big problems.

We have a code of conduct, a system for reporting violations, and a response protocol. Where our social rules are meant to help with annoying behavior that most of us do from time to time, our code of conduct is meant for serious infractions that might warrant removal from our community. Our code of conduct is more than just words, we also have an established process for how people can report issues, and how we will handle them when they do.

We are intentional about how we welcome people and make them part of our community. We want people to feel safe and secure at RC so they can focus as much of their energy as possible on their own growth and work. Having a genuine community requires that people know the other people around them, and that everyone shares some fundamental values and purpose.

We start working towards this before people even begin RC. We run RC Gateway, which gives admitted Recursers the option to request an introduction to an existing member of our community based off their interests and background (e.g., someone might ask to speak with an alum who came to RC after leaving the industry to raise a family, or an alum who had worked as a web developer but focused on machine learning at RC).

The first day of RC is unlike every other day. While nearly all of RC is unstructured and Recursers decide for themselves how they want to spend their time, the first day of a batch includes a welcome breakfast, tours, an introductory ceremony, and a skit about our social rules. This is because our goals for the first day are different than for other days. When people first come to RC, we want to prioritize helping them get acquainted with our physical space, meet others in their batch, and set a healthy tone for the remainder of their time here.

We continue to make RC more accessible. In addition to attending RC for six or 12-week batches, people can now come for just one week and become an alum and lifelong member of the community. This is a change we made in early 2018, with the goal of making RC more accessible to people who can’t attend for a full six or 12-weeks. We hoped this would make it easier for parents to attend RC, and hypothesized the applicant pool might skew more female than the pool for our longer retreats. The latter turned out to be false (men and women apply to our different length retreats at effectively the same rates) but anecdotally the applicant pool has skewed older and included more parents. (We don’t have data here because we don’t track age or parental status in our admissions process.)

We have also changed some of our policies and updated our space to make RC more family-friendly. We have added a lactation and wellness room, and updated our guest policy to allow parents to bring their children with them to RC when childcare falls through.

Results and parting thoughts

Before we set our goal to make RC gender balanced in early 2012, only 5% of Recursers were women, trans, or non-binary. Today, 34% of our community of over 1,400 people are. Even more promising: Of the nearly 150 people who have already joined or who have confirmed for an upcoming batch this year, 48% identify as women, trans, or non-binary. As promising as this is, we’ve seen these numbers fluctuate. We know it will take continuous investment and work to have any chance of consistently achieving a gender-balanced environment at RC.

We have been able to prioritize this work over an extended period of time because we have built a team, culture, and company aligned with it. Caring, while important, can never be enough if your institutional priorities and incentives are working against your good intentions. The things you actually prioritize will always win in the long run. If you are serious about prioritizing diversity and inclusion at your company, you must make it inseparable from your product and overall success, and recognize that prioritizing anything necessarily implies de-prioritizing other things.

What about race, age, and other demographic factors?

Currently, 6% of our community identifies as Black, 6% identifies as Latina or Latino, and 0.2% identify as Native American. This is more racially diverse than the tech industry at large — for example, just 1.5% of the employees Google classifies as “tech” employees identify as Black.3 But Google’s is a low bar to compare ourselves to.

While we have made some progress in the past year — 7% of new Recursers so far in 2019 are Black, compared to 5% in 2018 — RC is still overwhelmingly white and Asian. We know that this will not change unless we invest the same amount of time and money in making RC more racially diverse as we have in making it more gender balanced.

We expect the challenges we’ll face to vary among different demographic groups. For example, Black applicants are slightly less likely to have heard about RC via word-of-mouth than our applicant pool as a whole, while women, trans, and non-binary applicants are much more likely to have heard about us from friends. We assume this is reflective of the small number and percentage of Black people currently in the RC community, and the systematic racism and racial segregation that persists in the US.

We do not have demographic data for age. Anecdotally and by observation, we know the majority of people who come to RC are in their 20s and 30s, but have ranged in age from 16 to early 60s. We believe RC would be a better experience for everyone if we had more older and more younger people in our community.

  1. Our initial goal in 2012 was to make RC 50% “women.” Over the years, as we’ve learned and thought more deeply about gender diversity at RC, we’ve refined this goal to “make RC 50% people who identify as women, trans, or non-binary.”

  2. This might seem odd or even hypocritical since we do use Google Analytics. We agree that sending all our traffic to Google is just as bad as sending it to Facebook. We plan to migrate to our own internal analytics eventually, and in the interim, thought it was better to not make the same mistake twice.

  3. According to Google’s 2018 report.

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