Recurse Center

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.