Recurse Center

Max Pekarsky: Product Operations to Software Engineer to Freelance Developer

Sydney Lefevre

This is a continuation of our series exploring the paths that Recursers take to RC, what they do during their batch, and what happens after.

Max is a freelance developer working with Execute Program, and came to RC for a batch in 2019. Before RC, he worked in product operations at Codecademy, and took a software engineer apprenticeship with the New York City mayor’s office.

Max Pekarsky

Here is Max’s story

Before RC

I took a CS class in high school as my first real exposure to programming, and I liked it way more than I expected. It was great to build things. I think of coding and music as sort of being parallel, and I was writing a lot of music, and so writing code was just another means of artistic self-expression. It’s like, Oh, I can write music and write a song for my friends, or I can write some code and make a game for my friends. I think there’s a moment where you write some instructions for the computer, and the computer does the thing you asked it to do. That moment just clicks for some people, and it definitely clicked for me. I thought, “this is awesome.”

I ended up not studying CS in college. I worked in a bunch of other fields, and eventually made my way into tech working in operational and product roles. For a while I led a team of programming tutors at Codecademy, and at some point I realized that I was enjoying the technical conversations and the technical work more than the operational work.

My mentor at the time was not a Recurse Center alum, but had heard all these great things about RC. I started reading through the website, and it totally sold me. I was a self-taught developer and had been following my way through tutorials and I wanted to slow down and start to fill in some of that missing CS background, and actually understand what the code I was working on was doing. In high school I went to band camp for a couple of years, and they were some of the best summers in my life, being totally immersed in making music with other musicians for three months. I made incredible progress as a musician in those summers, and it’s what made me the musician I am today, and reading the Recurse Center website I was like, this is the same thing, but for programming! I can just sort of hang out with other developers in a no pressure environment and just better my craft.

During RC

I don’t think everything clicked right away. I think one thing that I love about RC (and I’m definitely not the first person to come up with this) is that RC is really transparent about what it is. A lot of organizations tell you what they are, but you need to read between the lines, whereas RC is really straightforward. What you read is what you get, and so from the moment I got there it was kind of what I expected, which was wonderful–just really nice people! I think at some point I realized, and I think a lot of my batchmates realized, that RC wasn’t going to just be about (for most people, at least) the technical discoveries and the technical learning.

You were doing as much personal learning: how to direct your own work, figuring out how to get help from your batchmates, and sort of finding a way to work that worked for you for your personal growth. That was a big shift for me.

Self-directed learning is hard. I started studying compilers, and it’s an intimidatingly large subject for somebody that’s never had any structured learning with it. To me that’s sort of classic RC: I sort of threw myself into the middle of this big subject and it’s sort of like, figure it out! There’s books on the shelf, there’s the internet, and I’ve got batchmates that’ve worked on this professionally, and I have to push myself out of my comfort zone and go read up on these resources and decide how much is enough. I spent three weeks on this stuff and I still felt completely lost. I had batchmates who did PhDs on this stuff, so at what point can I walk away from this and still feel like a success? So I decided that I’m going to pull as much as I can together, I’m going to do a technical presentation, there’s going to be people in the audience to whom this is going to be laughably simple, and that’s ok! And I’m going to walk away after a month having learned a bunch, knowing that there’s so much still to learn.

After RC

After RC, I got my first full-time job as a web dev, which was awesome because that was one of my big goals. I worked there for a couple of years, and now I’m doing freelance and contract work and probably going back to full-time work.

RC’s career services were really helpful, and I applied to a bunch of jobs through RC. The job that I ended up taking wasn’t one that I found through RC, but Career Services still helped me negotiate and manage the whole process, which is really wonderful. I’m really grateful for that.

I’ve got a close group of friends from RC and we have a weekly meeting. Initially our goal was to study Rust together. There’s a joke in the TV show “Community” where there’s a Spanish study group and they never study Spanish, so after RC we decided to sort of keep hanging out and study Rust, but we never actually study Rust. We’ve been meeting weekly through the pandemic for the last 3 years and we talk about our personal lives, but we also talk tech, and it’s been super helpful to have a little community. Each of us is in a different kind of job and we can support one another. We try to meet up in-person once in a while, including at Never Graduate Week.

The Rust Club

When there are events at RC, I try to show up, and when I think about my job searches, RC is the first place that comes to mind. When I want help on a technical topic, I definitely go to Zulip. I talk with incoming Recursers, and I’ve given mock interviews to Recursers looking for jobs. RC occasionally reaches out to connect me with like-minded Recursers, or whenever I can help out, which is great!

I mostly still learn on my own, but I’m a lot more comfortable with the discomfort of doing it. Learning on your own is hard, and after RC it’s a little bit easier, or a little bit more okay that it is hard.

I definitely never feel like the smartest guy in the room at RC, and I think it was the first place I felt real psychological safety, and that totally unlocked my ability to learn.

The community you’re a part of at RC is incredibly generous and friendly and kind. Of everyone I’ve met through RC, “kind” is the first word that comes to mind.