Recurse Center

Surprise and self-discovery: Victoria and Jordan’s sabbaticals at RC

Sydney Lefevre

Having established that you don’t need to abscond to a faraway beach to take a break to explore your interests, you might wonder: Who really comes to RC on a sabbatical? What do they do when they’re here? And, what happens after: how do you keep growing when you already have years of experience under your belt? I spoke with two alums who came to RC for a professional break about what they wanted out of RC, how their batch actually unfolded, and the impact it’s had on their lives since then.

Applying to RC: How it started

Victoria Kirst came to RC in 2017. She‘d been teaching at Stanford after working as an engineer at Google for a few years, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep teaching or go back to programming full-time. The school year kept her too busy to take time to think and explore her options, so her summer break was an opportunity to step back and reflect. When she applied to RC, she wrote:

“I would love to spend my summer learning and growing as a programmer. I love coding and building things, but in the past, I’ve limited the scope of my projects (outside of work) to simple projects that I can code quickly. This summer, I’d love to tackle something more ambitious using tech I’ve never used before. The Recurse Center seems like an ideal environment in which I could push myself to create cool things and stretch my technical skills.”

Jordan Killpack came to RC in early 2022. At the time, she was working as a Staff Engineer at Mailchimp and was feeling adrift. She knew she wanted to have a bigger impact at work, which didn’t seem feasible after Mailchimp was acquired by a much larger company. After taking a couple of months off on her own, she realized she needed more structure. She’d heard about RC through her network, but it never made sense to uproot her life to move to New York for three months. Since RC started offering remote batches, she said, “the stars aligned for me.” In her application, she explained:

“I want to rekindle my love of programming. My most recent job involved a massive, creaky code base that struck fear in the hearts of many of my coworkers. Working on it greatly sapped my enthusiasm. (That said, I did find joy in solving mysteries in the code base– What is this doing? How long has it been doing that? Did we mean for it do this at all?– and in deleting vast swaths of superstitious code.)
I want to take some time to learn things just for the heck of it, in ways I can’t when I have a problem someone’s paying me to solve. I think the combination of this and being around other ravenously curious people will help reignite my spark.

Coming to RC: Space to explore your interests

I caught up with Victoria and Jordan recently to chat about how their time at RC impacted their lives. They walked me through what they did during their batches, and what they learned from the experience.

When Jordan came to RC, she thought she might work with Elixir, and “had some ideas about doing things to facilitate whatever vague career move I wanted to make.” But she said she changed direction quickly. “The first week, the faculty were like, ‘do what is exciting to you instead of what you think you should be doing!’”

Jordan took this advice to heart and applied it over the course of her time at RC. “I started by trying to connect other interests I had that were not related to computers — for example, I thought it would be cool to make a tool to help me plan weaving projects. I dropped that pretty quickly when it became more of a design problem than a technology problem and it felt like I’d gotten as much juice as I wanted out of that.”

She worked on security hacking challenges, which felt like fun puzzles, and later built an operating system in Rust since she didn’t have experience with operating systems and wanted to tackle a meaty project. Everything she worked on was new to her, and none of it was what she expected to do coming in.

Victoria also found RC to be a time of surprise and self-discovery. She said she had a “classic” RC experience: “I did have something specific in mind and then completely changed what I actually did. Originally I thought I should learn about machine learning and AI. But one of the things I got the most out of at RC is that when I was in that space of choosing what I wanted to do, I found myself being drawn to very different things.” During her batch, Victoria ended up exploring generative art and building a multiplayer game, which helped her learn more about real-time communication and exposed her to technologies she hadn’t used before.

In addition to new technical challenges, Victoria shared that “the entire summer was a surprise. With more space, a lot of things became clear. I assumed that I wasn’t that interested in building stuff when I became a teacher, but at RC I realized it was other factors that had gotten me super down. Microaggressions and sexism affected me and made me think I didn’t like the field. But, in a supportive environment where I was able to build things that were fulfilling to me, I realized I really loved building stuff in a really wonderful way.

After RC: How it’s going

The time and space to follow their interests at RC and make decisions about their own work further empowered Victoria and Jordan to make positive changes in their careers. After their batches, both of them found new jobs: Jordan joined a much smaller company where she could have the impact she wanted, and Victoria left her job at Stanford to return to software engineering full-time.

Victoria said, “I’d done so much reflection in a supportive environment. I didn’t know I needed it, and I didn’t realize this environment would be so conducive to that.” She realized something at RC that has helped her build her career with more intention. “One of the main theses that I have is that I care a lot about what I’m doing and why. If I am in an environment or project that’s not a fit for me, that hugely affects my happiness. My career arc has been an iterative process of trying to find what I want to do with my career, life, and technology.

Since her time at RC, she’s worked at Google on a virtual reality project and in a leadership role at Glitch, and she now works at The Browser Company as an engineer. She decided to shift to an IC role because “in some ways, I wanted an ‘RC moment’ to take a step back again and try working on something engaging while also giving myself space to do self-discovery and make time for creative outlets.”

Jordan took a job at Oso, an authorization-as-a-service platform. She said that her time at RC helped her think about the kind of role and environment she wanted to be in next. “Paying attention to what it is that you want, versus what you think you should want — or what somebody else wants you to do — led me to the company I’m working for now. Upon reflection, I wanted a place that was small, where I could have a big direct impact and get my hands dirty doing a bunch of different kinds of things. And that’s definitely been the case. Remembering that I have agency in the world was a big takeaway from RC.”

Victoria and Jordan came to RC years apart, but walked away with something similar: a renewed and powerful sense of agency. Giving yourself the space the follow your curiosity and investigate the how and why of your work can positively impact every aspect of your life.

Thank you to both Victoria and Jordan for taking the time to share their experiences! If you enjoyed reading about their journeys, and want to take some time at RC to explore your own interests, I hope you consider applying to one of our upcoming batches.