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I'm Dave, one of the founders of the Recurse Center.

What we’ve learned from Hacker School

February 01, 2012

We’ve now run two batches of Hacker School and we’re about to start the third. We’ve learned a lot and I want to take some time to write down the most interesting and surprising lessons.

First, some background: Hacker School is a three month writers retreat for programmers located in New York. There are no teachers or classes. We spend our time writing free and open source software and discussing our work with each other.

Hacker School is good for experienced programmers. This was one of the first lessons we learned. We designed Hacker School to be the best place for less experienced programmers to become great. We also designed it for ourselves because we were far from where we wanted to be. We weren’t really thinking about more experienced programmers, but we wanted to make sure that we’d want to continue doing Hacker School as we improved.

What we quickly learned is that the focus on becoming a better programmer is exactly what attracted the best programmers to us. In retrospect this should have been obvious. The best programmers become the best because they always want to be better. Also, great programmers enjoy spending time with other great programmers.

A bit of structure is important We’re big believers that you can’t force people to learn what they don’t want to, and we designed Hacker School accordingly. Loving programming is the most important quality that we look for in Hacker School students.

When we started, we decided that we were going to give our students total freedom to learn as they saw fit. Halfway through last batch, we spoke with each student individually about how they thought the school was going and how we could improve it. Almost everyone said that they wanted to pair program more. This surprised us because none of our students had asked each other if they wanted to pair. When we probed further, we found it was the obvious social issues: shyness, fear of looking stupid, fear that no one else would feel the same way.

After hearing this, we told everyone about the feedback we got and set aside a few days to get people pairing. That turned out to be a significant positive turning point in the batch. We started adding a bit more structure like weekly ship days where everyone had to ship some piece of code, no matter how small, and the batch continued to improve. We’re being cautious about the structure we add and still have a lot to learn, but we’re very satisfied with what we’ve done so far.

There are programmers around the world who feel isolated. This is our most recent lesson. For the first two batches, we didn’t do any publicity. All of our students were friends of friends. We wanted to make sure we got it right before we told anyone about it.

At the beginning of January, we told the Internet what we’ve been working on. In the past three weeks, we’ve gotten to speak to programmers from all around the world, and again and again we’ve heard the same thing: even with all the great hacker communities and websites on the Internet, being the only programmer among the people you know in real life is isolating. This is very foreign to us. It’s easy to forget how good some of us have it, having real life friends who are programmers. We can’t fix this in a day, but we think we’ve got a start.

You can read more about Hacker School here. We still have a couple of spots left for the upcoming batch, starting February 13th.

Hacker School is a Shuttleworth Funded project. We don’t charge for Hacker School and our space is donated, so the grant money went towards paying our bills while we figure out how to create great programmers.