Recurse Center - Never Graduate!

By Indradhanush Gupta Comment

When I made up my mind to attend the Recurse Center earlier this year I found myself standing in a crossroads of sorts. I found myself in a comfortable position at my job in Instamojo, being confident about most parts of the growing codebase along with having worked on the infrastructure team. In short, I would hardly flinch when I had to build something and knew my way around from the get go almost all the time. But then I had always wanted to work in the area of distributed systems and after having worked for almost three years as a full time programmer, I found myself lacking and not much to show for it.

What I did at the Recurse Center?

The first thing that I wanted to work on at RC was to build a multiplayer game, followed by implementing a load balancer and if time permitted build a toy UNIX shell. You can see the pattern here. My goal was to learn more about distributed systems and operating systems. I had started reading up on Erlang on the days leading up to the first day of my batch.

However, more often than not, people come to RC with a different kind of goal and end up doing something drastically different if not completely different. The very first project that I started working on was the UNIX shell, which turns out was the last preference on my aforementioned list. I did think about the multiplayer game and the load balancer, but I worked on none of them. I worked on a ray tracer instead which was something I had never thought I’d work on at RC. The ray tracer turned out to be very different from the traditional application development that I was used to. In general, a buggy code leads can make your application crash. However, in the ray tracer, a bug means the image itself does not get rendered correctly. The buggy image looked cool for sure, but I had no clue what was wrong with it. This was especially harder, since I was not quite sure what the expected image should look like and it felt like fishing in the dark to some extent. This meant that I had to learn a different thought process to debug the ray tracer.

Finally, I resumed learning Erlang at RC, and decided to implement Raft, the consensus protocol. Learning Erlang turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated initially. The main reason was that this was my first foray into functional programming. The other was that Raft was completely unknown to me and I was trying to do two unknowns at the same time. I had ignored the general advice of dealing with only one unknown at a time. This lead to a few not so productive weeks during the mid point of my batch (at least it felt so at the time). I was not writing a lot of code and struggling to grasp Erlang’s ideology when it came to designing fault tolerant systems. In retrospect, I should have worked on some basic Erlang exercises and only then attempted to implement Raft once I found my feet in Erlang’s world. This was a hard learned lesson that will stick with me for a long time. Only one unknown at a time. Period.

At RC, once a week interested people gather in a room for what is called as a feelings checkins. Here people can talk about anything they want without anyone offering a comment. This makes for a non judgemental environment allowing recursers to feel free and vent out anything that might be bothering them. When my Erlang wasn’t going anywhere I attended one of the feelings checkins and said that, if I cannot complete my Raft implementation by the end of my batch, RC would have been a failed experiment for me.

When my batch ended, I had not completed the implementation but I attended the feelings checkins and issued an apology. RC is not a failed experiment for me, even though my implementation is incomplete. All the projects that I worked on, the UNIX shell, the ray tracer and the Raft implementation are incomplete. But completion does not define the success of my batch. It is rather defined by the experience that I gained being around folks who accept you for who you are. All the projects are a start. They have some momentum. I had zero know how about each of the projects before I started working on them. And RC helped me gain that momentum and now I am confident that I can carry that on my own and keep working on them by myself over time.

I was worried that I would spend all my time on Twitter or Facebook. Instead I am happy that I spent even less time on these websites during RC than what I was already doing. I think the impostor syndrome can take a backseat for now. I feel confident that I have the drive in me to learn new things on my own without a manager having to set a deadline.

P.S. At RC, I regularly posted on Zulip in the #checkins stream about my progress. I have collected it from Zulip and published it here

What next?

My batch ended on August 10, 2017 and I have been doing tourist things in New York since then and now I am flying back to my home in India.

Looking back, doing a batch of RC was the best decision that I could have made. My present self thanks my past self. RC is not one of the best experiences of my life, but the very best experience without a sliver of doubt and I would love to come back and do another batch in the future.

But for now, I am looking for a new job. I am open to relocating anywhere in the world but am also considering the idea of a remote job (I have previous remote work experience). If you read this far, you would know about the kind of work that appeals to me and if you think you have a similar position to fill, please get in touch over Twitter (my DMs are open) or via email. You can check out my resume here. I would love to talk to you!

Also, if you are someone like me and you think you should do a batch of RC, you should definitely apply!

Never Graduate!

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