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Hacker School

August 2012 · ~6 minutes

Author note: Hacker School has been renamed to the Recurse Center. Several years later, my views have changed about certain things, but I still think the Recurse Center is a great place to attend. If you have the chance and the means, I encourage you to go.

Hacker School is a three-month, full-time school in New York for becoming a better programmer. We’re free as in beer, and provide space, a little structure, time to focus, and a friendly community of smart builders dedicated to self-improvement.

— Hacker School

I joined batch[3]. (Author note: Now referred to as Summer 2012.) Here’s my story.

How I found out about Hacker School

One of my best friends randomly instant-messaged me with this:

Grant: https://www.hackerschool.com/blog/1-summer-2012-applications-open im thinking about this

not too hard but a little.

So I checked it out. Hacker School being a home for lonely programmers made me cautious. Admittedly, I was a little lonely, but the reason wasn’t because I had no one to share my programming hobby with. The reason was the same as the underlying reason: In real life, I had almost no one I felt comfortable talking with. People who could understand me. People I could understand.

After these three months, I’d say that Hacker School is more than a home for lonely programmers — it’s a place to meet other like-minded people.

Grant and I sent in our applications. But he withdrew a few days later, because Hacker School’s timeframe clashed with Stanford’s spring quarter and NYC was prohibitively expensive. I started to compose an email to cancel too, but scrapped the draft.

The interviews

The founders of Hacker School, Nick and Dave, conducted Skype interviews to complement the applications. I sliced intervals of time from 1000memories to interview.1 In my email, I told Dave I was deaf. I was a bit nervous about that. But we just instant-messaged on Skype with a video feed on.2 He questioned me about culture-fit, and a good chunk was about how to deal with my deafness. The most important thing was whether they could enable me to participate well.

I got scheduled for another interview with Nick. I wasn’t sure if interviews with both founders was normal, but I understood I was more of a risk. I asked about teaching Cued Speech before and during Hacker School — I didn’t want to repeat the same mistake I made. Nick said the staff would be open to that, but he couldn’t promise the same participation from the students.

A few weeks later, I got accepted. Instead of jumping up and down like a normal person, I agonized about whether I should attend. If I didn’t, I’d just go to Palo Alto and hack with my friends. Maybe even get a driver’s license. But there were two things I neeed to figure out first:

1. Is my love for programming real love?

One of the questions in the interview was, “Do you love programming?” I said yes, because I loved it more than most people I knew. But was it love? I enjoyed writing and drawing equally, if not more. After Hacker School, I’m revisiting these hobbies. Programming wasn’t my first love.

But now, I have a better sense of what the question is asking. “Love” has become a bit of an exaggerated word. Job postings give off the impression that if you love programming, you dream in binary and your projects are all on GitHub with 1,000 watchers. But if programming is what you love, all that means is that you like programming enough to program for three months at Hacker School and continuously improve.3

2. Was I overqualified?

I thought Hacker School was geared more toward beginning programmers. I still think that’s true to an extent. It’s easier for the least experienced programmers at Hacker School to grow. You never want to be the smartest person in a room.

But if you’re not learning, you’re doing it wrong. There’s so much diversity here — someone will know something you don’t know. Experiences ranged from microcontrollers, Apple II emulators, web development, iPhone development, scientific computing, physics, computer vision, mathematics, and Pokémon.

People of all sorts were jumping into all-new languages or projects and learning something they wouldn’t have before. About half of Hacker Schoolers played with Clojure, and a few submitted a non-trivial addition to support runtime code reflection in the Clojure REPL.

As for me, I wanted to get exposure to many things. I learned WebGL and GLSL, the shading language that plugs into the GPU. I helped build a robot that flips the room lights, controlled by a phone with Bluetooth. I built a Python IRC bot library used by two other Hacker Schoolers. I contributed to Pry, a new Ruby REPL. I submitted a patch to a pixel editor written in Cocoa. I made webrtc.io to for peer-to-peer video chats. I wrote a viewer for the Mandelbrot set, Julia sets, and a quaternion Julia set. I learned Objective-C, Scala, Io, Clojure, Prolog, and Go.

The feeling of belonging

In what still gives me the fuzzy-wuzzies inside, Hacker Schoolers have that rare kind of curiosity for learning. They also put in an effort to make themselves understood. I scheduled a lesson to learn Cued Speech the hour before Hacker School began and told anyone who wanted to learn should come. About half of batch[3] came. That many people have never come to an event like this before.

The size of the class decreased exponentially as peoples’ skills plateaued, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’ve realized the more important thing is whether we’re comfortable talking to each other, regardless of medium. Sometimes that was with Cued Speech. Sometimes that was typing on a phone. Sometimes that was getting used to the way we talked.

From day one, most people were comfortable talking to me. Five years ago, my cousin had told me that this was how normal people were. But it was never normal for me. Some of batch[3] did have some fear and hesitation in their eyes. But as time went on, the nervousness and hesitation disappeared. By the end, I knew everyone.

In the end-of-Hacker-School party, as we said our goodbyes under a sky twinkling with stars, I had the overwhelming feeling that these people were truly my friends. This is one of the very few times I felt comfortable with anyone, much less a large group such as this. I had told Nick that I disliked going to bars, but in these past three months I’ve gone to bars many times.4

This is how it should be

batch[3]‘s balanced gender ratio didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time. It just felt normal, really. But the Monday after Hacker School ended, I checked the student lists for my upcoming college classes on a whim. There is only one girl in each of my Computer Science classes.

That’s when I started thinking. The gender ratio was one of the small things that contributed to how natural life at Hacker School seemed. How much more real the world seemed. I had felt normal for one of the very first times in my life. I couldn’t help thinking, this is how it should be. This is the way the world should be.

  1. I told them I was interviewing. As it turned out, both 1000memories and Hacker School were in the same YC batch. Nick and Dave had slept over at 1000memories’ office before. Our chief engineer had gotten hired at 1000memories through Dave and Nick’s other startup. So I may have had a bit of an unfair advantage in retrospect.
  2. He enjoyed the interview if only for how easy writing notes became: just copy-paste sections of the instant-messaging conversation.
  3. A fellow Hacker Schooler (now employee!), Allison, wrote similar thoughts on her blog.
  4. A Hacker School favorite was Fat Cat. It has ping pong tables, skee ball, and chess. Some of us started playing Bughouse, a four-player variant of chess. A random woman joined us, and none of us could ever beat her. Turns out she was a chess grandmaster.