composition.al

Some misconceptions about Hacker School

Update (March 25, 2015): As of today, Hacker School is called the Recurse Center. Everything in this post still applies!


This summer I’m part of the residency program at Hacker School, a three-month-long, self-directed, full-time school in New York for becoming a better programmer. This summer’s Hacker School batch will be wrapping up soon, and the application deadlines for the fall batch are already upon us. I’ve been talking with lots of programmers I know and encouraging them to apply.

During these conversations, I’ve encountered a few misconceptions about what Hacker School is and who it’s for. I’m not an official source of information; for that, I recommend the User’s Manual and this blog post. Having said that, here are a few things I’ve heard people say that attest to misconceptions about Hacker School, and my responses to them.

“I’m not exactly their target audience, since I don’t intend to get a programming job through them.”

One of my friends said this, recognizing that the way Hacker School makes money is through agreements with various companies who pay them to recruit programmers. I have two points to make in response.

First, if you don’t intend to get a programming job through Hacker School when the batch is over — whether it’s because you already have a job, school, or something else lined up for afterwards, or just because you don’t want that kind of a job — you might think that Hacker School doesn’t want you. This is not the case. It’s in their best interest to admit students who will make the batch better, regardless of whether those students are looking for a job afterward. Moreover, a student’s employability has no bearing on whether the student is admitted. Lots of people attend Hacker School who don’t intend to get a job through it. Personally, I’d love it — and I think the Hacker School staff would, too — if more tenured professors (in all disciplines) applied.

Second, whether or not someone intends to make a career out of programming has little bearing on whether or not they’d succeed at Hacker School. You have to genuinely enjoy programming to succeed at Hacker School, but you don’t have to be planning on doing it professionally; maybe it’s a hobby, or maybe it’s something you want to do in the service of another professional goal. You don’t have to be a career programmer to take the craft of programming seriously for a few months.

“If only I had an open-source project in mind right now, I’d totally go.”

This is a direct quote from a friend of mine who’s a perfect candidate for Hacker School. It really surprised me. Not having a specific project in mind shouldn’t stop anyone from applying. If you are admitted to Hacker School, you’ll most likely come up with more than enough project ideas within a couple of days of hanging out and talking to the people there. If, after that, you’re still having trouble thinking of what to work on, the amazing facilitators at Hacker School will be happy to help you.

A tangentially related point is that a Hacker School project need not be a product. If you’ve been telling yourself for years that someday you’d sit down and do the exercises from a classic programming book, Hacker School is a good place to do that — with friendly, experienced folks around to help if you get stuck. In fact, ideas that are too polished and “product-y” are discouraged as Hacker School projects, since they’re often not the best way to learn.

“Isn’t that for high-school kids?”

It’s funny how often this one comes up; maybe it’s the word “school” in the name that throws people off. Although a certain kind of teenager might fit in well at Hacker School, they’ll be very much in the minority there. I haven’t asked any students for their ID, but I think the youngest person in the current batch might be nineteen or so. Most students seem to be in their twenties and thirties, and several are older than that.

Perhaps some people think that there’s something childish or otherwise off-putting about attending something called “school” as an adult, or perhaps they think that Hacker School is like summer camp. I assure you that at Hacker School, there are no trite team-building activities or dubious cafeteria meals. It might be a more grown-up environment than your job!

“I thought Hacker School was for nontechnical people.”

This is a direct quote from someone on Twitter who seemed to be trying to discourage a computer scientist friend of mine from applying. Leaving aside my discomfort with the phrase “nontechnical people”, the point I want to make here is that Hacker School is for people who’ve been programming for long enough to know that they enjoy it. That could mean two months, or it could mean thirty years. It’s not for rank beginners, although many students there are relatively new to programming. But it’s hard to imagine someone being too good a programmer for Hacker School. I’d be happy to attend as a student myself, instead of as a resident. There’s always a lot more to learn.

So, go apply!

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