Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Week at Hacker School

I first heard about Hacker School last summer. I had run into my friend Lindsey Kuper at a conference in Edinburgh. She told me that she had been a resident and that I should do it too.

"You’ll like it," she said. "I can put you in touch with the people.”

I like being told I'll like things--makes it so much easier to decide. I needed to finish my thesis and get a job, but I also like to say "yes" and deal with the consequences later. One "yes" led to another and I found myself booking travel and accommodations for a week in New York in November.

Since I was busy working on my thesis and getting a job, I did not try too hard to figure out what to expect. Plus I was told I would like it. I had opened a tab with the Hacker School website and skimmed Phil Guo’s blog post on his residency. When people asked me about it, I would say words like "immersive," "free," and "retreat for programmers" and then change the subject.

When the time came, I made my way to my Soho room and then to the address they had emailed me. The second-floor open office space of Hacker School was abuzz with all the chaos and excitement of the first day of summer camp. The beginning of my residency, they told me, coincided with the first day of a new "batch." Every six weeks, a group of new students begin their twelve-week Hacker School experience, joining a group of more seasoned Hacker Schools finishing their experience. Residents are given the unique opportunity to insert ourselves for one or two weeks at a time and observe the unfolding of this social experiment.

A hidden advantage of starting with a batch was that I was initially anonymous. After I acquired my key I took my place by the breakfast spread of pastries and fruit. My PhD has trained me well for standing next to free food: smile politely; introduce yourself; do not take too much food at once. The first person I met was student who had quit a math PhD program (which he had begun at an impressively young age, I later learned) and spent the last year programming and traveling the world. The second person I met was a student who started teaching herself Lisp while working in a bar. She had just quit her dog-walking business to do Hacker School.

After the fifth person it was time for orientation. Here I finally learned the key facts. While Hacker School has hours of being "in session," students and residents all have a key to the space at all hours. Outside of check-ins at 10am and weekly presentations on Thursdays, students are responsible for their Hacker School experiences. The students decide what they want to learn and how they want to go about it--the faculty are there only for guidance and check-ins. Hacker School differs from many of these other 12-week programs in that it is not focused on teaching a specific skill (unlike, for instance, the Ruby on Rails boot camps). In addition, there is a focus on learning skills (functional programming; cryptography) rather than completing specific projects. Some students have a project or direction in mind when they arrive, but many seem to just show up and see where the experience takes them. (You can read more about why they started Hacker School here.)

Orientation kicked off a fun and perspective-changing week. On the first day, I introduced myself, stated my interests (programming languages and functional programming among them), opened “office hours” and waited to see what would happen. I advised some people on learning Haskell and Scala--and also “paired” with them for periods of time. I talked to one student who had gotten into programming through activism and organizing (I later read online that he had been quite involved with Occupy Wall Street) and introduced him to a friend working with city data. After I gave talks about the history about programming and about my work, some people asked me about programming languages and also programming languages research (verification; static analysis). One morning by chance I sat next to a student, Pedro, and we struck up a collaboration to create the Markov Tweet generator that now powers @MarkovRMS. Pedro was eighteen, from Sao Paolo, and had the coolest development environment of anyone I'd ever met.

Pedro, Libby, Fernando and I had dim sum for lunch one day.
And Pedro was only one of many fascinating people I met that week. There were students who were teenagers and students in their fifties and sixties, with grown children. Some had not gone to college; other had PhDs--one woman had studied Computational Geometry and coauthored a paper with MIT professor Erik Demaine, one of the most well-known people in our field. Some people hoped to transition into a programming job: some from non-programming backgrounds and some from having taken breaks from programming to do startups focused on other things. (From the placement of alums, it seems that students are quite successful in getting the jobs they want.) Perhaps because Hacker School gives a second chance to people who have not been programming since birth, the program is far more diverse than the typical tech company.

At Hacker School I was impressed not just with the individual students, but with the community that Hacker School has created. The students are respectful and supportive of each other while working on problems together and also while doing social activities--of which there are many. One reason this is impressive is because tech and programming culture are infamous for being "macho," "aggressive," and unwelcome to women and other minorities. In addition, it is quite an achievement to create a safe environment when the students do not have the built-in trust that comes from having superficial similarities. While many companies leverage “like me” bias to build trust in their teams, the only thing Hacker Schoolers often have in common is a baseline level of programming ability and the fact that they have left their jobs, families, and friends to focus on programming.

Photo from alum Laura Bledait's blog.
While careful student selection accounts for part of the healthy community dynamics, Hacker School’s social rules play an important role in maintaining the safe environment:
  • No feigning surprise. This is when someone will say something like "I've never had sushi before" and someone else responds with, “Really? I didn’t know there were people like that.” This exchange makes the second person feels superior and the first person self-conscious.
  • No well-actuallys. A "well-actually" is when one person states a fact and someone else jumps in to correct the person on a minor technicality. Especially when people feel vulnerable and/or struggle with Impostor Syndrome, well-actuallys are much more harmful than they are productive.
  • No backseat driving. Nobody likes backseat drivers.
  • No subtle "isms." Hacker Schoolers are discouraged from engaging in sexism, racism, classicism, homophobia, etc. To avoid flame wars, people are also encouraged to take someone's word for it--without discussion--if they say an "ism" has occurred.
There is something to be said honest and open discussion and feedback, but these often require a level of trust and respect--both of which take time to build. Given that Hacker School brings together such a diverse group of people for such a short period of time, these rules are surprisingly effective in establishing an environment where people feel safe and supported.

The other aspect of Hacker School's culture that impressed me was how much the students were able to learn and produce despite the lack of curriculum or explicit goal structure. The weekly presentations--and job placement of the candidates--suggest that emphasizing learning and collaboration over specific projects and deadlines can be effective. I was amazed by the diversity and quality of the projects students showed during the weekly presentations. One guy had built an app that tells you where to get a cab based on previous cab pick-ups. Two students had built a simple web framework and then built some websites on top of it.  In addition to having fun work to show, it seemed like people had fun doing the projects in the first place.

The no-pressure atmosphere of Hacker School gave me the opportunity to finally try pair programming, a practice where one person does the typing and the other person reviews each line of code. To help with motivation and to prevent students from getting stuck, Hacker School encourages all students to "pair" on projects. Due to deadline pressure and perceived effectiveness of splitting up tasks my partner(s) and I had always agreed on interfaces and worked separately. With Pedro I discovered how productive it was to have two people look at code at the same time: for catching syntax errors, for finding deeper bugs, and for discussing how to construct the program. Working on code with someone else also allows you to finally have inside jokes about your code with someone besides yourself.

In short, Hacker School is a magical place. For those in a position to get involved, I highly recommend it. For everyone else, it's worth keeping up with what Hacker School is doing--how they are questioning our assumptions about how we learn and work. Hacker School showed me the value in being intentional about culture. It also showed me the value of taking time from my deadline-driven, task-driven life to learn--and play. Also, when I have my own research group, I am definitely going to encourage people to pair on programming and other projects.

Perhaps it was for the best that I did not try to understand what Hacker School was before I experienced it. There is nothing else quite like it. And it might be just what we need to build a more inclusive tech culture.


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