The best conference I ever attended

The company I work for has a conference benefit. Each year we can choose a conference we’d like to attend for our professional development.

I’ve picked conferences large and small, and they’ve been good. But nothing was like the one I attended this summer.

At this one, there was no convention center. No sponsor booths. No keynote speakers. No speakers at all!

I attended Recurse Center.

Ok, so Recurse Center isn’t really a conference. It a retreat where programmers can learn, explore, and develop their craft, by working on projects they are interested in. It’s like a conference, in that I’m spending a week away from home on professional development, but that’s where the similarities end.

At Recurse, nobody tells you where to go or what to do. It’s like unschooling for adults. You decide what your goals are, and they just provide the space and resources for you to reach them.

For me, I wanted to 1) focus deeply on building a personal project and 2) meet some like-minded folks. Other people had other goals. Some wanted to learn a new programming language, while others wanted to network and find a new job. There were activities for all sorts of goals… ad-hoc study groups, career conversations, board game nights, a mini-hackathon, and more. But all of it was opt-in.

Whenever I wanted to focus, I’d find a work station in the dedicated quiet space and start coding. If I felt isolated, I’d use their chat-rooms to find a pair-programming buddy, or check in on other people’s projects. I got to choose the perfect balance for my introversion/extroversion levels… something that’s really hard to do at a typical conference.

And I feel like I got so much more out of it. I learned way more about the Intersection Observer API through the trial-and-error process of building it into my app, than I would have learned by attending a conference talk about it.

“But why do you need to go to something like Recurse? Why can’t you just take a week off to study and build at home?”

It’s a huge difference, at least for me. It gives me the excuse to put other things on pause, and to ask others to cover my normal responsibilities. Also, being with other curious, like-minded, maker-type people added a ton of creative energy. Everyone can choose what to work on, so they’re all working on things they are super-passionate about. People’s eyes light up when they talk. It makes for great conversation.

It used to be that conferences were the only way to learn from people across your industry. That’s just not the case anymore. The talks are on YouTube, the ideas are in blog posts, and the conversation is happening on social media. I can check it out whenever I want.

What I needed more than a conference was a dedicated time to explore and create. Recurse gave that to me, and it was perfect. I hope to see more opportunities like that popping up in the future.