Recurse 1 - Dealing With Burnout, Thru-Hiking, And Back Again
This is a summary of my first week at The Recurse Center, which is a 12-week retreat for programmers. The retreat aims to allow programmers to challenge themselves and "work at the edge of their abilities". The Recurse Center operates on a self-directed basis, meaning there are no classes or curriculum to follow. Each participant is responsible for creating their own schedule and can join or create interest groups with fellow batchmates.
Brain Goes 'Burn Out'
I experienced burnout during the past year due to a combination of factors. My personal life was not going well, and after years of working remotely, I reached a point where I was totally unsatisfied with my work, professional success, and environment. I want to express my gratitude to my coworkers at Keybase/Zoom during this time. They were all amazing and handled the acquisition with great professionalism. Although I wish the circumstances were different, I am extremely grateful for their support and what we accomplished.
Burnout is an interesting thing, I knew about it from the frequent discussions in the technology community as well as the collective experience during the pandemic. However knowing and feeling are two entirely different experiences and I found myself with a lack of outlets and support. Unlike many others the pandemic did not make me feel claustrophobic. Despite spending three years in a small New York City apartment. Eventually, the computer no longer provided the escape it once did, so I began looking for something more.
This journey began with a single video on YouTube titled "Two Years on a Bike". Seeing Martijn's journey sparked something in my brain that had been under-stimulated. I realized that I was not making the most of my life, and time was slipping away. At the beginning of this year, I made the choice to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I documented my journey through my travel blog, but I ended up not completing the trail due to a torn quadriceps after 37 days of hiking.
I can write about the PCT for pages. Endless trail stories, characters met, disasters overcome, and friendships forged. This is not the post for those stories, I may write a retrospective on the trail soon, but the most important thing worth mentioning is this: the trail community was pure, loving, kind, ambitious, and most of all smelly.
We slept in tents, sometimes directly on the dirt, we walked every day - always north, we ate and ate and ate, then ate some more. We saw stars, swam in rivers and hot springs, lamented the scorching desert heat, and the freezing nights. We cried, nursed our blisters and wounds, said goodbye to friends, made new ones. We supported each other, loved one another, and laughed - so much laughter.
I miss those friends I made on trail every day, and I have the honor of seeing several of them complete their thru-hike today.
Arriving at RC
Getting to Recurse has been on my list for several years now. RC entered my radar with either a blog post or a conversation from one of the many alumni I have followed, such as my former co-worker and Keybaser Chris Ball, not to mention Julia Evans, as well as Filippo Valsorda.
Being effectively homeless while walking the Pacific Crest Trail then coming home to nothing was a wake up call. I realized I could either put my engineering hat back on and try for startups or corporations again, or I could take a few more steps back and use the time I allocated for the trail to continue self reflecting.
It became clear to me that I wanted to have a fresh experience with programming again. I needed a revival of my love for coding, computers, technology and an exercism of sorts for my cynicism around my field. In late August I tried interviewing again while simultaneously applying for RC, I let those two race each other, whichever completed first would win. So I went to RC
First Day of School
Fellow batchmate Stacey Tay put it well in his week one roundup, starting RC is a lot like returning to school.
There is a certain kind of nervous energy after returning to classes after a long summer of play. The Recurse Center is no different. The first week was ripe with new faces, new ideas, and testing the waters to see if any of these other people are as weird as me. Turns out, they are, and there are heaps of quirky weekly discussion groups, impromptu pairing sessions, and creative coding.
I decided to commit to learning about my fellow batchmates and their interests before hitting the ground running on my personal projects and goals at RC. In theory I could be building something interesting on my own at any time, but a being included in rich circle of curious programmers does not happen every day. There are several people currently at RC with overlapping interests in cryptography, Rust, lower level systems, and fancy web tech. Now I know I won't be the odd ball.
The facilitators at RC do an excellent job making everyone feel welcome and have a keen sense of what we need to get started. In the first week I was able to join a 'Rust Books Crew' as well as revive some interest in the Cryptopals challegnes.
What I'll Work On
Rust, Memory Management, and Concurrency
- Read through Rust for Rustaceans by Jon Gjengset
- Dive into native Rust multi-threading (thread spawning, joining, and channels)
- Use tokio for a project (here be dragons)
- Understand atomic memory orderings (which are effectively C++ 20's memory orderings)
- Get very comfortable with Arc, Mutex, RwLock, etc.
- Implement either XChaCha20Poly1305 or AES from scratch
- Build and compile a Merkle Tree explorer to Web Assembly and host it
- Complete, ideally, all of the Cryptopals challenges
- Finish my reading of Real-World Cryptography by David B. Wong
- While at Keybase I was not able to work directly on KBFS, Keybase's end to end encrypted filesystem. I was a heavy user naturally and can happily describe it a magic. Totally effortless, secure, and pleasant to use.
- Why no re-implement the magical FUSE part of KBFS in Rust as a learning exercise while at RC?
- I have no desire or intention to re-implement the key exchange, social proofs, or discoverability necessary to make KBFS work the way it did, however it would be nice to tackle End to End Encryption for file systems.
- Big question: can I cross compile the core file system cryptography to Web Assembly to it can run in the browser while also enabling nice system integration via FUSE?
More Web Projects
I learned that I am a 'show don't tell' type of programmer. I enjoy telling computers how to build something I can show to another person, the visual or interactive nature of a web application is a great manifestation of this. Today everyone has a universally compatible browser which can run web applications, this is nothing short of magical and we forgot it daily. The web is a fantastic ecosystem and it deserve more panache than SEO, E-commerce, and banking. I have a few ideas in this domain I hope to write about soon.
Writing, Speaking, Presenting
Those who know me would not describe me a shy, but perhaps private. I have taken my public presence seriously by not having one. I think my thesis in life, especially on the internet, is to Keep a Low Profile. Yet, we learn and grow by putting ourselves 'out there', to make a statement publicly and hear back from the void "you suck!"
At least amongst the people at the Recurse Center, the tone is friendly, forgiving, and most of all accepting of vulnerability. Many of my batchmates are switching careers into tech and I fully support them, if they can make blog posts about what they are learning so can I! Thanks for the encouragement everyone.
Many people at RC will write a semi-daily checkin via Zulip. Reading these checkins are a constant source of connection, pair programming, and inspiration. Checkins are great for "chaotic distractive creativity" because often times a single statement by a peer will lead to hours of fruitful conversation. For those who attended a university, it is directly equivalent to overhearing or walking in on intellectual conversation in classrooms and hallways.
After My Batch
Using Rust at work and at scale is my biggest technical goal after my time at Recurse. I am sold entirely on its ability to produce fast, safe, and multi-platform code. It is a true Hyrdo-Dynamic Spatula with port and starboard attachments and turbo drive. Rust also has a strong future in Cryptography, especially thanks to its memory safety. Equally as important, I hope to find an excellent group of people to work with. There are several companies on my radar whose culture matches what I am looking for. We shall see how this assessment holds up in 12 weeks. In the mean time excited for what is to come!