Case study: Recurse Center

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The Recurse Center (RC for short) offers educational retreats for anyone who wants to get dramatically better at programming. Since its founding in 2011, over 2000 participants have attended the program, either in person in New York City or (since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic) remotely from anywhere in the world. Participants range from experienced professional programmers to new programmers transitioning into the industry. The retreats are free for everyone, and RC is funded entirely through its integrated recruiting agency.

A major highlight of RC’s program is its active online community of current participants and alumni. “The core of the Recurse Center is the community, and the core of our online community is Zulip,” writes Recurse Center co-founder and CEO Nick Bergson-Shilcock. “Switching to Zulip has turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made, and it’s impossible to imagine RC today without it.”

“The core of the Recurse Center is the community, and the core of our online community is Zulip… Switching to Zulip has turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve made, and it’s impossible to imagine RC today without it.”

Nick Bergson-Shilcock, Recurse Center co-founder and CEO

Choosing Zulip in 2013: “One of the best decisions we’ve made”

The Recurse Center was an early adopter of Zulip. They began to use the product in January 2013, when it was still in private beta. Even then, Zulip’s thoughtful design made it stand out. “We wanted a private chat system that was persistent, easily searchable, and which supported syntax highlighting for code snippets,“ says Recurse Center co-founder and CEO Nick Bergson-Shilcock. “Zulip gave us all the benefits above, along with a slew of others we hadn’t expected.”

When the startup building Zulip was acquired by Dropbox in early 2014, Zulip product development was put on hold for a year and a half. Because of Zulip’s advantages over the alternatives, Recurse Center continued using Zulip all through that time: “We strongly prefer Zulip to other options for several reasons – its message threading being a key one,” wrote RC CEO Nick Bergson-Shilcock in 2015.

From the early days, the RC community has been passionate about Zulip. When Dropbox generously decided to release Zulip as open source software in 2015, Recurse Center alumni flew out to San Francisco for a week to help make it happen. Since then, Zulip has built the most active open-source development community of any team chat software, with 75 people who’ve contributed 100+ commits.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say Zulip has made RC a stronger community.”

Nick Bergson-Shilcock, Recurse Center co-founder and CEO

Zulip becomes the backbone of a worldwide community

For years, the Zulip chat been the backbone of the Recurse Center community. “Zulip is an integral part of the Recurse Center experience,” says Rachel Petacat, Head of Retreat at Recurse Center, and RC’s Director of Operations from 2014 to 2021.

Zulip serves as a collaboration hub for the current participants and alumni. “Participants use Zulip to ask and answer questions, get code review, and coordinate pairing sessions, reading groups, informal seminars, and countless other forms of collaboration. Zulip is even more essential for our alumni, who are in over 100 cities around the world but remain heavily involved thanks to Zulip,” writes RC CEO Nick Bergson-Shilcock.

In the first ten years since the Recurse Center was founded, the community sent 2.52 million Zulip messages.

Zulip’s threading model makes it easy to have focused technical discussions. It also perfectly accommodates participants at different levels of engagement. Current RC members can immerse themselves in the ongoing discussions, occasionally muting topics they don’t want to follow. RC leaders monitor the community asynchronously, reviewing the ongoing conversations a few times a day and jumping in as needed. Finally, alumni can drop by on occasion to skim recent topics, catch up on their friends’ update threads, or search the discussion history for a topic of interest.

“Our community is 10 years old and spans continents,” RC’s Head of Retreat Rachel Petacat says. “Zulip provides the continuity that lets us maintain our culture over time.”

A welcoming environment for all community members

When new participants join the Recurse Center, Zulip becomes their port of entry into the community. “With Zulip’s threading, new folks can get the full context for a conversation, which makes the community feel welcoming,” Head of Retreat Rachel Petacat says.

“Zulip is more friendly to new users than Discord or Slack.”

— Rachel Petacat, Recurse Center Head of Retreat

Threading also gives each conversation its own space, which means that community members never have to feel like they are interrupting when they speak up. “Threading makes it easy for anyone to jump in,” Rachel explains. ”Folks don’t feel like they’re stepping onto someone’s conversation.”

Over the years, the Recurse Center has used Zulip’s customization features and powerful, well-documented APIs to set up a space that really feels like a home for the community. “We use so many custom emoji,” says Rachel Petacat.

A whole crew of bots is on hand to help out, from Chatbot for quick chat intros, to RSVPBot for creating and managing calendar events, to Blaggeregator, which aggregates blog posts for the RC community.

“I can’t imagine being able to operate Recurse Center without Zulip”

Rachel Petacat is a long-time member of RC’s leadership team. Her job requires keeping up with the ~45 members in the current batch, making sure they have what they need to get the most out of their RC experience.

To juggle everything she needs to get done, Rachel takes full advantage of the flexibility between synchronous and asynchronous discussions that Zulip offers. Realtime chat on Zulip is perfect for coordinating with other members of the leadership team. “Zulip is one of the first tabs I open at the start of the work day,” Rachel says. “I can check what’s happening, and plan my day. Other organizers and I tag each other on Zulip if we need any help.”

Rachel uses Zulip to follow the ongoing conversations, and help out as needed. Zulip’s threading model makes it easy to review discussion threads every few hours, and respond in context. “I read the discussions on Zulip once in the morning and again in the afternoon, chiming in where I need to,” says Rachel. With Zulip, Rachel is able to manage the community without her focus being interrupted by the need to jump in before the moment has passed. “I can’t imagine being able to operate the Recurse Center without Zulip,” Rachel says.

An alum experience: Staying connected since 2015

One of the benefits of participating in RC is the opportunity to stay connected with the community. “You'll be able to participate in the RC community online forever,” the RC website explains. “Almost 30% of the RC community is regularly active on Zulip,” an incredible statistic for a 6-12 week program with many alumni who attended years ago. Many alums drop in on Zulip to chat, pair-program, and host events.

John Hergenroeder first attended RC back in 2015. In the Recurse Center, John (a software engineer by profession) found the inclusive and welcoming programming community he was looking for.

Even with everyone sitting in the same room, Zulip served as a social hub for John’s RC cohort. “People had different schedules, so we used Zulip to leave questions, work artifacts, demos — anything you thought was interesting,” John says. This let participants engage with the content asynchronously, and created a lasting record for the community. “We even used a Zulip topic to coordinate for lunch, to let people have their uninterrupted focus time,” John says.

Since 2015, John has stayed connected with the RC alumni community on Zulip. “We have a stream for alumni checkins, where each alum uses a dedicated topic to post updates,” John explains. Some alums drop by weekly, while others might come around once a year. “You can leave a note, and it’s OK if your friend reads it a few months later,” John says. “Compare that with Slack, where if someone doesn’t see a message in some channel on that day, they’ll never see it.”

Without dedicating a lot of time, John is able to stay involved in the community on Zulip, and share his expertise where relevant. “I scan recent topics for places where I could help, and rely on email notifications for private messages,” John explains. The experience of keeping up on Zulip is in sharp contrast with Slack, which John uses at work: “It’s so hard to keep up with the Slack firehose.”

“Zulip allows people who are engaging with the community at different paces to connect.”

— John Hergenroeder, Recurse Center alum

Zulip’s open-source ethos

Zulip is developed as open-source software, with an active and growing community; over 1100 people have contributed code to the project. As a long-time Zulip user, John Hergenroeder appreciates the many thoughtfully designed features unique to Zulip. “Choosing whether or not a mention notifies people is really handy,” John says. “Global times are great for organizing events, and spoilers were perfect for chatting about the Advent of Code puzzles.”

And if Zulip is missing some feature? “We can file an issue, or even go and make it happen,” says John. Over the years, John has filed 11 issues in the Zulip issue tracker that have been resolved, and dozens of Recursers have contributed code to Zulip. It’s a radically different experience from trying to give feedback to a corporation building a closed-source product. When he encounters issues with Slack, John has his strategy: “When I come across a Slack bug, I try to find someone I know who works there, because I have no idea if anyone will pay attention if I go through support.”

Going virtual: “For a while, Zulip was RC”

Prior to 2020, the Recurse Center offered an immersive in-person retreat experience in the heart of New York City. This paradigm was shattered when the Covid-19 pandemic hit New York in March 2020, and the Recurse Center made the difficult decision to move all operations online.

Over time, the Recurse Center built out a custom virtual world (integrated with Zulip) for online participants. But in the early days of the pandemic, it was Zulip that replaced the physical space where RC participants had spent time together and helped each other out. “At the time, all we had was Zulip, email, our website, Zoom, and a rarely used forum,” recalls RC’s Head of Retreat Rachel Petacat. “For a while, Zulip was RC.”

An invaluable knowledge base

Edith, who works as a technical writer, participated in virtual RC in 2020. Two years later, she still uses Zulip every day to stay connected.

Zulip’s combination of powerful search and topic-based threading makes prior discussions both findable and useful. “It’s easier to build context with Zulip than any other tool,” Edith says. “With other messaging services, information tends to get lost. In Zulip, I often look something up from a while ago — anything from discussion of niche programming topics, to whether anyone has commented on a book I’m thinking about reading.”

“You really feel that you’re joining a group of 2000 people who’ve been doing this for 10 years,” says Rachel Petacat. “You can find someone who trod the same path 6 years ago!”


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