Presentation: How to Optimize your Culture for Learning



11:50am - 12:40pm

Day of week:


Key Takeaways

  • Understand techniques and approaches to building a learning environment.
  • Hear lessons employed at the Recurse Center in NYC to build an environment where people are encouraged to grow and discover new passions.
  • Understand the importance of establishing social rules to encourage positive learning environments.


In this presentation, I’ll focus on some of the ways the Recurse Center has approached building a learning organization from first principles. We've designed our environment with one thing above all else in mind: How to make the best place for people to grow as programmers. Almost everything we do can be traced back to this goal. I’ll start by presenting our pedagogy, the birth of our social rules, and then dig deeper into their impact on both an individual contributor level as well as a larger organizational level.


Can you tell me a bit about your role today?
I am one of the founders of the Recurse Center. RC is an educational retreat for programmers. We like to call it a writer’s retreat or an artist’s residency but for programmers. We are free to everyone and we are based in New York. People come from all over the world and across the country to spend approximately three months at our retreat to learn and grow as programmers.
As a programmer, what can I expect if I participate?
People who attend RC choose to do a huge range of things, from writing small games to contributing to large existing projects. There are a few things that are true across the board. Everything written at RC is open source, and everyone works on projects they choose for themselves based on their interests and what they want to learn. Most people focus on projects that will be hard but possible for them to do given their current programming abilities.
Most people who come to RC are surprised by how varied people’s backgrounds are. We have a range of folks from people who have PhD’s in computer science to people who have dropped out of high school. We write extensively about what people work on and what to expect. Our alumni have written extensively about what they learned while they were at RC, so I’d encourage anyone who wants to participate read some of the posts.
Is it like a co-working shared space where people come together and focus on this one area?
It’s not a co-working space. RC is a retreat for programmers to come work on ambitious open source projects that push their learning boundaries.
People don’t pay RC to rent a desk for their job, and then have a group of occupants to socialize with at the end of the day.
What is the motivation for your talk?
I was invited to speak about building learning environments. We’re frequently asked for ideas on how to keep employees excited and constantly learning. People are driven by curiosity and I’m going to talk about how we’ve designed our environment at RC to maximize for curiosity. Unlike most schools or jobs, we don’t tell people what to do and how they should learn and what to work on. Here they have the opportunity and the responsibility to follow their curiosity.
What are some of the ideas behind this retreat?
The Recurse Center is largely unstructured, self-directed, and project-based. That's because we value internal motivation over external motivation, and self-direction over coercion. We believe people learn best when they have the freedom to explore what interests them, surrounded by friendly and intellectually curious peers and mentors.
When you bring together a bunch of smart and friendly people who all want to learn and help each other grow, great things happen. We've designed our environment with one thing above all else in mind: How to make the best place for people to grow as programmers. Almost everything we do can be traced back to this goal.
What are the key takeaways from your talk?
In most of the world, and especially school or work, people are afraid of looking stupid. Fear frequently keeps us from asking important questions, such as, how does that work? Or, why does it work like that? The scariest problem people have a tough time admitting is, “I don’t understand.” I invite you all to rigorously question your current work environment and then to openly brainstorm ways you can make it better. We are still learning from what we’ve made, admitting mistakes and constantly improving on what we have. If you don’t have a learning environment you might just have a dying one.

Speaker: Sonali Sridhar

Cofounder of the Recurse Center

Sonali Sridhar is cofounder of the Recurse Center. Prior to starting the Recurse Center in 2011, she worked as an Interaction Designer at R/GA, and has now taken on the challenge of designing experiences at the Recurse Center, as she aims to create a Bauhaus for programmers. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a founding member of QUILTBAG++, a New York City-based queer and trans tech group committed to social justice. She is also part of the 2015 Creative Ecology Advisory Board at the The Banff Centre's Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute.

Find Sonali Sridhar at

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