Finding highly qualified coders is a huge and growing challenge. According to various industry statistics, deficits now extend into the hundreds of thousands globally, and the shortage is expected to worsen in the years ahead.
One organization taking aim at the challenge is Ecole 42, a private French coding school that flips the concept of learning upside down. Tuition is free, there is no formal curriculum or school hours, and textbooks and instructors do not exist.
Students embark on a self-paced program that leads to graduation anywhere from 12 months to five years in the future. They can even take time off to volunteer or travel. Along the way, students must navigate an array of challenges that lead to advanced thinking about coding and software development.
“We teach students how to work together to solve problems,” says co-founder and president Nicolas Sadirac.
The mastermind of this concept is French billionaire, Xavier Niel, founder and majority shareholder for French ISP and telecom Iliad, which operates under the brand name Free. In 2013, he provided 70 million Euros to create Ecole 42, a reference to Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which posits that the number 42 represents the meaning of life and the universe.
The school has about 2,500 students. Every year, around 80,000 students take a tough online test, and 3,000 are invited to a one-month piscine, which translates to swimming pool in French. The name is significant because students essentially sink or swim, and about 1,000 gain admission to the school.
Incredibly, more than 40 percent of the school’s students did not finish high school, and 30 percent have no previous coding experience. Many also couldn’t afford to go to school without this program.
Small Groups Tackle Coding Challenges
Once accepted, the students work in small groups and tackle coding challenges that span areas such as mobile, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), cyber-security and robotics. The school’s software analyzes how well they work in groups, how much knowledge they share and what progress they make.
Sharing isn’t cheating; it’s part of an essential collaboration process. Gamification methods lead students to Level 21 (half of 42), at which point they graduate. “Already, the school boasts about 2,000 graduates working at 70 companies, including many top Silicon Valley firms.
Now this concept is coming to America. In November, a 200,000-square-foot campus will open in Fremont, Calif., joining the Paris facility. Niel has committed another 100 million Euros for funding the U.S. campus over a 10-year span.
Offering free tuition for all students, 42 USA is expected to add 10,000 students over the next five years. It will use the same peer-to-peer learning methods as the Paris school.
“If you teach a specific coding language, it will probably be obsolete in a few years,” Sadirac points out. “If you teach people how to think in a broader and more creative framework, they can adapt and adjust and do some amazing things.”
A bevy of high-tech leaders have endorsed the concept. The list includes Twitter CEO and Co-founder Jack Dorsey, Nest Founder and CEO Tony Fadell, Snapchat Co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegal, and former PayPal President and current Facebook Vice President David Marcus.
Niel emphasizes that “the goal is to give back. We want to create the best coding school in the world. This approach does not work for all students, and it is not right for every situation … but we believe that it can shape the future of learning.”