Dev

This French tech school has no teachers, no books, no tuition — and it could change everything

Above: Nicolas Sadirac, the director of the ambitious, free, French tech school Ecole 42.

Image Credit: Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat

PARIS — École 42 might be one of the most ambitious experiments in engineering education.

It has no teachers. No books. No MOOCs. No dorms, gyms, labs, or student centers. No tuition.

And yet it plans to turn out highly qualified, motivated software engineers, each of whom has gone through an intensive two- to three-year program designed to teach them everything they need to know to become outstanding programmers.

The school, housed in a former government building used to educate teachers (ironically enough), was started by Xavier Niel. The founder and majority owner of French ISP Free, Niel is a billionaire many times over. He’s not well known in the U.S., but here he is revered as one of the country’s great entrepreneurial successes in tech.

He is also irrepressibly upbeat, smiling and laughing almost nonstop for the hour that he led a tour through École 42 earlier this week. (Who wouldn’t be, with that much wealth? Yet I have met much more dour billionaires before.)

Niel started École 42 with a 70 million euro donation. He has no plans for it to make money, ever.

Free founder Xavier Niel, speaking at Ecole 42, the free engineering school he created.

Above: Free founder Xavier Niel, speaking at Ecole 42, the free engineering school he created.

Image Credit: Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat

“I know one business, and that’s how to make software,” Niel said. “I made a lot of money and I want to give something back to my country,” he explained.

To make the school self-sustaining, he figures that future alumni will give back to their school, just as alumni of other schools do. If a few of them become very rich, as Niel has, perhaps they, too, will give millions to keep it going.

The basic idea of École 42 is to throw all the students — 800 to 1,000 per year — into a single building in the heart of Paris, give them Macs with big Cinema displays, and throw increasingly difficult programming challenges at them. The students are given little direction about how to solve the problems, so they have to turn to each other — and to the Internet — to figure out the solutions.

A student at Ecole 42 explains how he created a ray tracing program. Six months before he knew nothing about programming.

Above: A student at Ecole 42 explains how he created a ray tracing program. Six months before he knew nothing about programming.

Image Credit: Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat

The challenges are surprisingly difficult. One student I talked with was coding a ray tracer and building an emulation of the 3-D dungeon in Castle Wolfenstein within his first few months at the school. Six months earlier, he had barely touched a computer and knew nothing of programming. He hadn’t even finished high school.

In fact, 40 percent of École 42’s students haven’t finished high school. Others have graduated from Stanford or MIT or other prestigious institutions. But École 42 doesn’t care about their background — all it cares about is whether they can complete the projects and move on. The only requirement is that they be between the ages of 18 and 30.

“We don’t ask anything about what they’ve done before,” Niel said.

Yet École 42 is harder to get into than Harvard: Last year, 70,000 people attempted the online qualification test. 20,000 completed the test, and of those, 4,000 were invited to spend four weeks in Paris doing an intensive project that had them working upwards of 100 hours a week on various coding challenges. In the end, 890 students were selected for the school’s inaugural class, which began in November, 2013. (The average age is 22, and 11 percent of the first class is female.)

890 students out of 70,000 applicants means an acceptance rate a little north of 1 percent, or if you only count those who completed the test, 4.5 percent. By contrast, Harvard accepts about 6 percent of its applicants. And, even with financial aid, it charges a whole lot more than zero for its classes.

The upshot: If it works, the school’s course of education will produce coders who are incredibly self-motivated, well-rounded in all aspects of software engineering, and willing to work hard. (The four-week tryout alone, with its 100-hour weeks, blows away the French government’s official 35-hour-work week.)

Nicolas Sadirac, a French entrepreneur and educator, is the school’s director. Before École 42 he ran Epitech, a well-regarded, private, for-profit school that trained software engineers.

Ecole 42 includes a few extra amenities -- like a hot tub on the roof deck.

Above: Ecole 42 includes a few extra amenities — like a hot tub on the roof deck.

Image Credit: Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat

All of École 42’s projects are meant to be collaborative, so the students work in teams of two to five people. At first glance, the École’s classrooms look a little bit like a factory floor or a coding sweatshop, with row after row of Aeron-style chairs facing row after row of big monitors. But a closer look reveals that the layout is designed to facilitate small-group collaboration, with the monitors staggered so that students can easily talk to one another, on the diagonals between the monitors or side by side with the people next to them. Students can come and go as they please; the school is open 24 hours a day and has a well-appointed cafeteria in the basement (with a wine cellar that can hold 5,000 bottles, just in case the school needs to host any parties).

Students share all of their code on Github (naturally). They communicate with one another, and receive challenges and tests, via the school’s intranet. Everything else they figure out on their own, whether it means learning trigonometry, figuring out the syntax for C code, or picking up techniques to index a database.

Tests are essentially pass-fail: Your team either completes the project or it doesn’t. One administrator compared it to making a car: In other schools, getting a test 90 percent right means an A; but if you make a car with just three out of four wheels, it is a failure. At École 42, you don’t get points for making it part way there — you have to make a car with all four wheels.

The no-teachers approach makes sense, as nearly anything you need to know about programming can now be found, for free, on the Internet. Motivated people can easily teach themselves any language they need to know in a few months of intensive work. But motivation is what’s hard to come by, and to sustain — ask anyone who has tried out Codecademy but not stuck with it. That has prompted the creation of “learn to code” bootcamps and schools around the world. École 42 takes a similar inspiration but allows the students to generate their own enthusiasm via collaborative (and somewhat competitive) teamwork.

Exterior view of Ecole 42.

Above: Exterior view of Ecole 42.

Image Credit: Dylan Tweney/VentureBeat

Sadirac and Niel say that some prestigious universities have already expressed interest in the school’s approach. The two are considering syndicating the model to create similar schools in other countries.

But even if they never expand beyond Paris, École 42 could become a significant force in software education. France already has a reputation for creating great engineers (in software as well as in many other fields).

If École 42 adds another thousand highly-motivated, entrepreneurial software engineers to the mix every year, it could very quickly accelerate this country’s competitiveness in tech.

And the model will force schools like Harvard to make an extra effort to justify their high tuitions. If you can get training like this for free, and you want to be a software engineer, why go to Harvard?

Disclosure: My airfare and hotel to France were paid for by BPIFrance, a state-owned investment bank.

 

More information:

Powered by VBProfiles

55 comments
Peter Sylwester
Peter Sylwester

A great deal of being a good developer is listening to others and sometimes doing what they suggest rather than what you think would be best. Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned are not those I have taught myself but what I learned from a more experienced colleague or teacher. More often, bull-headedness was the biggest obstacle, wasting much time and causing much discord. 


I would hope that this school recognizes that developers must be good citizens among a group and that respect and humility are not vices but virtues.

I-Open
I-Open

Learn about the value Brainpower brings to the innovation capacity of every individual, organization, company or region at the Innovation Framework, a heuristic model for strategic investment in Open Source Economic Development http://www.i-open.org/the-innovation-framework.html

Joel Morse
Joel Morse

Little direction, best way to learn.

Yogesh Muliyana
Yogesh Muliyana

what a schoo; nobady know this is school i am see all student

anil gupta
anil gupta

what an initiative, it can be a harbinger of a new social movement of  peer to peer learning, we will very muhc appreciate if we could upload teh abstract of all the projects at www.techepdia.in which already has 192,000 enginerring project summaries or /and titles based on the projects of 650,000 studnest form India. we want to promote collaborative learning across borders of discipline, institutions, countries for solving social unmet needs and the problems faced by small enterprises which can not afford to hire consultants. will love to hear from Neil and Nicholas,  and other interested partners for social change through youth 


anilgb@gmail.com 

anilg.sristi.org 

Chad Recchia
Chad Recchia

Nick Mynderse Kenny Reaume is this Eitan?

Oliver Azevedo Barnes
Oliver Azevedo Barnes

'The four-week tryout alone, with its 100-hour weeks, blows away the French government’s official 35-hour-work week' - and that's a good thing? Yeah, prepare them for sweatshops

Ouriel Ohayon
Ouriel Ohayon

the guy behind it is one of our investors :)

Matt Nagel
Matt Nagel

Pretty interesting model, but would like to see more female students. 11% is low. 


Also love this line: "He has no plans for it to make money, ever."

zoltan acs
zoltan acs

Hi, In my 2013 book, Why Philanthropy Maters, Princeton University press 2013, I suggested that in order to change the world the 600 billionaires living outside the US should each start a university of the future. Well it looks like Xavier Niel was listening and is my first convert. Well sort of, but this is exactly what I had in mind.  Hundreds of these schools all over the world will reinvent he future that is now in decline in he west.

Thibault Gaultier
Thibault Gaultier

Just keep in mind that NO DIPLOMA is delivered at the end of the school.

Bill Cat
Bill Cat

Sounds like the same old thinking - everyone over 30 or female is trash. 


Thinking different? Hardly. Thinks like the typical VC.

Pirix Piru
Pirix Piru

I'm a student from Epitech, indeed our learning is based on the self-learning. When our former director left Epitech he stole all the PDFs with the exercises and also the knowledge that made Epitech's reputation. I say 'stole' because Epitech is part of IONIS Group which is a widespread private scholar group in France. I mean that the ones who made Epitech possible are the ones who paid.
Now, at 42, Nicolas Sadirac is delivering free education which come from Epitech (which is a good thing for an educational purpose but I just felt raped at that moment).
In comparison with Epitech, 42 does not deliver a diploma.
To sum up, I just wanted to say that 42 is not that innovative because it's a copy of my school. I think this article would have been more complete if 42 origins were more developed.

I don't worry about the future of those students, they will be great developers :)

Manan Bhatia
Manan Bhatia

does anyone else feel that the guy in the picture looks like an older/chubbier version of Matthew Mcconaughey?

Carlo Esplana
Carlo Esplana

WOW might be one of the most ambitious experiments in engineering education.

Jinggo Aniñon
Jinggo Aniñon

Wow! A great idea, indeed. I commend the founder, and I hope there will be more like him who will start great ideas like this. I'll recommend this program to anyone

Sagar Chandola
Sagar Chandola

Akshay Saxena, Taylor Gregoire-Wright thought might interest you :-)

Shana August
Shana August

Shane Hamilton !! What a great idea - love it

Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson

How is this any different from child labor?  There's no guarantee that what these people are learning has any transferability outside of computer work.

Ian Littman
Ian Littman

Not sure if trolling or serious...


These days, if you're pushing code to GitHub, chances are that a *nix system is easier to work with than a Windows-based one. Even today, desktop Linux is a bit rough around the edges...and Mac OS largely isn't. So if you go to a meetup or conference that revolves around open-source techs, you'll be downright alarmed at the percentage of Apple computers there.


My main workstations is an iMac, similar to the ones in the first photo in the article (but with a couple more screens). I've also got a MacBook Pro for working elsewhere. One coworker in the small dev firm I work with uses a MacBook Air. Another guy uses a Windows desktop and laptop. Another uses a Linux beige box, plus a Chromebook with Ubuntu on it. At the end of the day, we're all coding against Linux servers.

A None
A None

Tesdting. Somehow the above comment is not appearing when not logged in.

Ian Littman
Ian Littman

We're talking software engineering here. If you want to do CAD or similar, you should be running Windows. See my other response for why Macs are the go-to platform for this sort of thing.

Augure Zera
Augure Zera

@Matt Nagel Fuck your feminism. If female spent more time reading Twilight and acting as slut, and worked as hard as males to get into these schools, it would be low.

It's valid in any domain, fuck feminism and forced female hiring.

Bill Cat
Bill Cat

@Matt Nagel also the founder should obviously eliminate himself as unfit himself as he is obviously over 30. 

And that my friends is why the new crop of tech is usually a bunch of social app happy crud with no real depth or learning or truly innovative technology, instead it's just snapchat type junk - people like him only select young males to bless.

Clément Denis
Clément Denis

@Bill Cat Look like you misunderstood, womens are welcome, sadly you find less women that are ready to invest that much time into learning to dev. In france that is.

trri teeu
trri teeu

@Pirix Piru  Insider. Good job.

Chell Ti
Chell Ti

@Paul Johnson You could say the same about pursuing a degree at any University.
The answer to your question being: The students have at least the age of 18, so by definition anything they do can not be considered child labor.

Nicke  Nackerton
Nicke Nackerton

@Ian Littman Well, it is true that you'll see Mac's in todays tech scene but in the end what matters is how similar your own workstation is compared to the server environments (nowdays mostly debian/rhel based distros).

Only  true tech people only use Linux-distros instead of *nix-based os x which is still better than windows ffs.


In my opinion os x is for graphich designers and other GUI-guys and if you need GUI to code you're not a coder :)

I admit it is faster and easier to code with eq. sublime or atom.io but it should not be foregone conclusion. Every true coder has to know how vim works and if not vim.. nano atleast.

Mablung Elf
Mablung Elf

@Augure Zera @Matt Nagel Whoa, relax, Augere, Matt never said that women should be given a free pass, only that he'd like for more women to be part of this. His comment could be interpreted in many ways and it seems to me like you decided to read it in way that allows you o expose your hate. 

anil gupta
anil gupta

@Bill Cat @Matt Nagel why crib about a good idea, what made you think it is only for males, i didnot find any data to that effect, pl be considerate, it is not perfect, but you can try to do better, 

Paul Johnson
Paul Johnson

@Chell Ti Except that if you pursue a liberal arts education at many universities, you don't have to be trapped in a single building in the heart of Paris with big cinema-display Macs and told to solve increasingly difficult programming challenges.  When students are sold a bill of goods like this, they are being treated as though they are intellectual children.

Cédric ODI
Cédric ODI

@Nicke Nackerton Are you a kind of Nazi ? Just to remember you, most of them start their curriculum without knowing anything of coding and computer science. I think, but it's my personal opinion, that mac is the best compromise for beginners. See ? You have the benefit of an unix architecture coupled with a nicer GUI. What is so bad about it ? 

According to what they choose as their specialty, they will naturally move towards gentoo distributions that you like, if they feel the necessity.