42 is the answer to the ultimate questions about life, the universe, and everything. At least that’s what it is in Douglas Adams’ science fiction classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And for French entrepreneur Xavier Niel, 42 was the perfect name for the innovative coding school he founded two years ago in Paris, and which recently opened a campus in Silicon Valley. Niel founded upstart telecom company Free and is one of France’s best-known entrepreneurs. I sat down with Niel in Paris to better understand his vision of a university without teachers, without books, and above all, without any tuition.
VentureBeat: What does 42 represents for you?
Xavier Niel: 42 is a school that allows anyone to start out on an equal footing. We figured out, in France, as well as in the United States, that the students from top colleges come from a privileged social background. As opposed to what we are led to believe, the most brilliant students aren?t more likely to end up in these colleges, but those from more comfortable backgrounds do.
In fields like ours — computer development — general culture isn?t a requirement. Only two things are taken into account: logic, which is the capacity to process information in a particular order, and the will to pull through. These are the keys required for anyone who would like to do IT development.
We wanted that mix in the form of an association, meaning without any benefit to ourselves — we are not looking to make money out of it. Combining these ideas with the people who founded the best tech colleges in France (e.g. Nicolas Sadirac), we launched 42 in 2013. Today, we are bringing it to the United States. If we focus on the American management style, the idea is to give kids from various backgrounds a chance, to allow them to hope and have a shot at a job, even to give them the tools to create their own company while earning a salary ? a salary that can go up to $140,000 to $150,000 a year in Silicon Valley.
VB: Why do you do this? What does that bring you?
Niel: There are many reasons. The first one is a sentiment that is really specific to French people and not to Americans: It?s the notion of giving back. Once I had made a lot of money in France and in the U.S. — and I hope it will be the case in many other countries as well — I always asked myself, ?How can I give back some of the money I have made in those places??
VB: What were the reactions in the United States, given that the costs of studying there are more important than in France?
Niel: What?s crazy is that we have young folks at the 42 school of Paris coming from California. They came all this way because they couldn?t afford to study in the United States, and therefore came to France because of the free education and all the other things we put together in order to help them. We managed to give them a chance to study. The reaction was therefore very positive. We aren?t there to bother other colleges; the young adults we?re bringing in couldn?t have afforded them anyway. Those schools cost around $50,000 a year, and most of these students can?t even get access to loans in order to enroll in them. They would have struggled anyway and would have gotten odd jobs, one after the other.
It?s therefore really hard to find negative aspects to our schools. When we launched 42 in France, some said, ?You?re only doing that in order to hire people for your businesses!? I hire three students from 42 every year out of a thousand. This has no impact. There aren?t any hidden agendas in this. Take a look at the press release, you?ll see we do not put ourselves forward. Our name?s at the end because we have no reason to hide. We say what each of us do in life, we include a little bio, but that?s only for the concept.
VB: How do students get into 42?
Niel: We don?t ask anything when you want to join: We only ask for a name, a last name, and a birthdate. The candidates have to be between 18 and 30. That?s all. We don?t ask if you have a diploma, if you can read or write, we don?t do any of that. In France, we have people coming from all over the world, some of them arrived in Paris and did not speak French. Even for them, things turn out really well.
When we pick these young people, we try to select them on objective criteria. We forget everything they might have done in their life. They first have to take an online test — which hundreds of young Americans take every day by going on our website. These are pure logic tests. You can be absolutely terrible at math and still pass. It?s quite funny, these are games to which we don?t give out the rules, but you have to find the key. You?re already quite good if you pass this stage. For those who succeed in these games, we invite them to come take on La Piscine (?the swimming pool?).
Online, we tested their logic capacities — which doesn?t mean being good at math. Then, we try out their motivation through La Piscine. This entails working at the school for 450 hours in a month, 15 hours a day, every day for 30 days. That?s how we test their motivation. What we have seen in France — I don?t know if it?s the same in the United States — is that soon, some of them say: ?That?s really nice and all, but it?s not for me. It?s too much work, it?s too hard. I?d rather leave and do something else.?
Some of them hang on and stay on to the end. In a month, they have learned in computer engineering what you need two years of college in France to achieve. In the U.S., from what I know, it?s about the same. When they finish La Piscine, some of the students have already started to learn how to code. We tell these students that they have the level of qualification required to carry on with us, and that, from now on, we are going to give them an education, and we will help them as much as we can. If they are coming from the United States, for example, we?ve got a building next door with dormitories. We tell them ?From now on, we?re going to help you learn this over time, and you?re going to become a coding genius.? We really give them a good push through teaching from that moment.
And it works. It works objectively. Whether you have a criminal record, suck at math, say dumb shit, we don?t give a damn. We don?t take that into account, we only care about two objective criteria. And if you happen to have those, we?re pleased to help you, because we think you?ve got everything to pull yourself out. What must be understood is that in France, half of these students have never coded in their life, they have never touched a computer. You?re in a world where there?s no need to have a computing background. We don?t care about that.
VB: How did you come up with this idea?
Niel: For starters, I asked myself what I observed about my job. In my profession, when you want to hire someone who knows how to code, you make them sit and code. You don?t ask them for their diploma. If they have a diploma, that?s great for them, but we don?t care about it. Coding is a job or a know-how in which a diploma has no importance. In the end, people have it, or they don?t. It may be the case in other fields, but in mine, a diploma is not something that permits you to objectively judge someone when it comes to a know-how. Plus, the fact that there?s no diploma takes away some of the stress for the students.
A diploma also means following rules. 42 is a school that’s open 24/7. At 3 a.m., you can still see between 300 and 400 students working there. So we?re used to a system in which a certain number of rules are necessary in order to get a diploma, but those aren?t compatible with our teaching methods.
We do not have teachers, we do peer-to-peer correcting and other things that make 42 a radical firm, and this is why it doesn’t correspond to any existing diploma program.
VB: How does a school without teachers, lectures, and mentors work?
Niel: We?re doing something that works quite well: We rely on cooperation. People talk a lot about Collaborative Economics nowadays. Well, here at 42, we chose Collaborative Education. What does it means? It means putting people together and making them learn together. The knowledge, you can acquire it from the internet. You can type anything into Google, and there?s your answer. So lessons are useless, you?ll find the best lectures in the world on the internet, if you want to learn. But we do not wish to make them learn stuff by heart, we want to teach them how to develop, work, and live together, to build projects together and to make them happen. That?s what we want to teach them.
From that moment, the teacher is of no interest, and the lecture even less. We sometimes have youngsters who got out of the Educational system at 10 or 11, and who don?t know how to coexist with teachers. However, we always ask them to work together. The grading, they do it among themselves. That means at any moment of the day or night, some students are there, ready to grade the work of other students. Partnership, nowadays broadly accepted in economy, is still shocking to most when it comes to education, but that?s the system we chose.
People sometimes ask us: ?Why don?t you dematerialize it, do it from a remote location?? It happens that our educational system is remotely accessible if students want to do their work somewhere else. But we found out that when you come here, you work faster and better, simply because you work with others, and you need to. It is of the utmost importance, because it helps you maintain your motivation and keeps you going forward. Once again, we chose something quite radical, but we?re fine with it because it works.
I?ll give you another example: The school has no fixed duration. That means, for a student to finish school, he or she must pass 21 levels. Some will successfully pass those levels in two years, others will do so in five. Students will go at their own pace. Some will pass in two years and three months, others in three years and a day. What is this idea that everyone must learn the same thing, at the same moment? It does not look like a clever way of doing it. We aren?t all made the same, we cannot all learn or move forward the same. Likewise, the school adapts to everyone?s speed.
VB: What?s a level? Does the student have to build up a project?
Niel: Yes, that?s it. Everything works by projects. At first, there are a few mandatory projects that all students are required to do, in a certain order and sequential way. A project is presented as a short five-minute presentation video with text that tells the students what is expected of them and what they must turn in. Some projects are to do on your own, but most of them are group projects. When you?re finished, you move on to the next one, and when that one is done, you keep moving on.
After a few projects, you may choose the parts of a project you might want to do. You?re not required to do something anymore, you can do what interests you. So if I?m into graphic design, I?m going to continue with a project about graphic design, and if I like managing databases or if I want to understand how these work, I?m going pick only database projects that interest me.
The more I complete projects, the more I will earn points, and those points will allow me to move on to the next level. When I reach level 7, I have to do an internship. I?m therefore stuck at that level with the obligation of doing a training program. And when I reach another level, I have to do another internship. It?s really like a video game, with levels to beat. Some of them are compulsory and others are the results of your choices. So all of our students are trained in a different way. There are a lot of projects, and the students may work on them side by side, but they always end up being completely different.
VB: Is this a learning method already being used in the United States or is it something new that you?re exporting to the U.S.?
Niel: When you go to the United States, you always see French people among the big names in technology. We?re quite good at this in France. We have real knowledge in terms of math and coding. So if we manage to export it, all the better! What we love is working on a big scale, because you can do lots of things if you have a huge number of students. If you don’t, the 24 hour-a-day correction system doesn’t work anymore.
VB: Was placing a former student from 42 Paris at the new 42 school in Fremont a coincidence or intentional?
Niel: It?s a type of auto-management. That?s what rules our school, meaning that the best students help with its internal functioning. All students from our school develop huge computer systems, manage them internally etc. We systematically ask our top students to help us.
Brittany Bir was a brilliant American student at 42 Paris, who naturally wanted to go back to her country one day. Because she had great skills, we said, ?Listen, since things are working well (we?ll help you of course), would you mind making this happen?? She is part of the group of young people who left the United States because they had no chance of accessing those schools. Her family couldn?t afford it, so her way in was to come study in France. We?re happy to do this because we hope that, the next time, others will not have to leave their country to go to a school if they cannot afford it.
VB: Is there something radical in the way you organize the school too?
Niel: We have several elements there, some simply practical, others which are landmarks. First of all, there’s the financial aspect, because what was the most costly for the school was furnishing it, and we wanted the school to have as many young people as possible. Then, we wanted them to speak to each other, to exchange ideas. And in order to do so, you need to make sure that there are enough accessible people around you. The idea is that a student could talk to seven other students without having to speak up.
Then, you need facilities where you can sleep and relax right next to the working spaces, so that the students can be at their maximum. As we ask them to work 15 hours a day, the less they need to move, the better.
Here?s the spirit: you need a nice space, where people will want to go and where they will feel good. And at the same time, you need this place to have a large capacity for exchange and welcome a maximum of students.
VB: Why is it called “42?”
Niel: It?s from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — it?s the answer to the greatest question about life and the universe. Also, 42 is a magical number. It?s really important in the geek universe. It shows that the school, it?s not just out of the geek world, and we?re happy about that.
VB: In the end, what is a good developer today?
Niel: They are people who know how to adapt. Our parents learned computing in a different way: They were told that is was about ?learning by heart.? And therefore, people sometimes find it difficult to adapt to a world that?s rapidly changing. Because the developing language now isn?t the same as the one from three months ago. What we teach at 42, is C, the most universal language — and the hardest. It is an element of a great importance. We think, and I?m pretty sure about it, that once the C or C++ language is learned, students will be able to adapt to any language and will find others simpler.
We start by teaching them something really hard, thinking they will be able to adapt to something simpler without any difficulty. A good coder is someone who is capable of adapting to the software environment of a company, who?s capable of working in group. They will also be asked to have the kind of logic which will give them the ability to deliver a clean and functioning code. That’s what we look for in these youngsters, that logic. Then we teach them how to use it every day.
VB: Adapting, working in groups, are those, in the end, the two necessary elements required to work in the digital world in general?
Niel: Yes, maybe. People tell us that we could do that for a lot more activities. But we only know one thing: computer development.