Kwame Yamgnane, 42’s co-founder, takes me on a 30 minute discovery of the ‘anti-school’ located north of Paris.
Last Thursday, I was kindly invited by my good friend and hyper-connector Clement to a tour of the Paris tech scene. The day’s proceedings took on a decidedly avant-garde turn when we visited 42, the first fully automated programming school of its kind.
At 42, education is entirely free of charge. There are no teacher, and no opening hours. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, students enter the modern 12 million euro complex through electronic gates which greets them by name. Learning is done in a peer to peer fashion by forming groups with fellow students and addressing increasingly complex challenges. On one student’s screen, I’m shown an e-learning intranet not too dissimilar from what you might find on Codeacademy. However, 42 isn’t about learning ‘flavour of the month’ web frameworks: while the flexible course units may be completed at your own pace and in the order the student’s choosing, we’re talking hardcore C development here — prompting Kwame to joke that the curriculum ‘eases up into C++ the second year’. The people who will be graduating out of 42 will entering the workforce engineering new embedded hardware solutions, or work on complex security and networking protocol challenges. 42 might be free, but it certainly means business.
“Regular school is akin to watching a theatre show. At 42 you get on the stage instead. I’m just the theatre director”
42 was created by Xavier Neil, a French billionaire who launched France’s first internet service provider and is now recognised as one of the most active angel investor in the world. My initial cynicism that 42 might be a ploy to recruit cheap programmers for Neil’s behemoth ISP, Free, was quickly dispelled by the sheer scale of the school. And the numbers speak for themselves: 1,000 seats with fully kitted out iMacs, 1,600 students, and 12 millions euros invested to develop the ‘start-trek meets street art’ building alone. A cursory Google search shows that in total, Neil put up 60 million dollars of his personal money and expects absolutely no profit whatsoever.
It is difficult to overstate how genuinely groundbreaking the school is. In fact, 42 could be to education what the hyperloop will be to transportation. France has roughly 6,500 students currently in their 5th year of CS studies. 42 alone adds a whopping 1,000 free spaces. To think that a privately funded effort can add approximately 15% more capacity to an entire country’s pool of potential future software engineers is simply astonishing.
At 42, every room, every object oozes geekiness. ‘Someone’ hacked the electronic gate system and replaced the formal greeting with their favourite sound effects. The lift itself has received ‘aftermarket’ modifications and was transformed into an impromptu LED-powered disco. The ceiling lights at the canteen have been individually addressed using dip switches, networked, and now make for an excellent albeit rather gigantic game of Tetris. Everything about this space gives out the feeling of having entered the set of a “Weird Science” episode — and much of it puts would put many tech startups to shame.
But 42 isn’t the domain of pretentious future techno-elites either. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. France has had, and continues to have, a serious integration problem with education combined with appalling brain drain statistics. While it’s the word’s 6th economic power, it lags in 20th position in terms of digital economy. As a French citizen, it pains me to see the OCDE listing France as one of the worst in the world in terms of access to education. Free universities churn out students struggling to find work in an industry where recruiters prefer practical experience over academic credentials, while private ones stay the privileged realm of a socio-economical upper class. Kwame and his colleagues lament France’s broken ‘social elevator’, and see 42 as a way to correct this injustice.
“It’s not your parent’s wallet that will dictate your success, it’s your work” — explains Kwame, wearing an unassuming shell suit and speaking a French that’s a lot more flourished that one might expect. Some within France’s ageing educational system might scoff at this unlikely figure, yet Kwame has exactly the attitude that France needs: much less pomp and far more substance. I left France 19 years ago frustrated by the country’s inability to adapt to new business paradigms — yup, je suis le brain-drain — so Kwame’s forward-thinking message certainly resonated with my own convictions.
Nothing illustrates this meritocratic approach to work better than 42’s application process. A sole entry criterion: to be aged between 18 and 30. The only personal data that 42 gathers are the applicant’s first name, last name, and email address. But joining is no walk in the park, either. Out of 70,000 applications this year, 20,000 will pass the online test, but only 3,000 will enter the ‘piscine’, or pool, a month-long evaluation of practical study. Ultimately, just under 1,000 will enter 42 after this gruelling exercise that can often amount to one hundred hours of study per week. What’s most extraordinary is that 40% of those who make the cut do not even hold the Baccalauréat, France’s main high school diploma, without which one has no chance to enter traditional universities. On that statistic alone, it is evident 42 has accomplished its stated goal of “Integrating Everyone”, conscious that it’s often within youth groups not recognised by the current system where it could uncover the most important talents.
42 is a undoubtedly a success. During my visit the space was buzzing with activity and most of the 1,000 seats were filled, with groups spontaneously forming, exchanging ideas, helping each other out with exercises. The students I met showed a sense of deep-seated respect for the resources provided and clearly were proud of being part of 42. Some were scrubbing floors and cleaning windows as part of the playfully named “Travaux d’intérêt général”, or ‘Community Service’. In fact, 42 felt like anything but a school, but instead, more of city within a city — one with its own rites, its own culture, it’s own lingo.
Concluding the tour, we made our way to the ‘bocal’, the office where a skeleton administrative crew mans the computer systems managing the building. Clement asks me what I think of the place, and dizzied by what I just discovered, I can only blurt out: “Where was this stuff when I was 18?”. As make our way back to the tag covered metro, we pass by a billboard advertising a expo where students are invited to ‘find out what they will do after their Baccalauréat’. In a country where unemployment is at an all time high, I couldn’t help but note the irony of the billboard’s question when the answer to France’s educational problems was seemingly standing just a few meters away.
42’s guiding principles
- Openness to all social and economic backgrounds, with or without diplomas, but hard working and motivated by IT.
- Passion for all aspects of computer programming.
- Ambition to develop qualities expected in the workspace, including ‘hit the ground running’ productivity, constant learning, working collaboratively and personal investment in projects.
- Learn ‘in situ’, from projects of different scopes and complexity requiring ingenuity and creativity to reach one’s goals.
- Group pedagogy, where one learns constantly from others and participates in the teaching to others, pulling the group forward through peer to peer learning.
- Value the initiatives of others, and have access 24/7 to the school’s resources.
Originally published at www.ursium.com.
About the Author
Stephan Tual is the Founder of the world’s first blockchain Consultancy, Ursium (http://www.ursium.com)
In January 2014, Stephan joined the Ethereum project as CCO. His current focus is on the intersection of blockchain technology and embedded hardware, where autonomous agents can transact as part of an optimal Internet of Things economy.
An established thought leader on blockchain technology, decentralization and DAOs/DACs, Stephan regularly speaks at conferences, community events and meetups, and is the media contact for the Ethereum project.
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