42: The answer to life, the universe and education

“We believe that IT has nothing to do with math and physics… it is more artistic than scientific,” says Nicolas Sadirac, as he cheerfully slaughters whole herds of sacred cows. “Knowledge is not useful any more, because IT advances in revolutionary ways, not iterative ones… we ask our students not to learn, just to solve the problem.” Oh, yes, and: “There is no teacher.”

42, the coding school with no teachers, the quasi-university whose name comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the pedagogical folly and/or revolution funded to the tune of some $250 million from the deep pockets of French multibillionaire Xavier Niel, has two campuses. One will open in Fremont, California later this year.

I recently visited the other, located on the outskirts of Paris1. I walked in thinking it a folly, and walked out thinking it might just be a revolution.

Some basic facts: 42 accepts 1,000 students between 18 and 30 years of age every year. Tuition is free. Student loans pay for living expenses. The program lasts roughly three years, but some students finish in 18 months; some in five years; some take jobs and then return. Forty percent of its students are previous high-school dropouts. Only 10 percent are women, but that grim statistic is still twice as good as traditional French IT schools and they’re trying to improve it further. The French school has been running for three years now.

The selection process is Darwinian. Two years ago, 40,000 people applied and 20,000 completed the online test; last year 80,000 applied and… 20,000 completed the online test. Over the summer, before the school year begins, the best 3,000 of those 20,000 are selected to come spend four weeks in the school full-time.

There they work on projects that sometimes double as personality tests — allotted to them by 42’s custom software, not by anything so quaint and obsolete as a teacher — in informal, self-organized groups. Only 1,000 of those 3,000 are accepted into the school. It all sounds a little Hunger Games.

Once accepted, students choose their own path, in a heavily gamified, entirely software-driven pedagogical environment that begins with a blank black screen; you essentially figure out your own way through 42’s gamified study software from there. (It reminded me a little of the Illustrated Primer from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age.) Everyone starts with the same basic core curriculum, but then chooses fields and individual projects which interest them. This may include robotics, game design, AR/VR, IT security, collaborating with artists who spend a month working in the school, etc.

The projects are constructed in hopes of fostering the ability to think flexibly and learn on-the-fly, rather than try to predict what knowledge will be valuable. As students succeed they “level up” — the gamification is paramount — until they reach Level 21 and “graduate.”

This gamification is apparently extremely effective for (some) extremely bright students who failed at, and/or rejected, traditionally structured educational environments; hence the 40 percent of students here who are former dropouts. Thirty percent have zero previous programming experience. “Information technology is about connecting with other people,” Sadirac says. “Innovation comes from diversity.”

Again, the school has no teachers at all, none whatsoever, and only about 30 staff, divided into three “teams:” sysadmins, devs and course designers, basically. Additionally, students elected by their peers make up 30-40 percent of each of those teams.

The cost to Niel was about €20 million to set up the school, and €7 million per year in running costs; the Fremont school will cost about $40 million to set up and an estimated $8 million/year to run (which seems curiously low). They currently have no other business model. Sadirac shrugs: “Xavier told us: I will pay for 10 years, and you don’t think about what happens after for 7 years.” He’ll worry about that in 2020.

(All told, the costs to Niel, for both schools, total up to about $250 million, a little less than, say, Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project in Las Vegas. Don’t worry, Niel can afford it; he’s worth an estimated $10 billion.)

So far, so cool/revolutionary/outrageous, as schools go. But what do students actually learn? The demand for them as interns is intense — French companies offered 11,000 proposals for 750 internships recently — but so is demand across the industry. Is 42 churning out blinkered coders who only know how to do a few things, à la so many of the bad “coding bootcamps” out there?

Ahahahahaha. No.

Seriously. As I said, everyone starts with the core curriculum. The first project consists of writing C code from scratch — no wait, it gets better — using your own handwritten set of C library functions, rather than being allowed to lean on the crutch of stdlib. (Apparently this immediately levels the playing field between neophytes and people with “programming” experience that only includes calling Node or Rails or PHP library functions.) The system doesn’t even allow you to start using PHP until you attain level 5.

Obviously 42 is not for everyone, which they make very clear. But it is a breathtakingly great alternative for people who do not thrive in the traditional educational system. (A lot of the post-visit chatter centered on the lack of professors — “I learned so much from my best professors!” As someone who acquired his engineering degree mostly just by reading textbooks, while entirely eschewing professors’ office hours and only sporadically attending classes, I had trouble sympathizing.) It’s young, yet; the devils always lurk in the details; and it’s too early to judge by results. But I loved the approach.

The U.S. school’s website features a video that includes Evan Spiegel, Jack Dorsey and Matt Cohler, among many others, singing 42’s praises. You can add me to their number. I was really impressed.

1Full disclosure: I should note that this trip to France to visit the French tech scene and this week’s Connected Conference was paid for by Business France, a tentacle of the French government. Studies show that this inevitably subconsciously biases me in their favor (although, interestingly, the bias effect seems to be substantially larger for small gifts than large ones.) But I don’t think that will have (much) affected the gap between my expectations of 42 and what I saw.