PARIS – Imagine you’re a high school dropout. You have no money, no skills, no work experience, no family fortune. What could save you from becoming one of society’s bottom feeders for the rest of your life?
The answer is education.
Ideally, this would be a Bernie Sanders’ style tuition-free college education. Even better if the school could prepare you to become a skilled professional, ready to survive and possibly lead, in the fast-changing high-tech world.
Meet your headmaster: Xavier Niel, often called the French Steve Jobs. Dressed in a white shirt and blue jeans, Niel is a mild-looking Internet mogul who has built a career and fortune mostly by breaking rules in a rigid French society and bucking the establishment.
This week, Niel opened the door to his coding school, called 42, for the foreign media. He established 42 in 2013 in Paris, along with associates who include Nicolas Sadirac, former general director of the French IT school Epitech. Today, Sadirac runs and operates 42.
42 teaches its students skills – both social and technical – in software development. Using no textbooks or traditional curriculum, 42 focuses on “peer-to-peer learning,” “gamification,” and teaching student s to “use knowledge without memorizing,” Sadirac explained.
The school is unorthodox — to say the least — in every respect, and by any standard in the world.
It’s open to everyone. Even students with no high school diplomas or those who failed in traditional educational systems are welcome to apply.
Once accepted after a rigorous 4-week “on-site” test called “Piscine” (swimming pool), the survivors get an education – and a degree in three years — absolutely free of charge. In 2015, 42 received applications from 80,000 people and accepted 1,000 students.
By the time students achieve Level 21 – the highest level of skills– at School 42, they “would have learned to work in Linux, develop artificial intelligence, or immersed in graphics to design augmented reality or virtual realtiy — depending on programs you chose,” said Sadirac.
Street smarts needed
More important, as 42 tends to prefer students with street smarts and whose attitude and thinking are more flexible, the school is ready to train them to work around superficial problems to solve real problems, and collaborate with others in a project. It’s not unusual for the school to cut off power – abruptly – so that students working in rooms — connected with more than one thousand top-of-the-line iMac computers — must figure out on their own how to cope in the worst of real-world situations. Students work in groups, but have to organize a group on their own.
The 4-week on-site “piscine,” perhaps, best illustrates what 42 is about.
Students are given a computer showing a black screen. There are no rules. They need to finish games from scratch in the given time. In principle, applicants need to be passionate about computers, but the school doesn’t necessarily accept the students who come in with the best computer skills. Niel cited a group of three kids – two girls and one boy — during rigorous 4-week testing period. The boy’s computer skills were much more advanced compared to the other two, but in the end, “We didn’t take the boy. He was too rigid. He was not willing to change.”
42 is Niel’s latest investment, and it’s most likely one of his biggest gambles in terms of its potential social impact.
Crossing the Atlantic
42 won’t likely remain just another cute French idea confined to France, and too socialistic to fit the culture of Silicon Valley. Au contraire. 42 is coming to Fremont, Calif. in November. Niel is opening a 200,000 square foot mega campus there – four times bigger than 42’s Paris site.
Plenty of Silicon Valley executives have talked about the STEM crisis in the United States. The shortage of skilled software engineers is squeezing Silicon Valley while skyrocketing college tuitions pose a serious social problem in America.
It took a French billionaire to come up with a blueprint for the “school of the future.” Although its concept remains a work in progress, 42 is already attracting a lot of attention.
With a twinkle in his eye, Niel told us that multinationals like Google and Facebook in Silicon Valley “are very interested in what we are doing.”
In France, 42 has established partnerships with 18 French entities – including the “Grandes Écoles” (elite schools in France) and renowned French companies in different industrial sectors – all willing to work with students at 42 through special projects, internships and others. “Many established French schools and companies are doing this because they know their systems have to change” to survive in the digital economy, said Neil.
The same is true with established companies and schools in Silicon Valley, he added.
Niel shelled out 20 million Euros to set up 42 in Paris, while spending 7 million euros a year in running costs. The Fremont school, according to Niel, will cost about $40 million to set up and an estimated $7 million/year to run.
Asked why he is doing this, Niel said, “Because I want to give back.”
Niel’s effort to use his fortune in hopes of improving others’ fortunes is attracting interest from other young French entrepreneurs. Geoffroy Guigou, co-founder & COO at Younited, who told EE Times that Niel is his role model, explained that social philanthropy is little practiced in France. “For example, Bernard Arnault at LVMH — the second richest man in France – spends most of his fortune in things like buying art.”
How he's got rich
42 might have been the kind of a school where Niel himself might have flourished.
Niel, who has neither college degree nor family fortune, is a self-made man. At the age of 49, he is already the seventh richest man in France, with a reported net worth of $8.6 billion.
In France, where rules are everything and people cherish being “correct,” Niel has been a rebel all his life.
Niel became first an app developer for France Telecom’s Minitel by designing a popular porn chat service. By 1993, he was out of Minitel, launching World-NET, France’s first Internet Service Provider. Meanwhile, France Telecom, still in denial, regarded the Internet as a fad.
To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.