A Frenchman Aims to Disrupt Silicon Valley

May 19, 2016
A French billionaire is opening an unusual engineering school in Fremont, Calif., that has no teachers, tuition, or degrees, and rewards self-learners and self-starters. Could you make it in this sink-or-swim environment?

The French have something to teach Silicon Valley about tech. At least, Xavier Niel, the iconoclastic billionaire who revolutionized French mobile telephones and once bid unsuccessfully for the U.S. cellular operator T-Mobile, thinks so: He's opening a California campus of the unusual engineering school he started in Paris.

The school is called "42," a nod to the "the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything" in Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." Niel, who is worth $7.6 billion, according to Bloomberg Billionaires, set it up the Paris campus in 2013 with a 70 million euro ($79 million), 10-year grant. Another $100 million is earmarked for the U.S. campus in Fremont, which is bigger.

It's easier to name what 42 doesn't have than what it does. There is no tuition; no educational prerequisites for entry; no teachers; no academic calendar, and no formal diploma. It does have a long line of people wanting to get in, 1,000 powerful iMacs and a super-fast Internet connection. In its inaugural year, there were 70,000 applicants of which 1,000 made the cut. The second year, after the hype died down, the number of applications went down to 50,000.

There is a two-stage selection process: Applicants are given an intelligence test "to make sure the brain works," as the school's director, the tech entrepreneur Nicolas Sadirac, puts it. Then the 4,000 highest scorers are plunged into what's known as a "pool": They have four weeks to complete a project that requires coding in the C language. The school doesn't care if the applicant has never written code before; many learn by working 100-hour weeks. 

Niel's school has 15 staff members, but they are not teachers, exactly. They administer the program, which should last three years and consists of a set menu of modules that a student must complete by doing individual or group projects. The school is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has done away with the idea of imparting knowledge: Why focus on that if all information is stored and accessible somewhere? Students get no help beyond occasional advice on a web forum -- they're supposed to hunt for solutions on the Internet. All they have in the way of support is each other; projects are graded by peers, not staff.

The sink-or-swim approach is not typical of France but it's natural for Niel, who taught himself coding on a primitive Sinclair ZX81 computer his father gave him for Christmas when he was 15. He made some of his first money in porn, an industry that has long attracted hackers without a formal education. Niel knows that the best coders train themselves or learn from peers; they just need some structural guidance about what they need to learn so they don't develop tunnel vision, and they need a conducive environment. 

That was the theory, anyway, when Niel announced in 2013 that "the education system doesn't work."

Practice, however, has proven somewhat different. Guillaume Bersac, a member of the school's first intake, has been blogging about his experience, and though he has found 42's kind of education challenging and intense -- he wrote in 2014 that the 10 hours a day he spent at the school were not enough -- he also noted that perhaps only half of his schoolmates worked the expected 50 hours a week. This year, he complained about the difficulty of finding partners for group projects: Because no one is expected to take the modules in any particular order, few students are at the same level in any subject at any given time. 

Self-discipline may come easily to the geniuses the school is supposed to discover and unleash on the tech industry, but not everyone who passed the rigorous selection -- 40 percent of them didn't even have a high school diploma -- is a genius. In March, 42 kicked out 100 students who couldn't deal with its system of "black holes" that requires a student to reach a certain level within a deadline.

In the U.S., 42 will seem as strange as it is in France, but for different reasons. On the one hand, its focus on entrepreneurship and competition is very American: It is highly selective and its declared goal is to produce start-ups and people who will work for them. On the other hand, it's tuition-free and doesn't claim to confer any advantages in the labor market such as a prestigious diploma.

The software industry is known for its indifference to formal qualifications -- few companies ask about a job applicant's education, but all will test specialized knowledge and teamwork qualities. Niel's project is already known in the tech world, well beyond France's borders, so its graduates will at least get a hearing, but declaring that 42 is a revolution in education may be going a little too far. After all, a person who is sufficiently dedicated to seek out this kind of learning  -- through a continuous hackathon -- doesn't really need a school, even one as unorthodox as 42. All this aspiring genius needs is a computer with Internet access; peers interested in the same things may be even easier to find online than among the couple of thousand fellow students.

Niel is a radical, and his innovations are extreme. Our children or even grandchildren probably won't be going to schools exactly like 42. It'll probably never be possible to train doctors -- who do need a trusted diploma to win patients' trust -- this way. One could, however, imagine the self-learning methods being used more broadly in disciplines such as law, where graduates are required to pass a bar exam to practice. And in areas that require more skill than knowledge -- including journalism and many service professions -- the experience of 42 may take the form of an institutionalized apprenticeship, learning on the job, rather than sitting through required classes with professors who have long since stopped working in the field.

Silicon Valley formed around a traditional learning institution, Stanford University. That school has changed with the times, integrating with the tech business it has helped spawn. Yet there's always room for more disruption in an industry that prides itself on rewriting the rules. Niel's new educational model is as uncompromising as it gets, and though it won't kill off traditional universities, it can certainly offer a fast track to the growing number of people who don't believe in them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.