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Inside tycoons 'geek hothouse'

Billionaire Free founder Xavier Niel’s Ecole 42 in Paris is an innovative school for computer programmers of the future - with no lessons and no teachers. Amanda Mackenzie visited to find out more from its co-founder and students

NAMED after an appropriately geeky detail in a cult novel (“42” is said to be the meaning of life in Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Ecole 42 turns the whole concept of a school upside down.

No formal entrance qualifications, no teachers, no curriculum - instead students learn from each other and the internet.

It is a bold move, intended to nurture the top level digital talent of tomorrow.

The school is the brainchild of Xavier Niel, France’s sixth richest man, and the founder of the telecoms firm Iliad, parent company of Free.

Mr Niel is well aware of the problems French companies have when it comes to recruiting high level programmers: there are not enough to go around. He wants to see that change.

That is why he opened his own programming school last year, in a renovated building at Porte de Clichy in north-west Paris.

Mr Niel is funding the school to the tune of €70 million. For the students, it is free.

No slouch, he has now also announced plans for his own start-up “incubator” in the 13th arrondissement (south-east Paris) - and he hopes to build 800 homes for its future entrepreneurs in nearby Ivry-sur-Seine.

When I visit Ecole 42, the selection process is in full swing. It is known as La Piscine and it is a total immersion that has hopefuls eating, sleeping, dreaming code [ie. programming languages] for four weeks.

It is designed to be gruelling but fun - a sort of boot-camp for programmers. By the end of the process, around 800 hopefuls aged 18-30 will be offered places at the school.

To get this far, they have had to prove their aptitude in an online logic test but they have not had to produce academic qualifications. In fact, statistics based on last year’s intake suggest that around 40% of them may not have the Bac.

That should be a source of some satisfaction for Kwame Yamgnane, a co-founder of the school with Niel, who was previously managing director of another IT school - Epitech. He is convinced by studies that show that traditional academic schooling kills off creativity - and, in particular, the kind of out-of-the-box creativity known as “divergent thinking”. Arguably, it is that mindset, more than any other, that will drive the economy of tomorrow.

“There’s no problem with the idea behind state education, in fact it’s pretty good. It’s just that it has completely departed from what it was set up to do,” Mr Yamgnane says. “Contrary to what people think, you don’t get into a Grande Ecole through merit but through social origin; your education depends on the money you have. The system is there to choose the best profiles for the best schools - and those who run the Grandes Ecoles believe that best profiles are people like themselves. “Right now, we’re in a situation where whole swathes of the economy are sustained by people who are ‘the same’.

“That means that they all innovate in the same way. So, by definition, they aren’t innovating at all: they’re mainstream. To accelerate the level of creativity, we have to reach people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions - women - who can approach problems differently. We’ve opted out of a system that says such-and-such a person has the right to succeed.”

A great deal of work has gone into designing a course (there is no officially-recognised curriculum) that revolves around three main values: working as a group, precision and individual creativity.

Precision for a computer developer sounds like a bit of a no-brainer to me. However to bring the message home, Mr Yamgnane recalls the explosion of the unmanned Ariane 5 rocket in 1996 [which represented a loss of more than $370 million], which he says was due to a software error of 1 byte in around 64 billion.

“With an error of that order, you’d get an A plus in school. But the rocket still exploded. Code is unforgiving. The slightest error is fatal.

“We’re moving more and more towards complex coding systems that affect every aspect of our lives. So the lesson has to be radical. Any errors, and students systematically get a zero.”

In fact, stiff grades are something Ecole 42 students quickly get used to: the best take them in their stride and learn from them. “We’re interested in progress, says Mr Yamgnane. “We don’t evaluate them on what they have been, we grade them on what they’re in the process of becoming”.

Working as a group is a good example: the first time students come together on a project, chaos results and they inevitably flunk. With practice, they’ll go on to reconcile their differences and harness their strengths.

“We impose groups on them, we give them lots of obstacles, and we build up the teams, twos, fours, sixes, eights. Working as a group maximizes creativity, it creates conflict and accelerates the process. But you have to learn how to do it, because it’s difficult”.

The proof is in the pudding. Last year, 30 Ecole 42 students were chosen to work on a project with students from HEC, France’s elite business school - an incredible opportunity for a trainee geek who may not even have a Bac under his belt. The initiative will be repeated this year.

So far, so good - but what about “teaching” individual creativity? Ecole 42’s answer is typically unconventional: it takes teachers out of the picture. “School encourages young people to follow the path we give them,” says Mr Yamgnane. “‘You want to know how to get to the moon? It’s that way’. We don’t want that. We give them an exercise, and we tell them, ‘you’ve got a brain, go figure it out’.

“The goal is that eventually we can tell the group to get to the moon, and some of them will say ‘we’re going to figure out to get to Mars’.

“The fact that code is so unforgiving means they have to work together as a team, going through solutions and eliminating them one by one.”

On my way out, it is clear the pressure is beginning to mount. During the selection, the school relaxes its rules to let cash-strapped youngsters from out of town stay on the premises. The corridors are lined with sprawling bodies in sleeping bags.

Those who have not been burning the midnight oil hunch over their Macs, tapping out strings of code. They do not yet know it, but they are about to experience one of high points of La Piscine: the 24 Hour Challenge. Every hour for the next 24 hours, a new exercise will be issued, to a surge of adrenalin-pumping music.

Each coding [programming] challenge is dressed up as a mission to save the world - in the guise of Austin Powers or agent Jack Bauer of the American series 24 - and the deadlines are staggered.

But that will not help the candidates much, says Mr Yamgnane. “If they do every task they’re supposed to, they won’t get any sleep for 72 hours, which is of course physically impossible. They end up crashing out all over the place.

Our focus is on learning by doing. If we told them not to work 24 hours in a row, some of them would still do it. Here, they’ll do it once and they’ll never do it again.”

Outside the school, the boulevard is being dug up in preparation for Paris’ new northern tramway. In a couple of years’ time, this slightly ragtag part of the 17th arrondissement will be landscaped and on-the-up.

It will take a little longer before we will see whether Xavier Niel’s gamble has paid off. That is when the talented geeks of Ecole 42 will have begun turning some of their dreams into reality.

Arnaud, 20, does not have a high school diploma, but he can reel off an impressive portfolio of experience that includes a web consultancy in his native Switzerland and a 7-month stint with a start-up in China.

He already has enough programming experience to earn a reasonable living making websites. Instead, he has opted to sleep on a floor and work 15 hour days in the hope of getting into Ecole 42.

“It’s a chance to learn difficult things, surrounded by interesting and smart people,” he says. “Programming has this weird learning curve. You’re able to go to a level where you can quickly get money for what you do, but to go from there to being a good programmer and doing really interesting things takes a whole bunch of time.

“I don’t want to just pump out code for a big company. Coding is very important for everything. I see it as a valuable tool, rather than a profession.”

He added: “I’ve seen Xavier Niel a couple of times. He’s involved, which is great. He’s not just an executive who’s throwing money at it because he thinks code is cool - he actually codes. So he knows it’s not just about learning to code, it’s learning to network with other people and so on.”

As someone who likes learning by doing, Arnaud says he has learnt more in a fortnight than he has in the past 18 months. The atmosphere has been an unexpected bonus: “La Piscine is tough but we all get along really well. People are really respectful of each other, they understand the pain of living in a room with 50 or 60 geeks. And everyone showers - or almost everyone.”

Gabriella, 25, has already notched up a Masters degree in luxury marketing and a masters in e-business, where she got her first taste of programming. If selected for Ecole 42, she sees herself running a project or possibly launching a start-up of her own. “I love it here, even though I’m so outnumbered by boys”, she says. (Over 80% of Ecole 42’s students are male.)

“It just feels right. Everyone’s really friendly and supportive and I’m around people like me, who think like me - geeks - yes, we really do exist! I even get all the geeky jokes.

“Every day is different. We have exercises to hand in after 24 hours or sometimes we just have 10 minutes to turn them around, and there’s a real adrenalin rush every time a new
task is handed out. I’m practically running to get here in the morning - that’s how much I’m enjoying it.” She admits she has had some low grades.

“We just got our last task back and my grade point average is now negative. “My parents kept telling me ‘you’ll do really well’, so I haven’t told them. One person in the group was upset about it - quite shaken in fact - and we had to tell him it really isn’t about the grades you get. It’s about figuring out where you went wrong and learning from it.”

What is ‘divergent thinking’?

NO BAC? No problem! Being over- or under-qualified is not an issue at Ecole 42.

The school’s goal is to turn out high-quality programmers, some of whom it hopes will be “divergent thinking geniuses” - the kind of people who will go on to create the Facebooks of the future. Divergent thinking is the capacity to think of lots of possible answers to a question and it can be measured by tests, such as the question “How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?”. It is said that we all start out with this ability but levels decline as we get older, as shown by an American study which tested 1,600 children at intervals from age five to 15. Experts including education guru Sir Ken Robinson think conventional education is a more important factor than age itself in stifling the ability. By not requiring entrants to have the Bac, Ecole 42 wants to attract untapped talent that has slipped through the system. It also aims to enable the “over-qualified” to reclaim their creativity.

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