PARIS—It’s a fortuitous day to be sitting in a padded geodesic workbooth at 42, the tuition-free computer programming school created and funded by French telecom billionaire Xavier Niel. I’m waiting to meet with Olivier Crouzet, the dean of studies. It happens to be the first day of La Piscine (the pool), a four-week programming endurance test that 800 people ages 18 to 30 will vie to complete.
Their aim is to gain admission to 42, a three-year program that has no prerequisites, no teachers, no lectures, and is 100% project-based and peer-graded. As I sit, an artificial voice calls out welcomes and goodbyes to students in French as they tag through the chrome turnstiles at the entrance to the Paris building. I’m reminded of the dystopian Brazilian Netflix series 3%, about young people navigating a supposedly meritocratic series of tests to attain a better life on The Offshore. But after a tour of 42, which is named after a famous line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I end up reminded more of an unforgettable experience of my own while studying programming in community college. (More on that later.)
Crouzet slips into the workbooth across the small table from me. “We shouldn’t say this too loudly, but we lie to our students. We make them think that while they’re here they’re going to develop their technical competence, but that’s not our objective,” he tells me in French. His blue-eyed gaze is amiable, but he speaks with a genial intensity that I’ve often noted among developers.
“Of course, they will develop their technical competence—they are geeks, many of them—and they will spend an enormous amount of time on projects we’ve given them, but that’s not our real goal,” Crouzet continues. “Our real goal is to develop their capacity to resolve problems, to collaborate, to self-teach, to be creative, to be critical thinkers. Those are the elements that to us are indispensable.”
The school can’t predict which technologies will be useful over a 40-year career, Crouzet notes, but what it can do is prepare students for a world in which they’ll constantly confront novelty. After 13 years as dean at Epitech, a French IT training institute, Crouzet eagerly accepted an offer to join 42 at its launch in 2013. Here, he has helped design (with Nicolas Sadirac, Kwame Yamgnane, and Florian Bucher) a pedagogy where there are no traditional academic authority figures or outdated constraints. It’s similar to MOOCs (massively open online courses) in that all student work is peer-graded, with reciprocal incentives: Gain a point for grading; lose a point for being graded. But most MOOCs don’t go as far as 42, Crouzet maintains.
“The first MOOCs were too much of a mechanization, an automation of what happens in a classroom, with just a lecture,” he says. As I soon see with my own eyes, 42 is anything but a virtual experience.
Eat, Code, Sleep
We come to a vast, naturally lit room with hundreds of students working at gleaming iMacs lined up in rows. Murals and other artwork dot the room. Students face each other in staggered positions along the tables. Some watch brief explanatory videos, while others have already started coding short, 25- to 50-line programs. Later in the day, the students will be introduced to Crouzet and the staff, but that’s not the first order of business.
On the first day of La Piscine, students tackle programming problems without an instructor, gaining help only from their peers. ALEXA WEBER MORALES
Crouzet shows me two more floors of students concentrating on their first projects for the Piscine. Most surprising are the makeshift dormitories—wide open spaces where students have stashed their own air mattresses, sleeping bags, and overflowing packs. A minority of the students either can’t find Paris housing or simply plan to spend all of their time competing in the Piscine. The facility also has a cantina and an amphitheater, which was most recently used to watch a World Cup soccer match.
Of the 3,200 students who now attend the school, about 12% are female, which, according to Crouzet, is a worse showing than at France’s engineering colleges but better than at its IT trade schools. Some 10% of the students aren’t French citizens and at least half hail from outside Paris.
During the Piscine, students face a challenge that many professional software developers would find difficult: They start programming in C, but they’re not allowed to use any of the functions of the standard library. Instead, they must code these utilities for themselves. In other words, they must build their own building blocks.
“We do that from the start, because we want the algorithmic base, built on these little problems that are really quite simple, to come right away with an understanding for how to manage memory,” he says. Projects involving memory-safe, object-oriented languages such as Java and C# will come one year after this trial by pointer (to coin a phrase).
That’s because the pedagogues at 42 had observed that students in the habit of programming with a high-level language have more difficulty understanding what is happening underneath. “They would get into certain mechanisms of the operating system, and they were suddenly lost,” Crouzet says. “They didn’t understand the difference between tables and lists. There were other things that they didn’t master because they didn’t have the understanding of the levels below. We want them to realize, after the first stage of the program, that they haven’t just learned C, they’ve learned to solve an entire set of problems.”
“La Piscine was not so hard. I was surprised. It was kind of a game, but I was working at the peak of my ability,” student Paul Guillot tells me while volunteering with eight other 42 students at Oracle Code Paris, a free developer event. A full-time 42 student since 2014, Guillot went part-time this year when he landed a developer job.
Guillot, who had fallen in love with programming in high school, says an important part of his time at 42 is “meeting a lot of people from different horizons—waiters, cooks, jobs that were not related to code. They came from everywhere, and we discovered code together.”
Another Oracle Code volunteer, Sophie Tarrit, was one of those novices. From Nantes, on the west coast of France, she accidentally came upon an online test of short-term memory and logic that was the precursor to being invited to attempt La Piscine. She took the online test, passed, moved her bedding into the building, and began her 42 stint two years ago. She plans to finish in another year, following the 60-hour-week plan.
“You’re in the Piscine 14 to 16 hours a day. I was sleeping there, which was easier,” Tarrit says. “You get up, you sit in front of the Mac, and you start coding. After a while you look around and it’s 23:00 at night. You have worked all day long and you don’t even notice it.”
At times, the staff makes things hard on the students, she says, playing loud noises the night before a test to ramp up the stress. All good, Tarrit says. “It’s made to be difficult because if you work on your own, you can’t do it,” she says. “Even if you can do the technical parts alone, that’s not how the school is built.”
Tarrit’s tenacity has paid off. Pointing to her elegant smartwatch, she explains that it’s the focus of her R&D internship at Louis Vuitton, where she’s on a team developing software for the $2,450 Tambour Horizon.
With free campuses in Paris and Silicon Valley (Fremont, California), and partnerships in South Africa, Ukraine, and Lyon, 42 has ample opportunity to test its educational experiment. So far, the student experience has been consistent worldwide, Crouzet says.
As I leave the building, I’m suffused with a happy memory from when I was a 20-year-old community college student—a memory I had shared with Crouzet (who notes that in the US, 42 faces the obstacle that free or low-cost higher education, such as community college, is considered subpar). My favorite class used the Scheme programming language, a dialect of Lisp. I clearly remember not only having to create basic functions from scratch, just as 42 students must, but also our final exam.After several hours toiling individually in the computer lab, my community college classmates and I spontaneously collaborated on the hardest set of problems. This had not been part of the professor’s plan, but he awarded us all A’s. More important, the experience of solving those thorny extra-credit problems together as a community is one I’ve never forgotten.
At Oracle Code, I ask Tarrit if this is how students at 42 feel. She says, as an introvert, that the community she found has been the best part.
“I am shy. After one week, people grabbed me, and that became my group,” Tarrit says. “If I hadn’t had that, I wouldn’t have passed.”