Learn to Code for Free

By: Tekla S. Perry

Photo of empty classroom.
The seats in 42 Silicon Valley’s free coding school are empty in the early morning, but fill with students as the day goes on. Photo: Tekla S. Perry

The building in Fremont, Calif., looks like your basic tech company—a boxy building surrounded by parking lots, with large expanses of glass breaking up the otherwise unadorned exterior. I was there last month to meet with startup Lali in a corner of the building being leased by incubator Hacking House. But once inside; I got very lost. There were no numbered doors, no office suites, no building directory. In fact, most of the 100,000 square feet was basically open, the top floor filled with rows and rows of computers—1024 of them, it turned out. My hosts from Hacking House eventually found me, leading me through the forest of desks, to the corner that is their tiny incubator. But what was the rest of this place?

“A coding school,” I was told, and an arm wave brought over someone affiliated with the operation to fill me in. Eager to tell me more was Jamie Parenteau, corporate relations manager of 42 Silicon Valley, a sister campus to the original 42 in Paris, a grand experiment in free STEM education. Funded by French tech entrepreneur Xavier Niel, the Paris school opened in 2013; the Silicon Valley branch kicked off in 2016.

(As many science fiction fans know, 42 is the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” at least according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

And 42—the school—is really free, Parenteau explained. Even housing is included: Besides the school building, 42 owns a nearby dorm that houses 600; the organization had counted on students from the local community to fill the additional slots. Housing, however, has proved to be a bit of a choke point, she indicated. There’s a long list of accepted students waiting for a spot in the dorm right now.

Coursework—learning materials, projects, and tests—are online in a gamified format; students are expected to reach out to each other for help when they get stuck. Learning how to ask for help from peers—and how to give help themselves—is a big part of the process. There are projects to complete and tests to take at different levels—21 in all. It takes about a year to get to Level 7, at which point students can choose to continue in the program at their own pace or start looking for an internship or job. 

Online doesn’t mean in isolation. Students staying in dorms must work at one of those 1024 terminals for at least 35 hours a week. And they have other academic requirements they need to meet in order to keep their coveted housing.

Grading of assignments and projects is also peer to peer. “When you submit something for grading,” Parenteau explained, “the system picks three to five people to grade it. Besides grading you, they are graded as graders.”

For exams, however, students are on their own, without access to on-site peers or the internet. All grades are pass-fail.

That’s the way the teaching and assessing works. In terms of curriculum, Parenteau said, every student starts by learning C, building their own C library from scratch. After passing through three levels, she says, “it’s choose your own adventure: systems, algorithms, or graphics.” Other languages are required depending on the path the student takes. And the choice of path is not irrevocable. Says Parenteau: “You can go down one branch, say that’s not for me, back up, and start another branch.”

To get in, a prospective student must be at least 18 years old, fill out an online application, and sign up for a spot in a one-month boot camp that 42 calls its “piscine” or “swimming pool.” Then the applicants have to get themselves to Silicon Valley for the piscine. Students come from all over the world, but getting visas are on them; as a non-traditional school, 42 can’t help with that. Students in the piscine go through a 28-day introduction to programming fundamentals and take a test every Friday. Those that pass don’t have to enter the program right away. Sometimes, says Parenteau, the successful applicants take about a year to go back to wherever home is and prepare for an extended stay in Silicon Valley.

It’s mostly going quite well, said Parenteau. The main thing that hasn’t gone according to plan is getting students to move into the highest levels—they are getting hired away too fast. 42 had been holding slots open for students to advance, but now is opening up more entry-level seats. That means more piscines; the plan for 2019 is to hold five such sessions. The current setup of 1024 terminals is designed serve as many as 2048 students, working in shifts, but an eventual expansion is not out of the question, Parenteau indicated. The school is using only the top floor of the two-story structure it owns.

The whole operation, beyond an initial announcement in 2016, has been humming along quietly. “We needed a period to see if it would take,” Parenteau said. “And we’re still in that validating period. Free education doesn’t really exist here in the U.S.; most people assume we want something in return later. We don’t.”

42 also has needed some time to build credibility with local companies. “The companies are adjusting, many have removed degree requirements, but HR still doesn’t know how to validate” someone’s education without a transcript. “So,” says Parenteau, “we invite them to come in and do hackathons with us. Netflix did a 48-hour hackathon, for example; Ford did a two-week one. But my requirement when we do a hackathon is that I want an interview for someone at the end—we’re not going to do hackathons that solve your problems and not get any benefit.”

Both Netflix and Ford ended up taking on students for paid internships. Other recent Bay Area hires have gone to BeezwaxeBayInstaCartiSolutionsPayPalPoshmarkScality, and Sigma.

Besides running the schools in Paris and Silicon Valley, 42 has made its curriculum and teaching tools available to 14 franchisees around the world including ones in Belgium, Romania, Russia, South Africa, and the Ukraine; the organization doesn’t charge for access, but requires each franchisee to find its own funding and guarantee that classes are free and open to anyone. That’s a relatively new effort, and Parenteau said they will hold off on any further expansion for now, at least until 42 is sure the franchise model works.

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 11 December 2018.