A new school for scrappy young programmers is opening in Paris next month, and it is every bit as freewheeling and disruptive as the Douglas Adams book its name references. 42*, as the school is dubbed, costs nothing to attend. All you have to do is prove you can innovate, solve problems, and apply logic to programming problems in creative ways.
There are no teachers, no lectures, and almost no structure at 42. There are only group projects, so-called “friendly organizers” in T-shirts, and three years of programming for 900 students between the ages of 18 and 30 who beat out the other 19,000 applicants in a series of logic tests. It actively seeks out students from France’s poorest regions. The sole purpose of the school is to churn out programmers who aren’t afraid to innovate in a “stagnant French economy,” the New York Times reported this weekend.
The operation is fully funded by multi-billionaire Xavier Niel (see photo above), who made his fortune in telecommunications. Niel is known for doing things his own way and shaking up industries. He got his start by launching and selling a sex chat service. He invested in France’s first ISP in 1995 and cashed out just before the dot-com bubble burst. He created Free, another French ISP, in 1995, low-balling the competition by bundling multiple services. He even owns partial rights to the Sinatra-popularized song My Way.
The French education establishment, being the latest target of Niel’s hit-’em-in-their-blind-spot approach to business, are skeptical about 42. The head of France’s largest university educators union, for example, was cited as calling 42 shortsighted, reductive, and too concerned with “short-term technological advances.”
Other French have expressed optimism. So goes national debate. At the very least, maybe Niel can treat 42 (which he singlehandedly funded for its first ten years to the tune of USD $94 million) as a talent factory for some of the 100 startups he helps to angel-fund every year through Kima Ventures.
*In the Douglas Adams “trilogy of five novels” The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “42” is “The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.”