Learning to code, sans teachers
On any given day across the country, there are over 600,000 openings for technology-related jobs. Over the past few years, training programs called coding boot camps have sprung up to help fill these gaps, but bootcamps are often quick, intensive and expensive.
In the last two years, a new type of training program has emerged in the Bay Area, a model without lectures or even teachers.
I go to Fremont to observe a group of students gathered around one computer monitor. One of the students, Jamie Bouchard, chimes in about algorithms — but I’ll be honest, I have absolutely no idea what she’s talking about. I don’t know the first thing about coding systems or lingo. I'm surprised to find out that four weeks ago, Jamie had the same amount of coding knowledge as I do. Today, Jamie can explain the function of Perl systems and how to program in C language. So how did Jamie learn all of this so quickly? Enter a school known simply as: 42.
42 is a non-profit coding school that started several years ago in Paris, France. In 2016, it opened its first American campus in Fremont. It’s mission is to provide accessible coding education for people of all backgrounds, including Jamie Bouchard, who worked at a garden center and a hospital before this. Bouchard tells me, “As far as actually doing programming, I have literally no experience.”
At 42, students spend a few years learning all sorts of tech languages, and getting internships as computer engineers. Here’s the real kicker - 42 doesn’t charge tuition, and doesn’t ask students to pay back the school when they land a job.
42 is completely funded by a French billionaire named Xavier Niel. He believes that lots of talented programmers exist outside universities, but with 42 he doesn’t believe teachers are necessary. Instead, 42’s curriculum revolves around “peer learning.”
Students work day in and day out on complex coding puzzles, relying only on their fellow classmates and the internet for help. Chief Operating Officer Brittany Bir says everyone at 42 functions as both a student and a teacher, and often poses the question: “What happens when problems arise in real start ups?”
“You're going to reach out to your friends. You're going to reach out to those you had worked with originally. You're going to reach out to other experts in that community,” Bir says. “And then if all else fails, Google is your best friend.”
This learning style is perfect for students like Sino Olabi, who says he always felt like he couldn’t ask college professors everything he wanted. At 42, Olabi says if he gets stuck, he can “get all of my questions answered by somebody else who might have the answer without feeling like they're above me” and that approaching people here is really comfortable.
Part of the reason for this comfort is that 42 prioritizes providing free dorms for out-of-state students, and also encourages an active student life away from computers. Students form their own organizations like Bicycle Club, Rock Climbing Club, and even Yo-yo Flow Club.
After hanging out at 42, I go to visit another program focusing on peer learning: Holberton School in San Francisco. But my first taste of Holberton has nothing to do with coding; the school also focuses on developing its student’s soft skills through assignments like blog writing, mock interviewing, and public speaking. When I visit, I first see a student practicing by giving a presentation on her life prior to coding: coffee.
Now beyond their lack of formal teaching curriculum, there’s an interesting connection between 42 and Holberton School - both of their founders are French. So I wondered if there was some European educational philosophy about peer learning? It turns, there is.
In the late 19th century, a movement called progressive education advocated learning by doing. Holberton School’s co-founder Sylvain Kalache says students learn “by grabbing pieces of information that are accessible to them all around them, so it could be books, it could be work mates, could be classmates.”
Sylvain is driven to help solve two big issues in tech: a lack of qualified software engineers, and a lack of diversity. Just a year in, he says Holberton’s latest batch had more women than men, and about 40% people of color.
Students at both Holberton and 42 hail from a wide range of backgrounds and even different countries, like India and Russia. The programs build on the reality that students have no choice but to lean on each other for support. Coding is the language and culture they have in common.
“When I first met everybody and saw that they were just as motivated as I was, I was actually a little disappointed like oh shoot you know I'm not as special as I thought,” says Holberton student Mason Fish. “This quickly went away because I realized how much how much value it is and finding other people who are like minded.”
Fish landed an internship with software company, Docker.
In these communities, students naturally learn how to become experts in collaborating.
“When I first thought about what peer learning would be, I thought it would be that I would be learning about computer science from my peers — and that is partially true. But I think that what you're learning with that peer learning environment is actually how to work with other people,” Fish says. “That is so practical to the work environment.”
I wondered how valuable skills like peer learning and collaboration were to tech recruiters?
“Communication is always one of the number one things that hiring managers are looking for, an ability to communicate both in verbal communication and written communication,” says JessicaStielau with The Sourcery, a recruiting agency. “They're not just saying, ‘Can you write in complete sentences?’ but they're also saying, ‘Can you communicate a complex idea in a way that other people can understand?’.”
Stielau works with software engineering candidates from both traditional and nontraditional backgrounds. She says “Really good hiring managers and recruiters look for somebody who has the ability to be able to do the job, but not necessarily that they've already done that kind of work before.”
After a little over a year of existence, students at both 42 and Holberton School are getting jobs as full stack engineers at some of the biggest tech names like LinkedIn, Apple, and Dropbox. 42 student Sino Olabi tells me, “You can't just sit down in the lab and expect to absorb this knowledge, you have to actually work for it.”
If you can find others just as motivated as you to learn from, you just might be able to learn anything.