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No teachers and no degrees; learning with a French twist at this coding school

PARIS – There are no tuition fees, no lectures, nor professors at Singaporean undergraduate Brian Young's coding school in Paris, and neither does it hand out diplomas or degrees.

Mr Brian Young, who took up coding lessons at 42, a coding school in Paris.

Mr Brian Young, who took up coding lessons at 42, a coding school in Paris.

PARIS – There are no tuition fees, no lectures, nor professors at Singaporean undergraduate Brian Young's coding school in Paris, and neither does it hand out diplomas or degrees.

But Mr Young, 29, is fully competent in computer programming and coding after three years at 42, the school founded by French billionaire businessman Xavier Niel, and whose name was inspired by cult science fiction novel, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Despite its unorthodox methods, the school's graduates often go on to launch their own start-ups, or find jobs in the industry.

The first and only Singaporean to enrol at 42's Paris campus – there is another 42 in Silicon Valley, United States – Mr Young applied to the school in 2014 after learning about it online. He had earlier given up his place at the National University of Singapore's School of Computing to work at local startup Numoni, a financial technology firm.

He said: "42 was very interesting to me because it was based in Paris, and does hands-on learning which I'm a fan of… I didn't know what I was going to find there, but it would at the very least be interesting and not boring."

The coding school was set up by Mr Niel, founder of French internet service provider and mobile operator Iliad, in 2013, because he felt that the French education system was not working as it kept many from taking up programming due to their family backgrounds.

Like in the novel, where a supercomputer found that 42 was the answer to life, the universe and everything, Mr Niel's solution was his school, 42, which has about 4,000 students and is fully funded by the telco tycoon.

It receives about 80,000 applicants every year, and only 1,000 are admitted annually.

It took Mr Young about four months to secure a place, with the process beginning with an online logic test. Once shortlisted, he flew to Paris to complete a month-long piscine (French for swimming pool), which involved a series of coding marathons to evaluate how he worked with his peers.


A concrete and steel structure located in the North of Paris, 42's computer labs are where many of the students spend the majority of their school hours.

There are no report cards, but once students like Mr Young are logged in, they can track their progress through a system known as the Holy Graph. Similar to the different difficulty levels in a video game, it reflects the 21 levels of project work students have to complete before they can graduate.

Individual and group projects are designed by the school or private companies, and unlike conventional schools, their projects are reviewed and corrected by their peers who determine if they pass or fail.

Some of 42's interesting quirks include a pop-up message that appears on computer screens on the third floor lab if it gets too noisy, and students can earn points for helping review projects. The points can be used to purchase fun benefits, and Mr Young spent his on a personal soundtrack – from James Bond or Mission Impossible movies – which fires up when he walks past the school's security entrance.

There are, however, still some school rules to follow. Students caught eating in front of the computers could find themselves scrubbing the toilets for a week, for instance.

With no teachers at the labs, what happens when students run into problems while working on their projects? Google is the answer, or they can look up solutions on the school forum, and seek help from those who have worked on the project.

Mr Young added: "How much I want to learn from this school is how much effort I want to put in. If I want to keep Googling about how to develop Android applications for example, I can be as good an Android app developer as I want to be, depending on how much effort I put into developing that skillset."


Mr Young, who is at Level 20 and is back in Singapore for his internship with Insas Technology Berhad, a software and systems firm, said it took him "a lot of persistence" to reach this level. Most students graduate in three years, though it may take up to five years or more for some.

As students do not pay tuition, motivation can be an issue, and Mr Young said he had to manage group mates who were not always as determined to finish the projects or the programme. He also had to deal with peers who did not review projects thoroughly, which affected his learning.

He added that 42 is "not necessarily suited for every student", and that those without much experience in computer programming would learn more here.

Hailing from Singapore's education system, Mr Young found the French school's culture "refreshing", adding that no one at 42 cares about educational backgrounds.

"It doesn't matter where you are from, it's what you are doing here that matters. Some here have tattoos, some have funky hairstyles, some wear funky clothes, and that's okay, that's fine."

While he is undecided about which of the two countries' systems is better at grooming innovators and start-up talents, he said 42 taught him to be resourceful, and gave him the freedom to decide his own learning path. Singapore universities, on the other hand, provide a good foundation in programming, he said.

But 42's biggest lesson to students like Mr Young is something less tangible. Recalling what he told one of the co-founders after his first week in school, he said: "42 isn't necessarily strictly about learning to code alone, it's about teaching you how to learn, and that's a valuable skill that Singapore schools don't teach."

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