Disruptive French entrepreneur will train programmers for free

Dissatisfied with public schools' quality and private schools' cost, Xavier Niel has created a free school for programmers

Xavier Niel, the founder of disruptive French ISP and mobile operator Free, is setting up a training school for programmers.

There won't be any classes: training will be based on a series of projects.

And there won't be any school fees either: Niel is personally financing the school, called simply 42.

The biggest problem the IT industry faces today is recruiting talented developers who can create innovative products, Niel said in an open letter on the school's website. The French education system isn't producing enough of them because universities, while free and open to all, are not responding to industry's needs, while private schools are often expensive and tend to exclude many of the most talented students, he wrote.

That prompted Niel to turn to Nicolas Sadirac, founder of Epitech, a network of 12 private French IT schools, with a view to emulating Epitech's project-based training -- but without the tuition fees. Niel made a similarly disruptive entry into the dial-up ISP market years ago, charging no monthly subscription for his service, following it up with a low-cost broadband offering and, more recently, the launch of a mobile network that has forced competitors to dramatically lower their prices.

To enter Niel's new school, would-be students aged between 18 and 30 will be asked to solve a series of procedural logic puzzles. The top 4,000 candidates will spend a month at the school in a sink-or-swim test to identify those with the most motivation and potential. The school will then admit 1,000 of them to its three-year course on Nov. 1.

Niel and his co-founders Sadirac, Kwame Yamgnane and Florian Bucher are fans of Douglas Adams, author of a series of novels beginning with "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy." In Adams' work the school's name, 42, is "the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything."

Unlike Academy Cube, another recent initiative to train more programmers, 42 is not an online-only institution. Students will have 24-hour access to the facilities of a 4,200 square meter building called the Heart of Code -- a reference to the improbable spaceship on which Adams' protagonists travel, the Heart of Gold.

The choice of site is ironic, given Niel's complaints about the relevance of French education to industry's needs. The building, at 96 boulevard Bessiè²¥s on the northwestern edge of Paris, used to house a government agency responsible for organizing internships in industry for science and technology teachers.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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