42: It Is What You Make It

The education system has used the same methods of educational delivery for generations. Now, technology has enabled the development and availability of new online courses and tools. Today, we will explore one student’s journey in an entirely new concept of education that leaves all the traditional methods behind. It prepares these students for work as those who develop the backbone software of our systems.

Are you familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy? On a quest to find the answer to what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, a good old computer spits out the answer 42. It’s a wild card answer at the end of the book, but it turns out that 42 is exactly that, a wild card.

That’s what it’s like here at 42, the school for coders founded in 2013 by French billionaire Xavier Niel, along with Florian Bucher, Nicolas Sadirac and Kwame Yamgnane.

There are no teachers, no classes and no supervisors. The curriculum is gamified, and tuition is entirely free. Students can come and go as they please, and even take time off to work and then come back. That is, if they pass the piscine.

First year student Anya Schukin walks me through 42 in Paris, on Boulevard Bessières. Before the building was acquired by Founder Niel, it was a museum of street art. Bought along with the structure, some unique pieces still remain, adding  spirit to the otherwise gray metal and concrete.

Schukin began her journey with 42 when her brother sent her a link. She applied, and passed the first entry test. There’s two rounds of testing all together. First is an online exam that tests memory and logical reasoning skills, and that gets you to the piscine, a month long coding bootcamp.

For my non-French speaking audience, piscine is the French word for pool, like swimming pool. During this bootcamp, applicants are literally thrown into the deep end of  coding, and it’s during one of these piscines that I visit the school.

Schukin estimates that around 20 000 to 30 000 people take the online test, and only 3000 get through. Then there are three piscines over the course of the summer that can each accommodate 1000 students. “It’s famously grueling,” said Schukin, “Every single day of the month students stay between 11 and 15 hours per day. A lot of the students sleep here in the basement.” She adds that it’s only during the piscine that students are allowed to sleep at the school.

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The piscine is basically a computer crash course, no pun intended. As I look around, I notice that some screens are stuck in While Loops, and other students are deep into debugging their programs.  Most applicants have no idea how to code before they arrive at 42.

“Because there are no teachers and there are no classes, it’s really just sink or swim. You are thrown into the deep-end and have to teach yourself how to code,” said Shukin. The entire model of 42 is based on peer to peer learning and gamification, and this is what students are introduced to during the piscine.

“It’s really just sink or swim. You are thrown into the deep-end and have to teach yourself how to code.”

On one student’s computer is a talking head, but I’m informed that this is rare. There are very few directions available when a new project is started, sometimes even as little as one sentence. “The idea is to develop a student who is independent, self motivated and also will seek help from their peers when they need it. We are creating a very self-sufficient group of people,” said Schukin.

Then, Schukin opens a terminal window where she’s logged-in. “The terminal is where every coder first learns to code,” she said. When I ask about the color coding on a student’s terminal, she explains that these students have learned how to enhance their terminal. “Even to get to the point where you have different colors to show you what’s a function and what’s a variable, you have to learn how to install that yourself into your terminal,” she said, and points to another terminal that is black and white.

As Schukin shows me upstairs to the second level, we pass rows of towels that cover every available railing along the staircase. She explained that there’s not usually this many towels, it’s only during the piscine when students are living at the school.

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On the second floor is the first open concrete flooring where students in the piscine are able to camp out with inflatable mattresses. Some mattresses are upright and leaning against the wall to leave room for walking, and others are spread in no particular order and occupied by a sleeping or drowsy student. During this particular piscine, around 400 students are sleeping at the school. Just around the corner is day and night difference in the computer lab where everyone is alert and at work.

The lab is pristine and bustling. At 42, there are three levels of computer labs called clusters. At 330 computers per cluster, there are just under 1000 computers in the building. Since students can come and go as they please, there are anywhere between 3000 and 5000 official students, but not all of them will be active on campus at any given time. In addition to this is a school cat, and Schukin assures that it’s the most loved cat in the world.

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As we tour more of the school, it’s clear that most of the students are French speaking, and male. All students at 42 are between 18 and 30 years old, with about 10-15% female and 10- 15% international. Course material is available in English, and almost everyone speaks English too, said Schukin. Additionally, the majority of debugging advice found online is in English, and it’s beneficial for students to practice the language.

Learning From Failure 

Schukin had no idea what to expect when she entered her piscine. She went in with zero expectations and zero knowledge of coding.

“It was one of the most intense things I’ve ever experienced. It was extremely demanding and very stressful. The hours were insane. I was doing about 16 hours a day and by the end of the month you spend a week in hibernation regaining all of your energy but it was absolutely phenomenal. You push yourself beyond limits you think you have and you discover some pretty fantastic things about yourself. You discover some things about your capacity to learn, your capacity to work, your capacity for failure. There’s a lot of failure in the piscine,” she said.

Each time a student submits a project, it goes through two peer to peer corrections. “If you’ve seen the project before, then your job is to try to break their project to make it crash, or if you have no idea what it is, you say walk me through this and tell me how it works and that’s how you find out a lot about what’s available at the school. You get exposed to a lot of material that you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen for yourself,” she said.

Next, the code is put through the moulinet, the French word for windmill or blender. “So basically you put your code through the blender and it will spit it out as a pass or fail,” she said.

 Navigating The Curriculum 

The student intra, or intranet, is a private network for authorized users only. Even from here, there are no instructions when a student arrives at school and it’s up to them to figure it out.

One of the available windows is a project graph that outlines what a student’s time looks like at 42. The graph resembles an eye, with an inner and outer circle. “Everything on the inside is your first year. So everyone starts here and they choose a branch. This is algorithims and AI and here is systems and security and down here is graphics. I’m on one of the last projects on the branch,” said Schukin.

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Each student is able to choose which branch they would like to pursue, and Schukin knew immediately. “A lot of people express a pretty clear purpose from the get-go, but here’s where you re-code the shell. People who want to re-code the shell, it’s a joke that they like to suffer,” she said, just kidding of course. The shell is the interactive user interface in an operating system, and the layer of programming that understands and executes commands entered.

Other branches have similarly named titles. In second year, students start off with pervasive memory management, recoding a memory elevator named Mala. “If you go up here, you get to famine, pestilence, war and death. These are all re-coding viruses. If you go a little bit to the left, you code your own kernel, so your own operating system,” she said.

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However, despite encounters with famine, pestilance, war and death, it’s motivation that Schukin identifies as the main challenge. “There’s no one standing over you telling you what to do, and to adhere to a deadline. It’s entirely up to you. The school is open 24/7, all the time, so you can come in whenever you want, or not,” she said.

The experience with code is that you fail and fail and fail and fail until you succeed once, and this leveling up is a huge rush, and a rush that we are all familiar with. Gamification is becoming a greater focus across industries, with projected growth from $4.91 billion in 2016 to $11.94 billion in 2021. From virtual and augmented reality to entertainment, and even tech. hardware, it’s the gaming industry that really identifies whether the consumer market will adopt a certain product or practice.

It makes sense for the education system to adopt similar methods. Gamification works because it triggers positive user experiences. Done correctly, it taps into our natural competitive nature with shorter tasks and a reward based system. In this case, accomplishing a task and publicly leveling up by completing one project and moving on to another. That brings us to the next point that is a step away from the traditional at 42.

Access to Information 

In the student portal, Schukin opens the profile of one of her friends. She can see all information related to his work at 42 from grades to when he checks in and out each day. Lately, he’s been clocking an average of about 15 hours a day at school. “Yes, he’s a machine,” said Shukin.

If she wants to find out who a person is, Schukin can click on their profile and see what they’ve done, how often they come to school, what their level is, and their estimated program duration. This can vary widely depending on how long it takes for people to complete their projects.

It’s also possible to see where everyone’s seated. On Shukin’s screen, all her friends are marked in blue, all the pisciners are yellow, and all the green seats belong to students.

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“All the information is available out there. And all of this comes very much in handy,” said Shukin.

This approach to information is a total contrast to how we approach access in the current education system, and even in business structures. I can imagine a workplace portal that openly tracks the progress and status of employees. At 42, it appears to add a healthy sense of competition, carefully molded with peer to peer learning to balance the risk of skill and knowledge hoarding.

Knowing who to go for to ask for help and who stands out with particular talents is another incredibly valuable analysis that is offered by the student intra. Rather than isolate, it opens the network to encourage collaboration and peer to peer outreach.It’s an experiment that appears to be successful in making both the parts (independent students) and the whole (collaborative body) strong. As we see a growth in art collectives and other open collectives across the globe, it’s clear that the desire for collaboration and an open network is there.

Hack Central 

It comes almost as a no brainer to learn that students at 42 try to hack the system on a regular basis, but the school is constantly on the lookout for discrepancies in security. For example, there used to be something called an LDAP search, or user search, and students would store exam answers in their personal information alongside their regular info, and try to extract this during the exam. “They were definitely shot down,” said Shukin.

To combat the constant hacking, 42 has even gamified the hacking experience. They allow for students to find flaws in each other’s desktop security, and if a computer is left open, anyone can get into them and assign punishments.

“So if you leave your computer unattended somebody could troll you in a million ways,” said Shukin.

At the back of the room is a list of other offences that can be assigned punishments.

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“It’s all in good fun,” said Shukin, “It teaches us to keep things secure, that’s kind of fundamental to code. If you leave something vulnerable in your program, someone’s going to come along and hack you.”

Internships And Reputation 

At 42, there are two internships. The first one happens after first year, and about 200 students drop out at this point. A lot of the students are young at 18, 19, 20 years old, and the salary is really appealing to them, said Shukin, but most come back because of the network and experience at 42.

“A lot of people are just excited about the idea of limitless learning at their own pace no matter what direction they choose. It becomes kind of a drug. It’s all the great things about school, but exactly how you want it to be,” she said.

Students can find internships on the school Slack group. Within France, 42 is very highly regarded and companies seek to engage with its students. There’s an amphitheater on campus where speakers come in to talk about anything from AI to blockchain, and companies also offer hackathons as a way to attract students off the campus that requires and access pass for entry.

These hackathons are no walk in the park either. The last hackathon Shukin participated in was centered around the question of how to de-radicalize youth in France, and targeting youth who may fall into this way of life. These solutions are actually implemented too, including numerous social media network chatbots. Winners of the hackathon will recieve either prize money or mentoring to incubate their ideas.

Shukin mentions that once arriving here, she learned that Americans are quite skeptical of free education. Rightly so, as there is a huge increase in online course offered. Some of them are handy, while others certainly deserve skepticism.

In the US, 42 has opened a school strategically located in the Silicon Valley. It took much longer for this school to get started, but now 42, or partnered schools are opening in other areas across the world from the Ukraine, South Africa, Morocco, Amsterdam, Helsinki and in Brussels. Shukin said these schools are funded by other billionaries, or by businesses hoping to back and attract the next generation of elite coders.

Why 42?

Although we’ve already briefly explored the meaning of 42 and its context in Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, you may be curious to find out where this number comes from. Keep in mind that 42 is the asking code for a wild card. This wild card is a small star like symbol, this one: *.

When a computer runs through code, it will interpret it in a variety of different ways. “It basically means anything you want it to be. Any variable, any word, it can have infinite meanings or just one,” said Shukin.

“So what is the meaning of life, it is whatever you make of it. It’s a wild card, and that’s very much like everyone’s experience at 42. You can stay at 42 for a month and drop out, or you can make it into whatever you want it to be. Everyone is your student, everyone is your teacher. The possibilities are infinite and it’s really about you to decide,” she said.

The Future Of Code

I find it fascinating when Shukin says the more that she codes, the more she realizes that people are not very good at it.

“There’s a certain level of absolute logic that can be difficult to account for. Ultimately the next challenge will be training machines to code,” she said. Coding after all, is a computer language.

At this point Shukin and I are back the entrance of the school, and she points to a large trophy sitting on top of one of the servers displayed in a large glass enclosure.

“That trophy over there, so apparently one of my friends within 6 months of arriving at school programmed a self-driving car. He says it’s not actually that difficult and he was walking me through the process. Basically, and this is what’s cool about machine learning, is that you start out with a set of 10 000 images and you say this is a road, this is not a road, this is a road, this is a road and the computer takes this as a template, and it starts to go through all the other images on its own, and then it will say, is this a road, and you will say “yes,” and everytime it makes a mistake, you will correct it and basically that’s how you train a computer how to recognize images, ” she said.

Machine learning is all about big data. The more data there is available for a computer to process, the more information it has to analyze for a given set of conditions. In the book World Without End The Existential Threat Of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, Foer traces back to the early days of AI development, to when Google begins the task to quietly scan and upload all books to the internet. It was a Google engineer who admitted “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people. We are scanning them to be read by AI.*”

This type of research has been ongoing for decades, and it was only this morning that TNW announced in an article that Facebook is building an AI tool to help fix code, aptly named SapFix. How this AI is different, is that unlike Facebook’s automated software testing tool Sapienz, SapFix will be able to work independently. Any fixes are sent back to engineers for testing, and once the engineering work is complete, Sapienz and SapFix, both will be released as open sourced tools.

It looks like the future of code is also an area that will be highly automated, but it will take brilliant analysts and coders to continue to build these mechanisms of the future.

The Future of Education 

It was a small scandal when Nicolas Sadriac became one of the founders of 42. He left Epitech, one of the biggest IT higher education institutions in France, and brought most of the coding staff with him.

Perhaps this move was a signal that it’s time for change in the education system. “The traditional ways of thinking are not something we are really attached to,” said Shukin.

Having gone through the school system myself, it’s safe to say that there are many students who pass through the system unprepared for what comes next. At 42, it’s a determined group of individuals who become a part of the student body. While tuition is free, it’s to the student’s own initiative to apply, complete testing phases, and make it happen.

At 42, students are really talented and motivated, and they can handle enormous amounts of failure, said Shukin. As I listen to podcasts with some of the top people in the tech industry,* a common point between all those who have succeeded, is that they are excellent problem solvers, and sometimes in exceptionally creative ways.

The current system doesn’t allow for these creatives bursts. At times it appears as if the school system is similar in construct to the way AI* are taught via machine learning. Data is collected, compared, given a value, and then the computer (or person) bases their answers off these same data sets. This is just like the way the computer in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spits out a defined variable of 42, as it can’t answer for all the unknown variables, so it gives one answer that will fit all, in an acceptable but unsatisfactory way. An education system that accounts for the unknown variables that are each varied individual who pursues education, is one that can make the best of their talents and creative thinking, and problem solving.

Systems like education, healthcare and even government are so ingrained in the structure and infrastructure of our society, that they are some of the most difficult segments to change. However, movements like 42 that are founded on the principles of future and innovation are becoming more common. Whether citizens, or netizens,* thinking critically about the future, and recognizing and overcoming past failures are necessary to progressing.

“We are so far from teaching computers how to code and how to develop programs organically by themselves that it’s a ways away, but once that’s cracked, the nature of human society is going to be completely different. The steps to get there are huge,” said Shukin.

“This school was a vision, and I suppose I’m thinking of how to implement that vision,” she said, and that was the end of my time at 42. It leaves me thinking, what is your vision of the future?

 

By @scifiannemarie

 

 

*P. 55 of World Without End The Existential Threat Of Big Tech

*Podcasts: Thanks @ Danny in The Valley, The Tim Ferris Show, 99% Invisible, Ted Talks Tech and Voices of VR

*To put a spin on ways that AI can evolve, check out this game where AI hire human contractors to help them with certain ‘human’ aspects of projects. It’s a VR narrative-driven comedy-adventure that highlights the different schools of thought from AI, human and code.

*netizens– citizens of the net

 

 

 

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