Back in October 2016, James Aylor was scraping by, delivering pizza in Kansas City, having dropped out of college, abandoning his dream of teaching viola. "The voice in my head said, 'You have no career. No future,' " he says.
Then a friend mentioned he had heard about a new, tuition-free coding school 1,800 miles away in Fremont, CA. Named 42, it required no computer skills or even a high school diploma, and dorm rooms were free. "I said, 'Yeah, whatever, ha ha, free,' " recalls Aylor, now 30. Still, he decided he had "absolutely nothing to lose." He sold his car and bought a plane ticket west.
When I meet Aylor a little more than two years later, he is in northern Paris, strolling through the lobby of the original 42 school, of which Fremont is an offshoot. The radical educational experiment is geared to solving the tech industry's chronic shortage of skilled programmers. With his pizza gig a distant memory, Aylor says he is now juggling potential jobs, weighing whether to join a company when he graduates this summer or launch a startup. "There are so many possibilities," he says.
Back in 2013, I visited 42 for Fortune as its first batch of students was moving in—literally: Many had arrived in Paris with no money, rolling out sleeping bags in 42's factory-style campus. Takeout cartons and beer bottles littered the rooms. Standing amid the tumult, 42's founder, billionaire telecom exec Xavier Niel—one of the richest people in France—was thrilled. "We'll have some impact," he told me then.
Niel's brazen idea drew from his own experience. With no college degree, he taught himself coding and created programs (including a sex-chat app he sold for about $50 million) on France's pre-Internet Minitel service. He went on to found the publicly traded group Iliad, parent of the low-cost telecom company Free, and in 2017 opened the giant tech incubator Station F in eastern Paris. Niel, now 51, says he was increasingly convinced that France's traditional education ("the worst!" he says) boxed kids into preordained tracks, leaving them bored and uninspired; he felt the effects in his own companies.
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