Money Matters

Grads of LifeVoice: Stepping Up To Tackle Education Access And Diversity In Tech


America finds itself in an interesting situation today: big and small companies alike are in need of engineering talent; the American education system can’t scale or produce talent fast enough; and immigration restrictions make pulling outside talent in quite difficult. In the words of the British, “Oh pants.”

Despite this, companies continue to rely on the higher education system to produce the engineering talent the industry needs, but there’s an increasing skills gap, a demand for diversity, and a structural limitation on the part of higher education to scale to meet industry demand. As a result, some companies have begun looking beyond the traditional education system to find talent. That hasn’t necessarily been the most successful.

So who’s solving the problem?

Google’s answer was pledge money to education. Amazon’s approach was demand access to huge tech talent pools for HQ2. While both approaches are arguably smart on the part of each company, neither will develop deep, sustainable, and diverse talent pipelines that have the skills companies are looking for in the time frame in which they need talent.

There is, however, one non-profit that is addressing diversity, education access, talent pipelines, and the skills gap in a scalable manner such that it can produce developer and engineering talent ready for the workforce – and at speed too. The answer is 42. (I hope you caught that reference to the meaning of life!).

42 Silicon Valley is America’s best software engineering program: it’s rigorous, takes 3-5 years to complete, and puts bootcamps to shame. But that’s just the beginning. 42 doesn’t charge tuition; it offers free dorms; and there are no teachers, classes, courses, or lectures. Yes, it is free and it offers free accommodation: i.e. it’s removed barrier to engineering education and made it accessible. Similar to Khan Academy, 42 uses learning by doing in a gamified system where students control what they learn, when they learn, and how they learn. The complex, rigorous, and flexible curriculum isn’t bound by time and uses problem-based learning and peer-correcting to nurture an awesome learning community. Further still, admission is based on merit instead of test scores, GPA, grades, and extracurricular activities.

It’s not too good to be true, as Mason Young will attest. Mason is an engaging, enthusiastic, and incredibly bright student; he’s social, animated, and full of interesting stories and facts about the world. His curiosity is contagious and his enthusiasm for life genuine. He has a passion for coding and for years considered it a lost hobby. He began a degree in computer science at his local college after graduating high school, but dropped out before graduating, bored by the monotony of lectures and burdened by student debt. How many Masons do you know?

One day, Mason was on a bus where, in typical Mason fashion, he struck up a conversation with the stranger sitting next to him called Bob. Bob told Mason about 42 Silicon Valley where learning was project-based and students spent most days coding and learning by making. A few weeks later, Mason boarded a bus to San Francisco and became a student at 42. As with hundreds of other students, Mason wouldn’t be at 42 unless it was free. “I just couldn’t afford more college.” He’ll tell you that and a whole lot more in his short interview (worth the watch – he’s a character!).

Mason is one of many students at 42 who wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t free. He’s also one of many who is a college dropout who thrives in a hands-on, challenging academic environment. The 42 community is one of the most diverse tech communities in the nation because it removed three large barriers to education: tuition, housing, and navigating the admissions process. What a surprise: when you remove barriers, a wide array of socio-economic and demographic populations now have access to education and the resulting student population is diverse. At 42, the doors are open, the opportunity is there, you just have to make the effort.

42 doesn’t have any teachers and has changed the structure of knowledge transfer, so it’s a scalable model. It can educate 3,000 students with around 25 employees, total. Add another building and it could educate 10,000 with a staff of 30-35. The average cost per student per year would be around $1200: given that recruiting an engineer costs $50K and acqui-hiring one costs $1 million, Amazon could invest a little and get a huge return.

This is the part where Amazon wakes up and realizes a large part of the engineering talent pipeline could effectively come from 42. It’s no mystery that Amazon needs 50,000 developers and is struggling to source them. Traditional colleges and universities can’t scale and educate software engineers fast enough and Amazon can’t ‘import’ them easily. It’s also a matter of time: Amazon needs them sooner rather than later. Can they afford to wait 6 years until a student completes a Masters of Computer Science? Here again 42 has solved issues: learning at 42 isn’t bound by time since there aren’t any classes or courses. Students could complete the entire program in a year and a half, though most take 3 years. The fact that students can complete a masters-level program in 3 years at 42 means Amazon could actually fill its software engineer pipelines.

But it’s not just about numbers. Because 42 is free, offers free dorms, and uses merit-based admissions, its population is actually diverse: not just demographically diverse, but also in terms of experience, background, and ways of thinking. What tech company doesn’t want diversity?!

Hiring for engineer jobs isn’t just about filling positions. It’s about quality talent too. While 42 students learn how to code from the ground up and could learn just about any programming language in two weeks, what they really learn is problem solving, creativity, adaptability, collaboration, and how to learn. The system is designed to develop real-world 21st-century skills that companies want and that provide long-term value for actually solving problems and creating innovation.

So in short, 42 is tackling diversity in the tech world, education access, the skills gap, and could be the answer to Amazon’s need for 50,000 developers. It’s no surprise that Tesla is about to become 42’s neighbors two doors down: perhaps they caught on to Silicon Valley’s as yet best kept secret.

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