Industry Veterans Partner to Create a School for Software Engineers


holberton-logoWe are surrounded by IP devices. Look around, and you will see that most devices have an IP address — everything is getting smaller, and everything is getting hooked to the Internet. As more and more companies are using IT in their products, it’s creating a huge demand for software engineers. It is estimated that, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million open jobs and only 400,000 computer sciences students to fill them.

The question is whether our education system is prepared to address this demand. Soon we may face a talent crisis. A recent Linux Foundation report stated that the demand for Linux skills is growing at an unprecedented rate. The traditional systems are not adequate, argues Julien Barbier, co-founder and CEO of the newly announced Holberton School.

The Traditional Model

Barbier argues that traditional schools are great at teaching theory, but students don’t get much hands-on training. And, in the process, students spend almost fours years in college just to learn theory. When they go out to find jobs, companies that hire them first need to train them. These companies make a bet — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

The problem with online courses, even those as highly regarded as HarvardX, is that the dropout rate is very high. Bootcamps seem to be a solution, but these are short-term courses suitable for those who are thinking of switching careers. You can’t become a software engineer in three months; it’s really hard. Organizers of such bootcamps are aware of the limitations so they select only those students who are graduates. Thus, a potential software engineer, who already spent 4 years getting a degree, goes to bootcamp to learn a very specific technology, not a broad range of skills.

Holberton School Enters the Picture

That’s where Barbier believes the Holberton School can address the problem. According to the company, a group of industry veterans from Apple, Docker, and LinkedIn have come together to solve this talent crisis. They have started a new San Francisco-based school that offers an alternative to college, online courses, and coding bootcamps.

The school aims at training high-quality, full-stack software engineers in two years by using a project-based and peer learning system already proven in Europe. One of the core parts of the curriculum is hands-on project-based studies. When students come to school they can work on their own project or ideas; they can build a product while studying. The school offers a six-month internship with companies in the middle of the course. But, if a student has already developed a product, they can create a startup instead of doing an internship.

The project has raised $2 million in seed money — led by Trinity Ventures (Dan Scholnick; board of directors, Docker and New Relic) — and including Jerry Yang (co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo!), Partech Ventures, Solomon Hykes (co-founder of Docker), and Jonathan Boutelle (co-founder of Slideshare).

The Holberton school will waive all fees for the inaugural students — they won’t have to pay any tuition for the two-year course. The first class will have 32 students, and it starts in January 2016. When I pressed about the fee for the next class, Barbier said that their goal is to make this as affordable as possible, so they will work with partners to make the next class free, if possible. However, he added that it may be too early to say anything. It may be free; it may be not.

It’s All about Open Source

On the first day of the school, students get their PCs in pieces; they have to build their computer, then install and configure Ubuntu Linux. In the first month, students focus on low-level C programming with Linux, exclusively. “We have a lot of open source projects in our curriculum, and students will also have to contribute to an open source project of their choice,” said Barbier.

“During the first year we give them projects to do. Then, starting month 4 to 9, they can replace one of our projects with theirs. In the second year, they have a lot of time to build their own products if they decide to do so, or they can work part time instead for the internship. If they have developed a product, they can do their startup if they want,” said Barbier.

Another interesting angle is that during their first year at school all projects except their own, if they decide otherwise, must be open sourced online on the repository of their choice (such as GitHub).

“Open source is a great option for teaching students because it not only helps you in building new skills as as software engineers, but also you know how to communicate with your peers. You have to understand how the team is working among many things. So I think open source is a great way to learn software engineering,” added Barbier.

Because the Linux Foundation also runs many specialized courses, I asked whether the school had any plans to collaborate with the Foundation. I was told that, although they are in touch with the Linux Foundation, it’s too early to comment on it.