Max Senges, CEO and Headmaster 42 Wolfsburg / Berlin © Lexmouth

17 February 2023

“Our approach, our pedagogy is designed for cooperation rather than competition.”

To become a software engineer, there’s usually a pre-defined path that leads through traditional higher education institutions. At 42, things are done a little differently: Embracing a strictly peer-learning approach, the private, non-profit, tuition-free IT school welcomes students from all walks of life with an appetite for coding to study at one of the 47 schools in the 42 Network all over the world. The name 42 is a tribute to – you guessed it – the cult classic “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'' and was coined and founded by French entrepreneur Xavier Niel ten years ago.

To find out more about their venture’s DNA, their innovative approach to learning and their strong focus on software engineering for automotive and mobility ecosystems, we sat down with Dr. Max Senges, CEO and Headmaster of 42 Wolfsburg and 42 Berlin, at their newly opened school in Berlin’s Neukölln district. 

First off: Your school here in Berlin is located at Harzer Straße 42. Was that on purpose or a coincidence that you picked that number?

There is no such thing as coincidence in the universe. It all happens for a reason. We happened to find the spot in Harzer Straße 39-42 and of course, when we noticed, we decided that our part of the building must be number 42. 

So let’s talk about 42 Berlin. Could you please quickly introduce yourself, talk a bit about where you're coming from and how the idea for the 42 schools was set up?

42 is of course the answer to the question for the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and was founded by a bunch of French software engineers, who observed that the academic training in computer science is not necessarily adequate if you want to become a really good software engineer. There is a lot of theory, there are a lot of academic traditions that don’t make it as fluid and fun to become a good software engineer. 

So, they set up the first 42 school in Paris in 2013 with the idea to learn how technologists always learn, and that is by pursuing an idea, trying things out, asking their friends why something is not working, and learning from each other. And in the end, they defined a peer-learning curriculum on a Bachelor/Master's level. So, we offer a core curriculum that takes about 12 to 18 months to get through and several advanced specialization tracks that take you to a level that is equal to a Master’s degree. You can imagine it as a series of coding projects that start really easy, so you can actually start without any prior knowledge. From day one, you're in front of the command prompt in your coding environment producing the first Hello World. And then every day it gets a little bit more difficult. 

And the learning happens, of course, when you're in school with your fellow students, when you're trying to figure things out, connecting the dots, understanding stuff from YouTube videos, from things you read online, and most importantly asking, experimenting and discussing with your peers, doing things together. Instead of “consuming” lectures at school, you're actually seeking and sharing knowledge with each other. 

One of the moments of truth and deep learning are peer-evaluations. So, your peers, your fellow students are testing your code, but they also give you the opportunity to learn how to explain your code and (in the role of the evaluator) to ask meaningful questions. This way our students really get together and develop a shared understanding. It turns out that that model works really really well. So well, that now there are 47 42 schools all over the world – in Tokyo, in Sao Paulo, in Morocco and Finland, and about 18,000 students are learning how to code with that method. 

That’s a real success story. How are the schools funded in the different countries and cities?

They have all kinds of funding models. Some are funded by the ministries of education of their country, some are funded by philanthropists, some are funded by industry. In our case, we are a charitable, not-for-profit – a German “gemeinnütziger Verein” – that is funded mainly by Volkswagen and CARIAD, who have an intense desire to hire the next generation software engineers, but we also get funding for example from Microsoft, SAP, T-Systems, Capgemini and Bayer, for that matter. 

So far it has been a great ride, both in Berlin, where we opened the school in December 2022, as well as in Wolfsburg, where we opened in spring of 2021. Both schools have a capacity of 600 students, together with Heilbronn, the third school in Germany, that makes 1800 spots in total. That’s not enough to solve the skilled labour shortage of the German industry, but certainly a possibility to show how scalable cutting-edge training can be done and most importantly, how student-centered training of self-determined software engineers can be done. 

How does your peer-learning approach set itself apart from the, let’s say, more traditional forms of education?

Because we don't have professors, we don't have the focus on their interests and the professor-centered governance and incentives that traditional universities have. We can really provide an environment that is student-centered at all times. 

Also I think we are very attractive to students who appreciate diversity. Everything is in English, which means that we have more than 30 nationalities and a very colorful community - including more than 30% female learners. So, we are saying you get out of the 42 training not only knowing C and tech, but also ready to self-organize your work internationally with a fluency in English as well as a diverse set of soft skills. 

Our students decide their specialization path after the core curriculum. First they do a six-month internship and after that about two thirds get a job offer already. Luckily, not everybody takes that offer, because we have a whole second part of the curriculum, which are the specializations or advance tracks. One that we develop exclusively in Wolfsburg and Berlin is Software Engineering in Automotive and Mobility Ecosystems (SEA:ME), which also has a part that is about machine learning and AI - you guessed it, autonomous driving. But there are also specializations in six other fields from operating system development to cybersecurity, gaming, mobile development and machine learning.

Wow, that's quite a lot that you offer in terms of career paths. Is the curriculum standardized across all schools?

The core curriculum is 100% the same all over the world. When it comes to the specializations, the schools can decide which branches they want to promote amongst their students, but all projects are available to the students all over the world, so they all go through the same quality checks. In some countries the curriculum has already been certified up to a Bachelor’s and a Master's level. That depends on how long the schools have been around and whether the Ministry of Education was involved or not. We have very consciously decided not to go down that path, at least for the start. Rather than bending to the regulations that make up higher education and break down our innovative approach, we want to prove the feasibility of the idea of not having professors and not having lectures to politicians and higher education experts. 

It all sounds like a very open approach to teaching. Are the 42 schools open to everyone and how do you get in?

One thing that's important is that we are, I think, one of the most accessible higher education communities, which means that you don't need to show any certificate to start. All you need to be is 18 or older. We have folks who have no basic education, we have folks that had to leave all their documentation in the countries that they fled from. That’s no problem, because everybody can register on our website, do a two-hour algorithmic thinking test to show that you have the drive to try, problem-solve and figure things out on the fly and pass to the next level. If you do well in that test, we invite you to study with us for one month as a test trial. And that basically goes in both directions. A good part of the students, about a third, decides that either the peer-learning method or coding is not for them. And from those who continue to the end, we take about half of the students. But really, we just look at their progress. How is their engagement, their commitment? And then we select those, who we believe will be successful studying with us. Meaning that we go from several thousand who register to about 450 students every six months that we select for the trial month. And from that, we select about 150 to start with us. 

This sounds a bit like a counterpart to the traditional higher education models.

Indeed, academia always has something elitist and then only the best get selected to work with the professor, etc. There is no such thing here. And it leads to a really incredible mix of people. People have all kinds of backgrounds, beliefs, genders, interests and I think that our approach really prepares you well for the real professional world. 

You also learn how to own your projects. You have to solve the problems. No professor to ask, you have to find solutions and drive them forward. So next to the tech capabilities, it is really the 42 mindset that is quite good for the people themselves, most importantly, but also for our partners and other future employers. They want people, who think for themselves, tackle problems and own them until they solve them. 

The collaborative aspect is really important here, right?

Students actually came up with the saying that not being social is not an option when you study at 42. So especially for those who are more introverted, who might be really good on the tech side, but not so much on the social side, it's a really nice environment, because obviously people love the expertise the introvert techies have, and they really gain from the positive peer environment. So, I think you're right. Our set-up, our approach, the pedagogy is designed for cooperation rather than competition. 

You talked about peer learning just a bit. Here in Germany, there are certain offers you can find, but it doesn’t seem like a huge thing in Germany. Do you agree?

It’s not necessarily a huge mainstream thing anywhere. If you are in the education field, of course you heard that e-learning or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are “the” thing that's going to change everything. I've been around long enough to assess that peer learning is not going to change everything, but educators are learning something every time. I think the insight that is important about the peer learning approach is experimentation and playfulness: It's that you're learning for yourself, not for or a degree. The pedagogy term is “mastery learning”. You're learning because you want to be able to do something, not to have a plaque that you can put on the wall and say, look, I have a diploma of sorts. And that, I think, is really important. 

Is there any kind of success story you want to share that you already see developing?

Remember it’s early days, but a few things come to mind. First, the B4T2 is a generative AI project that came out of the architecture of the building and having the opportunity of a room there that wasn't good for anything, we said, okay, we consider our schools “learning space ships” and so how do we bring that spaceship metaphor to life? All good science fiction movies have an AI in the spaceship that plays a significant role. So we basically got together with some old Google-X colleagues and thought, okay, what would be a good way of prototyping that and setting it up so that we can open source as much as possible of it and then open it to our students and the broader community. So, a small team worked together for half a year putting together GTP-3 in the backend combined with Google voice-to-text and text-to-voice interface as well as the Unity Game engine, which made it really easy to prototype and give the AI a character. Our character is somewhat amorphous, so here it is a bear for Berlin, but it also has features of the Depressed Robot from The Hitchhiker's Guide. Again, this is about combining playfulness, exploration and prototyping. 

Secondly, I would love to talk about our strategic partnership that we just announced recently with the Eclipse Foundation. For almost all projects that we do we love open source, because it's best for our students. They can take their code, they can learn from other people's code. They can show how they commit to actual projects when they get involved in those open source environments. And the Eclipse Foundation, Europe's biggest open source foundation and project environment, has launched a program called Software-defined Vehicle (SDV) where more and more of the big players, namely Bosch, Microsoft, but also Mercedes Benz and CARIAD, but also many mid-sized players like Electrobit, are coming together to develop software that is not a market differentiator, but needs solid technology and needs to be maintained all the time. So you share the burden. You bring together the expertise of your various teams to produce good solutions. Through the partnership we take the open innovation that's happening at Eclipse and then translate those projects into peer-training projects, thereby allowing the next generation of software engineers to learn those cutting edge technologies. 

That’s great to hear, actually, that it got such an acceptance with the big companies, but also medium sized ones. 

We are still at the beginning of the mobility sector embracing open source (and open standards) for that matter. It's a bit scary for them, because you're not in control of everything. But there's so many benefits, especially around safety and security that I think it's a very promising path. And I hope we see not just German engineering, but European and Western engineering at its best, taking us to the next generation of electrified and more and more autonomous vehicles. 

Let’s get back to Berlin: What’s so exciting about the city also in terms of the wider AI community and ecosystem?

Berlin has a thriving startup scene, with many AI startups emerging in recent years. It offers an excellent supportive environment for startups, with many accelerators, incubators, and coworking spaces available to help these companies grow and thrive. This, combined with significant public and private investments in AI research and development, has helped to create a strong ecosystem for AI innovation in Berlin.

Overall, the combination of top education and research as well as a talented software development community and a thriving startup scene make Berlin an exciting hub for the wider AI community and ecosystem.

So, what’s next on the list for 42 in Germany? Do you plan to branch out further?

That is a good, reasonable question. In France, there are seven 42 schools now. So, in the right environment, with the right momentum, it definitely makes sense to grow more in Germany. Right now we think that with three schools in Germany, the market is satisfied. Right now we are getting a good amount of applications and our mission is to establish the existing schools; to show good results, show how good the talent is that's coming out of 42. Of course especially for our partner companies that are competing to hire our students. But in a way, once we become a household name and people know that this option of learning at 42 exists, I think there is a potential for more schools.

Thanks for your time and the interesting insights.