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Q&A: Sylvain Kalache of Holberton School Talks Training the Next Generation of Software Engineers

Interview 

As software continues to eat the world and computing shifts more and more to the cloud, entire industries are getting turned upside down. Uber pioneered ride-sharing at scale, not GM. In a just few short years, Airbnb dominates home-sharing at scale, not Marriott. Today the world is about digital transformation whether you are a disrupter or fighting back with technology to protect your business. Both dynamics are driving exploding demand for digital talent, the full-stack software engineers who power disruption. But there are not nearly enough engineers to go around anymore. Where will we get new engineers?

Engineers building our cloud are constantly challenged by new innovation that will make their infrastructure more flexible and resources efficient. Since Amazon AWS launched a decade ago, it has slashed pricing 51 times! As the need for software engineers capable of designing, building and managing these infrastructures explodes, higher education, which is trying to train many of these engineers, is stuck in the 19th century.

Holberton School in San Francisco is among a new breed of programs training the next generation of software engineers. It's neither a traditional college nor a short coding camp. The two-year program is project-based with no teachers that encourages students to work together. It charges no tuition. Students who get jobs pay back a percentage of their income over three years. They're already placing students in jobs and internships at Apple, Dropbox, Docker and NASA.

I recently caught up with school co-founder Sylvain Kalache, a former LinkedIn engineer, to learn more.

VMblog:  How is software engineering different today than when you started your career?

Sylvain Kalache:  Cloud engineers have to be able to use tools that are constantly evolving, even in production. As Solomon Hykes, CTO of Docker, explains -- some products cannot have heavy standards because it would slow down their innovation. Rapid change and innovation is just becoming the standard. He has personally invested in Holberton School, which is focusing on teaching students problem solving skills and to learn how to learn, so that students are ready to work right out of the program and can continue to grow their skills after graduation. The school also makes sure that the curriculum stays up to date with the latest trends in the cloud industry by collaborating with our impressive list of mentors -- professionals working in the tech industry.

VMblog:  What's wrong with college?

Kalache:  The industry is suffering from colleges who don't know how to properly teach software engineering students. According to a recent survey, 53% of the software engineers feel that their IT skills are behind the curve, and because companies cannot hire the right talent, they have to invest tons of money in internal training in order to keep their workforce up-to-date. However, the founders and mentors at these alternative institutions, like Holberton, all have experience in the evolving market and, therefore, know what skills it takes to be a software engineer in modern business. These programs, already proving to be successful, just go to show that maybe it's time to shake up traditional teaching methods, particularly when it comes to training the next generation of software engineers.

VMblog:  How is your program structured differently than traditional college courses or programs?

Kalache:  Rote memorization curriculum dominates college coursework today, where students are listening to "experts" (teachers). Most of the time these teachers are not current and are sharing knowledge on technologies that are out of date. Once they graduate from college, graduates are not only unprepared to be productive, companies need to retrain them. Worse, the graduates have not developed their own creativity or the ability to learn on their own. In college, knowledge is handed to students on a silver platter; students had to learn it and then spit it out weeks later for the interview. In the business world, they need to stay on top of what is current in the industry, and more critically, they need to be innovative in order to beat the competition.

With no formal instruction, our school's objective is to teach students how to learn both on their own and from peers, similar to what occurs at an office. The course is split into three parts: Nine months of training on software engineering fundamentals, a six month internship and nine more months focused on specialization. The school launched with a small cohort of 32 students and offered free tuition. Newer students who don't pay upfront tuition are now charged a percentage of their salary (17%) after they land a job. We don't care about age, race, gender, past professional experience or school experience. We removed every kind of human bias from the selection process. Instead, candidates are evaluated by how they problem solve, collaborate with others and their eagerness to learn. About 40% of our students are women and more than half are minorities. Students vary in age -- from 18 to 58 -- as well as experience.

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Published Wednesday, December 28, 2016 2:33 PM by David Marshall
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