Complementing a Survey published on 25 July entitled ‘How can France foster and encourage software developers?’, L’Atelier continues its deep dive into the world of coding, programmers, and software developers.
Interview, during a broadcast by L’Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) on the BFM Business channel, with Erwan Kezzar, co-founder of Simplon.co, a pioneering institute which offers six month free training in coding, and Romain Paillard, co-founder of Le Wagon, a centre for intensive training in computer programming.
L’Atelier: Tariq Krim believes that software developers are “the new drivers of the digital ecosystem”. In other words, the image of the developer is taking on a new lustre. Erwan Kezzar, you’re the co-founder of Simplon.co. You offer six-month training courses in computer programming for everyone. What does that involve exactly?
Erwan Kezzar: Well, in fact our training courses have a number of specific features. First of all, Simplon.co is a place for intensive training. We draw inspiration from methods used in some other countries where in nine months people are trained to be operational and ready to do the job of software developer. We do that in six months for people from groups that are under-represented in the field of the Internet and web entrepreneurship – i.e. women, people from working class neighbourhoods, from humble backgrounds, people on minimum social benefits, and so on. Simplon does not only take these types of people, though. We try to take a broad mix of students – from two years before the secondary school leaving exam up to doctorate level – and from 19 to 52 years of age. Simplon’s second key feature is that all these people with potential to learn how to code want to contribute to the general good of society through programming, working for instance in the social economy, the non-profit sector, or in education. Take for example the student who created a mobile app to record the grievances of people living on social housing estates where the estate office isn’t open every day of the week.
So Simplon welcomes people who arrive with an idea for an app and who want to get it working without necessarily having to become a professional programmer in the long term?
Erwan Kezzar: That’s right. There are people who want to become software developers. There are others who want to implement a project of their own although they don’t currently have any capital behind them. When you know how to code, you can build an application and see how it works. And as soon as you start getting results, you can then try to come up with a business model.
Romain Paillard, you’re the co-founder of a programming school called Le Wagon. Do you take the same approach? How do you recruit your students?
Romain Paillard: Yes, Le Wagon takes pretty much the same approach. Le Wagon is a company that I launched with my brother about a year ago. We were inspired by the intensive programming training ‘boot camps’ in the United States. The idea is to take young entrepreneurs and teach them how to code in the most difficult way possible, i.e. for ten hours a day for nine weeks. It’s non-stop. The idea is that you say to entrepreneurs: ″Stop looking for technical partners because you won’t find them. You’ll spend months searching and you won’t get anywhere. Do it yourself. Come and learn to code. Roll your sleeves up. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t leave any bruises. It won’t bite you. At least you’ll be able to develop a prototype, understand your future technical partner, and have a better basis for recruiting your technical staff. You have everything to gain. You’ve learnt a lot of interesting things during your previous studies. Now you need to learn some new things that will stand you in good stead in the future and will be very useful whatever your future plans happen to be.”
Both of your initiatives are fairly recent. Did you decide to launch them because you felt that this was basically the way to go, to raise the profile of computer programmers and in addition demonstrate that everybody could and should do it? Or was it because there were a lot of entrepreneurs out there who didn’t know how to code and couldn’t find programmers?
Romain Paillard: We were talking just now about developers being the drivers of the digital economy. I’ll extend the metaphor a bit. Software developers aren’t actually the drivers of the digital economy, they’re more the ones who’re designing and building the engines of the digital economy. And it will go even further. So the question to ask is whether the developer is really important. And the answer is that in fact s/he’s absolutely essential. This is very clear, and not just for today. S/he’s the one who creates the connected object, the technology, the digital tool. Anyway, we were surrounded by young people telling us that they were looking for a technical programmer, a technical partner, a Chief Technology Officer, and that they were simply fed up of not being able to find anyone. They kept saying: “We’ve got to get to grips with this. We can’t go on like this.”
Erwan Kezzar: As far as I’m concerned, yes, setting up Simplon was partly due to the shortage of software developers and our desire to respond to this need. But quite apart from that, it seems that there’s a problem with startups in France that goes beyond software developers. Initiatives such as [French startup community] French Tech, which provides assistance to startups looking for programming skills demonstrates that the authorities are taking note of the issue, and that there is an understanding that there’s a real need. What’s surprising is the speed with which public opinion has cottoned on to these issues. And we’re also working along these lines.
In actual fact all electronic objects call for programming skills – smartphones, connected objects, today everywhere you look there’s a need to be able to write lines of code. You get the feeling that developers were in fact undervalued for a long time. With the boom in startups it’s very often the people responsible for the commercial or business development area that receive the plaudits, though, and people talk rather less about those who are getting their hands dirty. Or at least we used to talk less about them.
Erwan Kezzar: And yet at the same time everyone is looking for them.
Romain Paillard: The situation has changed a lot. Especially since many entrepreneurs these days are starting to do programming. And quite a long time ago a good number of developers were already starting to set up their own businesses. The developer-entrepreneur does exist and this is in fact the person who makes people dream a bit these days. It’s a little bit like the new Rolling Stones, a new rock star. All of a sudden the entrepreneur who goes out and learns how to programme a computer is becoming a trend that makes perfect sense. There’s a point at which these two types of skills meet. And I would say that this is what we’re doing at Le Wagon and Simplon. It’s about creating this meeting point between communities which are really not all that far away from each other.
And the fact that computer code is nowadays behind every object…is the enthusiasm for connected objects adding to this crying need for developers?
Erwan Kezzar: Connected objects, yes – which means the software plus the hardware. Just as computer code has become more accessible to all, so has the hardware. And the aim of initiatives such as ours is to make it all accessible to as many people as possible, especially to people who think that this is all beyond them. There’s a real issue here. When we launched our recruitment campaign, it was quite difficult to persuade females to join us. The same was true for people who didn’t have an engineering school background or similar. But you don’t have to be a mathematician or engineer to learn how to write certain types of code. For web development, at least for most applications, you don’t need any scientific knowledge.
In fact one does get the impression that coding is only for those with an engineering background.
Romain Paillard: In fact things have changed a lot. It’s no longer the sole preserve of engineers. Learning to code is simply a matter of applying logic. It’s like saying, “If it rains, I’ll get my umbrella out” and “If it doesn’t rain, I won’t get my umbrella out.” That’s more or less what programming is. Simple logic. In basic terms what we’ve just done is programming. And it’s certainly not maths.
Erwan Kezzar: You need a good dose of perseverance, a good dose of motivation and also a good dose of passion and a real desire to learn. We shouldn’t fantasise about code; we need rather to be aware of the fact that it’s about giving written orders to machines. We’re undertaking a whole series of initiatives with our partners – for example [mobile network operator and ISP] Orange, Microsoft and [software group] SAP, going out to raise awareness among young people, whether we’re talking about children or people who have become estranged from digital technology. It’s not so much about a person knowing how to code by the end of the day but about knowing what programming is, that s/he has had a go and now has a much more down-to-earth perception of what coding is. And from that point, out of ten people who have become more aware, two or three will perhaps find their vocation in programming and others will wish to delve deeper.
Romain Paillard: And in fact there’s something else that people quickly understand. And it’s very important. It’s that when we talk about learning to write code, it’s also about discovering the developer community, which is a marvellous thing. It’s about open source, collaborative working. All of this comes from there. That’s the first point. The second point is that when you learn to programme, you push the boundaries of the possible – of what you can do, of what you’re capable of doing – further and further every day. So you discover many things. And as you get into the ‘can do’ mentality you feel smarter, more creative. We were talking just now about hardware. It no longer seems out of reach once you start discovering this new world.
See L'Atelier Survey ‘How can France foster and encourage software developers?’