42 Wolfsburg: Hogwarts for software engineers
With the support of Volkswagen, we are bringing the French success story École 42 to Wolfsburg. 42 is the kind of software academy that many young developers are dreaming of because they have the freedom to learn what they want at their own pace.
By Dr. Max Senges , Ralph Linde  and Dr. Ralf Brunken 
Let’s imagine a place where young people come together to learn software development at the highest level. There are no seminars or lectures, not even professors. In this place, the students learn from each other as they tackle projects together, growing together as a team as they master each challenge. Additionally, highly motivated mentors from startups, tech companies, and IT departments coach the students individually during their “practice projects” (i.e. internships). The students largely decide for themselves when they learn, and by which methods. At this new place of learning, what counts are talent and ability to learn and to solve problems, not certifications from previous schooling or the perfectly manicured CV. Anyone from age 18 to 80 can apply to learn in this place, even without formal qualification for university admission. The campus is equipped with everything students need and they aren’t hit with student fees since tuition is covered by VW. Graduates will have the choice between a self-directed working life as an in-demand freelancer, digital nomad, startup founder — or a well-paid job in the (automotive) industry. May we introduce: 42 Wolfsburg.
At the beginning of 2021, the non-profit 42 Wolfsburg e.V. — which is endowed with a donation of 3.7million euros from Volkswagen — will open its doors in Wolfsburg’s Markthalle. It will be a mix of Hogwarts, the MIT Media Lab and Ferdinand Porsche’s innovation spirit. When it’s fully operational, the campus will host 600 students on their learning journey to becoming master coders. Their route will follow a carefully thought-out, flexible and “battle proven” curriculum tested and evolved for 7 years in thirty-three 42 schools with more than 10‘000 students since the beginning. The approach is also being offered at our new German sister school, 42 Heilbronn, under the direction of Thomas Bornheim. Thomas likens the 42 approach to Maria Montessori‘s pedagogy and stresses that especially the student empowering aspect of the pedagogy is particularly adequate to educate independent, European value grounded coders.
All applicants to 42 Wolfsburg have to take an online test that primarily requires talent for logical thought (so-called algorithmic thinking). Programming skills are not required. Those who pass will be invited to a four-week bootcamp in Wolfsburg, the so-called “Piscine.”
In this “Piscine” they learn the basics of programming and get a good feel for what studying at 42 Wolfsburg means: Learning to learn. Self-directed learning. Learning from and with peers. And most importantly learning to solve problems. After a careful evaluation of the three Piscines in February, March and April, 150 students will begin their studies. During the selection process, we’ll take care to maintain a high degree of diversity among the students and ensure that women in particular feel that what we have to offer is for them.
Depending on the individual pace of learning and the desired specialisation, the course of studies at 42 Wolfsburg will take two to five years. All students will first have to visit the most important fields of modern software engineering. These include key programming languages, software architecture and the fundamentals of machine learning. The curriculum, developed by all 42 member schools, is updated on a monthly basis to always stay up to date with the latest programming languages and technologies. Students will spend around half of their studies working on practical projects at partner firms, similar to the traditional German apprenticeship + higher education model. In this second phase, experienced developers will mentor the students intensively as they accompany them on their learning journey. Experience from 42’s international locations shows: In the practical modules, students not only learn which coding skills really count but also how agile development teams collaborate today. At the partner companies they gain numerous contacts that will be invaluable after they graduate. More than half the students get job offers after the first practical project — but most of them decide to continue studying. After graduation, however, student will have received at least two job offers and many return to offers from their internships.
Innovate Learning. Learn to Innovate.
42 Wolfsburg is an innovation in education and a valuable addition to Germany’s academic and vocational ecosystem. Digital change is accelerating the pace of innovation at all levels. Companies in all economic sectors are desperately looking for well-trained, intrinsically motivated and team-oriented software developers. They need young people with an entrepreneurial mindset, who can drive digital change in Europe.
For formal IT education, Germany’s university ecosystem is better than many give it credit for. But what it offers isn’t necessarily a good fit for everyone. In Germany, we not only have too few software engineers. We also have a problem with educational structures that are sometimes too rigid, and with criteria for access to education that too often favor privilege over merit. That’s why we have to integrate new concepts and learning methods into this system on a large scale, especially in higher education. Only then can we give all students a chance to educate themselves today — and to advance digitization in Europe tomorrow.
The world of IT has always been a little more colorful than other spheres. We should be more open to innovative education models especially if the approach has already been tried and tested like 42‘s. We can and should build on these models and adapt them to our economic context and educational culture. Of course an innovative software school in Wolfsburg, with Volkswagen serving as co-initiator, will aim to shape the digital future of the automobile as well as open standards for our mobility ecosystem. The future of the European automotive industry depends on our ability to stay at the forefront of innovation in digital platforms and the utilization of data flows and AI in cars. For us it is a pivotal ambition that 42 Wolfsburg students are aware of the social and ethical dimensions of their work with code from the start. As one Silicon Valley mantra states, “software eats the world.” That’s true. But how can we ensure that software won’t “eat” most of us humans as well, but will instead help us to collaborate better, strengthen democracy and find solutions to the great challenges of our time?
What part of “101010” didn’t you understand?
42 Wolfsburg will be a place for IT education like no other in Germany. This is where self-directed learning and expert mentoring, group fun and individual performance, superb campus facilities and career prospects will come together. The renovation of the Markthalle in Wolfsburg will create a magical place. Where future students will develop “sufficiently advanced technology” that will be “indistinguishable from magic,” to describe it with the adage of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. It will create a Hogwarts for software engineers.
Importantly anyone who wants to can take part in coding the future of mobility here. But of course the students are in the driver’s seat and will decide for themselves where to specialize and, if so, in what industry.
On the one hand, 42 Wolfsburg is a huge experiment for Germany’s STEM education ecosystem. And at the same time, the success of this experiment is primarily a question of implementation and further development because the learning methods have been extensively tested internationally. Within just a few years, a large global community of 42 alumni has formed who support each other as they advance software development in all sectors. What people often say about the graduates is that they have the right mindset to shape the digital future. Because they’ve learned that the individual as a member of a team can always learn whatever is needed to solve a technical problem. And of course the students know what the sequence of digits 101010 means in binary. The answer is, of course, 42 (see Wikipedia on why 42).
Visit www.42wolfsburg.de to learn more and apply!