A computer programming school is betting New Haven could become the next Silicon Valley, only without the Bay Area’s crushing cost of living.
The Holberton School, a training program for aspiring software engineers, plans to open its second campus early next year inside District, a new tech campus on James Street in Fair Haven.
Within a few years, the school could attract up to 1,000 students on site who want to learn to code through a hands-on method without any lectures from instructors, the co-founder said at a Tuesday morning press conference.
Unlike some short-term boot camps that harp on one skill for three months, the for-profit Holberton School covers the “full stack,” meaning every aspect of software engineering, over its two years.
Pointing to graduates’ recent hires at Apple and IBM, Julien Barbier, the co-founder and chief executive officer, said that tech companies want a deeper level of experience that’s needed to keep up with an ever-changing industry.
“The fourth Industrial Revolution … brings us a huge challenge. We have to rewrite what education should be. We have to rethink everything. This is a massive challenge, it’s very complex,” Barbier said. “But we also have a new opportunity. This time, we can make sure that everyone has access to high-quality education.”
Wearing a T-shirt and a hands-free microphone, Barbier ditched the podium at Tuesday morning’s press announcement and paced in front of the audience like he was delivering a TED talk. A native Frenchman, Barbier founded three startups before starting the school. The school is being backed by a $13 million investment from multiple venture capitalists, plus eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and former Yahoo chief executive Jerry Yang.
The sleek press conference felt like a debut for the latest smartphone or music-streaming service, complete with a video-recorded endorsement from the Grammy-winning singer Ne-Yo, a teary testimonial from a graduate, and a predictions of an economic boom from officials, after companies like Alexion Pharmaceuticals left the state last year.
“Aerospace, defense, insurance, finance, healthcare, digital media and pretty much everything in between in this great state: tech is disrupting everything. All of these companies are going through digital transformations,” said David Salinas, the co-founder of DISTRICT, whose non-profit arm will host the school in a renovated bus depot. “No matter the industry, no matter the size, startups and major corporations need technical talent in order to grow, to face the challenges of tomorrow and for Connecticut to be competitive.”
At the school, which is named for Betty Holberson, one of the six staff who worked on the ENIAC, the first programmable computer, created by the U.S. Army in 1943, students learn by collaborating on projects, which ratchet up in difficulty throughout the term. Staff might help troubleshoot, but otherwise there’s no teacher giving directions. That model of project-centered peer learning fits with what their jobs will eventually be like, Barbier says.
Students don’t need any background in computer science to enroll, and the application doesn’t ask about any demographics, including gender, race, current income or zip code. Through an algorithm, the application process instead looks at teamwork and persistence.
“Today, everybody wants to be an entrepreneur or software engineer because it’s cool. The problem is that it brings a lot of people who are not built for that. You need to sit for an entire day, every day, in front of a computer, thinking about very abstract stuff like what is a pointer, memory allocation and a loop,” Barbier said. “We want to make sure, during the application process, that this is good for them.”
Only 2.5 percent of applicants get a spot, Barbier said.
So far, about one-third of the students are female. Three-quarters are racial minorities, including 45 percent Asian-American and 20 percent African-American.
Barbier said that he expects that New Haven’s campus, midway between Boston and New York City, will actually be more diverse than San Francisco. The goal will be to draw students from Hartford, Bridgeport, New London and other nearby Connecticut cities, Salinas added.
The program offers two payment methods. Students can pay either $85,000 up front over the two years, or they enter into an income-sharing agreement, where they pay back 17 percent of their salary over three years after they start their career.
Every graduate from Holberton has found a job, Barbier said. The average starting salary is $105,000, which is expected to drop to around $90,000 outside the red-hot job market in Silicon Valley, he added.
Currently, about 18 percent of students drop out before completing the program, Barbier said. Some realize a job in coding isn’t right for them, while others run out of savings. He said that the expansion to New Haven, where housing costs will be far lower, could help improve their success rates.
“Looking at the price of living in San Francisco, that’s a very big problem for a lot of candidates who can’t come to the school because of the price,” he said. “New Haven is a great city, with tons of students, but the price of living is like a third of what it is in San Francisco. Going back to our mission of providing education to the most, we thought that this is a really great city and state.”
Holberton is finalizing its licensing to teach classes and permits to build out the space. Applications are being accepted now, and the school is expected to open in January, Barbier said.