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Learning computer programming, with no teachers and no tuition
[SAN FRANCISCO] Aspiring software engineers Kevin Yook and Becky Chen are hunched over a computer screen, fervently discussing lines of code indecipherable to the average person.
The pair of twenty-somethings are students at the Holberton School in San Francisco, founded two years ago by French software engineers and poised to graduate its first class.
The goal: to level the playing field when it comes to access to the high-paying computer engineering jobs in Silicon Valley's tech industry.
The method: anonymous admissions tests and no tuition fees. When students find a job, the school is paid 17 per cent of their income for three years.
The two-year program is open to beginners, and its founders say it offers a path to the likes of Apple, LinkedIn and NASA - sometimes even before the course is over as employers rush to snap up the best talent.
"Most people in the tech industry look like me: white and male," said Sylvain Kalache, 29, one of the school's co-founders.
But at Holberton, students are aged from 18 to 56, and 35 per cent of the more than 200 pupils are women.
More than half come from ethnic minority backgrounds - profiles much different from those populating programs at the likes of Stanford or Caltech.
In fact, many of the students - no doubt attracted by the prospect of a US$70,000 internship salary or even US$100,000 for a first job - are in retraining.
With former bartenders, artists and cashiers among his classmates, yoga teacher Lee Gaines, 30, is one of them.
"I was seeking something more financially secure because I had a dream of having a home and starting a family, and what I was making as a yoga teacher wasn't enough to support that," Mr Gaines said.
"I am confident that I'll find a job because I think there will always be a demand for us."
Mr Kalache said there are two traditional routes into programming: university and so-called "bootcamps," which offer intensive training lasting a few weeks.
With university costing tens of thousands of dollars and a bootcamp's fees averaging several thousand, both were out of the question for Jesse Hedden, 32.
A teacher by training, Mr Hedden was studying in a corner of the school with Mr Gaines, laptops on their knees as they worked to "debug" an internet server.
Self-help and problem-solving skills are the name of the game here - with no teachers and no lessons reducing costs.
Around 150 mentors from Facebook, Google and Microsoft instead visit regularly to help students and update the curriculum at the school, which has received US$13 million from investors.
"I wanted a career change," said Mr Hedden, who struggled to make ends meet in the San Francisco area on his US$22,000 teacher's salary - a fraction of the compensation offered to software engineers.
For Amy Galles - spotted struggling in front of her Apple computer - the course is "hard." "It's fast and intense," Ms Galles said.
But the arts graduate, who says she was always interested in fixing things, is motivated by the school investing in her.
College, she says, is "a dying model" with degrees no longer necessarily leading to jobs.
Ms Galles spent US$40,000 on her art studies a few years ago - but she is hopeful that it is Holberton that will help her land that "dream job".