The shortage of engineers is a perennial source of woe in Silicon Valley. Once they're done combing the graduating classes at places like Stanford and MIT, tech companies start sniffing in each other's backyards, hoping to lure over desperately needed talent with juicy salaries and tasty perks.
When David Albert and two partners joined Y Combinator, a VC firm that invests a small amount of money in a large number of startups in exchange for stakes in the companies, in the summer of 2010, they thought they could help solve that problem with a sophisticated algorithm that would match candidates and jobs. But what they've come up instead with is something surprisingly analog: a real-world school, based in New York, where they spend three months at a time helping people who already program get better.
What's revolutionary about the program is both its business and operational models. There are certainly other schools that have set up shop recently, to help crank out engineering talent. In Chicago, Code Academy offers 11-week courses in web design and development, and at San Francisco's Dev Bootcamp, students learn the fine points of Ruby on Rails and HTML5.
But at Hacker School, there's no tuition. Students attend for free. (Though Albert and his partners, Nicholas Bergson-Shilcock and Sonali Sridhar, do vet for talent and aptitude.) The three make money through Hackruiter, a seperate arm of their venture, when companies like Airbnb snap up the participants. (The average recruiting fee is $20,000, the industry standard.)
And once school opens, there's no instruction. Instead, participants work side-by-side on personal projects, usually involving open-source software. The learning comes by being jammed together in the same place and having smart people nearby to learn from and ask questions of. "It's like a writers retreat for computer programmers," Albert tells Fast Company. "You don't learn English at a writers retreat, but you hone your craft."
The venture has attracted funding from Ron Conway's SV Angel and Founder Collective, which includes entrepreneurs like Flickr cofounder Caterina Fake and Meetup cofounder and CEO Scott Heiferman.
David Lee, of SV Angel, tells Fast Company that Hacker School and Hackruiter are emerging at a time when the tech world is rethinking the conventional wisdom that says you have to graduate from a school of higher learning in order to become a programmer. "There's not the same sort of blind faith that people had in institutions and the conventional way of doing things," Lee says. "There are now ways of demonstrating that you're the best coder without going to a four-year college."
Hacker School's first session—a test drive—took place last summer with about half a dozen participants. Just about all—five out of six—were later hired. Same with a second session of 12 people. The third session starts next week with two dozen students.
Given that there are no classes, it might look to outsiders like the school's founders aren't really doing anything, and still earning some cushy dough for their efforts. What's to prevent someone else from copying the idea and stealing Hacker School's clientele? The answer: It actually takes skill to create an environment where self-motivated learners can develop skills and get better, Lee says. "It's like throwing a party. Some people do it better than others."
To that end, Albert and his partners plan to see if they can grow the school to 200 students. Along the way—in true Y Combinator iterate-as-you-go-style—the business model might evolve.
"The goal in the long term is to create an awesome school for programmers and hopefully inspire more people to want to be craftspeople," Albert says. "How it's going to do that in the long run, we're not exacty sure." But as long as the school pays for itself (and their expenses are low—mostly just salaries for the three founders), he explains, "that gives us license to experiment."