Free the code: start from nothing and create a geek factory

Making it possible for everyone to learn how to code and develop, even without being qualified. It was the gamble that Erwan Kezzar took, the co-founder of Simplon, to create this factory producing geeks.

NOV 2016 A year on, what is the feeling in Paris?
Created by: Greymakers(@greymakers) Texts by: Sophie Lauth Photography by: Lewis Joly

Like every Friday evening, the Parisian avenues were crowded. A suspicious package alert had interrupted the underground. The Uber mark-up was expensive. It was raining. Getting to Montreuil, which is only separated from Paris by the ring road, was proving to be mission impossible.
But the gloom evaporated when I arrived in the ex-latex factory that is now home to Simplon, la « the entrepreneur coders factory ».
This school opened three years ago to train people with little hope of finding employment (young people under 25 with few or no qualifications, those from poor neighbourhoods and rural areas, seniors, people with disabilities .. .), with the objective of having equal numbers of men and women. When they leave Simplon, they will be developers of websites and mobile applications, integrators, digital officers, data artisans ...

Despite the late hour, some students were still practising coding. There was some laughter and a good feeling. Erwan Kezzar, one of Simplon's founders, strode in, a biker's jacket over his shoulders and a beer in his hand. « Since 2013, Simplon has trained 500 people. Now we are going to train 500 every 6 months »he said to me, while looking at the post-its that account for the factories as well as those scheduled to open. Simplon has spawned quickly: thirty factory-schools have already opened in France, Europe and Africa, and soon perhaps in Detroit (USA) and Osaka (Japan). At 31, this is the Erwan's second company, « Although to be honest I launched my first enterprise when I was 7! I helped the area's homeless write their signs, I helped them with their performances ».

Three founders without a penny

During his studies at Celsa, he met Andrei Vladescu-Olt, « a Romanian geek and visionary, who is self-trained in computer development ». At the time, Erwan was fervently anti-technology and refused to even use Facebook. With Andrei he discovered the endless possibilities of the web (communities, opensource ...) and softened towards technology.
When they had finished their studies, the two friends launched Takative, a digital strategy consulting firm. Not knowing how to create a website nor manage a project, they trained themselves. For three years their contracts rolled in. But Andrei and Erwan wanted to work on a project that was more personal to them.

At the same time, they discovered Ruby on Rails and Bootcamps (intensive training in web development) which were taking off in the USA and felt that something special was happening. « We weren't engineers or technicians or developers but we learned everything. We said to ourselves that it was possible for us too to train people in software development for free », Erwan explained. On HackerNews they found a message: « Do you think it's possible to train yourself quickly on the Web? ». Answers from the community poured in confirming their intuition.
One of their former professors, Frédéric Bardeau, plunged into the adventure and Simplon welcomed its first class in 2013.

"There we were, three founders without a penny, with no business plan, but we didn't give up", recalls Erwan.

Erwan doesn't make a big deal out of being penniless. He grew up in Périgueux, a small town in the south-west of France with a French-Algerian mother who brought him up single handed. From the age of seven the « prince of resourcefulness » vsold belts, helped in the market and guided tourists to shops in the centre of town, for commission. He hesitated about continuing his studies but, thanks to a scholarship, his German teacher persuaded him to continue. « So, I went to the "classe préparatoire" and I passed the entry competition to Celsa, a Parisian college that doesn't charge scholarship students anything », recalled Erwan. His arrival in Paris was bohemian. He slept at his girlfriend's flat, with friends, sometimes outside. « I was totally flat broke. In the evening I dismantled TVs or fridges that had been thrown out on the pavement to recover the copper in them and resell it. I also did removals, catering ... » Yet, when Erwan evokes his arrival in Paris, he isn't bitter or angry. « We had parties with 10 people in a 6 m2 flat with no running water. ». He stayed in Paris for its energy and endless possibilities.

Share the code

« This is a crossroads. And in addition we have a social model that lets us try lots of interesting things in terms of collaborative profiles, such as access to training and education », continued the thirty year-old who confesses to loving Paris. Nonetheless he located Simplon in Montreuil. Attracted by the town's multiculturalism and the way it slots between the capital and the poor suburbs of Seine-Saint Denis (93), he considers this fertile ground for popular education.
For example, he organised a training course for school drop outs aged from 16 - 22 years old. « It was an opportunity when I met a convinced feminist and also a youth with fairly radical religious beliefs. Initially, there was friction. The exchanges were heated. But at the end of the six weeks they had both learned from each other and their relations had calmed down ».
Simplon is also committed to refugees. Since March there has been a dedicated training course for them.

Beginning from nothing, nowadays Erwan recruits "potential" that hasn't been made the best of by the conventional system and offers them a second chance. This is his way of repairing what society has failed. And he hasn't forgotten about his own lean years, all Simplon's students receive a scholarship. After 6 months of training, the apprentice coders leave with a certificate and 87% of them have found a job. Sometimes overwhelmed by the rapid success of Simplon, Erwan has not had much time to relax. The Factory has just been enlarged with a fab lab and new premises and new investors continue to join the adventure. Tonight, he wants to compose music. We had to make a tour of the recording studio where he codes ... notes. But there are still files to complete and he will spend the night there. Visit over, I left with his new tracks ringing in my ears.

Vision Collection