Peer into the elite technical ranks of companies like Apple, IBM and Tesla, and you’ll find a small but growing group of engineers who come from backgrounds far from the typical recruitment hubs of Stanford or MIT. You wouldn’t tell it from their work. But their résumés would say cashier, barista and Uber driver.
That’s the vision of Holberton School, a San Francisco-based startup founded by two engineers three years ago and training students for the past two. And while Holberton is still small—with just about 200 graduates so far—cofounders Julien Barbier and Sylvain Kalache have raised fresh funds to train their new-look engineers at a faster clip.
Holberton School has raised an $8.2 million Series A round led by existing investors daphni and Trinity Ventures, with Omidyar Network, the philanthropic-minded investment firm founded by Pierre Omidyar, investing for the first time. Holberton’s previous investors including AME Cloud Ventures, Partech Ventures and Reach Capital joined in the round, which brings Holberton’s institutional capital raised to date to $13 million.
“We raised this money to expand, and we have other ideas in our head, so it was the logical next step for us,” says Kalache, who worked at LinkedIn before founding Holberton (Barbier had a key early role at Docker). “And the more we grow, the quality grows with it.”
That model has allowed for stories such as Max Johnson’s, profiled in a New York Times storyabout Holberton last year. An African-American former student at Saint Augustine’s on a basketball scholarship, Johnson had worked low-paying jobs while struggling to find the time to learn coding before joining Holberton. In perhaps the most poignant fact of the Times story, he revealed that he was living in his car.
That experience represents the opportunity, as well as the current constraints, of Holberton’s model so far. For students, the program offers a model that makes it more affordable to get the training that could unlock a whole new level of earning potential and jobs. For the companies themselves, they get access to talent from diverse backgrounds who can create a healthier, smarter workplace. Kalache tells the story of how Apple visited Holberton in recent months and met with seven students, hiring one. “A month later, the manager said, ‘I love this student, I want to hire another.’ And they made three offers, and only one accepted.” The other two already had other strong offers lined up—including Tesla.
At the same time, Holberton’s focus on providing a comprehensive and holistic education has limits. Kalache says Holberton stands out from a host of promising education startups, including General Assembly and Lambda School, because it’s only in-person and provides a core engineering education instead of specializing in one skill. But because of that, Holberton requires students to relocate to San Francisco, at least for the first nine months. For every Johnson who slept in his car, others might find the costs of such a move prohibitive.
Expanding Holberton to other cities would be one answer. Kalache says while the company has focused on its current relocation in San Francisco, from 4,000 square feet of space to 28,000, he’d be open to considering new areas in the future, especially outside of traditional tech corridors in a location such as Detroit. At investor Trinity Ventures, Dan Scholnick says he was “heartbroken” to hear about Johnson, the student living out of a car, and said the company and investors helped find him a place to stay. Holberton is currently looking at a range of corporate partnerships that could help it subsidize the experiences of some of its higher-need students, Scholnick says.
“Holberton is solving one of the most pressing problems facing our economy and the world’s economy,” says Scholnick. “And it will only get worse if we continue as a society on our current track.”
One example of such a partnership is one with CloudNOW, a nonprofit consortium of women in cloud computing. In partnership with Google, Accenture and Scality, CloudNOW announced a program with Holberton last year to offer scholarships to three women, including Lindsey Hemenez, who commutes form Sacramento to the school, and Olatope Agboola, who is attending Holberton while working a full-time job.
As Holberton gains in reputation, Kalache and Barbier will have to be careful that stuch students aren’t the exception to the norm, call-out examples while the average student and applicant skews towards white men looking to change careers from comfortable other jobs. It’s a challenge that Holberton is focused on at the board level, says Scholnick; it’s also why the startup is working with successful figures outside of tech such as the singer and songwriter Shaffer Chimere Smith, known as Ne-Yo. Along with Docker cofounder Solomon Hykes, Ne-Yo is on Holberton’s board of trustees to help raise awareness about its programs in African-American and underprivileged communities. “Little kids, minority kids, they don’t grow up saying, I want to make video games. What’s real is what’s in front of us: become a basketball player or a rapper. It’s not real to us to go work at Google,” Ne-Yo says. “Now I can say to that little kid, it’s 100 percent possible to make video games or go take tech and turn it into anything, to be an engineer.”
One area the performing artist wants to see Holberton improve: providing housing that can make it easier for students to attend from out of state (50 percent are currently from outside California). “The program is great, but it’s not perfect yet. We’re working to rectify that problem,” he says.
While its Series A funding is a traditional milestone for a startup, the comparisons to a software company stop there. Holberton’s greatest challenge, its investors admit, is that its expansion to more physical locations will be highly expensive. To expand to new cities, Holberton will need to raise considerably more money than it has to date—and then keep on raising.
Kalache says he’s not concerned, in part due to the insatiable demand for engineers worldwide. If Holberton succeeds on a bigger scale, he hopes to provide an alternative to the classic liberal arts degree that may seem unattainable to some. “That product is broken,” he says. “I love the idea of higher education, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary for everyone.”
Could Holberton provide an adequate replacement, one that offers more training that just its current certification? “Today, it’s an engineering school,” says Kalache. “Where will it be tomorrow? I don’t know.”