The French Company Teaching The World To Code
With 43 campuses in 27 countries, Le Wagon has become the world's leading network for intensive coding education, revolutionizing how coding is taught.
It’s a December morning at a warehouse hidden in a dead end street in Paris’ 11th arrondissement. The first to arrive are the gardeners because as much as the building has kept its industrial aspect, dozens of plants occupy the space flooded with light by a gigantic glass roof. "Greenhouse effect guaranteed," says one of the gardeners, watering can in hand. And then the students arrive to sit around large wooden tables.
"Given the intensity of our days, this garden setting is good for us," says one of them with a cup of coffee in hand, the grounds of which will be used as fertilizer.
A success for French Tech
Did the 44 participants of the 722nd "batch" have intense days? That's an understatement. Four hundred hours in nine weeks, the equivalent of a bachelor's degree! But it’s a rather effective commando format: With 43 campuses in 27 countries, Le Wagon has become the world's leading network for intensive training in coding, data science and soon cybersecurity.
In 2021, this champion of growth broke all records, with a turnover of over €20 million. It must be said that the market is huge.
"On the one hand, the digitization of companies is accelerating their need for code and data professionals, and on the other hand, the younger generations are attracted to jobs that they can do as digital nomads anywhere on the planet," says Boris and Romain Paillard, co-founders of this school, which is unlike any other.
Among its 13,500 alumni there are young graduates who want to complete their studies as well as budding entrepreneurs and employees who are changing careers. For a fee of €7,000, which can be financed by the French government, these code novices are selected on the basis of a single criterion: motivation.
Their friends were all having trouble recruiting good developers, which is how the idea of Le Wagon was born
"Between a lazy business school graduate and a motivated Uber driver, we'll always take the latter," says Romain Paillard. A good choice. With an average of 4.98 out of 5 on the Switch Up reference platform, Le Wagon is the best-rated web development course in the world compared to dozens of competitors, most of them local.
The missing wagon behind the French Tech locomotive
When they found themselves in 2013 with the same desire for entrepreneurship, the Paillard brothers were not "geeks" at all. Sons of doctors who grew up outside of Paris, Romain (38) was a criminal lawyer and Boris (36) a quantitative analyst at HSBC. They went to Stanislas, a very strict Parisian elementary school, but their paths diverged in high school. Romain stayed at "Stan" — "I needed to be supervised" — while Boris, who was at the top of his class, went to the elite Henri-IV high school before entering Centrale, a top French engineering school.
Embarking on careers on opposite sides of the world, the two brothers both felt constrained in their work.
"A furious desire to sail away," recalls Boris, a seasoned biker and fan of the mythical Triumph Bonneville motorcycle.
“And then we had the same circle of friends, many engineers or entrepreneurs, who we met at the Café Napoléon, in Faubourg Saint-Denis, a sort of Café de Flore for technology," says Romain, an accomplished pianist.
The brothers explain that their friends were all having trouble recruiting good developers, which is how the idea of Le Wagon was born, between two aperitifs. "Like the missing wagon behind the French Tech locomotive," say the Paillards.
At first, the idea took the form of evening classes, but it quickly caught on and the need for teachers became urgent.
“I began to scour the after-work meetings of specialized schools like Epitech," says Boris. “That's how, in 2014, I met our third partner, Sébastien Saunier.”
A former developer at Google, Saunier was also on the move. Saunier proposed a prototype of an educational platform. Bingo!
The thrilled Paillards invited him to a pizzeria in the Marais district and a deal was struck: Saunier agreed to join the adventure, with equal shares for each of the Paillards. Saunier now serves as chief technical officer (CTO), with Boris as chief executive officer (CEO) and Romain as chief business development officer (CBDO). Saunier manages about 30 developers from his hometown Marseille, which he travels by bike.
The teachers are themselves former Wagon students
A true bond
But would this ménage à trois with two brothers prove too complicated?
"On the contrary, it's very fluid, we've never had any fundamental disagreements,” says Saunier. “I even forget that Boris and Romain have the same name.”
It must be said that these two are as thick as thieves. "We know each other by heart; we know how each other thinks," says Romain.
"We tell each other everything, without any filter, and when we argue, Sébastien is a very good judge," adds Boris, now working part-time in Marseille.
The trio is very complementary, we feel a real bond.
But if their team is moving forward, it's also because the three partners have set themselves draconian rules of communication. "We never talk about Le Wagon in the family," the two brothers swear in chorus. And between the three of them, "we're not allowed to write to each other after 7 p.m. or on weekends," says Saunier. “For the rest, we use the Slack platform with coded emojis: 'i' for information only, a '?' requires an answer, a flame if there is really a fire, etc."
It is this well-oiled mechanism that seduced Fabien Wesse, managing partner of the Cathay Capital fund.
"The trio is very complementary, we feel a real bond," says Wesse. The Cathay Capital fund invested €17 million (around $19 million) in Le Wagon during its first fundraising in spring 2020 alongside AfricInvest. But that's not all that convinced him.
"They have been profitable since day one, with a truly original format that is in tune with the times," says Wesse, who is convinced that the future lies in short, specialized courses.
Here's a look at the Paris campus. So, what about this course? "It's the bomb," says Laure de Grave, an engineer with 10 years of experience in purchasing at Zodiac Aerospace and Devialet.
"We have one hour of theory in the morning, then we dive into coding with one step to complete per day," says de Grave, a student in the last batch.
A close-knit community
"The training is that of a marathon: early to bed, healthy food," says Corentin Huillard, who studied through Le Wagon in 2019 and is now at the head of a team of six developers at PayFit, an online payroll software. Feeling lost during a class? There’s no stress because "teaching assistants" are always there to help you through the obstacle, especially at the beginning.
“At first, I had a lot of headaches, but by the fifth week, you gain confidence and by the end, you know how to create an app or a website from A to Z," says Ben McConnell, an American musician in transition. “It's very smart 'learning by doing'.”
This teaching is all the more effective since the teachers are themselves former Wagon students. Today, there are more than 1,200 of them, working freelance and paid by the day.
"Without any educational content to provide, everything is on the platform," explains Saunier. In return, they can devote 100% of their time to their students. And they can choose their own campus.
They've really nailed the bootcamp model.
"I alternate between Paris, Amsterdam, London and Lisbon," says Alexis Gourdol (33), a former business developer in Brazil and Germany. Gourdol was a Wagon student in 2020 and has been a full-time teacher since last August. The icing on the cake is that "our community is very close-knit. Whether it's teaching positions or jobs, we share everything on Slack," says Ellyn Bouscasse who, after training at Le Wagon in 2017, has taught in Bali, Madrid, Oslo and Barcelona.
How tight-knit is the Le Wagon alumni family? Just ask Quitterie Mathelin-Moreaux. This business school graduate found her partner, Samy Amar, and three of her associates there. "It all came together during the end-of-batch project I was working on with Samy," says the co-founder of Skello, a planning and personnel management software for which she raised €40 million ($45 million) last summer.
Nicolas Crestin, for his part, never hesitates to consult the community of "wagonneurs," as the old-timers call themselves, on a technical problem. "The feedback is always relevant," says Crestin, who co-founded Sami, a carbon footprint management tool for small and medium-sized companies.
Big names join the team
With 175 startups created by alumni, the Paillard brothers and Saunier are planning their next steps. What will Le Wagon look like in three years? "We will own all our franchised campuses, we will have a presence in the United States, we will offer training in other hot tech fields such as cybersecurity and companies will represent 50% of our business," say the three partners.
To achieve this, they didn't hesitate to recruit two big guns, "much better paid than us,” jokes the trio: Clément Eulry (40), a business school graduate from the Boston Consulting Group and Google now in charge of the Enterprise division and Virginie Vinson (37), who was appointed the chief operating officer after 10 years spent in the United States and London.
All of which makes Le Wagon pretty damn sexy in the eyes of potential buyers. "They've really nailed the bootcamp model, which can be applied to a variety of disciplines with a very successful educational platform and an excellent student experience," says Thierry Auzel, vice president of the Cathay Capital fund.
"We're following them closely, we're talking," says Marc-François Mignot Mahon, the head of Galileo, the leading European private higher education company. But Romain, Boris and Sébastien do not seem to be in a hurry to be bought out.