January 23, 2011

Computer science and engineers: the (bad) French exception

French engineers are famous in all domains but computer science. This is especially a shame in the 21st century, isn't it?

French engineers come from Grandes Ecoles, a French selective scholarship from undergraduate to graduating diploma. Unfortunately, many reasons explain that grandes écoles are unable to produce good engineers in computer science. Among others,
  • students do not know anything about computer science when they join a grande école. Neither programming, nor algorithmic... neither logic, nor graph theory... How can you learn a scientific domain from scratch in only three years? You cannot teach English literature to people who don't know English in the first place. 
  • most grande écoles are generalists. The broad extent of the French engineering culture is an advantage, but also a major drawback in the case of computer science. Actually, teachers have just the time to either overview fundamentals, or to look at the first steps in software development, which corresponds to what billions of developers know.
  • each grande école is linked to a few successful French companies that massively hire their students. Unfortunately, in France, no successful company exist in computer science. There is neither IBM nor Microsoft out there. Actually, admittedly Orange is a leading company in Information Technology, but, from my experience working there for a while, I can claim that this company does not deal with computer science at all. Engineers involved in software at Orange just coordinate outsourced workers. Most of them would be unable to develop the quarter of what they outsource. As a matter of fact, Orange has never understood software innovations.
  • educational engineering system is self-fueled. Directors of grandes écoles and people in government are the same who have received this engineering learning and who have absolutely no skill in computer science. Therefore, computer science suffers from a dramatic lack of understanding. I ignore those who confound computer science with Microsoft Office, and I struggle with those who assimilate software engineering with indian outsourced low-level programming.
As a matter of fact, the prestigious grandes écoles that are the closest to computer science and software engineering (Institut Telecom (which is my current employer), SupelecEnsimag and Enseeiht) focus on producing so-called "project managers", who are expected to drive low-level developers, and who consider software development as a dirty task. They are probably ideal people for French sub-innovative companies, which passively survive. But, as it is said here and there, they can forget working at Facebook or Google. And they will not be able to boost the rare French innovative companies, e.g. Dailymotion or XWiki. 

We need more geeks. Actually. In a Internet era, this under-representation of geeks in the engineering grade severely penalizes France. A first idea would be to dramatically increase courses related with computer science and software engineering at the undergraduate level. Another idea would be to radically transform the mission of institutions like mine (Telecom Bretagne) so that computer science becomes the top priority. Finally, I wish bureaucrats at the governments (especially education and industry) were not from old-fashion grandes écoles


  1. First you have to remember than a number of smart people just don't go to Grandes Ecoles, and that includes quite a few computer geeks.

    Second, although I was surprised to observe that computer geeks were a clear minority among my fellow students at Enseirb (which has a dedicated CompSci section), we were a real active group, happy to learn from each other and from any kind of source, most of the time outside the curriculum. We strived in this environment, which gave us lots of computers, and lots of spare time (and assignments and projects) to play with them.

    I don't mean to say that all the courses were bad (of course some of them were), but we were looking for something different than what was offered, and we found it.

    Now, many of the same geek students I kept in touch with are still making their hands "dirty" with code and systems administration. And I know quite a few geeks from other schools (mostly Ensimag because I'm in Grenoble now), and they just don't WANT to become project managers, but they do it when necessary, or when they are deemed too old to work 100% on code by their bosses. We french geeks are a minority, but we do exist, and we do have an impact in our industry.

    Geeks are passionate people, and I don't see how a school could make it happen. Of course it is possible to disgust people from a technical career, but as far as schools are concerned, I see a much brighter picture than you do.

    I would much rather blame a number of large companies (you mentioned Orange, I would add Sagem, Thales) that rely so much on outsourcing (to french or foreign contractors) that they simply can't keep relevant tech skills in software development. Companies need to understand that important skills are acquired over the course of many years, and that more experienced engineers are valuable people, not just "too old to code".

  2. I think the fact most ecoles are generalist is not the problem per se. The problem is more computer science is way too often the poor relation within telecom schools (or that there is no pure computer science school).

    An other issue, and which is probably part of the reason behind that, is that even before actually being engineers, software development is seen by students in France as both a job not cool, and not interesting for your career in the long term.
    I picked Software Engineering as my major at Telecom Lille, and students in the group were either the geeks like me who already enjoyed software hacking as a hobby (or as a side job already), and the kids that could not get something else, and just end up there, "dépités".
    I don't know where this mis-representation come from. I've lived in Romania, and over there it's frankly just the opposite. Students in computer science are the cool kids. Maybe in France we still have reminiscences of the old days of software "a la papa" where forty-something programmers wearing suits too short for them make bad jokes all day long and create stuff like WinDev...

    And that would be our issue : in France everything that has to do with computers ought to be boring. I think as long as we don't get passed that state of mind, most students won't get attracted by software engineering majors, which in return, won't be promoted/funded as necessary.

    Though there is room for being optimistic. Thanks to the Mozillas, the Facebooks and all, the Web is becoming a place perceived cool.
    And since the web is more and more the platform for software engineering, its coolness will eventually leak inside schools.

  3. INteresting point of view.

    I tend to agree with this eventhough we have a very strong french community amongst open source developers.

    Marc Fleury has been at the helm of JBoss for a long time, Guillaume Laforge is one of the leaders of the groovy project and there are many french commiters on Glassfish project for instance.

    I guess we dont really NEED grandes ecoles to produce hackers as many hackers are self made and driven by passion. Also, hackers are terribly pragmatic. Only the ones who actually do (i.e code) things gain respect and authority. In the internet world, there is no such a big needs of project managers.

    The main problem is that French industry and educational system see software as any other industry just like house building for instance. As an example, they are using the same wording (Maitrise d'oeuvre et Maitrise d'ouvrage) as this industry. Worst so, they are using the same project management technique.

  4. I think head of XWiki are from Polytechnique and Institut Telecom ;-)

  5. I would add Virtuoz (CEO is from Polytechnique and CTO from ENSTA)

  6. Of course there are geeks in grandes écoles. But, as all of you said, they are already geeks when they join their école :-)

    But, you're right, I should have said: « grandes écoles are unable to transform students into geeks » :-)

  7. You're right, Geeks in grandes écoles (like supelec, ensimag, enseeiht) were already geeks before and the others are here because they think it's a famous school and not because they like computer sciences.
    In France students don't learn something they like but something they will be proud of.

  8. That's why Epita is working so well… There's a void to fill ! And their engineers are in general very successful in the job market.
    (Disclaimer: I didn't study their, nor work for them. I just know a few people that have, and have verified that in the workplace)

  9. @Anonymous You are perfectly right. That's also why Niel / Simoncini / Granjon decided to create EEMI. However these schools currently won't attract the most clever students, because they now the French job market is rotten. Wages are often indexed on diplomas.

    For various reasons, I have chosen to go to Télécom Bretagne instead of other schools such as Télécom Paris. If I worked in French mainstream industry that would impact my salary. In some companies, choosing EPITA instead of, say, Centrale could probably halve your mid-career salary, no matter what you do.

    It can also limit your ability to get some jobs. Ironically I'm sure it would be harder to find a research-related job in CS with a degree from EPITA than with a degree from a generalist "Grande École".

    French Industry is shooting itself in the foot and doesn't seem to notice. We can only hope it recover quickly and starts hiring responsibly. Now if you suppose that it will, it's up to the Écoles to undrestand what they have to do to avoid a severe backlash in a few years!

  10. There are not only Grandes Écoles in France, you are forgetting the universities.

    Most of them are offering really interesting courses of computer science during 4 or 5 years.

    All geeks wasn't at the first position at school, many of them went to university after high school.

    I graduated from university. I'm working for 6 years now, and the best developers i've seen so far were coming from university too (except a bulgarian one). Most Engineers from Grandes École were unable to code properly and have too few skill in programming. They're only good at managing project but seriously, this is not that hard.

    The only thing I miss today is a good english.

  11. I don't think this is a problem with Grandes Écoles, at least it is not a specific trait that they give to the job market: students from other schools also arrive on the market claiming project manager jobs and shunning developer jobs.

    Why is it so?
    Not only because most IT schools put an emphasis on project management, but because french companies as a tradition see project management as being above software development.
    In a company I worked for, upper management routinely "upgraded" developers to project managers, even when it made no sense (e.g. teams that end up with three project managers for two developers).

    And it's not just IT.
    A close relative of mine ended her 5 years cursus in communication with the skill to be a project manager in comm too, while the school never prepared her to actually do anything else in the field (like landing a first job and acquiring experience). In the end, she only managed to get an entry level, dead-end job, because she was so badly prepared for the real workplace.

    Back to IT; this culture of proliferating middle/project management and thinking that actual software development is a task for juniors, is what needs to be overcome in France if us geeks are ever to be taken seriously and if we ever want the means to really innovate instead of just following trends.

  12. 100% agreed. Unfortunately. I spent the last 18 years repeating it, even to politicians. They don't care, they don't listen. Nice speeches, no actions. As usual here.

    Daniel Glazman
    (X, ENST, W3C CSS Working Group Co-chairman, Disruptive Innovations CEO, übergeek, spending his days coding for his greatest pleasure)

  13. It's simple, in France, job in IT are classified in term of salaries:
    manager > consultant > R&D
    (what ever the expertise and for same number of years of experience)

    So every student knows where to work.

  14. so so so so true and so so so so sad !!!

  15. In the list of schools which educate "project managers", feel free to add my school : ENSEIRB-MATMECA. The school has different departments (electronics, comp sci, telecoms, mecanics), but what you say in unfortunately entirely true for computer science.

    It's changing but still widely the case. However, I'd like to emphasis that most students seem happy with the idea that they are going to "manage developers". This doesn't seem to be entirely the higher education systems fault.

  16. More generally, I tend to think that most engineering students chose the school they graduated from, because of peer pressure: once one is admitted to a large set of schools at the end of Mat Spe, one seldom chooses a "lesser" school even though it might be a better fit to one's aspiration. I have known some (not all) polytechniciens at the end of their working life who regretted their choices when they were 20. Sure they had more money and some influence, but deep down, they were not convinced of their choices.

    Hackers and Makers are passionate about what they do. It doesn't matter whether they have a piece of paper from polytechnique, ensimag or epita. The vast majority of engineers are not passionate about what they do and most large companies are not in the business of being tremendously better but rather they aim at being slightly better than average.

    Let me be more controversial too. I think it is likely that you will find more passionate people in "lesser" schools because it is absolutely impossible to have a passion in one area AND the drive to provide a workload necessary to get into Polytechnique from seconde/premiere till the end of Mat spe.

    For that very reason, it is no wonder that Free is beating out, hands down, Orange in its triple play offerings. One company has 300 people working for them while the other has ten times more people. I would not be surprised if Free had more passionate people (from "lesser schools") than Orange does.

  17. What about trying to fix this elitist approach "you need to go to a grande ecole to get a really good career, and you can only have a good career as a manager" first?
    It might have been a good system in the past, but it's not flexible enough for the IT landscape that changes at the speed of light and where innovation and speed-to-market are vital.
    I think it's not a problem for geeks anyway, as they will be passionate whatever school they do, start hacking at age 12 and get a decent job anyway. It might be a problem for the french it-economy taken as a whole, but I've seen other european countries doing much worse still today...

  18. I'm student at Insa de Lyon, in computer sciences department.

    My friends and I just want to thank you for this article. You explained in a few words what we try to say to our teachers since more than a year.

  19. Great post. But I think you got a few things mixed up. The problem is not that "Les Grandes Ecoles" do not produce good coders or people efficient in CS, the problem is the french system favor only those schools. If you want to see good coders go to check Student in universities. In PAris 6, T, 11, Grenoble, Lille or Bordeaux. Those are places where in the last year of masters, those so brilliant students in engineering schools comme to follow a year in specialzed fields with university students, and you see the difference, especially in CS. I've seen it.
    I'm from Paris 6 Jussieu, and I studied Computer from my second semester in my junior til I graduated with my M Sc, five years later. So I didn't learn much of project management, but I've seen Computer science inside out, from obscur theories, to logic of every order, AI, Distributed systems and algorithmic, to modern entreprise middleware and langage. But that amount of knowledge, when I was looking for a simple internship I had to run through months of searching if I wanted a fairly intersting subject, because big technoloogy companies preferred to have students in engineering schools, where when it came to knowing and being passionate about stuff people in university were well ahead.
    But that's the entire system in french, we have an institutionalized discrimination. And it doesn't end even in fields like computer science, especially in the industry.
    I still find the look in people's eyes when I tell them that after graduating, I chose to work in public research lab at the university (without doing a PhD thesis) instead of going for a service company. But times are changing, judging by the number of prominent excellent coders I see in JUGs all over France.

  20. I really wonder how much this could change after the opening of Google's engineering office in Paris. People might realize that engineering in IT is more about coding than managing (and the salaries will probably be very attractive as well).

    I have always been a bit sad seeing the number of people in IT in France who wants to "manage" instead of "doing".

    Have fun interviewing ;)

  21. You right. But the salary when you are a good software-engineer is really bad in compare to project managers. If you go in school specialise in programming you can see that a lot of student want become project manager because there are a better salary. Up the software-engineer's salary and a lot of sotfware-engineer come.

  22. I'm a french semi-geek, my hands are dirty and i can speak english....
    I think geeks like to be secretive, so famous or not is not the point.
    As for project manager, i think you misunderstood them for marketing people. I know quite of them, and they like to tell stories about when they were doing code some years ago, them miss it sometimes.

  23. This article reminds me this one: http://bit.ly/gDvglu

    You made some interesting points here, but as others have said you forgot to talk about universities which produce better developers in my opinion. And you are also forgetting students who come from an IUT and they are in general very passionate and talented!
    Now let's get back to our Grandes Ecoles, I am studying at ISIMA which is a public school that offers 5 differents majors (Software engineering, IT, Networks, Applied Maths and Embeded systems), so you have two complete years where you can focus on one of these majors. A lot of alum. students from ISIMA are now working for Google, Yahoo!, Tivo and other cool Startups (in SF) it might an indicator about the quality of the school, but unfortunately we can feel that the ultimate goal for a large number of students is not to become a successful software engineer but to be in a company where they can spend the minimum amount of time making their hands dirty with code! It makes them feel secure or I don't know what...

    Now as far as I am concerned, I will always go in companies that value developers at their right value (Startups, Sofware companies etc.) and there are many in France seriously! Just make sure you are hanging out with the right community, not the one that consider a developer like a resource that can be outsourced...

  24. Interesting post!
    What is a good “engineer in computer science”? If it's “innovative”, in France you have to be in a start up. If it's “skilled”, it's like everywhere else, you have to be motivated by what you do and take the time. And French Geeks exist. Who are their employers? Have they been to Grandes Ecoles? That would be an interesting study.
    In Grandes Ecoles, they teach us to be (good if you want) project-managers-computer-engineers in IT instead of “highly skilled computer engineers” because it seems that the French (who said World?) IT market is more and more outsourced and IUT are already producing highly skilled people in France. And there is a real need in managing these people and understand them for the companies. (That’s what they usually tell us)
    Why the companies should hire a highly skilled and motivated French computer/software engineer when they can either hire a cheaper team in India or a cheaper highly skilled person from IUT? There is no interest for the Grandes Ecoles to train such engineers.

  25. In many countries software engineers come from diverse backgrounds such as maths, physics, electronics or even music. In France too much attention is paid to what school you went to and what paper you have. This is pointless for computer science because regardless of the school you went to, in a field that moves as fast as computer science, all that they can offer you is a basic generalist knowledge. You must continue to learn forever once you leave the school.

    In order for France to have success in this fast moving modern field, the French will have to forget that you need an entrepreneur formation to start a business, a software engineering formation to write software and waitress formation to serve coffee. That is not how this industry works.

  26. Nice article.

    However, the assumption that "French engineers come from Grandes Ecoles" isn't quite true. There quite a few less prestigeous graduate schools (such as EPITA where I study) that also train CS engineers. Whether they are actually good from an international point of view or not, that is not something I can say, but it is a fact that they actually know how to do stuff themselves without outsourcing it.

    The problem is the misconception that anything that has to do with computers is lowly and unworthy of Frenche engineers' attention.

    > Just make sure you are hanging out with the right community, not the one that consider a developer like a resource that can be outsourced...

    Yep, that is pretty much how it is.

  27. I used to believe, like some of the commenters above, that one could learn CS by himself. I have slightly changed my mind since. There are two categories of things for which you need classes:

    1) the very hard stuff

    I mean things like advanced Lambda Calculus, collaborative algorithms or AI. The problem with those is that i) you can't understand them correctly without a strong theoretical background and ii) you need lots of time to study them (say 1 year). So you have 3 solutions: find a company that pays you to study something rather abstract you're not a specialist in (goof luck), take a year off to study 6-8 hours/day (do you have the motivation? the money?) or go to a school / university.

    2) things that require expensive hardware

    The reason why it's easier to learn CS than other things is that computers are affordable. Except sometimes they aren't. I have learnt Distributed Computing at Cranfield University, UK; I had an access to a 1000+ cores supercomputer and to the British National Grid. You can learn the bases with simulation and/or a few Cloud instances, but scale changes a lot.

    However for most things, especially GUI / Web programming, I still agree with that idea. If I had to hire somebody I would always prefer a self-taught geek to some incompetent with a degree.

    As for those who say the situation is better in French Universities, I'm surprised. I have always had the impression that CS graduates had very poor coding skills too. I met a few who could write a Java class or two, but hardly any clever algorithm or sizable project. Yet, some of them had excellent grades. But maybe that depends on the University or the field of study. For those with Master's Degrees, would you mind to let us know their title?

  28. I agree with many above comments: the sentence "engineers come from Grande Ecoles" over-simplifies the reality of graduating schools.

    I know a bit EPITA, it is a nice place, quite expensive though. But most students joining EPITA are already geeks. As for geek students from Telecom Bretagne, we know how to transform them into "innovative active developer" (and they can go to US :-))

    I come from University. I can confirm: very strong theoretical background, but very few projects. Non-geeks don't become geeks there.

  29. Mostly agreing with conclusion of this blog post, but willing to add some deeper observation
    of our French typical "technical exception". First we should observe that English speaking world
    and Latin speaking world have opposite concept of Society organisation, comming from far 19° century
    options. As Latin speaking countries, highly attached to the Catholic model had an organisation of
    society based on land property, and revenue of highest class being farming and revenues made
    from what their belongs was producing, English (and northern countries), developped industry and
    technology as basis of the making of added value. This could be because of the Anglican and Reforming
    culture, more collective (assemblies) vision of the society managment. Industry and market, opposed
    to land property. From this comes English and Northern countries inventing pragmatism, rather than
    administration and heavy legal and philosophical debates. From this again comes English and Northern countries
    having a big concern in "efficiency", while Latin country continue in developing "politic sciences". At the end
    of the road, English and Northern country organise their society in growing influence layers from highest to lowest :
    Business & Industy > Financials > Operational > Politics > Cultural. Latin countries do not exactly think the same way :
    Politics > Financials > Cultural > Business & Industy > Operational. This explains why projects do not often
    achieve in success in France when the project needs to really reach an exploitation goal: chain from willing to
    realisation is much too long. Somewhere are projets achieveing : operational projects that are directly driven by Businesss
    necessities, here is the chain quite short and can be effective. Now shall we come back to our subject : Computer Sciences.
    Computers provide means to make things, calculate and display. It offers huge services to operational people, making
    them more efficient and productive. Who cares about that at the other end of the chain ? This is the major issue our Grandes
    Ecoles can provide good technical engineers in computer sciences. Grandes Ecoles are dedicated to produce Direction and
    Command elite, who needs to learn dealing with the top of the scale : Politics. No care about what Computing Sciences can
    do, allow or provide to the Society. In the reality, there is a strong mistrusting between political world and computer sciences
    world, because controling computers is controlling a huge economical and marketing power, sometimes much more than politicians
    can even control. We just have to consider the actual events in Tunisia and Egypt, to understand that society control based
    on rigid political system does not resists a lot to the mass organisation effect IT tools and uses can generate. this might be a severe
    signal given to our political elites.

  30. 1. Someone with a numerate background should have no problem with lambda calculus or AI, these things are not really that complicated.

    2. It is in very few cases that expensive hardware is needed in industry. Expensive hardware is mostly for academic purposes or in state sponsored research.

  31. Very interesting point of view. I agree that at my time I was a bit disappointed by my Computer Science teaching. It felt very academic at the time. CAML, Scheme, ADA, Pascal and Object oriented Databases. But it was the time where personal computers picked up. I wanted to learn C and C++ and SQL. I came in being already a Geek, and I learned most of what I know during the free projects where I could play around with Windows programming and then Web programming. I even chose to do Electronics because I was not interested in the "Genie Logiciel" and I learned a lot of things about Hardware and Assembly programming.

    Now I don't think the teaching is the only issue. I think the bigger problem is the eco-system. As some pointed out the french career is too much geared towards making you a "manager". But moreover it's lacking cool jobs for the best ones.

    I know quite a lot of geeks from my year that live in California now, and the ones that stayed in France created their company. I'm sure Dassault System (with Exalead), IBM (with iLog), Business Objects and others have plenty of grande ecole graduates. But it's just already yesterday's jobs.

    When Netscape was it France it was a magnet for those that wanted a Internet job. And quite a few companies (but not too many probably) where created by people that have worked at Netscape. I then joined NetValue which was in creation where one of the founders was an ex-Netscape and then a few companies were also created by ex-NetValue people.

    It's welcome that Google will start hiring engineers in France (although let's hope they won't start by 'stealing' the best engineers from existing companies). It might help french engineers meet french sales and marketing guys and could lead to great teams.

    It's all about the experience and then meeting the right people that also have experience.

    This eco-system is very complicated to build because we are also lacking french or european companies "buying" the innovative companies. Otherwise there tends to be a lot of value destroyed.

  32. I forgot to mention I'm the CEO of XWiki and thanks for mentioning XWiki in your post. At XWiki we do have engineers from Grandes Ecoles though it's though to attract them because of cost issues. SSII's and Telecom companies will drive the salary higher than what startup can afford.

    I've thought a bit more and I really think the issue is the ecosystem. There are plenty of famous engineers in Computer Science but they are not in France.

    Let's actually be even more specific:

    * Marc Fleury X89 Founder of JBoss
    * Edwin K Centrale Paris Founder of Collaxa (sold to Oracle) and Feedly http://www.feedly.com

    and there a plenty of them. Actually if you run a search on linkedin on "Computer Science/Games/Hardware" and "Ecole Polytechnique" and either USA or France you've got:

    * 804 results for France
    * 359 results for USA

    1 third of LinkedIn registered Ecole Polytechnique people working in Computers are now in the US !!!

    The numbers seem a bit smaller for Ecole Centrale and ENST which is even more scary.

    A few things that could be done is creating more ties between the schools and the few companies that are fun in the domain of Computer Science.

    On this subject Gwendal in your region I know that Alenty (http://www.alenty.com/) has a nice hire plan for engineers in Quimper. If you have smart people send them to Alenty (disclaimer: I'm a business angel of Alenty).

  33. One thing that wasn't mentioned is that a lot of students end up in a CS "grande école" by accident.

    Prep school ("math spe") is 2-3 years of intensive maths and physics, sanctioned by a final test. Your ranking at that test determines which school you are admissible to. People pick the highest school they can get. It's a computer science school? Oh well, I'll do computer science then...

    I studied at one of France's highest-rated CS schools, by choice. One of my fellows was also admissible to Centrale Paris (better rated), but chose my school because he wanted CS specifically. When he told us so, the other students were almost ready to kill him :-)

    Once inside, you're told that you are France's elite (they really told us that!), that you've done the hardest part (prep school), and that the 3 years to come will be a lot of fun. Classes? No need to go. Programming assignment? Pair with a nerd and let him do everything. The issue is that, of the 5-6 years of secundary education, only the last 3 have CS, but these are the "easy" years.

    I saw people who didn't care about CS, didn't write a line of code during 3 years, and yet managed to work just enough to get a shining diploma. I'm not saying they were the majority, but they do exist.

    Lately, I saw a job offer that said "we don't give a sh*t about your diplomas, show us some code". I wish more employers had that attitude.

  34. Definitely agree with the latest comment. And big up for those companies that are asking about actual and pragmatic skills, personal projects, open source contributions rather than the name of the Grande Ecole or whatever!

  35. If only they didn't close IUPs, 5 years Master at university with 1,5 years cumulated training in real companies. With 30 people max a classroom, this was apparently an expansive public place, even if 100% of graduates find work 3 months max after school...

    Actually I'm teaching Groovy and Grails in the Toulouse Science university, I think this is a positive signal. They also get Agile development courses for 5+ years now ! I mean this is deeply more actual and interesting for today software needs than ADA / PLSQL, or at least it should be modular. I don't want to evict project management, laws and financial as it could be very useful specially for stratups.

    I hope Grandes Ecoles will follow this kind of initiatives, or they will take the risk to fall in the mediocrity.

  36. Mostly true, but I think Criteo (www.criteo.com) is a perfect counter-example... 50+ software engineers from Mines / Centrale / etc. And we have a LOT of open positions in the R&D team. Get in touch if you're interested :)

  37. Great post. Schools need to provide engineers in line with their customers (big companies) needs, and the need is for managers (to outsource responsibility in case of failure, etc.). It's the school responsibility to be pragmatic and honest about the job market. You will simply get paid much more adding man hours/euros in Excel, or finding out what your big customer's boss is into, than designing a great system. My CS classes were mediocre at best, but the most useful thing they taught me there is to produce "bullsh*t reports". I wish there were acting classes though. But is this really a "French exception"? After all Dilbert is american. Anyway, everyone has to make a choice: the Gandhi way or the Wally way ;-)

  38. > 1. Someone with a numerate background should have no problem with
    > lambda calculus or AI, these things are not really that complicated.

    There's a 99% chance you're pre-valley :) http://lbrandy.com/blog/2010/03/never-trust-a-programmer-who-says-he-knows-c/

    > 2. It is in very few cases that expensive hardware is needed in industry.
    > Expensive hardware is mostly for academic purposes or in state
    > sponsored research.

    Of course. Everybody knows that EDF, Total, etc are not in the Top500 list and that private clouds are only used for research purpose...

  39. J'adore tous ces geeks frenchies branchés qui jactent en anglais , sans doute parce qu'ils ont honte d'être français ou que le français ça fait plouc dans le show-business !

    J'adore ces gens qui crachent sur le système français mais qui (étudiants ou profs ) en profitent quand même ( allez donc vous inscrire dans une Université US et vous verrez le prix annuel...)et au final trouvent un bon job en moins de 3 mois !

    J'adore ces gens qui prennent des IBM ou autres Microsoft comme exemple et qui oublient les Alcatel, Areva , Archos ou autre Guillemot...( merci à Critéo de sauver l'honneur)

    Alors un peu d'honnêteté SVP .... ou alors comme tout bon français râleur allez donc voir ailleurs si l'herbe y est plus verte et donnez nous de vraies nouvelles en rentrant.

    Bernard Provoc , l'infâme Darth Vador de Peerdal

    1. lol j' ai étudié la gestion et l' expertise comptable 10 ans en bts lycée public d'enseignement supérieur, universitė public et institut ėtatique.

      J'ai appris seul l'informatique (algos, langage c...) intensivement seul pendant 3 ans et 2 ans de td sur des petits travaux freelance.

      Maintenant je travaille comme technicien informatique.

  40. Hum, just a comment about something I have read here: I studied at Epita myself, and I am a 1st year PHD candidate right now, so yeah you CAN get a research related job with the degree... The Epita degree is now granted with the CTI label (like any "grande école"...) which allows to apply for a PHD program (CTI also means you get the "grade master" AND that the salary s supposedly better...).

  41. Nice article, I don't even know that there is a very good computer science researcher in our school...

  42. Interesting flow of articles.

    Reading them I come back 30 years ago when I tried to convince top management at Philips (not a French company) that recognizing top technical talent instead of only managers wiuld be profitable for the company. This had nothing specificially to do with CS (I am a physicist). I has more to do with how Europeans in general consider technical careers, maybe Germany being an exception (unsure).

    They installed a double ladder with principal scientists and fellows, but did anything really change?

    Paul Friedel

  43. Hi
    Just want to know that the courses taught in these grande ecoles are in English or French?

  44. hi..Im student from Informatics engineering, this article is very informative, thanks for sharing :)

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  46. You can't expect people with few skills in computer science not to try to have a share in this business. Grandes Écoles are not providing an elite, they are providing social status. The disease is not the disease of the school but of the french elitist society that prefers to have employees with a well defined social behaviour (a status) rather than competence (merit).
    The actual opposite of the American continent where skills are more valued than competence.

    Since the $$$ are in computer science, since it has become cool to be geek, then, the same way they went in our cities and "arrondissement" to take our cheap rents, they also took our jobs.

    The problem with status is people that are clueless can't say no.
    The problem with trying to build software/harware with this mentality is when it is just plain impossible.
    Will status prime? Will the reality of the HW/SW prime?
    For a company to function correctly skills should prime. In France only social status prime.
    I have been in the first open source companies in France in 2000 and we were few, then the market share opened and the shit begun when we saw this «grandes écoles» coming in our company and our ecosystem telling us how to do «correct free software». Correctness in which we did not fit anymore.

    I have, and since a long time, have learnt that these people where litterate with very profound words, but without any understanding of the concepts they were using. I learnt to not be impressed anymore and I built through successive experiences a strong negative "a priori".

    Okay, there are some exceptions. Exceptions that systematically tend not to care about the «grandes écoles» and since their formation costed 10 times more than in our universities, and since it is a very meritocratic system (amongst a very little minority), I must admit I do really appreciate these exceptions more than the disgust that inspires me the rest of their heird. I so wished we all had an equal access to this amazing education.

    I wished that all students had a truly equal access to the knowledge in good conditions whatever the wealth and postal address of their parents.

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  48. My view, which will probably provoke some people here on both sides, is still that students from Grandes Ecoles, on average, have higher potential for IT programming than the rest of students from small Ecoles or university, at the time these students are 20 years old.

    But afterwards, the problem is that this higher potential gets spoiled by wrong financial incentives, because HEC-like "bullshit presentations" are better paid than coding in C++. This creates a big waste of talent.

    These "elites" still keep a sense of entitlement and become "lazy geniuses": coding software is too easy for them to even bother trying. Why? Because they succeeded to a much harder task in their late teenager years: they rehearsed a 45-minutes linear algebra exercise on an obscure blackboard.

    And the saddest part of the story is that the SSII programmer from the no-name school remains frustrated and unmotivated by this neo-feodal system, he feels treated like low-cost meat, and so he is less productive.

    In turn this keeps French salaries lower, including of the Polytechnicien himself, who could easily double his salary by going abroad, if he bothered using his potential "taupinal" again.

  49. People idolizing the American way of teaching Computer Science, should know Americans also believe that a Physicist, or a Mathematician does have the ability, to become a developper, as those Subjects are very often, if not always, considered to be more difficult than is CS. Which i also believe.

    Thus i do consider that someone who went through the Classe prepa, which are as stated before Physics/Maths intense, with examinations that are far far more intellectually demanding than your average at university ( seriously you should compare a Polytechnique paper, with papers from the best US universities, trust me, i've done it ) and got into one of the best School, undoubtedly demonstrated that he knew how to think, as opposed to someone who went through university, who may even be smarter, but did not have yet the possibility to prove it (seriously, how could you find AI or lambda calculus hard ?).

    Furthermore, and correct me if i am wrong, i read on a trustworthy forum that Doctors(phD) in CS often did not know to program, maybe is it because it is less interesting than the theoretical side of CS ? (Basing myself on the fact that people in Doctoral programs were often very good in their undergraduate program, or master )

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  54. So very true, Ecole Polytechnique was a huge disappointment to me on that front. The last 3rd year assignments were implementing a Sudoku solver and a GPS navigation system, whose difficulty levels were a joke compared to Stanford's CS department.

    I hope that new schools such as 42 can at last create great software engineers in France, I don't think they are ever going to come from Grandes Ecoles.

    1. Once you've learned how to program a Sudoku solver and a GPS navigation system, you know everything you need to know to manage a group of coders who aren't nearly as smart as you are.

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  56. I left math and physics for a time and went into software development. It was a huge mistake. Software is less interesting than math or physics and the people who develop software are not nearly as smart as mathematicians and physicists. I got so very depressed working with people who think they are smart because they can program in Python or whatever is the language du jour. So now I'm back in math and physics. Of course I still program but only in computation. My attitude is that math is really a branch of physics and the only use for computation is to allow us to do our sums faster and also to graph and do animations. One last note is that I became involved in AI for a while. What a scam that is. I think the French are too intelligent to become computer-obsessed nerds like the Americans. The computer is just another tool. Rant over.

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