Saturday, July 01, 2006

Wizard School

It's hard to believe it's only been eleven years since they opened the first Wizard School. I hear they just opened new campuses in Singapore and Istanbul. That's, what, sixteen or seventeen locations now? And enrollment is already backlogged five to ten years at the new campuses. The money involved just defies the imagination. Mine, anyway.

In retrospect it seems pretty obvious. Who'd have guessed they'd make so much money, though? We were all there, all programming in the same industry, but somehow the two founders saw an opportunity there that the rest of us missed.

I think it's worse than that, actually. I mean, I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it. Didn't you? But I'm such a late adopter. I didn't know about Napster, not really, not until they were being shut down. I didn't buy a DVD player or a CD player or an iPod until they'd been out at least six or seven years each. Stuff like this always feels like it happened overnight, but I guess they've been building to it for a quite a while.

I mean I'd heard about the Wizard Academies, sure. But it was this subculture, this thing interns and high school kids were buzzing about, should they go to college or wiz school, blah blah blah. I wasn't really paying attention. Then suddenly it was this mega-phenomenon, growing faster any educational institution in history.

It's not just that we didn't think of it. Face it: we would have scoffed if someone had suggested the idea. C'mon... "Wizards"? It sounded like someone was just jealous of J.K. Rowling. Especially the more you hear about the campuses.

Some people have been mailing me lately, random people asking me if their kids should go. It's expensive. Way expensive. Tough choice to make, even now, with Wizard Academy grads making anywhere from a quarter million to a million a year, while the rest of us plod away in 5-figure territory. I'm not exactly going to make that decision for them, but I threw together some notes — most of it old hat for anyone who hasn't been living under a rock — to help them make their decision.

I'm dumping my notes here until I think of a better place to put them. For now, I can just forward this stuff to anyone else who asks.

None of it should be new to you.

Why Not College?

It's still an honorable thing to get a Ph.D. I think that'll hold true for another twenty years, at least, because people like to hold on to their traditions. And even an undergrad degree in CS can still get you a job. If you can't afford the Wizard Academy, or you can't pass the entrance tests, or you just got on the waiting list too late, then a CS degree from a good university is still probably the best way to prep for a job in the tech industry. It's not as if the Wiz Schools have killed CS at universities. Not yet, anyway.

Besides, CS degrees are changing now. A lot of the more progressive universities have been overhauling their CS curricula as fast as they can, in response to the Wiz Schools. I mean, my God. The Wizards are coming in with significantly higher computer science scores than the CS grads, and theory isn't really what the Wizards are known for.

Heck, the wiz schools themselves are the newest fad in research departments (sociology and education departments, mostly) across the country — all over the world, even. Everyone has different hypotheses as to why Wizards are so damn good. Nobody seems to know for sure. But they are good, that much at least is indisputable. And they're in unbelievable demand now.

You hire a Ph.D., it's hit-or-miss. Some of them are brilliant. But then some subset of virtually every educated group is brilliant. The problem is that the notion of a Ph.D. has gradually been watered down for the last century. It used to mean something to be a Doctor of Philosophy: it meant you had materially advanced your discipline for everyone. Von Neumann, Nash, Turing — people like that, with world-changing dissertations, they just don't happen that often anymore, at least not in CS. Well, they probably occur at the same frequency, but it's one in a thousand at best.

Instead, what usually happens is a bright young Ph.D.-to-be chooses a school based on expedience: finances, or location, or parental pressure. There might be a dozen or so advisors to choose from, and the department as a whole has only one or two really big, prestigious areas of focus, areas for which the school is known (and hence funded). So if a kid goes to a school that does a lot of X, chances are pretty damn good the kid's going to do her Ph.D. thesis in X. But it's probably specialized to death, and the kid will wind up working for years on some tiny slice of almost-nothing: little prototype mobile doodads that track forest monkeys or something. And the kid will lose faith, stop hoping their thesis will ever mean anything, and they'll go through the motions until their advisor pities them and lets them defend.

I'm not saying it's a rubber stamp. These kids have to work hard for their Ph.D., and a lot of them never quite finish. But too often they finish without having written more than a few hundred lines of code in the past five years. Or they've over-specialized to the point where they now think Big-O is a tire company; they have no idea how computers or computation actually work anymore. They can tell you just about everything there is to know about SVM kernels and neural-net back propagation, or about photorealistic radiosity algorithms that make your apartment look fake by comparison. But if you want a website thrown together, or a scalable service written, or for that matter a graphics or machine-learning system, you're usually better off hiring a high-school kid, because the kid might actually know how to program. Some Ph.D.s can, but how many of them is it, really? From an industry perspective, an alarming number of them are no-ops.

The bigger, better-known companies — Yahoo!, Google,, Microsoft — those guys can spot a dud a mile off, over the phone even. Credentials don't matter, not strictly even for Wiz Academy grads with eight OWLs and five NEWTs or whatever the hell they're called. (I still can't believe how closely they copied Rowling's design.) What matters is what you know, and what you can do, and a Ph.D. laureate in CS these days, even from a "top" university, has about an 80% chance of failing interviews at one of these companies.

It's still honorable to get a Ph.D. But it's no guarantee of a job. Not a high-paying one, anyway, not at a company with a bright future. It is a lot cheaper than Wiz School, though, and it's easier to get in. So I'd consider it a pretty good fallback option.

Wiz School Tour

Well, you know all about the campuses; you can't watch the news for two hours nowadays without getting some sort of virtual tour, or hearing about some company's stock soaring after they won the first-round draft picks from the Nassau campus, or Kauai, or Chardonnay. They're half Google and half Hogwarts, seven-year boarding schools complete with Great Houses, robes, the whole works. Wizard Schools. Just like you'd expect, I guess.

They're always located out in remote, beautiful areas. No expenses spared. Full-time staff, like you'd find in a hotel or a cruise ship. Rich kids and scholarship kids alike, but only the brightest. Reminds me of Ender Wiggin's Battle School. Not just anyone gets to go. You've got to be a prodigy, a kid genius, and not just at math or science. They look for kids with spark, with personality, and their interviews are famous for being both gruelling and quirky. Interviews can last for up to 2 weeks. There's no guesswork involved; they keep you there until they know everything about you, or at least enough to know if you're Wizard material.

Just getting invited to the interviews is a big deal, something to brag about; being selected probably qualifies you for any early-entrance program at any school in most countries. Only 20% make it to the third day, and only one in fifty interviewees gets an offer to attend the school.

I hear they're giving more and more scholarships now. At first it was all rich foreign kids: kids whose parents couldn't get visas, due to the stupid U.S. immigration regulations at the time, which were later relaxed after the big Brain Drain hit. That's another story, of course, and one you already know about. But it explains why there were so many kids from countries like Indonesia and Thailand and Hong Kong in the first graduating classes: insanely brilliant kids from rich families who wanted the best education money could buy, and who were willing to take risks and be early adopters for what even today sounds like the craziest stunt (or scam) ever pulled.

It wasn't crazy, though, and it was no scam. Those first kids that graduated, seven years later, all of 18 years old, they're the youngest crop of CTOs and senior architects and company founders our industry had ever seen, and maybe that any industry had seen since, I don't know, the Gold Rush. Wiz Kids. A well-deserved pun.

Are They Really Better?

Oh, man. You have no idea. A fifth-round draft pick (companies bid for draft picks, of course; you can't just hire any Wizard Academy grad you want, and the process is now independently regulated to ensure fairness) comes "stock" with a skills lineup that would make any hiring manager drool uncontrollably. Probably with fear, since a kid like that will obsolete anyone with the title "hiring manager".

They type 140 to 160 words a minute, almost soundlessly, and always bring their own keyboards. They disdain mice, although recently I hear they've been using pointers attached to their foreheads. No idea how they control them so easily — makes my neck hurt just to think about it. Lots of practice. Hours of drills. Start 'em young, and they all say it's a snap, just like you'd tell your grandmother that using a mouse is a snap, when it's pretty obvious it really isn't.

They know their discrete mathematics and CS theory cold, of course, although I hear it's at the expense of more traditional disciplines like trigonometry and physics, unless they choose those subjects as electives. They're in class for 8 to 10 hours a day, and their homework load is at least equivalent to a full-time college degree, but they're starting it all at 11 or 12 years old.

But all that aside, they're probably most famous for their coding. Just plain, basic coding. I mean, we all think of ourselves as good coders, but the Wizards do it as easily as we breathe air. While a "normal" programmer is puzzling over design patterns, or trying to simplify complex code paths, a Wizard is blasting out code at the rate of hundreds of thousands of lines a year. And it's all amazingly high quality. Numerous studies have shown their code, on average, to have 80% fewer bugs and at least 100% (2x) better performance than the industry average. It's safe to say the Wizards graduating at the bottom of their class are still safely in the top 1% of industry grads.

Of course, blasting out hundreds of thousands of lines a year is missing the point. If a Wizard is given complete technical control over a project (which is usually the smartest thing to do, but companies are rarely very smart), the Wizard will typically write in one of the super-succinct "folding languages" they've developed on campus, usually a Lisp or Haskell derivative.

They call them Folding Languages because they write code that writes code that writes code... Wizards swear by it, and there's no question that they can produce amazingly compact, fast, clean-looking code. But 90% of the devs out there claim they can't read it, and whine a lot about it to their bosses. Given that most companies can only afford a few Staff Wizards, the Wizards are usually forced to capitulate and use Java or C++. They're equally comfortable in any language you throw at them, though, and if you force them to use a verbose language, well, you get what you ask for. It still amazes me that companies are bragging about how many lines of code their Wizards have produced. Potential startups take note: your competitors are usually idiots.

Will My Kid Be Normal?

Good question. It's not exactly "normal" to be a millionaire by age 22. But if you're worried that your kid is going off to join some strange Scientology-like cult, just go visit the campus. Online, of course. You can't actually get onto one of the campuses unless you're press, family, police, a guest speaker, or a Personage of Note like, say, the President of some country. They don't want you bothering the students. But you can take online tours, and they're all quite amazing, using technology largely developed at the campuses themselves. And it's pretty much what you'd expect: a carefully monitored boarding school. The robes and Wizard stuff is mostly there to make it fun, and to imbue it all with a sense of seriousness that always comes of wearing uniforms.

The professors are uniformly entertaining and brilliant. They're always seasoned industry pros, usually famous names. Everyone knows Larry Wall as the Head Wizard of the Aspen campus, the first campus they opened on U.S. soil. Most young folks don't realize Larry was the inventor of a language called "Perl" that was really popular in the 1990s and 2000s, up through 2010 or so. He was independently famous in his own right before taking the job, but these days he's famous entirely because of the Headmaster gig. He's won the Dumbledore Award for three consecutive years, so he's obviously popular with Wiz Academy students worldwide. And I hear Jamie Zawinski just left his S.F. club to take the second-in-command and Tools Master position in the Christchurch campus. Wanna be a prof at Wizard School? Gotta be famous, funny, proven, brilliant, and seriously committed to the students' success.

The kids do more physical education and activity than at most other schools. No, it's not Quidditch — that would be a neat trick — but they have soccer and golf and archery and horseback riding, and they're graded on physical fitness and physical dexterity. They also have to learn a musical instrument and a significant amount of music theory, as the schools claim it makes them better programmers and designers. They all do tons of electives in the arts and sciences. And they all come out fluent in at least 3 languages (one of which must be English) chosen from a list of nearly 100 possibilities. The students are pretty well-rounded by just about any objective standard.

In addition to their math, computer science, and unrivaled coding skills, Wiz Academy grads all seem to know how to draw. At least I've never known one who couldn't. They're not all great artists, of course, but they all receive a substantial amount of training as artists, and seven years of practice at anything, even part-time, can really add up. This puts them at a natural advantage when they're creating UIs and documentation, since they rarely need to wait around for a UI designer. Or at least they can whip up a sketch that a full-time designer or artist can use as starting material. The rest of us programmers have to pantomime what we want until the artist finally draws something that looks like what we (vaguely) had in mind. I'd never have guessed basic drawing skills would be so useful, but now that I see Wizards using them all the time, I've had to change my mind about it. I think we all have.

All the Wizards I've ever met personally have seemed nice enough. I'm sure you can find a few who are arrogant jerks, but you can find people like that anywhere and everywhere if you look hard enough. Most Wizards I've known have been ordinary, nice people. Sort of like Olympians, or Cirque du Soleil performers, or any other elite group of people who've trained since childhood to do what they're doing as adults. They're just people, and a lot of their personality is probably a function of how well you raise them before sending them off to boarding school.

So yeah, I'd say they're pretty normal. I sure wish I'd gone to Wizard School.

What's Next for Wizards Worldwide?

Wizard Schools are the darlings of the press. Who knows how long it'll last. The idea that started as a half-joking blog entry in 2006 has rapidly turned into the biggest phenomenon of the past decade, with no end in site. It's possible that Wizard Schools could eventually obsolete "regular" schools, with lower-end competitors (Fairy School? Somehow I doubt it...) stepping in to siphon off unmet demand.

It's equally possible that traditional schools will continue to borrow ideas from the Wizard Schools, in much the way that big companies circa 2006 started copying Google's philosophy of massages, free food, and other amazing perks in order to attract and retain top talent. That stuff was innovative back then, but it's fairly commonplace nowadays. Once Google had proved it worked better than frugality, everyone else had to follow suit: economics demanded it. Everyone who didn't got the second-best (or more commonly, the nth-best) employees.

One thing is clear: regardless of whether you think the Rowling-style environment is strictly necessary for producing Wizard-quality grads, the enrollment backlogs have shown that there's a huge, worldwide craving for improvement. People were only going to college because there was nothing better out there. But universities aren't really there to produce superstar programmers; their primary job is research, not education, and at least until recently they hardly focused on the students at all. Some profs even considered it beneath them to teach undergrads; it's no wonder so many CS students were graduating without knowing the fundamentals of their discipline: compilers, operating systems, algorithms, computation theory, and other key areas. Let alone Unix, the Web, and the tools of the trade.

Now that the Wizard Schools have proved the market exists, it's hard to imagine that competitors won't appear. Right now it's hard to get first-rate professors, since of course they all want to go off and teach at the existing Wizard Academies. But with a suitable thematic marketing twist, or a sizeable investment from a charitable billionaire, just about anyone could become the next hot education destination.

I'll tell you this much: I'm sending my kids, if they can make it in. In fact, maybe I should start a Wiz Academy Prep School... I'd better not tell anyone about this; it sounds like an idea worth going after. Yeah... I'd better look into it. There are an awful lot of people in this world who care about improving their skills and knowledge, and they want to do it as fast as humanly possible.

I wish I'd thought of it back in 2006. I guess we all do.


Blogger Greg Linden said...

This is a strange one, Steve. It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction you get.

To whatever extent that your thoughts here are not fictional, I am surprised by the direction you seem to have taken.

I would have thought that you would be more inclined toward "let a thousand flowers bloom".

In terms of education, that would mean helping as many people as possible achieve as much as they can, not setting up an institution available to a blessed few.

In terms of management, that would mean helping everyone in the organization experiment, learn, and innovate, not anointing code wizards and ignoring the rest.

Have I misinterpreted what you are saying here? This one is a bit cryptic, so please forgive me if I have.

9:34 AM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yegge, I always thought you were half freak, especially with your Haskell fixation, but this...

Thanks for a big laugh. I loved the details about learning musical instruments and archery, and the depiction of PhD programs. There was enough truth in it that you actually had me going for a little while. You did make one serious error, though: No one would suffer the creator of an abomination like Perl to teach in such a school.

9:37 AM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Dan Nugent said...

Load of crap, everyone knows that people don't want guys that are smarter working for them.

The N-th tier talent gets hired because they can be easily manipulated.

No one that brilliant would stand to work for someone else, not for long anyhow.

11:05 AM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger BlogicBlogger said...

Loved it. I hope you put the references to Google hiring strategies and Paul Graham's rants in there on purpose, because I certainly read the music/paint/week-long-interviews bits that way.

I wish this did exist. Maybe one day it will.

6:03 PM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

I've put a new disclaimer at the top. Apparently the references to horseback riding and archery didn't trigger "Legend of Zelda" for enough people, nor did the multiple Harry Potter references make it obvious that it's just a story.

Remember *stories*? We just never seem to get those anymore. Even poor Neal Stephenson has stopped writing computer fiction, apparently.

Do blogs always have to be soapboxes? Soap doesn't even come in boxes anymore! It comes in squeeze tubes! Our cherished boxy traditions are crashing down all around us, but we still can't let go of the idea that blogs have to be -about- something.


7:20 PM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Greg Linden said...

Oops, I think my sense of humor doesn't engage on Saturday mornings until the second cup of coffee.

Next time, I'll wait until I'm more awake to comment. Sorry about that, Steve.

7:38 PM, July 01, 2006  
Blogger Sebastian Wagner said...

You made my day, sir.

In a follow-up, there would be this company that consists solely of wizards which finally pushes us into the Singularity.

That reminds me, gotta go back to reading "Rainbow's End"...

2:09 AM, July 02, 2006  
Blogger unsquander said...

There already are Geek Cruises. They could morph into Wizard Schools. But as a regretful ex-physics major, I know that software development is only a small ugly niche cult in the techie universe.

What about engineering? "Schools across Norway are to teach 3D CAD to students aged 14 to 18 using SolidWorks Education Edition software. ..." at

There should be community hour-by-hour rental machine shops, or chemistry labs, like Kinkos, where people could work on projects.

Geeks should bypass the current broken healthcare system with a health co-op, with finances run like an open source project.

There should be an American "New Oroville" ( where geeks could vote tax money to sidewalk slidewalks, or underground pneumatic transport/trash removal systems.

8:07 AM, July 02, 2006  
Blogger lomb said...

Great post. Looking forward to more speculative fiction. Don't get boxed.

10:15 AM, July 02, 2006  
Blogger Dan Nugent said...

Sorry, I still like the kind of soap that comes in the boxes. I hate that squeeze tube crap.

Also, Utopian science fiction is as boring as dirt; so, I just naturally assumed it was futurism.

5:30 AM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger Seth Dillingham said...

I knew it was (very funny) fiction pretty quickly. Not right away, but quick enough that by the end of it I was laughing out loud. In fact, I came back again this evening just to read it for another chuckle.

I don't think the disclaimer is doing you any good. Who cares if people are fooled by your cleverness? That makes it even funnier!

Also, if the dates don't give it away ("back in 2006," and "it's been 10 or eleven years, now"), then I'm not sure your disclaimer is going to do it either.


6:44 PM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger nick black said...


I've always enjoyed your blog most, most thoroughly, but then I drew back, aghast, as I happened upon your "sight"->"site" malapropism. Realizing you were referencing the aberration early on in book 6, the world went right; way to Joyce that shit up. You're the best guy ever, thanks a lot for the good times.

-nick black

3:51 PM, July 06, 2006  
Blogger Steve Yegge said...

Oooh! Thanks for the benefit of the doubt, but that is, in fact, a genuine goof on my part. I've noticed that as I grow older and more senile, I make mistakes of that sort increasingly often. They're almost always homophone substitutions, and I rarely edit my work carefully enough to catch them all. Sigh.

Thanks also for the reminder of the word "malapropism" -- I was trying to remember that exact word yesterday morning.

4:25 PM, July 06, 2006  
Blogger Jesse Millikan said...

I thought about something along these lines awhile back, and thought it would be fun to do a comic or animation-type project about it. (If I was an artist of some sort, then I might have something to show...)

I pictured it being more along the lines of a 70's-era liberal college atmosphere with a lot of peace/love and eastern religion and an extra dose of jargon file, but more out of interest than realism.

And I was picturing it being in Hell, Michigan, for no discernible reason.

3:21 PM, July 10, 2006  
Blogger Lexx said...

You caught me! I was carried away and started to worry that I'm really missing something. Till I got to last line.
You're a really cool writer. I am seriously beginning to consider your candidacy as a PR man for my future startup when it grows into huge miltinational company.
Seriously, yours is one of the best blogs out there.

2:49 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Dirk said...

Wow, I was googling wizard schools too. Damn. I cant believe I fell for that. Nice job.

12:47 AM, August 07, 2006  
Blogger Josh said...

Wait... so you are saying this doesn't exist? Seriously, good job. Sometimes it is better to dream big.

2:48 AM, August 07, 2006  
Blogger Darius said...

Such fictitious folk would never work for others... maybe only with the illusion of working for others.

Many more skills than tech skills are also needed, such as leadership.

Only learning in a language of their own making would keep their knowledge amongst themselves to create a class of their own. Would they use Smalltalk for smalltalk? A priesthood of sorts.

Moral development continues through the turbulent teens. Don't want Slytherin types taking over the tech world. Wealthy parents aren’t known for raising moral children in the early years.

Besides, the Croquet project democratized the whole thing for everyone in 2007 via VR.

8:50 PM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Darius said...

P.S. Croquet's theme is from the Alice in Wonderland stories. That's from open source literature rather than closed source literature. The orig. stories are also a merging of poetry and math, chess and cards, logic and chance.

8:56 PM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger Alexandre said...

You just make me dream, until I saw the comments and searched Google for "Wizard Schools"...

For someone like me, that works hard to become a great programmer, going to a school likes that would rank #1 in the list: "The things I what to do before I die."

Thanks for that magical moment, even if it didn't last long.

1:28 PM, August 25, 2006  
Blogger Agathe said...

100% agreed on the PhD part. I'm still currently undecided on the issue. Should I or shouldn't I get a PhD in CS?

How many of the readers get scared before getting it's a joke. I was at least.
Is it a reverse-psychological way of making us strive for excellence? That'd work! Although I suspect that protectionist measures are easier to apply than pursuing the quest to excellence.

4:46 PM, August 27, 2006  
Blogger Si said...


You don't post often enough. Not nearly enough.

4:19 PM, August 31, 2006  
Blogger Raimondas said...

Very interesting and thought provoking article. More comments here.

1:16 PM, September 19, 2006  
Blogger tdk said...

Am I the only one who is struck by the eerie similarity between this idea and John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider? The key difference being that stevey's idea is for private enterprise to do it, whilst Brunner saw the government creating the schools. While I'd love to see stevey's vision come true, I fear that Brunner's is at least as likely. Tarnover, anyone?

10:20 PM, October 03, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

We worked as a small team the way you describe it happens at google back in '92 and produced a great piece of software which these days is called Microsoft Dynamics NAV. Rather than 10 people it now takes hundreds of people to make a new version. Yet they still haven't really changed what we made back then, I guess it still does the job.

7:25 PM, October 04, 2006  
Blogger Надежда Чоторова said...

Sorry, Steve...
I don't agree with you. Your proposal will work if there is one team only. In a bigger company it is necessary to be more organised

12:50 AM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger standgale said...

Steve wrote: Do blogs always have to be soapboxes? Soap doesn't even come in boxes anymore! It comes in squeeze tubes!

What? Tubes? Is this part of the story too or does soap really come in tubes? That would be weird, like toothpaste.

1:39 PM, October 05, 2006  
Blogger Jeffrey Davidson said...

The Most Innovative College in America has 27 graduates. Maybe you can get them to go a bit further and become a Wizard School.

10:57 AM, October 11, 2006  
Blogger acne treatment said...

The name sounds like something from Harry Potter a wizard school where the kids can do their magic. Do they teach magic tricks in private schools? I don't think they do in public school...

11:45 PM, February 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it splendid job.
I am very charming on visit this site,please allow strangers to login there is no option for sign up I visit this site but Iam puzzled to get an account . because I am a n3ew member I can't find sign up option

10:57 PM, August 19, 2007  
Blogger jcobbers said...

This is Great. I really was tricked -- although I'm sad this isn't true

11:13 AM, August 29, 2007  
Blogger moravion said...

Just re-reading this oldie but goodie. One mistake -- it will probably be pretty typical to be a millionaire by 22 this far into the future ;) -- inflation, think about it.


3:13 PM, October 03, 2007  

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