From Deep Coal to High Tech: How Coders are Remaking Appalachia
BitSource and Mined Minds are on a mission: To revitalize Appalachia by bringing high-tech coding jobs to coal country.
Michael Harrison heard the strange radio ad on his way to the unemployment office.
“It wasn’t really cryptic, but it was light on details,” Harrison says. “No one had a clue what it was.”
But someone was hiring, and in a place like eastern Kentucky in 2015, that’s all that mattered. A former miner, Harrison had been laid off along with thousands of others at mines across Appalachia. He applied immediately — and so did 950 others.
The sheer number of applications overwhelmed BitSource’s co-founders, Rusty Justice and Lynn Parish. “We anticipated getting 50,” Justice says. Instead, “we got so many that we had to take down the website, because we just couldn’t process any more.”
After seeing so many of their friends and colleagues affected by coal’s decline, the pair of industry veterans had founded BitSource on a simple premise: That bringing tech to Appalachia could revitalize the region, and that displaced coal miners — with their relentless work ethic and penchant for problem-solving — could be trained to do the work. After all, miners are really just “high-tech workers who get dirty,” Justice says, and coders can earn wages comparable to coal jobs.
Justice and Parish built a database to organize the applications they received. “We chose our first [10-person] cohort as a cross-sectional representation of our industry and our region,” Justice says. “We hired them based on commitment and character, and started training them.”
Meanwhile, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, Amanda Laucher and her husband, Jonathan Graham, were visiting Laucher’s family. They’d been living in the U.K. before moving to Chicago work in software development. “We’d driven to my parents’ house for a summer barbecue, where my brother, Marvin, told us about the mines going under and his friends being laid off. He had a meeting coming up that week and figured he’d be laid off, too,” Laucher says. “He was thinking about getting his commercial driver’s license. I said, ‘Why don’t you get into code?’And he said he just couldn’t do it—not with three kids at home. He couldn’t just not work for four years while he got a degree.”
That got Laucher and Graham thinking. “During the short eight-hour drive back to Chicago, we thought, ‘Oh, this drive isn’t too bad. We could do this every weekend,” Graham jokes. “But that’s what we did.” The couple began regular trips back to Greene County, where they taught Marvin and others the fundamentals of software development at a volunteer fire hall. “We found that miners had a really good aptitude for coding, and many of them wanted to switch careers. They didn’t want to leave the area, so we started using our contacts in New York and elsewhere to bring work in. We effectively started a consultancy on accident.”
Mined Minds was born. Laucher and Graham quit their jobs in Chicago and moved to Greene County full time. Today, their nonprofit has three offices and will soon host coding classes in two additional spaces. “Billions of dollars’ worth of coding work is outsourced,” says Graham. “Why not bring some of that work here?”
On Monday night, representatives from both firms appeared on stage at South Fayette High School as part of the district’s Inspire Series, which aims to teach attendees about computer science and STEAM careers. The answer to the event’s title — “Can Miners Learn to Code?” — was an emphatic “yes” as former miners shared their stories. Throughout the evening, which included presentations from BitSource and Mined Minds as well as a panel discussion and audience Q&A, it became increasingly clear that to remake an economy, regions must also remake learning.
Michael Harrison, Payton May, and Rusty Justice of BitSource; Jonathan Graham, Marvin Laucher, and Amanda Laucher of Mined Minds. (Photo via Aileen Owens, South Fayette School District)
“The phrase computational thinking comes up again and again,” Laucher says. “In this work, you’re going to have problems that there aren’t necessarily answers for. A lot of people, when they first start coding, want you to tell them how to do it. But the truth is that there are 4,000 different ways to do it, and you need to pick one, weigh trade-offs, and make decisions about the best way to move forward in that specific context. Sometimes people get frustrated and want to say, ‘Okay, I can’t solve this.’ But you can’t do that when you have a paying client.”
Her brother, Marvin Laucher, agrees. “You fail all the time, but you just keep going and push through,” he says. “If nothing else, learning to code teaches you how to think.”
With dozens of coding- and technology-focused events taking place from May 15 to 26, Remake Learning Days is set to help students across Pittsburgh and West Virginia learn these same 21st century skills — perseverance, confidence, and the ability to iterate and problem-solve. “They’re so valuable,” says Amanda Laucher, regardless of what learners grow up to do. “Even the people who come through, take computer programming courses, and never write another line of code leave thinking differently. They solve problems in new and different ways. Coding improves their lives.”