Canary in the Code Mine
As America switches from an industrial economy to a digital one, its bluest collar workers are facing the toughest challenge of their lives. Can miners really learn how to code?
Rusty Justice doesn’t think about Michael Bloomberg very often. But when he does — even if it’s just for a moment — it’s like remembering the gloating rich kid who stole his lunch.
The distaste started when the New York City billionaire donated $50 million to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign back in 2011, and continued when he poured in another $30 million this year. Rusty, you see, runs a land-moving company in Eastern Kentucky, and the anti-coal movement is playing a big role in systematically closing down the industry he’s worked around all his life.
Say what you will about the long-term environmental effects (Justice, for one, is very pro-coal) but the impact on the area’s one-source economy has been brutal. Some 8,000 miners have been laid off in the last four years — that’s more people than the entire population of Justice’s hometown, Pikeville. On the road to a cleaner energy future, the surrounding neck of Appalachia is looking like roadkill.
But Rusty’s unease with Bloomberg turned into a gut-deep animus last year, when the self-confessed hillbilly—if you’re from this part of the world that’s a self-identifier, not an insult—sat down for his weekly, three-hour, Saturday morning news-reading session. That’s when he came across Bloomberg’s latest jab.
There he was, this business mogul, preaching “compassion” for the miners watching their world collapse — while simultaneously saying they couldn’t be retrained to work in America’s hottest industry.
“Mark Zuckerberg says you teach them to code and everything will be great,” said Bloomberg. “I don’t know how to break it to you …. but no.”
It wasn’t just about coal politics this time — on that stuff, at least, Justice can agree to disagree. This? This was just patronizing.
“It touched every button of every stereotype you can put on us, that we’re not smart and can’t do things and are pitiful and all that,” Justice told me. “It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull’s face.”
Rusty Justice thought he might know miners a little better than some fancy tycoon in New York did. That’s why, at dawn one October morning last year, he trotted down his driveway towards a silver F-150 truck idling in the street and drove some 150 miles along the Mountain Parkway to Lexington.
It was time to go and prove Bloomberg wrong.
They called them company towns for a reason. Coal is to Eastern Kentucky what tech is to Silicon Valley — the most copious, best-paid work that pushes every other lever in the economy. Each coal job supports three-and-a-half others, which means if you pull the plug on them, the economy goes out. There go the machinery vendors and mechanics. There go the train operators. The mine security guards. The bartenders. The cashiers at the family-run grocery store. There go 70 percent of Justice’s construction jobs. In Pike County, the only major non-coal factory churns out Pop-Tarts for Kellogg’s.
Justice never imagined the crash would be this sudden nor this bad, but things just keep piling on. EPA clean air regulations have power plants changing over to natural gas, there’s greater regulation of strip mining, and a series of cities, universities, and state pension plans are divesting themselves from coal.
Justice compares the disruption to the way Uber’s turning the cab industry inside out. With some coal company stocks crashing 95 percent in value over the last five years, I would say it’s way, way worse.
On Wall Street, it’s a big enough problem that the New York Stock Exchange threatened former industrial titans with delisting. In mining country, though, it looks like this: conveyer belts stretching up like fossilized dinosaur necks, with conical stacks of black coal sitting below, waiting for a phantom market.
For decades, miners have been middle-class breadwinners making $60–80,000 a year, with a mortgage and a fishing boat and a truck and kids in new Nikes at basketball practice. Now they’re hitting the unemployment office in the thousands, signing up for help.
Justice and his business partner M. Lynn Parrish—they’ve run Jigsaw Enterprises together for five years—have long accepted it: coal is basically over. The federal government has pumped nearly $23 million into the region in the last two years to diversify the post-coal economy and retrain miners into jobs like installing broadband fiber. But until there’s some serious new high-paying option, most ex-mine workers are getting by on unemployment, taking lower paying jobs, moving away, or, as one put it to me, “going into panic mode.”
Whatever happens, the same-old isn’t going to work.
Rusty and Lynn got the idea when they visited Awesome Inc, a Lexington tech incubator. They’d driven up from Pikeville, turning onto the Mountain Parkway, cutting down through the shale mountains, and chatting like always. “Windshield time,” Justice calls it.
Inside, Awesome had all the visual shorthand of Silicon Valley: ping pong table, programmer books, entrepreneurs typing at rented desks. Rusty and Lynn soaked it all in. They filed into a glass-walled conference room along with a gang of other Kentucky entrepreneurs, to speak with the space’s 29-year-old co-founder Nick Such.
Coding is the most in-demand job in today’s economy, Such told them. Lexington tech companies couldn’t find enough.
“Don’t they need a computer science degree?” asked Justice.
“No,” said Such. “It’s like welding. It’s a trade. It’s a skill.”
In fact, he said, they were running classes all the time, teaching teens and college grads how to program. And how much could they earn? Well, a junior developer in Kentucky could make $60-$80,000 a year.
Justice’s ears perked up: mining wages.
Intrigued, Justice and Parrish piled back into the F-150. As the bluegrass horse pastures of central Kentucky faded into the red-tinged oak trees covering the Appalachians, they started chatting. The two had looked for a solution in several potential industries over the last two years: wind farms, fish farms, farm farms.
Could coding be it?
It was certainly a long shot. Other than being handy with an iPhone, and using tracking their truck fleet on iPads, neither of them knew a thing about software. And although tech scenes have cropped up in cities in the middle of the country — Boulder, Austin, Indianapolis — things still lag in truly rural areas. In fact, Kentucky is the only rural area included in the White House’s TechHire program to train people for digital jobs. Kentucky has been spending federal funds to train customer service work-from-homers, place out-of-work miners into other jobs, and a coding camp for kids. No one had tried to turn adult miners into coders.
But why not? Justice asked.
The two kept thinking about what Such said about coding being a trade. “That’s when we said,” Parrish recalls, “we’ve been working with tradespeople all our life.”
Outsiders have never gotten Appalachia — or else, they get the version they want: the one with the meth and Mountain Dew mouth, the incest, the painkillers, the welfare, all captured by journalists parachuting in for their regular dose of poverty porn. They find the toothless guy, the trailers with shotguns racked up on the wall and the yard strewn with diapers and beer cans, and they film some dude saying weird shit in a backcountry accent that needs subtitles to comprehend, they give it an ominous title like “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains,” and they leave. You bet people here have a chip on their shoulder. It’s not that stuff like that doesn’t exist—but if the world always insisted on zooming in on your warts, you’d be resentful, too.
And then there’s the work. It’s pretty typical to view miners as downtrodden grunts who would have done anything else if they could have (see: Bloomberg). They’re not Stanford grads in hoodies, or dropouts in turtlenecks.
But, Rusty thought a potential miner-to-coder pipeline actually makes a weird kind of sense. After all, coal was the back-end code of 200 years of industrial progress — the fuel that bent the steel for Ford cars and train tracks and skyscrapers, and much of the electricity to light them.
And Silicon Valley has shown that the digital economy doesn’t have to be created in the same place that it’s consumed. It can happen two hours from the nearest airport, in a place where building a new road requires sawing a mountain in half, by people who have different politics, accents and hobbies than the end-users. And miners are already technical workers, machine operators, drafters, engineers.
Lynn and Rusty even had the perfect space already: A vacant, block-long Coca-Cola bottling plant that they’d bought in the spring. It was just two blocks from Justice’s house, but more importantly, right in front of the power poles carrying Pikeville’s fastest broadband internet fiber.
So, as Parrish dropped Rusty off at his house, “We said, huh, what do you think?’
“We pondered on it, prayed over it.”
Then, three days later, Parrish pulled up at his partner’s house.
“We ought to try this,” he said, as Justice opened up the door.
“I will if you will,” Justice said. “We need to do something.”
In the weeks that followed, they lined up the details. First, a name (they picked BitSource, after realizing that a coder’s “bit” could be a play on bituminous coal.) Then, a plan for profit (Justice and Parrish didn’t want a do-gooder charity, they wanted to build a real business.)
The job, they determined, would start with a 22-week training program to learn how to code. Trainees would be paid $15 an hour, which came from federal funds pumped through a regional economic development agency. That’s less than miner wages, but it was better than working at the McDonald’s double-lane drive-thru downtown. Then, after those 22 weeks, Justice and Parrish would put up three dollars for every one from the government and build a coding team that could take on real, paying work. One of Justice’s takeaways from the management book Antifragile was that everyone needs “skin in the game”: Parrish and Justice would be investing in major capital for the miners to learn, and also be on the hook to drum up clients.
The miners would have to learn or they would be fired, and if too many of them failed, so would the business. Conversely, if everything worked, they would all make money, and the miners would have some of the first coding jobs in Appalachia.
When BitSource started advertising the job, Justice was hoping for 50 applications. In the end, they got 900.
On the same day his unemployment ran out in March, Jim Ratliff walked through BitSource’s door. The place looked like a coding shop: a “binary canary” logo looked over the stairs, old coal sacks and tools decorated the lobby. Dell monitors sat on a dozen desks, murals of Appalachians who’d made it big covered the walls.
“I was intimidated,” he says.
You would never guess it by looking at him. Ratliff is a solid 6-foot-2, fourth-generation miner, a 38-year-old with a stoic, worn bearing. His brown beard is edged with gray. Waking up at 3:30 in the morning to go work in the strip mines “wide open, just as hard as you could get it” for 10 to 12 hours a day for the last 14 years will do that to you.
He wasn’t alone. There were 10 newbies, and they did a quick round of introductions. One guy was a college-educated mechanic who’d repaired conveyer belts running out the mines on the third-shift “dead crew.” Another was a brawny former Army corporal who inspected the mines for safety hazards. There was a surface miner. A jolly 50-something man who had sold equipment to the coal companies, and made use of his unemployment to become a Baptist minister. A mine project manager who, after hours, brought his Xbox to Call of Duty marathons at a buddy’s house. Of the coders, the only non-mine-related worker was a former crime reporter for a Virginia newspaper. There was just one woman—a mining engineer who was originally from Mexico, and had been out of work for two years.
Most had heard the program’s radio ad. “Have you been laid off from a job in the mining industry? If you are a logic-based thinker willing to work and learn new things, we have a career opportunity for you. BitSource is bringing the computer coding revolution to Eastern Kentucky.”
Getting down to this final group of candidates had been tough. BitSource whittled the 900 applications down to 60 frontrunners, then gave them a written test that measured three criteria — Were they logical? Were they technical thinkers? And could they actually sit in a chair for eight hours a day?
Ratliff was one of the lucky ones. The math was easy—he’d started college on an academic scholarship in the late 90’s, but when his girlfriend got pregnant, he dropped out to start working. “The rest is kinda history…. You gotta support your family, either you were at McDonald’s, or you made $60-$70,000 a year.”
Another question on the assessment: Would you rather overhaul an engine or give a presentation? Ratliff knew probably what the employers would want to hear, but “I wanted to be honest.” He answered: overhaul an engine. His backup plan was to follow strip mining work to Wyoming, but the thought of missing his two teens’ last years at home killed him. “I’ve missed a lot of my children growing up. I wanted to make sure I’d exhausted every revenue source.” Still, he got a face-to-face interview.
Then came an email with a BitSource job offer.
“It was like hitting the lottery.”
It’s time for the 9 a.m. standup.
“Last 24: definitely have not looked at C#,” says Michael Harrison. He’s the resident jokester, wearing blue Chuck Taylors and a fierce red mountain beard that hipsters can try to mimic, but would fail.
“You’re a bad liar,” says Justin Hall, the team leader and BitSource president.
“Last 24, I went through the pattern lab demo,” says Garland Couch, the Xbox guy, an ex-mine manager draped in an oversized polo shirt. “I definitely did not create a cool little zombie scene with a first-person character in Unity while I was waiting.”
Jim Ratliff is up.
“Last 24, I fixed the header,” he says. “I finally figured out what was wrong with it.”
Hall gives two thumbs up.
“I dug ground enough, and figured out how to make that work.”
Hall is happy with all the updates, whether they’re serious or not. It’s important they know how to fix headers. They’re all going to need to be fluent in C#. But it’s just as important that they screw around with Unity in their spare time. It’s just as important they know he’s speaking emoji when he says “sad face” in a sentence, and that they crack up at programmer memes. It’s the subtler side of coder culture, the exuberant and unrepentant nerdom. And it turns out the assessment was incredibly adept at finding the miners who could be part of the club.
Hall is a distant cousin of Rusty’s on one side. On the other, Hall claims to be a descendent of “Devil Anse” Hatfield — as in those Hatfields, the ones from the bloody Hatfield-McCoy feud, with the sites where they shot at each other or were buried dotting the surrounding hollers. More than a century later, Hall looks and acts like a calm, khaki-wearing suburban dad, who is stoked when @SiriouslySusan follows BitSource on Twitter. He grew up near Pikeville, but left for a software career in Lexington, where he found himself ironing out the more ornate twists in his Appalachian lilt; it brings stigma even in the central part of the state, not to mention West Coast conferences. “I’m trying to sound smart and sell tech,” he says.
At first Ratliff struggled to keep up. One day at standup, he said as much, but added that back at the strip mines, he once had to take his lunch break in four feet of sludge up to his chest. “He says, this is uncomfortable, but it’s not that bad,” Hall recalls. “So you don’t have to teach motivation.”
Just as much as the code, Hall says he had to teach an aptitude for screwing up. “Fail fast and iterate” is not the going ethos of mining, where a wrong move means the wrong part of a mountain gets blown off and your ass gets chewed. “I’m not going to lie,” Garland tells me about his first time pushing code live to a website the team was building, “I was sitting there for 15 minutes before I had the nerve to push the button.”
But even if they’re learning new skills, the ex-miners in the room never overtly criticize their old work—not in front of me, not in front of other ex-miners, not when it’s what paid the bills and kept their region alive for so long and they gave so many years to. But they’re not nostalgic either.
“No, I don’t miss this at all,” Harrison, the former mechanic, told me while showing me a video of his old underground worksite on YouTube. “I didn’t like the work, I liked the people.”
This summer, Ratliff got a call from the same foreman who laid him off. A mine down in Harlan County was hiring. Now that they graduated from training and had started building their first professional webpages, the $18-an-hour BitSource wage for junior coders still didn’t match mining. But at the mines, who knows if the job would last two months, or two weeks? Ratliff is not one to walk away from a challenge. “I think we can do this, and I didn’t want to think I left something and it became something really special. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Ratliff dialed the foreman back the next day.
“I’m going to stay where I’m at.”
The foreman said he got it. Then he asked Ratliff if BitSource was hiring. “He said, ‘Keep me in mind. I might need a job.’”
It’s Friday, and that means team lunch. Other than taking chewing tobacco breaks, it’s their one social activity (no happy hours when everyone commutes an hour each way to work, or has kids to get back to.) This week it’s El Azul Grande, a sit-down Mexican restaurant named in honor of the University of Kentucky’s rabid sports fans. The group settles around a long table, and bow their heads as Hall says grace, before digging into their enchiladas and Californian burritos.
The conversation splinters out in a dozen directions. Paul, a gregarious former surveyor wearing a camo jacket and camo baseball cap, tells me how when he was a kid in Virginia, his school bus was collateral damage of the jackrocks thrown on the road during a mine strike. Shawn — the former reporter with a Colonel Sanders-esque beard — critiques FX’s Justified, which is set in nearby Harlan county. Ratliff brings up his son’s high school football victory the night before. When he was mining, he’d be lucky to get to his games at half-time, if at all. This fall, working at BitSource, he hasn’t missed a game.
When they get back to the office, Rusty Justice blazes in. He does this several times a week, often waxing inspirational or trying to find out what the coders are up to, even if it drives him crazy that he can’t see or understand their progress.
That day, Rusty wanted to get them jazzed about his new idea: A hydroseeding app. Hydroseeding, for the uninitiated, happens after a strip mine is finished getting excavated. They move some of the earth back into place and grow grass to stabilize the fresh soil and make it look mountain-ish again. Estimating how much and what kind of seed to buy can be a money-wasting crapshoot. But if San Francisco’s 20-somethings can create apps to bring them dinner and wash their laundry, then here, the developers here can scratch their own itches in a different way.
“I am blue collar,” Justice tells me later. “They’re blue-collar coders. That’s what they’re gonna be. We have to be what we are.”
The coders listen to what Justice wants, then start to discuss how the app would work. Rusty takes a seat, checks Twitter, and then calls out for everyone’s attention. “I’m just seeing this now,” he says, before reading out the news of more mines closing and hundreds of new layoffs since Alpha, the coal company, filed for bankruptcy.
The mood in the room instantly drops.
Garland rubs his brow and shakes his head.
“Goll-ee,” Michael says, plaintively.
Ratliff stares straight ahead. He was right — the people in this room had won the lotto. But BitSource has to work. They can’t go home again.
Justice segues into motivational mode. “My dad had a mule. He’d go to the end of the row and stop. And someone had to turn him around at the end of every row. Let’s not be like that old mule. Let’s turn around and go back again. We got to fix the holes in our game, and get this baby in the air. I think we’re proficient, but we’re not yet efficient. You go home and your head is tired. It’s gotta be. We just need playing time.”
The Rusty Justice seminar concludes for today. The coders swivel back to their computers, and Michael announces weekend plans to no one in particular: “Looks like I better learn C#.”
Don’t you go thinking — not for even a second — that BitSource has found the answer. Appalachia’s newest startup founder might be fueled by endless reserves of renewable Rusty Justice energy. But it’s fragile, just 10 people out of thousands, and it has yet to even recover its costs, let alone make a profit. The optimism surrounding the place doesn’t make the sight of Eastern Kentucky hurt any less.
It’s a rainy Saturday morning, and Justice wants to take me around the place. We clamber into his F-150 and he drives me through the hollers. The one where he was born, right there, in that shingled white house. His extended family still live in the homes and trailers along this creek. Jigsaw is right there in that corrugated steel building. We drive out through Pike County, down the side of a mountain on a gravel road, until we reach the 1920’s-era duplex houses of a former company coal camp called Stone. He points out a long-abandoned red-brick company store; the lane where all the managers lived.
In the rain, the old structures are desolate and spooky, ghosts of a mythic industry I’ve never seen up close before. But what’s really haunting to Justice is not these old bodies, but the newly dead: each bend in the road reveals another abandoned mine, their massive conveyer belts gone silent.
“This is heartbreaking. It makes me feel like a dinosaur, really, wandering around. Cause this was a hub of activity, it had an energy all of its own. When you came here, you were IN something. It’s like being at the stadium, all those people come together and they create this atmosphere? Now this is like going into an empty stadium, that’s crumbling. Where great games were played.”
What they’re building in its place is all so fragile and new. Parrish is worried even about the effect of U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez coming to shake the coders’ hands, or reporters like me coming to do stories. “We just don’t want all the notoriety to give the false illusion that we developed all the skills.”
Rusty is less cautious, and thinks they just need to keep digging, keep plowing, keep seeding. The coders are getting it — they’re building websites, closing contracts. “They believe they can do it. That’s the magic.”
Now the challenge is one that’s very typical to startups: how to scale.
BitSource would like to hire a second class of coders at the beginning of the new year. He, Parrish, and Hall want to fill up their buildings, create an incubator for entrepreneurs, a makerspace for craftsmen, and, someday, if they play their cards incredibly well, a bonafide Pikeville tech scene. You know, make Bloomberg in his smart suit eat crow for once.
“Once we got the idea of BitSource, it was like, ‘Look here, buddy, you’ll see what we’re going to be,’” Justice says. In fact, they’ve already got a name for this reinvention effort, the concept that ties everything together. And, like any good startup, they kicked it off by making a T-shirt.
Rusty hands me one as I step out of the F-150 in front of my hotel. I flap it open. It reads:
Photographs by Philip Scott Andrews for Backchannel