why the silicon holler is such a target for scammers and broken promises
In yet another demonstration that the learn-to-code debacle in Appalachia is far from over, a new profile in the New York Times takes on a venture called Mined Minds, which promised to give laid off miners high paying tech jobs and revolutionize coal towns, and ended up making wild accusations about the people it initially hired after failing to live up to its promises. On the surface, it’s a story of a pretty obvious scam in which a tech education company behaved more like a Fyre Festival type scam without the wire fraud, funneling public funds into a seemingly never-ending party, then blaming the culture of rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia when local governments caught on and closed the cash spigot.
But it’s also a story that shows some of the reasons why teaching miners to code was always going to be problematic. It’s not that laid off miners or anyone else can’t learn how to code. It’s true that writing code isn’t for everyone, but your previous career is irrelevant in the realm of math and logic. No, the problem was that there was no plan beyond teaching miners the basics of coding and a trendy web development language, then something, something jobs. No one was able to answer the question of why any tech company should relocate from an urban hub to Appalachia other than cost and the promise of generous tax cuts that both companies and local governments know the community cannot really afford.
why take a road to nowhere?
Sure, it’s a lot cheaper to have an office in a small town in West Virginia than even second-tier tech boomtowns like Columbus and Salt Lake City. But why move? The customer base is still in the urban hub. Employees won’t want to leave their families and cities where they have more choices in everything from housing, entertainment, schools, and day to day shopping. The cost of the move will probably cancel out any savings and the company would still likely need some downsized version of its former HQ to stay in the city where it started. The workforce in their new location will lack experience and need heavy investments in mentoring and additional training in the tools the company uses. So, again, what’s the point of moving?
With few prospects and the local powers that be not just fresh out of ideas, but having lacked them for decades now, no wonder scammers and shysters like Mined Minds can waltz in and pretend to be the saviors of communities no one wants to admit are dying, promising to turn small mining towns into the land of milk and honey, minus the dangerous and radioactive coal dust in the air and backbreaking work. After all, if the Bay Area is steadily minting millionaires and billionaires with code, why can’t Montgomery, WV? All you need is a laptop, and before you know it, you have the next Uber, Facebook, and Google across the street from each other! Just give us a few million dollars and we’ll show you how to make it all happen.
why code is just a piece of the puzzle
Of course, the reality is that code is just a small, impermanent part of what brings in the big bucks for tech companies. Twitter doesn’t use the same Ruby tech with which it started but transitioned mostly to a language called Scala. Facebook had to customize PHP to meet its rapidly growing and complex needs. Google ended up designing its own high-performance language, Go. And to keep up with day to day needs, the actual code used by companies is being constantly rewritten or added to, enabling new ideas to become reality or to fix bugs found by users. Without a proper infrastructure, all code does is sit there on hard drives or powers a small website or app with few users, bringing in beer money at best.
Why do tech hubs thrive? Because there’s money from industries like banking, healthcare, insurance, or high-tech manufacturing in demand of custom, high margin services, and very wealthy investors with high appetite for risk are willing to take moon shots to get outsized returns with one out of many a hundred companies they’ll finance. Governments also play major roles, creating a steady drumbeat of demand for technical services and providing the kinds of consulting opportunities that give startups a steady influx of cash over substantial periods of time, allowing them to stabilize and branch out. There are places in Appalachia where you could grow a tech hub, but it’s not in small coal mining towns.
promises made, promises broken
It’s understandable that people in Appalachia are frustrated and angry, fed up with promises that never seem to come true, politicians who lack the courage to be honest with them, and self-appointed experts who swoop in as the savior of economically stagnant communities. To them, Mined Minds was just another in a long line of projects that was trumpeted as their salvation, achieved almost nothing, then blamed the people it was trying to help for “wanting to keep a certain culture” instead of getting with the program. But that said, no one seems to want to do what’s right and acknowledge that small towns built around a single industry and extremely vulnerable to outsourcing, automation, and corporate consolidation simply can’t survive for much longer, and to join the tech boom, they’ll need to physically pick up and move.
This is the same advice given by The National Review to their conservative readers and met with much anger. A lot of people don’t want to go anywhere. Many don’t want new jobs. What they do want are their coal mines and factories reopened and be hired back to do what they’re used to doing along with their friends and neighbors. And far too many politicians either lack the guts to tell them it’s simply not possible, or become targets of vicious invective if they even politely hint that the perfect plan to resurrect their communities would require the entire world to return to the 1980s, then freeze their town in a Groundhog Day loop for the next century. In many ways the people in question understand this, lamenting their kids leaving for big cities but realizing why they’re leaving.
Yet, for one reason or another, their recognition and acknowledgment of local brain drain and the reason why their towns are no longer thriving don’t seem to translate into practical action, and allow their leaders to bring in people and groups who talk a big game, are met with a very healthy dollop of skepticism, but nevertheless get public money or large tax incentives to try an idea that’s very likely to fail before closing up shop and quietly making a beeline for the exits after a few fruitless years. And until the politicians who run small towns actually stop slamming their heads into the same brick walls, tell their constituents the facts, regardless of how much anger they’ll hear in return, and start thinking big, get ready to hear about another incarnation of Mined Minds sooner rather than later.