PIKEVILLE — Eastern Kentucky coal miners who sacrificed their bodies and lost their jobs by digging for black rock are now exercising their minds and earning paychecks by coding websites.
Bit Source, a two-year-old web and software design company based in Pikeville, was built to answer a question.
“Can you teach a coal miner to code?” said Bit Source president Justin Hall.
The startup tech company was praised Monday during the 2016 Shaping Our Appalachian Region Innovation Summit. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, co-chairman of SOAR, said with companies like Bit Source growing in the region, “Silicon Holler” is open for business.
Hall said he likes the optimistic nickname for a regional economy damaged by massive job losses to the coal industry.
“I grew up in a holler, I know what a holler looks like,” said Hall. “Now that I’m programming and teaching others how to program and building a business around that, it’s kind of interesting to see these memes collide. You have eastern Kentucky colloquialisms understood by this region and culture colliding with high tech. We are now both high-tech and high-touch.”
Bit Source first drew critical acclaim during last year’s SOAR summit. The company hired 10 workers after it launched, and nine of the 10 came from the coal industry.
Three of the web designers spent most of their professional career beneath the Earth’s surface, Hall said.
Bit Source Employees like Michael Harrison, an ex-underground coal miner, and Adriana Abshire, a former project engineer in the coal industry, represent a small number of former coal workers employed in central Appalachia.
Less than 6,000 eastern Kentuckians are now employed by the coal industry, down from 14,381 in 2008, per the state Energy and Environmental Cabinet.
The employees of Bit Source learned how to write code, or use algorithms to design websites and web applications, on a professional level — and the company is still advancing.
But the future of “Silicon Holler” is reliant on improving broadband service throughout the region, SOAR executive director Jared Arnett said.
Still, Bit Source co-founder Rusty Justice remains optimistic. While Justice delivered a message of hope to a crowded East Kentucky Expo Center arena, Hall told local residents about the company’s vision for the future.
“We want to show people the value of what we can do and what we can bring to the region. Our value, not just our narrative,” said Hall. “We want this to be something that grows in this place, something Appalachian Kentucky can identify with.”
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