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From Issue #36 February 13, 2014

Connect the Dots

A rural technologist re-envisions employment in the hinterlands.

By Julie Schwietert Collazo Twitter icon 

The Pacolet River cuts through Clifton and surrounding towns, where textile factories once thrived.

After Brian Corbin earned his master’s degree in computer science at Clemson University, he could have set his sights on a Manhattan or Silicon Valley tech firm. But Corbin, from the tiny town of Clifton, South Carolina (population 541), didn’t even consider joining the legions of graduates who flee what scholars call the South’s “low-wage, low-skill equilibrium” economy.

That economy, established by the 19th-century textile mill model, has created what Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, describes as a structural problem that has set the South at least a decade behind the rest of the country for jobs that pay well and require a high level of skill.

Despite limited prospects, Corbin stayed, embarking on a series of tech jobs in local companies, the first of which was situated on 50 acres of cow pasture. “I thought I was the man because here I was with a college degree,” he says, “but I met guys who came from places like Pelzer and Ninety-Six” — other small communities in upstate South Carolina — “and they were better problem-solvers. I was like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone know about you?’ and ‘How do we get these guys designing the next robot, rather than just maintaining the current ones?’”

None of these early jobs was his dream gig — he still wasn’t sure what that looked like — but each position taught him a little bit more about what he didn’t want and about the gaps in the industry that needed to be filled. And each, slowly, revealed his own potential to him.

Connecting the dots

Upstate South Carolina’s tech community had a tendency toward isolation. Corbin felt that his professional growth was limited by the fact that talented programmers, developers, and even hobbyist tinkerers weren’t getting together to talk shop. What nagged at him even more was how much tech talent went untapped. These problems kept the entire community from advancing, he says.

Rather than complain, in 2011 he sat down and began crunching upstate Census data, making a simple graphic representing local towns as dots, with the size of each based on population. The dot for his own corner of Spartanburg County was one of the smallest. The schematic led to a breakthrough: What if Corbin could connect the isolated dots? What if he could provide the support each hub needed to communicate with the other?

Brian Corbin shows a Raspberry Pi, an affordable computer that he believes can get kids programming.

Corbin was fully aware that meet-ups, conferences, incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces are some of the most common ways tech folks in urban areas connect with one another, share resources and knowledge, and hook each other up with opportunities. In upstate South Carolina, as in so many other rural places, though, the idea of these dot-connectors is fairly radical because they simply don’t exist. Partly, Corbin surmised, that was because some of the people who could be connected weren’t even aware that they might want to be. He wanted to reach all of them, as well as the people who needed their skills and services.

Corbin christened his idea hub-ology, a reference not only to “hubs” in technology but to Spartanburg’s nickname, Hub City, and he unveiled his plans for establishing nodes of connection during the first TEDxSpartanburg conference, in the fall of 2011. Corbin had never exactly envisioned himself as the guy who’d go on stage to announce the launch of a movement, but Ximena Herrera, the organizer of the TEDx event, says he was perfect for the part. “I think people liked the idea of a ‘tech-woodsman,’” she says. “A lot of people approached him after the event to connect…and that was the point.”

Building spokes around the hubs

Initially, Corbin envisioned hub-ology as an online platform where people and institutions with specific tech needs could connect with skilled programmers, developers, and networkers who were local. This could keep money and work circulating in small, rural communities.

But as Corbin became more active and visible in the community and listened to other tech developers attending meet-ups and events, he realized that his notion needed refinement. He came back to some of his original observations. First, tech folks just needed to meet and share ideas. Second, they needed to find ways to maximize their skills beyond cog-in-the-wheel jobs. Finally, they needed to extend a hand to people — kids especially — who showed a natural affinity for complex problem-solving but who may not have considered a career in computing.

The fix for the first two issues was fairly simple: adopt the meet-up model. He began hosting “coffee and code” sessions at a local café, tech kaffeeklatsches where “people who want to learn more about code kick around ideas over coffee and biscuits.” At first, attendance was thin, but in recent months he has seen the groups grow in number — and diversity. An African American woman drove an hour from Shelby, North Carolina, for a recent meet-up, and a man who emigrated from Rwanda is a regular attendee. More women are attending too. “We’re still behind compared to other parts of the country,” Corbin says, “but I think we’ll continue to do better.”

Kate McCarthy thinks so too. McCarthy, the program director at the Iron Yard, a tech accelerator with multiple locations around the Southeast, met Corbin at a beer tasting. McCarthy had just moved to the area from Los Angeles and was “looking for like-minded people to connect with.” McCarthy found the upstate area — and Corbin — refreshingly free of the “brogrammer culture” typical of urban areas, and she sensed that the region had lots of potential.

“The upstate has an extremely strong freelance design and dev community,” McCarthy says. “We have a ton of new startups moving to the upstate for the Iron Yard accelerators and choosing to stay. They’re all hiring front-end engineers. Coming from LA, it’s really exciting to be a part of a community that is growing.”

McCarthy says what she admires most about Corbin is his “vision for how tech can change the economic landscape of post-industrial towns. He’s a great example of how amazing talent can be found outside of major markets and still be connected to players in those markets.”

Corbin’s day job, the one that pays his bills and funds his work on hub-ology, is as a remote program developer for the San Mateo, California, start-up PokitDok. Corbin loves the job, but he can’t see himself living in Silicon Valley — or Manhattan for that matter. Why should people have to move to a big city for a competitive job in technology, he wonders. Why can’t they live in the woods, on a gravel road just beyond the utterly non-hipster Lucky’s, where on a recent night, a patron parked his dump truck before bellying up to the bar.

What kept Corbin in Clifton was family. He and his brother live within walking distance of each other on land that has been in their family for at least four generations. Some of their ancestors, including his great-grandfather, are buried in the family cemetery behind his house. “I like living in the woods,” he explains.

His wife, a yoga instructor and artist, is deeply involved in the area’s robust arts community, a grassroots group that inspires Corbin. “They’ve done for arts what I want us to do for technology,” he says. And then there’s the cost of living. Corbin has been to PokitDok’s headquarters and likes Silicon Valley well enough, but the rent is high. “I don’t need to make what someone in Silicon Valley makes. The cost of living in Clifton is a lot lower,” he says, laughing.

Lucky’s Bar. Definitely not for hipsters.

Passion and possibility

Upstate tech developers credit Corbin with launching a movement that has spurred a sense of passion and possibility. Brian Painter, a friend of Corbin’s since high school, says the meet-ups pulse with potential. “The sharing of knowledge is not only good for individuals, but also good for their employers,” he says. “Now they have workers coming to work, excited to implement what they just learned.” Painter says it “has the potential to create a feedback loop where companies want to move to this area, because they know that there are intelligent folks working in technology here.”

But Corbin’s biggest contribution — one in which Painter is involved directly — has not yet hit the street. Corbin is consumed by the idea that the next generation of upstate programmers and developers may be stunted because kids don’t know that these career options exist and because they don’t have access to equipment to develop their skills. “If we can just reach them,” he says, trailing off.

He explains that the kids’ workshops offered at the Iron Yard are incredible, especially because many of them are free, but he notes that they still tend to attract middle-class kids. If you don’t know the classes exist, if your parents don’t have a way to get you there, or if they’re in a part of town where you don’t feel entitled to be or where you’re not comfortable spending time, Corbin explains, you’re missing out. Clearly, the idea of missing out rubs him the wrong way.

Enter the next phase of hub-ology: the PyTruck. That’s Py for Python, the programming language, but also for Raspberry Pi, a small, ultra-low-cost device that Corbin thinks can get any kid who wants to be programming, doing so. Corbin intends to purchase a used box truck or small school bus, gut it with the help of his brother, Andrew, who already has a mock-up of the six custom workstations that will be built inside, and kit it out with solar panels.

Once it’s roadworthy, the PyTruck will hit the roads upstate, aiming especially for the county’s more rural areas. Kids and adults alike will be able to come into the truck, learn how the Raspberry Pi works, and begin exploring its possible applications. “I know guys who use the Raspberry Pi to run their BBQ grill or their home-brew setup,” Corbin says. “And I heard about some kids in Boston who used the Raspberry Pi to program their Christmas tree.”

Corbin intends the PyTruck to be a resource for people who want to learn traditional computer programming as well as skills for applying computing to practical aspects of their daily lives. “Hopefully,” he says, “we’ll be able to give out some Raspberry Pi’s too.” Putting a PyTruck on the street won’t be a small feat; Corbin has estimated he’ll need $25,000 to get started. He intends to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money after he turns hub-ology into a nonprofit, and then he’ll put wheels to the road. “Our goal with the PyTruck is to help people who are interested in computing find and pursue options that they thought weren’t available to them,” Corbin says.

Corbin’s got big plans. Long-term, he’d like to have a whole fleet of PyTrucks on the road in Spartanburg County and around the state. “Even the country,” he says, adding, “maybe the world.” The relative affordability of the Raspberry Pi devices — $25 to $35 a pop — and his intent to open-source everything connected to the PyTruck could make it possible for tech-savvy entrepreneurs in other countries to get behind the wheel and get kids coding.

The idea that he can make it possible for the next generation of talented tinkerers and tech-adept kids to have a viable career in computing that lets them continue living in rural areas if they so choose keeps Corbin fired up. Those who know him have no doubt he’ll realize that goal. After all, Corbin is a prime example of a successful tech woodsman.

Photos by Francisco Collazo.1

  1. Francisco Collazo is a Cuban-born, New York-based photographer who has shot for a variety of magazines, newspapers, and guidebooks, including Latina Magazine, the New York Post, Fodor’s Puerto Rico, and Moon New York State. On Twitter, he is @latinlistusa

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a bilingual (English-Spanish) writer, editor, and translator whose work covers a wide range of topics and interests, from art to science and from food to Pope Francis. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, DISCOVER, Scientific American, Ms., and a number of other publications. Based in New York City, she has also called San Juan and Mexico City home.

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