Connecting the Dots: A technologist re-envisions employment in rural areas

[Originally published in The Magazine, Issue 36, February 2014. UPDATE: Brian Corbin is currently accepting donations for the project, which can be made here: ]

Ask any of his high school friends, and they’ll agree: Brian Corbin was bound to do something big with his life. Corbin was incredibly smart and, they recall, good at almost anything. “The toughest calculus problem imaginable?” asks Forest Featherston. Corbin could solve it, and quickly. Tennis? “He was a starter and letterman,” says Travis Crocker. And everyone remembers Corbin’s bodybuilding phase. “He used to eat cold Egg Beaters out of his locker for the protein,” Crocker recalls. “He decided not to play for the tennis team in our senior year because it interfered with his workout schedule. He is just hardcore at everything he does. He probably has more focus than anyone I know.” Brian Painter, also a childhood friend and now Corbin’s colleague, says a single word sums up all Corbin is and does: “DOMINATE.”

But dominate what?

Brian Corbin displays the Raspberry Pi. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)
Brian Corbin displays the Raspberry Pi. (Photo: Francisco Collazo)

It would probably come as a surprise to Corbin’s friends, but as smart and motivated as he was, Corbin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. He was certainly on track for higher education, but even when he enrolled as an undergrad at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, just 10 minutes or so from home, he hadn’t settled on a major, much less a career plan.

That changed when he met Dan Olds, the professor who had established Wofford’s computer science department. Corbin wandered into Olds’ classroom and heard the professor talking about computer science. “It sounded interesting,” Corbin says, “and he became a big influence.”

Olds remembers Corbin warmly, too. “Brian had the most positive attitude of anyone I’d ever taught, maybe even of anyone I’ve ever met,” says Olds, and his student became his teacher. “Brian introduced me to [Python][1], the programming language, which allowed me to revise an old program of mine. . . . I didn’t know what he would go on to do, but I knew the people who would hire him would have someone the likes of which they’d never seen before.”

What Corbin went on to do was earn his Masters degree in computer science at Clemson University. From there, 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][2]. 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 with respect to a high-skill, high-wage job market.

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 started, slowly, revealing his own potential to him.

By 2011, Corbin’s experience had begun to coalesce. There were a lot of attributes about upstate South Carolina’s tech community that bugged him. The main one was its tendency toward isolation. Corbin’s own 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. “I saw a lot of good problem solvers who were going unnoticed,” he says. These problems didn’t only tamp down potential and individuals’ growth, he thought, but that of the community, too. Rather than complain, he wanted to do something about it.

He sat down and began crunching upstate Census data, making a simple graphic representing local towns as dots, whose sizes differed based on population. The dot for his own corner of the 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?

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, these dot-connectors are 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][3] 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] [4], 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.”

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, keeping 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 his initial conceptualization of hub-ology needed to be refined. 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][5] model. He began hosting “Coffee and Code” sessions at a local cafe, tech tete-a-tetes 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][6], 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–and Corbin–refreshingly free of “the ‘brogrammer culture’” typical of urban areas, and she sensed the region had lots of potential. “The upstate has an extremely strong freelance design and dev community,” McCarthy says. “One huge advantage here is there is demand for tech talent, and an incredibly low cost of living. If you want to work for a top start-up, you absolutely can. You can also live in a three bedroom house in a gorgeous neighborhood or on a bunch of land. 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 L.A., it’s really exciting to be a part of a community that is growing.”

##Why can’t you live near Lucky’s?
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,” she adds. Corbin’s day job, the one that pays his own bills and funds his work on hub-ology, is as a remote program developer for the San Mateo, California start-up, [PokItDok][7]. Corbin loves the job, but 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?

Why did Corbin want to stay in Clifton? The main reason: 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.

Upstate tech developers credit Corbin with launching a movement that has spurred a sense of passion and possibility. Corbin’s friend, Brian Painter, 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. . . . It raises the knowledge capital of the entire area and 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— hasn’t yet hit the street–literally.

Corbin is consumed by the idea that the next generation of upstate programmers and developers may be stunted, first because kids don’t know these career options exist and, second, because they don’t have access to equipment to develop their skills. “If we can just reach them,” he says, trailing off. You can almost see his neurons firing. He explains that kids’ workshops offered at The Iron Yard are incredible, especially because many of them are free, but, he notes, 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 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 [RaspberryPi][8], 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 road-worthy, the PyTruck will hit the streets of the 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 RaspberryPi works, and begin exploring its possible applications. “I know guys who use the RaspberryPi to run their BBQ grill or their home-brew set-up,” Corbin says, “and I heard about some kids in Boston who used the RaspberryPi 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 RaspberryPis, too.”

Putting a PyTruck on the street won’t be a small feat; Corbin has estimated he’ll need $25,000 to get started and he intends to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money. To do so, though, he’s had to spend this winter incorporating hub-ology as a non-profit. Once 501(c)3 status has been granted by the IRS, Corbin and his team will hit the ground running to get the “bookmobile for technology” road-worthy as soon as possible.

“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. We want to contribute to the talent pool,” Corbin explains. What ends up happening a lot in rural areas is that you have people who are really good with their hands; they like to make things . . . but they never considered computing for a career because no one ever talked to them about it before or they didn’t even have a computer or they’ve become bored in traditional academic settings and lost interest,” 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 RaspberryPi devices—$25-35 a pop— and the open-source model he’s creating (“The plans for the PyTruck, everything, will be open source,” Corbin explains) could make it possible for tech-savvy entrepreneurs in other countries to get behind the wheel and get kids coding.

From anyone else, those plans might sound like ambitious pipe dreams, but this is Brian Corbin’s dream. And no one who knows him has any doubt that he’ll do anything other than dominate.