From coal miners to software developers

Rusty Justice, CEO, Bit Source

Rusty Justice calls himself an unapologetic hillbilly. He is the fourth generation of his family to be born in Pikeville, Kentucky. This self-proclaimed hillbilly has two B.S. degrees from the University of Kentucky—one in mining and mineral engineering and one in civil engineering—and is a managing member of Bit Source, a team of professional programmers, architects, designers, managers, support technicians and scrum masters. Through Bit Source, he and his business partner have taken some out-of-work coal miners and trained them on how to be software developers.

Justice is also a board member of AccelerateKY, a nonprofit that collaborates on initiatives that strengthen the Bluegrass State’s capacity for innovation. Last month, he spoke at the kickoff of Kentucky to the World’s “Kentucky: Resilience in the Face of Economic Change” initiative, a series that focuses on the realities of the Commonwealth’s changing economy and what the future holds through the lens of its history of resilience.

Louisville Future sat down with Justice to talk about how he is helping facilitate innovation in the heart of Appalachia.

How did you get involved with AccelerateKY?

Justice: I was in a cohort of an initiative called the MIT regional entrepreneurship acceleration program (MIT REAP) from 2018 to 2020. It was a way to engage with MIT in an evidence-based, practical approach to strengthening innovation-driven entrepreneurial ecosystems. I’m an engineer by education, but I’ve always been a business person and entrepreneur. I was invited to serve on the team with Sam Ford, who is from the Bowling Green area. Sam and I had both seen firsthand the disruption in work in our home towns. We saw the hopelessness that resulted. We had a conversation, and we just connected. He and I then began working together on AccelerateKY.

What was the impetus behind Bit Source?

Justice: There’s been a lot of disruption in the coal mining industry. I’ve seen a grown [man] sit in front of me and cry because his coal-mining job was no longer there. I’ve seen a lot of people die prematurely, and I think it’s because they’ve lost their purpose. I’ve seen the impact in my society and in the loss of our economy. All of the metrics are bad. It’s hard to be excited about the future if you don’t think you’re in it.

Just imagine if Georgetown, Kentucky shut down Toyota. Do you know how that would impact the area? That’s what happened here overnight. At Jigsaw Enterprises LLC, my family company, which is a 45-year-old engineering and construction excavation land-forming company, we lost 70% of our clients in one year. Seventy percent of the clients were no longer in business. We didn’t lose the business; it evaporated. Those were dramatic shifts. That was an inflection point in my life where I had to reimagine myself, my region and where I grew up, place about which I’m very passionate.

When you get down to it, there’s dignity in work. If you care about human dignity, then you have to care about work. To provide meaningful jobs and work to people is a worthy cause. My partner and I started Bit Source as a way to train coal miners to be software developers.

What did you have to overcome to convince ex coal miners to go the software developer route?

Justice: We had 50 applications for 10 jobs, which speaks to the disruption. We tested the candidates against the profile of a developer. They matched up well, so we knew they could learn the skills transfer part of the job. However, when we got them in there, they didn’t understand the jargon and got intimidated. One guy scored very well on the test but didn’t show up the next day.

When I called to ask him why, he said he was just a ‘dumb old coal miner’ and could never do that. He had internalized that narrative. So we had to reimagine training. Now I’ve got a guy that runs a shop and is a world-class developer. At Bit Source, we have built virtual realities. We’ve done data science and lots of apps and websites. These ex-coal miner hillbillies are, I like to say, today’s version of the ‘Jamaican bobsled team.’

What is the ultimate goal of AccelerateKY and Bit Source?

Justice: We’re about causing change. We’re not going to be the pearl. We’re not the oyster. However, we want to be the grain of sand that causes the oyster make the pearl.