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Promise of coding careers dissolves in coal country

BECKLEY, W.Va. — On a spring day in 2017, Stephanie Frame sat down in her hilltop home deep in the mountain hollows to record a video.

She began with the litany of local decline: the vanishing jobs in the coal mines, the shuttering stores, the school that closed. During one stretch of unemployment for her coal miner husband, the two had resorted to selling ramps, ginseng, and yellowroot that they had dug up in the forest.

But this video, aimed at her neighbors, was an announcement: Redemption was here. A nonprofit called Mined Minds, promising to teach West Virginians how to write computer code and then get them well-paying jobs, was looking for recruits.

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“I wholeheartedly believe, and will always believe,” Frame said to the camera, “that God has sent Mined Minds to us to save us from what could have been a very bleak future.”

She had every reason to believe. Joe Manchin III, her Democratic senator, had invited the group to come into the state. The National Guard hired it to teach at its military-style academy. County commissioners arranged space rent free. National news outlets gave glowing coverage.

Many West Virginians like Frame signed up for Mined Minds, quitting their jobs or dropping out of school for the prized prospect of a stable and lucrative career. But the revival never came.

Almost none of those who signed up for Mined Minds are working in programming. They described Mined Minds as an erratic operation, where guarantees suddenly evaporated and firings seemed inevitable, leaving people to start over again at the bottom rungs of the wage jobs they had left behind.

More than two dozen former students in West Virginia are pursuing a lawsuit, arguing that Mined Minds was a fraud. Of the 10 or so people who made it to the final weeks of Frame’s class in Beckley, only one formally graduated. He is now delivering takeout.

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“It was a too-good-to-be-true kind of deal,” said Billyjack Buzzard, 33, who attended another class and was the only former West Virginia coal miner to finish classes and get a job with the program. He was fired after 14 months and went back underground. “Just false hope.”

Mined Minds came into Appalachia espousing a certain dogma, fostered in the world of startups and TED Talks, and carried with missionary zeal into places in dire need of economic salvation. The group was premised on the notion, as one grant proposal read, that “anyone can have a successful career in the technology industry,” and that if enough people did, the whole area would be transformed.

Amanda Laucher, one of the founders of Mined Minds, spoke at a tech conference in 2017 of the group’s ambitions, which were swiftly expanding. “Yeah, we helped a town, we actually made some small impact,” she said of Mined Minds’ early efforts. “But can we scale it and actually diversify the economy of an entire region?”

This would be an audacious goal even in the best of circumstances. But Mined Minds was operating with a limited amount of personal cash and public funding, and was mostly staffed by people who had spent little time in tech.

“I get angry at people who go to other places and say, ‘My culture is better than theirs and I am going to change it,’ ” said Katie Bolyard, 25, a college graduate who skipped her honeymoon to take a class.

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She doesn’t know the motives of the people at Mined Minds, she said, whether they had bad intentions or were just “incredibly sloppy” with good ones. But intentions matter only so much. “It’s not your life you’re messing with.”

Before the founding of Mined Minds, Laucher and her husband, Jonathan Graham, were living in Chicago working as successful tech consultants. But in 2015, she learned that her younger brother, Marvin, had been laid off from a mine back in the coal fields of southwest Pennsylvania where she grew up.

He was stuck in the Appalachian dilemma: technologically savvy, as modern miners have to be, but stuck with few options. So Graham and Laucher quit their jobs and moved to Pennsylvania.

The model for Mined Minds, at least initially, was this: a free 16-week coding boot camp, followed by paid “apprenticeships” with the program’s for-profit arm, a software consultancy. Apprentices worked full-time on projects for company clients, but were also called upon to teach in the classes they had graduated from months earlier. After working for a few months, apprentices would either go on to salaried jobs at the Mined Minds company, or to a big tech firm such as Oracle.

“Every single one of them” finds work, Laucher said of the boot camp graduates, in a 2017 interview. “They all find a job.”

A guarantee like that was barely short of miraculous. Within two years, Mined Minds was one of the primary beneficiaries of a $1.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. In August 2016, Manchin, who encouraged the couple to expand from Pennsylvania, said that Graham and Laucher “embody the spirit of West Virginia.”

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In spring 2017, Tori Frame, Stephanie Frame’s daughter, was making $10 an hour as an assistant manager at a Family Dollar store when she learned about Mined Minds.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, my whole life working at Family Dollar,” said Tori, 23.

Others viewed Mined Minds the same way. Andrew Farley figured he could quickly make the pay scale in coding that he made working for the railroad, but without having to leave his hometown; Chris Phelps, who washed dishes at a Cracker Barrel, thought a tech career was a way to get out of town.

Ty Cook, 29, a bank teller, saw something more, “something that would make me a worthwhile member of society.”

And there was an irresistible promise: They would be paid to take the class. Some were told this in an e-mail by a state jobs counselor, others said they were told by Laucher. The counselor said in an e-mail they would receive $10 an hour, with the potential for more as apprentices or when they were hired. A number of people, including Tori, quit jobs. (Laucher has denied making any such promise.)

In late June 2017, a big crowd gathered in a classroom at a small college campus in Beckley. They met Marvin Laucher, Amanda Laucher’s brother, the former coal miner, now their main instructor. They also learned that they were not going to be paid. Some dropped out the first week.

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But Tori and her mother, Stephanie, 45, stayed. Every weekday morning, Tori would wake up early, her mother would feed the chickens and together they would head down the serpentine mountain road to Beckley. Nights and weekends they spent in the glow of their laptops — bought from a website on credit — learning the rudiments of Ruby, the programming language.

There was never much of a syllabus; students would be given an assignment and spend the next few days trying to figure it out, mostly by themselves. The usual answer to questions, multiple students said, was “Google it.” A few quietly wondered how much their teachers really knew.

Unease began to settle in among some students. They began to learn from their teaching assistants, graduates of a recent Mined Minds class, that the good stable jobs promised by the group were not nearly as stable as they appeared.

Firings and resignations were routine among the staff. One of the Beckley teaching assistants, a 33-year-old named Maxx Turner, had been fired, then rehired after several fruitless months of searching for programming work, he said. Some began to suspect that the program couldn’t afford the job guarantee it was advertising.

Money woes did not make sense, given what they saw of the founders’ lifestyle: the travels worldwide, the views from an office in Chicago’s Trump Tower, the ever-replenishing tequila bottles at the West Virginia headquarters, the boozy house parties in Pennsylvania.

Several former Mined Minds staff members described company gatherings the same way: Their bosses ordering seemingly endless shots, hectoring the more timid drinkers. “I thought by going out drinking with them I’d put myself in a better position,” said Michael Moore, 35, the other teaching assistant in Beckley, who dropped out of community college to take the program.

Mined Minds has continued operating, holding new classes in Logan, another hard-luck coal town in West Virginia.

In April, Amanda Laucher reprimanded five employees for not making enough networking connections, for neglecting to read a book she assigned, “The Start-Up of You,” and for not submitting résumés to her for help. The next day, all five were fired. The staff of the program in West Virginia, two former employees said, now consists of Laucher’s brother and sister.