If there’s one thing Chuck Toussieng enjoys, it’s making something from scratch.
A computer programmer living in Richwood (WV), Toussieng does this for a living, turning taps on a keyboard into software. But when he lived back in his hometown of Malibu (CA), he participated in an annual creative endeavor much grander in scope and scale.
“During Burning Man, 70,000 people go out to a dry lake bed [Black Rock City, Nevada] and create an intentional city,” he explained.
Before moving to West Virginia, Toussieng was an avid attendee of the week-long event, held in late August each year. But Black Rock City only exists during the festival, when attendees come together to build it in its entirety—from the expansive camps to the music stages to the massive art installations.
“You bring food and a living space,” he added. “There’s no water, no electricity. You’re self-sufficient.” This aspect of Burning Man is part of what inspired Toussieng to move to West Virginia. “If you can go out into a bare desert and create something amazing, then why not start with an amazing place that already has infrastructure?”
One of the first times Toussieng visited West Virginia with his wife, who is from Summersville, he wasn’t only taken aback by the beauty of the mountains and forests. He was also surprised when he drove through Richwood’s quaint main street and spotted several empty buildings.
“I thought it might be inexpensive to buy a building and start a tech space,” he noted.
“I’ve always wanted a place to experiment, where people can come and learn about technology and code and play with 3D printers,” underscoring how such a place would be nearly impossible to afford back in California.
“It’s a lot less expensive to try new things in Richwood than it is in L.A.”
So, a few years later, Toussieng moved to Richwood with his wife and founded Richwood Scientific Inc., a non-profit dedicated to offering free computer coding boot camps to anyone interested.
Behind the Curtain
“Coding is complex,” he admitted, “but we start off slow.”
With that in mind, Toussieng has noticed that many in his classes end up having an aptitude for coding. And when things do get tough, he said, “we break it down, and look at how to approach the problem from a programmer’s point of view.”
Some of the graduates of the coding boot camp have been taken on as employees by Toussieng, and now write code for a living. They teach alongside Toussieng at Richwood Scientific, or work at Toussieng’s for-profit software company, West Virginia Silicon Holler.
James Flanagan, of Craigsville, was one of 14 graduates of Toussieng’s first boot camp. While he now works for Toussieng as a paid consultant, he confessed that, at first, the opportunity seemed too good to be true.
“My initial reservations were that ‘… if it’s free, how much could it be worth?’” he said. “It turns out that it’s worth a lot.”
Flanagan has worked mainly in manual labor his entire life, but was intrigued by the unique opportunity the class offered, and decided to take a chance. “The big attraction for me was the chance to learn something new, maybe gain some experience, and possibly find a career path that would provide income regardless of political or environmental swings that have plagued the region.”
Flanagan conceded that the work is very different than what he’s used to. “Going from mostly manual labor jobs to writing code is as about as different as going from tapping a toe to dancing the waltz,” he said—though he does also appreciate one major similarity.
“I am well versed in self-training and learning, which is crucial to learning to code in a boot camp environment. The commitment needed to be successful cannot be understated. It takes complete dedication to learn programming in a short amount of time.”
Ultimately, he knows the commitment is worth it. “My mind has been awakened by code and all things tech,” he said. “It’s amazing how the Internet and computers look once you’ve seen behind the curtain.”
During the industrial revolution and well into the 20th century, Richwood was a booming coal town. Most in the area have worked in the industry themselves, or know someone who did.
“I was the third generation of my family to work in the mines,” said Flanagan. “We always had the same struggles: no work, slow work, dangerous work. It’s definitely a very taxing occupation, both physically and psychologically.”
The decline of the coal industry has left many in Richwood and other parts of West Virginia unemployed, contributing to the state’s economic troubles. Programs such as Toussieng’s, which offer free or cheap training in other industries, could help retrain and eventually employ those without jobs.
“We already have the best work ethic on the planet,” Flanagan said. “Let us apply that to tech and see what we do with it.”
These programs hold vast potential not only to ex-coal workers, but to another group in dire need of opportunity in West Virginia: young people.
“I feel the main focus should be on the next generation coming out of high school. These kids don’t stand a chance without technology and software,” Flanagan emphasized. “The more exposure they get at an earlier age, the better off we will all be.”
Toussieng agrees that training programs, especially in the tech industry, could help prevent outmigration—another major factor hurting the economy. “One of the benefits of writing software is that you can do it anywhere,” he maintained. “If you can work remotely, why not live in a place like Richwood, where you can buy inexpensive housing and live right next to a national forest?”
Although Toussieng is currently focusing his attention on Richwood, he sees an overwhelming potential for growth in West Virginia’s budding tech industry. Many of his students are from towns outside Richwood, such as St. Albans and Fayetteville. Some drive over an hour each week for class.
“It’s dedication,” he affirmed—adding that he believes his program could be a model for others around the state, and that a transformation in Richwood could inspire transformations elsewhere.
“If people want to work together and grow into other parts of West Virginia, I’m more than happy to help,” he assured. “After all, opportunity is where you make it.”