Episode 16

Building a Tech Ecosystem in the Appalachia Region

March 1, 2021

Episode Summary

Todd Cope, CEO of CentralApp, recently took a road trip across the U.S. to bring awareness to CentralApp’s mission — building a tech ecosystem of skilled remote workers in the Appalachian region who can help solve the tech worker deficit currently facing America.

Show Notes

Learn more about CentralApp on their website at https://centralapp.us/

You can find out more about Todd Cope’s recent road trip across America on his and CentralApp’s social media channels.

Twitter: @ToddCope1

Instagram: centralapp.us

Facebook: @centralapp.us 

Or search #OperationRuralTech on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

If you have any questions, feel free to email Todd directly at todd.cope@centralapp.us. 

 

 

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

 

Stephen Smith: Have you ever thought of Appalachia as a hotspot for tech talent? Well, Todd Cope has, and he’s my guest on today’s show. Todd is the CEO of CentralApp, which you’ll learn more about. He’s doing some interesting work connecting companies across the country with remote technology employees in the Appalachian region. Let’s hear Todd tell that story. Plus, he’ll tell us about driving across the country in a Tesla for what he called “Operation Rural Tech.” Here’s my interview with Todd Cope.

Stephen Smith: And thanks for tuning in today. My special guest is Todd Cope. Welcome to the show, Todd.

Todd Cope: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Stephen Smith: We have so many things to talk about today. But first, I want to talk about the company that you lead. You’re the CEO of a company called CentralApp. So explain to our listeners what this company is about, what its mission is, and what you do.

Todd Cope: Sure. Thanks. CentralApp was founded on the concept that talent and skill are equally distributed, but the opportunities are not. And we feel there’s a lot of very talented people in Appalachia, particularly, that either are or could be scaled up to match some of the economic challenges that the country is facing. And so in a big picture, that’s what we’re about. In the long term, we’d certainly like to have a vision where when people outsource technology in the United States, instead of thinking India, they think Appalachia. Fully understanding that’s going to be a long term heavy-lift project. But, you know, we have nothing less than that as our goal in building a tech ecosystem in Appalachia generally and we’re based in West Virginia and in West Virginia specifically.

Stephen Smith: So why Appalachia? What do you believe that the Appalachian region has to offer to the tech world?

Todd Cope: So lots of things is the short answer. But in some detail, the idea is that there are tons of talented people there that have been leaving the area often to go to big cities because of lack of economic opportunity. With the possibility of remote work, that’s no longer a requirement. There’s opportunities to stay. You have a lot of work ethic. You’ve got people in the right time zone to work with companies in America. And so those things are huge resources that the country is not fully utilizing. And we need to enable those resources to be fully utilized by the country.

Stephen Smith: So you mentioned remote work and CentralApp was certainly focused on remote work well before the pandemic. But since March of 2020, we’ve seen a dramatic shift toward remote work out of necessity, with a lot of companies realizing, wait, this is actually maybe even more efficient and more productive. And with several companies announcing that a portion of their workforce may never return to the office in some capacity. How has the pandemic changed the dynamics of what you do as a company?

Todd Cope: Well, that’s a great question. And despite the challenges that we’re all aware of, it, in some ways, made my job easier. That’s one less thing for me to sell around is the remote nature of the work, because I think it’s been proven over the last year that not only does it work, in some ways, it’s beneficial. So that’s been maybe a silver lining for CentralApp, and that there’s one less barrier to us going and acquiring clients because our remote work is not a barrier at this point. And, in fact, that is a requirement in many cases.

Stephen Smith: Well, rural broadband is, of course, the focus of this show. And how important is it, Todd, that we solve this rural broadband challenge once and for all in America?

Todd Cope: Well, I think, as far as remote work and fully utilizing the resources we have in the country, it’s step zero if you have to start without it. It’s very analogous to having electricity. Without broadband, you cannot take advantage of the educational and economic opportunities that are out there. And so it’s a requirement. We must solve it. We are not, as a country, fully utilizing all the talents we have because of the lack of broadband access in the country. In my state of West Virginia, you know, a third of the people don’t have broadband. If you think about that, you know, how much productivity are we losing as a country because some of the people can’t do a remote job. I mean, it’s kind of staggering when you think about it.

Stephen Smith: So take us behind the scenes, if you will, of this client relationship. Like who is the client of CentralApp? And maybe give us some case studies of people that you have connected and how that works.

Todd Cope: Ok, yeah, that’s one of my favorite things about this job, is some of the success stories and the way people’s situations have changed. There’s a gentleman, who, a little over two years ago now, he lives in eastern Kentucky, and he was working as a security guard at WalMart. He was laid off from that job, didn’t really have a lot of options. He got involved with a program with CentralApp that got him trained up in the Salesforce Ecosystem. That’s a CRM. It’s an enterprise-wide software that allows companies to do their customer record management and a whole lot of other things. And I’ll skip to sort of the end of the story. You know, two and a half years later, this guy is making $50/hour working remotely outside of Kentucky for a company in Chicago where he administers their Salesforce Instance. And, you know, so this guy has basically gone from an unemployed WalMart security guard and in less than three years to a six-figure tech worker. And that’s the kind of thing at CentralApp, we want to do a thousand times.

Todd Cope: We want to enable people who have skills, drive, and ability to fully utilize those skills. And, you know, to the point we made earlier, that would not be possible [without broadband]. I have sort of more negative stories where a gentleman with a similar situation was looking for economic opportunity. Bright guy. He had to drive several miles to a library to get Internet, to take some of the classes and progress in his certification. He had a family member get sick. He was no longer able to travel and dropped out of the program. And so now his, you know, the country has lost. This guy now could be a productive tech worker in southern West Virginia. But because of not having Internet at his home, he isn’t. So that kind of thing is, you know, unfortunately, that is kind of story as well. So broadband is very important to me personally because I see how it really impacts the lives of individuals and can allow them with the right talent drive and initiative to change their circumstance in a big way.

Stephen Smith: You make a good point. That’s not just a loss to him personally in his career and to his family. It’s a loss to the companies that could have employed him. And really a loss to the country as a resource that we could be utilizing.

Todd Cope: Absolutely. I think, and not to restate again, but it’s not like we’re in Appalachia, you know, come help us. It’s like we can be a big help to this problem we have in the country, which is a tech worker deficit, which we don’t have nearly enough to do that in the country. And one thing that I didn’t mention earlier, that Appalachia particularly has an advantage, and it’s because generally it’s a low-cost living area. We’re very, very competitive with certainly the cost of this labor on the coast. But even offshore, we’re competitive with some of those offerings as well. So it’s globalization, but it’s globalization in our favor because we have the infrastructure, assuming the broadband gets cut out and the geography to take full advantage of that, as well as a labor rate that’s very, very competitive, not just nationally, but internationally.

Stephen Smith: Now, you mentioned Salesforce, Todd, and that’s an enormous software company that serves millions, and these companies certainly need because of the customization required to use Salesforce and adapt it to a company’s unique needs. There’s certainly a lot of need for tech support there. As more and more of our work life goes online and software as a service becomes just core and critical to small businesses and enterprise, are you seeing a greater demand for the type of employees that CentralApp places with these companies?

Todd Cope: Oh, absolutely. It’s been tremendous. I mean, just like everyone else, in the first months of the pandemic, you know, the shock and no one was doing much of anything. But in the back half of 2020 people began to realize, hey, we’ve got work to do. We’ve got to move forward. And that’s really helped us grow. You know, we had an up year in 2020, which is, you know, I will certainly take that in a pandemic year. And I think that’s just a credit to first the people in Appalachia that are able to do the work, but then the ability to go into the marketplace and sell those skills and get companies to hire folks. I’ll say something else about Salesforce and how it’s helpful to CentralApp right now is like when I go to Silicon Valley to try to attain a client, and I talked about doing some sort of tech work in West Virginia or Appalachia, I do it for a mobile app or something like that. Unfortunately, I still get, frankly, a lot of eye rolls. Like, why is some guy in Appalachia going to be able to write my mobile app? And that’s unfortunate. But that bias exists, right? With Salesforce, I can say that I have Salesforce certified workers at a very competitive rate and then immediately have a conversation. So that third-party certification, again, makes my job easier. And I don’t have to convince someone that all these guys really are good, just because of their location doesn’t make them any less good. But with that third-party certification, it helps us be able to demonstrate the skill that is there, and so that’s important step to us. I think as we grow in reputation en masse, CentralApp will do more and more different tech things for people. And we do today, but it’s more serendipitous when people know me and ask if I can do it, and, of course, we can. But that’s the way I see us progressing and how Salesforce is an important sort of first step for us in that certification, allowing us to have some credibility.

Stephen Smith: So as CEO, you are certainly responsible for your operations and those type things, leading the company. But you’re also spending a lot of time, from what I understand, promoting the idea. And that’s what you’re doing on the West Coast right now. And I’ll let you get into that story, but I do have to say that we’ve had a lot of interesting people on our show in the past, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a guest who has driven across America in 21 days during a pandemic, amidst social unrest and political upheaval and camped in their Tesla along the way. Give us an idea of the trip you have just taken for those who haven’t seen it on social media.

Todd Cope: Ok, yeah, so you can find some of the details at #OperationRuralTech, but the concept sort of started banging around in my head in December. You know, 2020 had been a rough year for most, and I really wanted to start 2021 off with something positive. And my sense was that, you know, I’m biased for sure, but I think there’s a lot of skills and talents that people could take advantage of. And I wanted to raise that awareness for folks, and I wanted to basically go to California, didn’t particularly want to get on a plane or stay in hotels. And so I conceded to  this idea to not just get to California, but visit some places along the way around the country where there’s techs that’s not on the coast and maybe not places where you would expect. And the way that I ended up doing that was I do have a Tesla, and to help with the charging situation, although there’s a great charging network, I stayed at RV camps over 21 days. I was able to plug in overnight just like an RV and get my charge overnight and sleep laid down on the back of the seats in the car and had a third-party called a TESMAT that allowed me to sleep in the car.

Todd Cope: And it was wonderful, actually. And you can see the map if you go look under #OperationRuralTech. But, you know, it’s 6,514 miles, right. So it was not a direct shot, by any stretch. And I visited every client that we had that wasn’t in [inaudible] and was able to pick up more clients along the way and was raising awareness both on the supply and the demand side. The supply side is I’m trying to find tech workers that can work through CentralApp, and so that’s my trying to build supply there. But at the same time, they have to have a demand for their services so I’m building it up with companies as well. So that was sort of the genesis of the trip, the mission of the trip. And I learned a lot of fantastic things about our country and just people in general during the pandemic, and the way these communities come together. And it was just a probably once in a lifetime trip. And it was certainly something I won’t forget.

Stephen Smith: That’s fascinating, what kind of challenges did you face on this trip and then also, are there any particular success stories, I guess, or any highlights of the trip you’d like to share?

Todd Cope: Yes. So. Just the logistics of getting everything in the car and then every night setting up. I had to clear out the back of the car to sleep there, sort of piled up in the front. There was sort of like almost a half an hour or more to reshuffle the car. I got pretty good at that at the end where I could reconfigure the car in about 10 minutes. But from a bedroom to a car so that, you know, that sort of stuff was fun just to figure out the logistics and get better at that. You know, I’d not stayed at RV camps before, and that’s an amazing subculture of people, both the people who work there and the people who stay there, and those were fun people to talk to. Observing, frankly, differences and protocols that were norms in certain areas. Some being super tight on the contact tracing. They take your cell number when you stop at a restaurant versus basically free for all. No masks at all. Nothing to see here kind of mentality. So that was interesting to observe. I had my own protocols that I was very careful.

Todd Cope: I was obviously parsing my car to avoid some contact. So I did have a negative test both on the front and on the back end, so that was successful. So yeah, those are some of the things that we dealt with. As far as individual successes, it was great talking to people about technology and understanding their perceptions of Appalachia. And what it would take to want to do business in Appalachia or have a workforce there. There’s really three things. And the first is awareness, right? Several CEOs will have to know you exist. I didn’t know this was an option. So that was part of the the trip, raising that awareness as well. And then you have to be good, and then you have to be affordable. And I’m like, well, I know we’ve got number two and number three, so let’s work on awareness. And that’s what the trip was all about. And I think some of that happened.

Stephen Smith: Now, I know you’ve gotten some press over that, and you’ve written, I think, in a state paper in West Virginia about your trip. Did you get any media attention along the way?

Todd Cope: Oh, absolutely. So there were several different write ups. I guess something I’m most proud of is I was published in a couple areas, and one was in the Charleston Gazette. And it was an Op-Ed about, and it was entitled “A mask or a gun?”. That

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet...

came about because before I started the trip, on social media I asked what should I bring to be safe on the road. And the responses vary dramatically, depending on where people were when they responded. And there were really two answers, and the answers people in California said well, bring a lot of masks. And people in West Virginia said to bring a gun. And so I just thought that was very interesting, the way that people go to be safe and what they think about that and how, depending on where you are, geography wise, sort of changes your filter and the way you do things as basic as safety, and how that works. And so I wrote up about that, and I won’t recite the whole thing here. But having grown up in West Virginia and then spent most of my professional life working on both coasts and even overseas in large cities, I understand it. I understand both answers perfectly well. And the example I use is when I had apartment [inaudible] there for a while and, you know, when I heard a gunshot, I would run. And the other direction, if I heard a siren, I would ignore it. And in West Virginia, I ignore gunshots. And if there’s a siren, I go check on my neighbors. So it’s just a completely different mindset, depending on where you are. And people need to understand that there are different places to live, and you have different views, and that’s okay. And I think that the whole point is that there is a cultural divide in the country that I think we can get around that. And one way to get around that is by literally working together. Right, with people in San Francisco, working with people in southern West Virginia on a tech project. A lot of understanding comes from that. So that’s, you know, part of you know, we’re obviously a company where we’re out to make money. But, you know, me personally, that mission having had one foot in Appalachia and my foot in the San Francisco Bay Area for a good part of my life. I like people in both places. I want them to like each other, too. So I’m trying out that mission as well.

Stephen Smith: So you feel like that even though we’re in a period that we do see a lot of the cultural divide, as you said, you you came away from your trip optimistic and hopeful that those are things that kind of in the background that we can get around and find more commonality.

Todd Cope: I think so. I think what we need to do is talk to and not at each other. And because I tell people, whether it be in San Francisco or in southern West Virginia, you know, I know people at the other place that would be the best neighbor you ever had. Trust me on that, right. And part of what I mentioned in the Op-Ed is that I get asked in all seriousness from people in California sometimes how many people I know in the KKK in West Virginia? Or how people do I know that are in Antifa? And I’m like, come on, guys, zero. They are such outliers that it’s not even being really worth in a conversation. So that those perceptions are going to be hard to break down, but I think the more again, to get back to the point, working together across those rural-urban divides could help that in a big way. Because when we know people, you know, the stereotypes break down.

Stephen Smith: Well, Todd, there are many rural broadband providers that are doing a really good job of bringing broadband to their communities. We’re certainly seeing a lot of investments coming from states. A lot of states are developing broadband programs, money from Congress, from the FCC, from the private sector. And I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much momentum and this much demand really for solutions to the broadband challenge. What do you think it’s going to take to get the remaining 20 million or so, whatever that number might be, connected to a reliable broadband service?

Todd Cope: Yeah, those obviously are tough questions. I do have some ideas. Just from observations and things like that I think we could try. So my sense is historically states and other organizations have gotten fairly large amounts of money to try to solve this problem. And my perception is and, you know, they pick a vendor, and the outcome is less than people had hoped. And I understand that because in a state like West Virginia, with its geographic and demographic differences, it’s not one size fits all. So I would like to see an approach more where instead of like the sort of top level pick a solution, go try to do that everywhere, that we have something like Internet coupons or Internet vouchers where a community or individual can choose to use those how they see fit. As an example, in West Virginia, there’s plenty of people who live up a holler. There is no economic incentive for any private company to ever build a fiber optic cable out two miles to service two people. So that could be done with subsidies and other things, but that’s not going to be a market-driven solution at all. But so I imagine those people could have their Internet coupon and go with Starlink or HugesNet or get a satellite solution that they could pick for themselves.

Todd Cope: Or you can imagine communities that could co-op their coupons and get their local provider to do, you know, fast DSL or fiber to everybody’s house. Or we could use, if we had a 5G tower on this on the hill, we can cover more people, and we could all subsidize that with AT&T or whomever. And I just think that that kind of solution is what it’s going to take because it’s not going to be monolithic or homogeneous at all. And I think that we need allow for that, allow people to figure out what works best for them. They certainly need the resource because not everyone’s going to pay $90 for Starlink or whatever to be able to. But I think those types of things are ideas that I’d like to see explored more fully by the legislatures in the different areas or cities or counties or whatever level it makes sense. But that’s some of the things that I think. Again, it’s probably not that novel of an idea, but I would like to see those things tried as well.

Stephen Smith: So what is next for CentralApp? You’re out on the West Coast right now working on some things. Give us a view for what’s coming up.

Todd Cope: Well, in the short term, like the day after tomorrow, I’m going to go up to Silicon Valley itself. And I’ve got a series of meetings set up to continue to beat the drum about Appalachian tech and how dynamic and valuable it can be to the CEOs in San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. So I’m going to continue to do that. Continue to look for the institutions within Appalachia to continue to train and provide people to the workforce with the appropriate skills, whether it be vocational schools or high schools offering Salesforce certifications or adult learning centers doing the same. And so, again, just the matching of those supply and demand.

Todd Cope: And I want to see CentralApp grow to be really a marketplace that makes that matching easier for both companies and workers. We want to have things that make us be the, like we said, easy button. The way to make this seamless for them because our workforce, they are all 1099 contractors. It is a gig economy job. And many of those people do go off and get gigs on their own, which is perfectly, perfectly fine. But also some of those people don’t want to hustle from gig to gig. And they wanted someone to sort of set the opportunity on a platter, let them take on the technical part of the challenge, and don’t have to do the business stuff. They NDAs, the business disagreements. And so they don’t want to set up things where CentralApp can give them resources to help get their taxes done as a 1099 contractor. Or allow companies to have matching to the people that exactly match the skills we’re looking for. So as far as our longterm growth, we are going to have that grow into a marketplace and platform that’s very deep and it allows people to get matched with opportunities that that well for them.

Stephen Smith: So how can listeners learn more about the work of CentralApp? Let’s say there’s a company that might be outsourcing and listening, but also to that person sitting in Appalachia that says, hey, this is exactly the kind of work opportunity that I would love to explore. How can they find out more?

Todd Cope: So a place to start is our website. And so you can look at centralapp.us, and there are buttons there for looking to work or looking to hire, basically, find work or find talent is at the top of the screen. And depending if you are a company or an individual, you can click those things, and it’ll sort of walking through things that will help you identify and us identify you and match with people. So that’s the place to start is centralapp.us. I think it’s the first place to start. I’m also happy to talk to people directly. I’m sure probably in the show notes or something you could put my email and again, that’s todd.cope@centralapp.us. and I’d be happy to respond to people individually as well. So I think that’s a good place to get it started. And as far as getting up to speed on the trip, again, it’s #OperationRuralTech. And there’s a long series of posts there about actually some misadventures with the Tesla that had some scares and then some. By the way, I love Tesla, but there was a massive, scary event there. And then also videos with different CEOs around the country and their views both as existing clients to CentralApp for reference, but also people who are considering it. But, you know, think about where they’re headed and what things they’re thinking about. So between centralapp.us And #OperationalRuralTech, I think there’ll be some information. And, of course, reaching out to me directly is also fine. 

Stephen Smith: And that hashtag, they can follow that on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, right?

Todd Cope: That is correct. And even on LinkedIn as well.

Stephen Smith: Ok, great. We encourage our listeners to do that and to learn about your adventures and your misadventures on that trip. Well, thank you so much, Todd, for joining us today.

Todd Cope: I appreciate you having me, and best of luck. I think we’re well aligned on the broadband mission. And I think that we can continue to, as you say, get the 20 million people remaining on broadband, and I think the whole country will be better for it.

Stephen Smith: Absolutely. Thanks again and thank you for listening to Rural Broadband Today, where we take a look at the people and the issues shaping the rural broadband story across America.

Stephen Smith: I’m your host, Stephen Smith, and this program is produced by WordSouth — A Content Marketing Company. Please share this episode with your network and help us tell the rural broadband story. Thanks for listening.

Subscribe to our podcast

Apple Podcast Google Podcast Spotify Podcast