At Clearly Innovative, developers are hired with little practice and a lot of passion


Clearly Innovative CEO Aaron Saunders, left, with lead designer Lis Warren, is not opposed to employing people with more passion than experience. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan )

Robert Chen was working in I.T. support for the National Institutes of Health when he opted for his third career change. The 35-year-old initially applied to medical school after college, but ultimately entered real estate back when the market was hot.

Now, Chen builds mobile applications for Clearly Innovative, a small shop in the District that creates apps for businesses and nonprofits. Despite its technical demands, Chen secured the job without formal training.

As tech companies struggle to find mobile and Web developers with adequate training and experience, Clearly Innovative has taken to hiring people with passion but no practice. The firm then gives them several weeks to master the skills or shows them the door.

“Everyone says it’s hard to find talent so if it’s so hard to find talent then I will fill that void by growing my own talent and if those other guys come along with the talent then I will augment my team with them,” said chief executive Aaron Saunders.

Clearly Innovative isn’t the first to take this approach. LivingSocial created a five-month program called Hungry Academy in which 24 wannabe developers took part in formal classes and group projects. Though all of the graduates entered jobs at the company, Hungry Academy was disbanded after its inaugural class.

There are also educational programs that teach students to code with the promise of helping them land a well-paying jobs upon completion. But those offerings often require participants to pay tuition or relocate to another part of the country.

The operation at Clearly Innovative — which counts just five developers among its 13 employees — is smaller and less formal, because, like many upstarts, it doesn’t have the time or budget for formal programs. Thus, new hires divide their time between learning the software and working on real projects for clients, Saunders said.

The hiring process is designed to test applicant’s penchant for quick learning. Those interested in becoming a mobile app developer are tasked with creating an app on their own time and dime using Appcelerator, the software platform on which Clearly Innovative creates apps.

“If the person doesn’t come back to us within two to three weeks, then we usually get skeptical they’re going to be successful here,” Saunders said. “What we’re looking for is the self-directed person who is going to put their nose to the grindstone and figure things out.”

Those who do return present their creation to others at the company. Their app, Saunders said, doesn’t have to function perfectly.

“We want to see how they attempt to solve a problem. That’s why it’s a presentation. They talk about the challenges they ran into and they talk about how they tried to solve them,” Saunders said.

If Saunders likes what an applicant has to say, he offers them a job — with one caveat. New hires have 45 days to pass an exam demonstrating their proficiency with Appcelerator. Those who can’t make the grade are let go.

“Rather than a traditional model, it’s almost a throwback to medieval Renaissance times when you would have an apprenticeship,” said Michael Manger, another developer at Clearly Innovative. “You bring on this person who looks to have aptitude and teach them the trade. I feel like I responded well to that.”

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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