Bookmark and Share Zach Chambers and Sam Hooker

Binary System

by Janet Essman Franz

These two computer stars were meant to work in tandem

In 2004, Zach Chambers (left) and Sam Hooker merged their two technology services companies into one: ClearBearing on Flynn Avenue in Burlington. It was an action that, in hindsight, seems inevitable.

It seems they were destined to work together, as though someone had a higher plan for these two technology wizards to collaborate in business in Vermont. Each time they took separate paths in their lives and careers, something would bring Zach Chambers and Sam Hooker together. 

They grew up near each other and competed against each other in high school sports. They went to the same college and worked in the same location — not once, but twice, early in their careers. Yet it was not until they were approaching 30 years old, working in different towns and each operating sideline businesses in computer consulting that they allowed fate to bring them into business together. 

Chambers and Hooker are partners in ClearBearing Inc., providing Internet service, Web hosting and data network management to about 70 customers throughout the state. With headquarters in Burlington at 208 Flynn Ave., ClearBearing occupies about 1,800 square feet, half of which is filled with server computers. The other half is open space with cubicles for the five staffers. It is a laid-back, dog-friendly atmosphere.

ClearBearing serves small businesses, school districts and companies that depend on the Internet for their livelihood. It helps improve network performance, develops telecommunications solutions and responds to crises of servers, security and software viruses.

“We’re your IT department,” says Hooker. “You hire us to make sure your critical infrastructure is working.”

One longtime customer, Propeller Media Works, is right next door. ClearBearing designed and installed Propeller’s phone and data networks and provides Internet service and network security. 

“The biggest level of comfort for us is that they provide proactive monitoring for our Web servers,” says Russ Scully, senior partner at Propeller, which builds Web sites for its clients. Those sites “sit” on out-of-state computer servers that run all day, every day of the year. “If there is any kind of blip or problem with those machines, ClearBearing is our agent that responds,” Scully explains. “They make sure the machines perform the way they are supposed to so we can sleep at night.” 

Scully appreciates Chambers and Hooker’s depth of knowledge. “They have a long history in the industry, and it’s great to have that kind of experience working for us.  They are also incredibly approachable, fun and energetic. They don’t scare me with the techie-talk that the industry is known for.”

Chambers and Hooker grew up in the Rutland region. “Zach and I should have met in high school,” Hooker says. “We went to school near each other, and we determined that we ran a few races together.” 

Hooker attended Rutland High School, where his father still teaches science. His mother is an English teacher at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon. He ran cross-country and played drums, piano and trombone. He is the oldest of four children. 

Nicole ChevrierAmong the company’s services are improving network performance, developing telecommunications solutions, and crisis response. Nicole Chevrier is a project manager.

 “Dad was an enthusiastic science teacher. He had us dredging weeds out of streams, catching fish and putting them in aquariums, walking around looking at trees and watching shows like Nova and Nature.” When Hooker was 10, his father bought the first iteration of the Apple Macintosh computer, a toaster-shaped box with an internal drive and a mouse. Sam played on it, and “that was the start” of his growing interest in computers. “I still have it [the Macintosh]. It’s kind of a museum piece now.”

Still, Hooker had no intention of making computers his career. He went to the University of Vermont to study natural resources ecology. In college he delved into hiking, rock climbing and kayaking, and ran the experimental music production program at UVM’s Living/Learning Center. He worked in the computer lab to make money for books, but “I didn’t mean to be a technologist,” he says. 

During his sophomore year, he needed a job. “I sent out 14 applications,” he says, “mostly to places like the Forestry Service, the Agency of Natural Resources, all kinds of cool, ‘sciency’ jobs, and one application to Physicians’ Computer Co.,, in Winooski. The only one that come back with a ‘yes’ was” 

That job encouraged his interest in computers. He shifted his focus from ecology to electronics, graduating in 1997 with a degree in electronic music composition.

Chambers grew up next door to his grandparents’ dairy farm in North Clarendon, where his grandmother and his uncle’s family continue to run the farm. The oldest of three siblings, he lived briefly in Cavendish and attended both Green Mountain and Mill River Union high schools. He ran cross-country and disassembled mechanical things. 

“It all started with taking apart everything I could find on the farm — lawn mowers, chain saws, vacuum cleaners. This got me interested in knowing how things work.”

In high school he discovered computers. Like Hooker, Chambers still owns his first computer, a Commodore 64. He attended UVM to study computer engineering, but he did not finish college; he was distracted by the Internet.

“Before the World Wide Web was there, they [UVM] had giant computers you could get accounts on. You could send and receive emails and share files with people at different colleges. It was interesting enough for me to neglect my studies in computer engineering,” he says. “In hindsight that would have been a poor career choice for me. Sitting and designing computer circuit boards would not have been fulfilling for me.”

He learned about networking and the Internet and, after his third semester, took a job at UVM’s computer lab, where Hooker also worked. Chambers never returned to computer engineering. Instead, in 1992, a career in Internet technology came calling.

Zach Colgan and Brian O'DonnellClearBearing serves small businesses, school districts and companies that depend on the Internet for their livelihood. Zack Colgan and Brian O’Donnell are consulting engineers.

“I got a call from a friend of mine at the Together Foundation,” a fledgling organization in Burlington that was building a network for nonprofit organizations to share ideas on sustainable development. Chambers’ friend asked him if he knew anyone interested in applying for a job as a network administrator. “I had an interview that morning and the job that afternoon.”

It was an exciting time to be in the Internet field. “I was learning as I went along, and at the same time I was exposed to new technologies — phone systems, networking systems and telecommunications technologies that would allow a lot of people access all over the world. I was only 19 years old, and I got thrown into the business world quickly.” He recalls extraordinary experiences from that period, such as when he went to the United Nations to provide onsite technical support to agencies.

Together Foundation gave Chambers increasing responsibility. When the director decided to try selling public Internet access in Burlington, he asked Chambers to set up a network at the foundation’s Willard Street site. 

“We had eight phone lines in the basement. Things happened pretty quickly after that,” he says. Internet sales were split off to create Together Networks, which grew rapidly and expanded into the space now occupied by ClearBearing. 

“For me it was a process of tackling new technology upon new technology, trying to create new e-mail servers for thousands of customers, figuring out how to get statewide access. These were new technology problems then.” 

Upon graduating from college, Hooker went to work for Together Networks. He began in front-line technical support and was asked to start the company’s business support department. He worked with Chambers. 

“He was the big chief, the main networking guy,” Hooker says of his partner. During this time, Hooker and a friend also started a sideline business, HBC, providing sound recording and computer services. acquired Together Networks, and in 1998 Hooker was laid off. He found work as technology coordinator for Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans and continued to operate HBC. He married, and he and Jackie settled down in Essex Junction.

Chambers moved with to Reston, Va., to become director of network engineering, overseeing the merging of about 30 small Internet providers. Earthlink acquired, and Chambers stayed onboard, but he soon grew weary of the corporate setting and pined for his old lifestyle.

“Working for a company that size, with several corporate offices and thousands of employees, made me miss the Together Networks experience, where you have a couple of people in management and it’s easy to go talk about an issue and find a better way to do things.” 

He resigned from Earthlink and moved back to Vermont.” Upon returning, “I realized that Vermont was really my home. I missed the scenery, the people, the culture.”

Earthlink asked Chambers to stay on as a consulting engineer. He handled large technical projects working from home and the old Together Networks offices on Flynn Avenue. 

Simultaneously, he and a friend started a business called SkyStratus, offering business-to-business Internet access in multi-tenant buildings. When Earthlink closed its Burlington facility, SkyStratus took over the space on Flynn Avenue. “There were excellent technical facilities here. We had the server room, the generators and battery backups from the Together Networks operation.

Chambers and Hooker don’t remember exactly how they reunited — “It’s Burlington. How can you not run into each other?” Hooker quips — but soon they were working together again. 

In 2004, they merged their two sideline companies to become ClearBearing, a name that “expresses the general idea that we will help our customers be pointed in the right direction when it comes to technology,” says Chambers.

The partners aspire to build ClearBearing to the point where they can take more time away from it, mixing a flexible lifestyle with rewarding work. Hooker enjoys kayaking and hiking, playing trombone with the Vermont Wind Ensemble, composing music and practicing piano and drums. He wants to travel to Europe with Jackie and their son, Gabriel, born in October. 

Chambers, who lives in North Hero, also likes outdoor recreation and traveling overseas. He recently went to India with his girlfriend, Dolma Bhutia, to visit her family. He enjoys winemaking and dreams of owning a vineyard. For now, he plans to focus on helping other technology-oriented Vermonters follow in his footsteps.

“Sam and I have always had a vision of creating a company where we employ a fair number of people in a technology,” Chambers says. “We want to create opportunities for people to work with cutting edge technologies.” •

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