After years touring with the Air Force Band, trumpeter Andrew Syzmanek was looking for a new kind of challenge. When a Python course piqued his interest in tech, Andrew (and his wife, Amelia!) decided to enroll in devCodeCamp to pivot into software development. Using the GI Bill to cover his bootcamp tuition, Andrew walks us through what it was like to make a career change through a coding bootcamp alongside a spouse, and how devCodeCamp prepared him for a job at Amazon Web Services. Andrew also shares his #1 tip for nailing the AWS interview!
What inspired you to switch from music performance to tech?
I had always wanted to work full-time in music. I started playing trumpet at 10 years old, and I went on to get my bachelor’s and master’s in trumpet performance. Then I won a position with the Air Force Band of Mid-America outside St. Louis. For a couple of years, I spent my time on active duty in the Air Force performing for the public as well as playing Taps for fallen veterans and teaching master classes to schoolchildren. I met my wife, who was a vocalist in the Air Force, and we toured a hundred days a year but on different schedules. On one particular tour, I was on a bus in the middle of Arkansas and I just wanted to go home. I wasn’t feeling intellectually challenged enough as a musician and I wanted to use the analytical side of my brain. That’s when I pulled up a beginner Python course and started to learn how to code.
There are so many coding bootcamps out there now — what set devCodeCamp apart?
devCodeCamp accepts the GI Bill and that was a benefit that my wife Amelia (who attended devCodecCamp with me!) and I both wanted to take advantage of. The devCodeCamp reviews were very strong and we felt that they offered the right curriculum to enter the corporate software engineering space. Amelia’s family is from the Milwaukee area and I’m from Chicago, so it was natural to want to attend a coding bootcamp in the Midwest to be near family.
Was it a difficult process to apply the GI bill towards your bootcamp tuition?
It was easy! In order to use the GI Bill, we first had to obtain a letter of eligibility from the VA. We sent that to the business coordinator at devCodeCamp which she was able to certify. The payments for tuition were on time and it couldn’t have been easier.
What was the devCodeCamp application and interview process like for you?
The interview process was very accessible. There was no technical challenge. Instead, there was an interview to gauge my interest and desire to learn software. My wife and I felt very welcome as veterans, too, so that helped.
Did you have to complete any prework before attending the bootcamp?
What was a typical day like at devCodeCamp?
We were there from 7am until 5pm. Typically, when we got there in the morning we were working on individual projects and shoring up tasks from the day before until class started. We would start the day with a stand-up meeting just as you do in any agile software engineering job. There was usually a block of instruction either in the morning or in the afternoon after lunch. We could count on a relatively short block of instruction. The rest of the day was spent tackling projects with instructor help. We usually didn’t have class late in the day because devCodeCamp recognizes that introducing new concepts requires a fresh mind.
Did the learning style match your learning preferences?
Absolutely. I would say for most people who want to get into software, an emphasis on the hands-on part of learning is critical if you want to quickly become a developer.
What was it like to do this coding bootcamp alongside your significant other? Any advice?
Since we both had the GI Bill benefit, we really had nothing to lose! It was nice to be able to talk out concepts and quiz each other. When we needed to give ourselves some space from a complex problem, we would walk around the campus together. Over the course of the bootcamp, it became apparent that Amelia had great attention to detail when it came to design on the front end but she had difficulty with the back end. On the other hand, I have difficulty making things look good, but I can figure out the back end problems. We were good at different types of development, and we were able to lift each other up.
Even though we were doing the bootcamp at the same time, we weren’t always working with each other, though. devCodeCamp wanted us to work with different people so we could get used to different types of communication, which I appreciated.
When both spouses are making a career change at the same time, I strongly suggest having 4-6 months of income saved before enrolling in a bootcamp, so that you can have enough money to live on after you graduate to find a job. It took Amelia about two and a half months to find a job and it took me just over four months.
What did you build for your capstone project?
We did a group capstone project in groups of three or four that were determined by an instructor. Each group had a lead that was generally chosen because they needed help stepping into leadership positions. Amelia and I are both pretty assertive already so we were able to lift them up and help them make decisions for our group.
For our capstone, we built an app called Dark Sky. It allowed astronomy enthusiasts to log on and search for the nearest international dark sky site or park. It showed users the distance and time to get to the park, and it allowed them to save parks to their own collection. Users could leave reviews and they would be averaged to create the performance review for the park.
Did your background in the military help prepare you for the challenges you faced at devCodeCamp?
Military bootcamp helped me grow in my discipline and trained me to deal with high levels of mental stress. They push you to see how far you can go before you break and you learn over time to keep calm in those situations. I would say bootcamp prepared me for a coding bootcamp by teaching me to perform well under pressure in high-intensity situations.
How did devCodeCamp prepare you for the job hunt?
We participated in whiteboard challenges where we were given a problem and we would pseudo code the answer as if we were in an interview. We also had classes on LinkedIn and networking. I learned not to be afraid to ask questions of people who are doing the thing I want to do.
devCodeCamp was really good at setting up presentation days where representatives and recruiters came to watch our capstone presentations. We could network and potentially interview or apply for jobs on the spot. devCodeCamp was also really good about sending out resumes to people who were looking for talent. devCodeCamp has a huge network of recruiters and dev teams that like to hire from the bootcamp, so that got us in front of a lot of interviewers.
What kind of tech jobs did you feel prepared to apply for?
Graduating from the bootcamp put me in a good position to obtain a junior-level developer role. As a bootcamp graduate, you understand the agile process and you understand how to solve problems with more independence.
Congrats on getting an apprenticeship at Amazon Web Services (AWS)! What was the interview process like?
My first round was your typical interview with a recruiter, where you talk about yourself and your experience in coding. When I got to the final interview, it took about five hours, and I interviewed with multiple people. The bigger the company you apply for, the more formal and challenging the interview process is going to be.
AWS does have a technical portion of the interview. They are less concerned with your portfolio and more concerned with your ability to communicate how you would solve a problem. Amazon cares about your character. They know they can teach you the technical skills, but they can’t often teach character.
Do you have any tips for nailing the AWS interview process?
You need to understand the 14 leadership principles written by Jeff Bezos. Those principles really do guide Amazon, and the company follows those principles every day. One of the principles is a bias for action, which means don’t be afraid to try and solve a problem and demonstrate that you can gather the requirements for a ticket. In my interview, I cited specific examples of how and where I met these principles during my devCodeCamp experience.
How long is your apprenticeship, and are you guaranteed a job once it’s complete?
This apprenticeship is technically a full-time job and I am treated as a software developer like everyone else, which is great because it allows me to grow quickly. It’s called an apprenticeship so AWS can work with the Department of Labor to hire more veterans. The ultimate goal of the program is to convert to Software Developer Engineer 1 (SDE1), which is technically my level already, I just don’t have the title. Somewhere between 6 months to 1 year is when I will be eligible to convert to SDE1.
What projects are you working on with AWS?
I’m part of the organization called End User Computing, and we build client-facing applications. This team at Amazon was responsible for creating things like Workspaces and AppStream, products that allow companies to transition to remote work easier.
Are you using everything you learned at devCodeCamp?
Everything I learned at devCodeCamp I’m more or less using at Amazon, specifically the principles of object oriented programming. It was the most important thing we covered and devCodeCamp does it really well. We learned about cloud services at the bootcamp, but we didn’t act on them or use them. After devCodeCamp I did some personal projects and deployed them, including one to Google Firebase, to hone my skills.
Are you happy that you went down this route and became a developer?
Absolutely. Neither I nor devCodeCamp can guarantee that somebody is going to get a job, but even when the pandemic hit, I was still getting job interviews. The tech job climate is still very strong; I don’t want to say pandemic-proof necessarily, but it feels that way. Getting the initial job may be difficult, but there is a lot of opportunity in software.
What was your biggest challenge during your time at devCodeCamp?
My biggest challenge was not getting overwhelmed when I didn’t know the solution to a problem. I’m someone who likes to solve problems very quickly and oftentimes in software you can’t do that because you first have to figure out what’s wrong.
For our readers who are weighing self-teaching and a coding bootcamp, would you say enrolling at devCodeCamp was worth it for you?
Before devCodeCamp, Amelia and I considered self-teaching, but the issue with self-teaching when you’re new to software is that there’s so much information out there. I believe having a structure and being fully immersed in it is essential to getting started in your tech career. There are many people that can self-teach, but I definitely recommend going to a place like devCodeCamp to be fully immersed with a narrow focus for deeper understanding.
What is your advice for other musicians who are thinking of making a career change into software engineering now?
I would say there’s not a lot to lose and there’s a lot to gain. If you’re curious about it, you’ve spent time looking into software, and you enjoy it, then try it. If you’re feeling stuck and you want to try something new, just try it. Chances are that you have a lot to gain.
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