When COVID-19 Struck, James Zimmermann Traded in His Classical Music Career for the Coding Boot Camp

James Zimmerman

James Zimmermann had a suspicion that learning to code would be similar to learning a musical instrument. Both involve dedication, intense practice, and technique — three things he was well-acquainted with after a decade-long clarinet career in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.

Like countless other industries, classical music was devastated by the onset of COVID-19. Without a crowd to attend them, live performances shut down indefinitely, leaving James jobless and with a significant amount of spare time on his hands. A week later, he came across an advertisement for Vanderbilt University Coding Boot Camp on social media and, after extensive research, decided to enroll. 

“I was facing a future that was very uncertain,” said James. “I knew I was going to be sidelined for a while and not working. I thought it would be a great time to pick up a new skill.” 

Practice makes perfect 

James didn’t have much prior coding experience, but he did know how to work hard. Intent on turning his new endeavor into a stable job, he approached it with the same devotion he brought to his musical pursuits. This meant forgoing a part-time job and fully dedicating himself to the boot camp. 

In addition to spending ten hours in class each week, James spent 30 to 40 hours outside of class honing his skills. Often, he would go to bed stuck on a problem and wake up just a few hours later, refreshed and ready to dive back in. But even with this dedication, he felt that progress was slow and difficult. 

“Having come from a profession where I was at the expert level, I always have real challenges being a beginner at anything,” said James. “The challenging thing about the beginning of my coding journey was having no idea what I was doing. I was sitting on the struggle bus and not even getting the bus to move.” 

Gradually, James started to improve with a lot of persistence and the help of Google-Fu, the process of using search engines to find answers to anything. By seeking out forums and YouTube videos, he was able to overcome difficult coding problems on his own. Today, he credits his success to this commitment to going above and beyond expectations both inside and outside the classroom. 

“My boot camp instructors made it plenty clear to me that I was going to have to work extremely hard,” James said. “I made a huge use of office hours. You can show up 45 minutes before class and basically get a private lesson with your instructor or a TA, and you can stay for half an hour after class, too. I went to all that and always took it seriously. Doing the minimum is not enough.” 

Bridging music and technology 

In addition to informing his work ethic, James’s experience as a classical musician inspired an application that would make his unusual career trajectory a bit more cohesive — for himself and his future employer. A frequent judge in orchestra auditions, he found the process to be unnecessarily cumbersome. During these auditions, candidates would perform and judges would write comments on a notepad. After the audition, if a candidate wanted to see the comments, each judge had to manually email them. 

“I always thought somebody should make an app to simplify things,” said James. “So two of my classmates and I built an app for judges to vote on phones or laptops — then, when candidates want their comments, they just log in and download them. The entire process should be digitized, so I created a simple framework for the application.” 

James built a front end for the app alongside his boot camp classmates, creating booleans for voting and a graph for viewing scores. He also had the idea to take it one step further and capture demographic information about each candidate. 

“There’s a lack of minority representation in orchestras right now,” he said. “If we could collect demographic data on candidates and judges based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or level of education, we could identify if there are biases in the audition process. I plan on building that out once I have more beefed-up database skills and experience working on mobile devices.”

Commitment is key

When James presented the project to the hiring team at Salesforce, where he now works as an associate technical consultant, they were seriously impressed. It showcased not only the technical abilities he acquired at the boot camp, but also how he could leverage experience from his previous career in the tech world. 

“My success story is largely because of the boot camp, but also largely because of my own effort,” said James. “I was one of the hardest-working people in my cohort. I’m not an expert at coding, but I was able to convince my new employer that I’m a good problem solver. While I’m inexperienced and may take a little longer on certain tasks, I’ll get better in time.” 

As James embarks on a new career in coding, he’s not yet sure how music will factor into his life moving forward. Although he hopes his tech experience and music skills will converge down the road, he’s taking it one day at a time — enjoying the process of solving problems and getting creative with code.

“When I would talk about my musician life with non-musicians, they’d say, ‘It must be really cool being creative.’ But that’s actually a huge misnomer,” said James. “Playing a musical instrument is a highly technical venture, and coding tapped into a part of my creativity that I never had to use for music. With code and software engineering in general, you can make anything.” 

Want to tap into your creativity and build something awesome? Learn more about Vanderbilt University Boot Camps in coding, data analytics, cybersecurity, and digital marketing. 

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