It is a series of fortunate events in his life, what he calls “falling forward,” that led him on this path to Amazon.
Finding His Way to New College
Philip, a native Floridian, says he grew up here but never knew about New College. “I am 27 years old, and a non-traditional college student,” he said. Philip had spent two years studying pre-med at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, when he learned that there was this really good school right here in his hometown.
When his grandmother developed cancer, Philip left UCF to help his mother care for her. “When I left school, it gave me time to really focus on what direction I wanted to take. I figured out I wanted to go into computer science. I applied to New College because it was a small, very highly regarded school. Plus, I had met a few New College students at Ringling Underground, and they were so passionate about the school, it was infectious. That passion is what really spurred me to come to New College,” he said.
A Major Decision: Computer Science
Switching from pre-med to computer science was a total 180. Growing up, Philip had always enjoyed playing with Legos, and loved building things. “I think it’s a really interesting skill to have something in your mind, and then physically or digitally create it so that other people can interact with it,” he said. “That’s what led me to computer science.”
“As I was starting out, I didn’t see myself working for a large company, so I naturally gravitated towards research. My TA (Teaching Assistant) at the time, Courtney Miller, mentioned a research experience for undergrads (REU) that she thought might be a good fit for me,” Philip said. “At the time, I was looking for ways to get ahead since I had come to New College late, and was about two years behind most of the students in terms of coursework.
“Courtney was an alumni of Carnegie Mellon University’s REUSE (Research Experiences for Undergraduates in Software Engineering) program. Based on all the things she had said to me about REUSE, I decided to apply and managed to get in. I am so thankful for her,” he said. “I spent the summer of 2021 in Pittsburgh doing research under my mentors Christian Kästner and Bogdan Vasilescu for three months. It really helped me build confidence in myself.” While he enjoyed the research he was doing in the field of open-source software, he also came to realize that might not be the direction for him.
In an attempt to find better direction, Philip applied and got accepted into Google’s CS Research Mentorship Program (CSRMP), where he was paired with two students from other schools and a Google engineer, Wei Huang. Wei encouraged him to diversify his experiences and give the industry a try. Later that year, Philip applied to a couple of companies, but found he was totally unprepared. “I made it to the final round of interviews with both Google and TikTok, but did not make it any further, so I did not get an internship for my junior to senior year.”
Last December Philip wrote a student research paper that was accepted at the International Conference on Software Engineering 2022 (ICSE) Student Research Competition (SRC) track about his work during the REU. The conference was held in Pittsburgh, very near Carnegie Mellon. “It was so nerve-wracking, but it gave me the opportunity to learn and network with people working in both the industry and academia.” He was hanging out with a friend during a poster session when some engineers from Amazon came by to talk to them, which planted the seed about possibly working for them someday.
Assistance from the CEO
With no internship for the summer, Philip decided to visit the Career Engagement & Opportunity (CEO) office, and they helped him with his resume, which, he said, was a mess. “It read more like a novel than a resume. No recruiter was going to enjoy reading this when they had hundreds of other things on their desk. The CEO helped me transform it into a one-page, clear, concise resume. I truly believe the people at Amazon would still be reading my resume today, if the CEO hadn’t helped me with that,” Philip said.
Dwayne Peterson, Executive Director of Career Education, also helped Philip with his interview skills. “Tech interviews are strange in that they are hour-long conversations in which they give you a problem which you have to solve,” Philip said. “It’s really tough. I learned that when I get nervous, I either stop talking or talk really fast. Dwayne had us do interviews for our classes, and I really improved. My professors also helped me practice virtual interviews and Professors Lepinski and Roy were especially helpful with my interview prep,” he said.
“Philip’s story exemplifies New College’s innovative approach in integrating career education into the academic program,” said Peterson. His successful outcome shows what can happen when career education is embedded into courses, as opposed to offering stand-alone, preferential career services.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Philip began applying for new graduate jobs in July of this year and applied to Amazon in early August. He made it through their online assessments, then in mid-September, he had his virtual final-round interview. “I was scared to death,” he said, “but I was prepared.” They told him it would be one to two weeks before a decision was made. He heard nothing. And then Sarasota was hit by Hurricane Ian and Philip’s family was without power for a week. His phone was dead for most of that time.
“One day, I was in the Lowe’s parking lot, feeding off their Wi-Fi, and I saw that I had an email. This was four or five days after the hurricane. It was from Amazon, offering me a job. I screamed, then I started crying. It was so emotional. Our home had been damaged during the storm, so I was pretty stressed about that. And then, there it was…the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
He is still not sure what type of work he will be doing for Amazon, since they don’t tell new employees until a month before they start, but he does know that he will be working in Denver. He is an avid climber (Philip founded and is head of the climbing club at New College), which makes Denver ideal.
“I do have an idea of what I might be doing, though I am certainly not sure,” he said. Based on the background of the person who sent his acceptance letter, he believes he might be working with satellites. Amazon has ground stations around the world from where they can send and receive satellite data. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.
Philip admits that learning about the job was a little bittersweet. “My grandmother, who passed earlier this year, was the one who really pushed for me to continue my education. It was really rough knowing that I wouldn’t be able to share my news with her. Wherever she may be, I’m sure she is proud of me,” he said.
Philip says he is really thankful for his experience at New College. “The faculty at New College is beyond great. At other schools I have been in classes with 200-300 students, but at New College I think my biggest computer science class had no more than 15 students. That is how I have been able to develop these important relationships with my professors and my peers,” he said, and without their help, and the help of the CEO, my future might look very different,” he said.
Gayle Guynup is a contributor to New College News.