College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Former professional drummer finds new groove in computer science at Clemson University


Justin Cromer is trading in his drumsticks for silicon chips.

The 34-year-old Florence native worked as a session drummer in Nashville for five years before finding his way to Clemson University to pursue a Bachelor of Science in computer science.

Justin Cromer

He plans to finish his studies online from Redmond, Washington, where he has landed a job with SpaceX, working on the team that makes chips for Starlink satellites.

“I got my dream job– twice,” said Cromer, who is on track to graduate in December.

Cromer’s path is a testament to the transformative power of education, especially when it is combined with determination. And it illustrates how Clemson University’s inclusive community strives to open a place for all students no matter where they are on the career ladder.

Jacob Sorber, a School of Computing associate professor who mentored Cromer, said his life experience and maturity are uncommon for undergraduates.

“He’s very good at identifying what is needed to be successful,” Sorber said. “Rather than say, ‘I guess we’ll see what they teach me in class,’ he looks at what we didn’t cover that would be useful. That makes a huge difference in the kind of student he is and the kinds of outcomes he is likely to have.”

In his first chapter as an undergraduate, Cromer pursued a Bachelor of Music at the University of North Texas. Shortly before graduation in 2011, he moved back to Florence to finish his last two classes online and to live at home to save money.

Cromer taught music at a private elementary school in his first job out of college and tucked away about $1,200 to move to Nashville and become a professional musician. But when he took a closer look at the numbers, he could see it wasn’t enough for a start in a new city.

Justin Cromer (center) poses for a photo with Brian Dean (left), the C. Tycho Howle Director of the School of Computing, and Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences after Cromer was recognized as Outstanding Senior in the School of Computing or Applied Sciences.

Instead, Cromer set sail on cruise ships, playing drums while traveling the world. His room and board were included so he was able to save a good chunk of his pay before moving to the Music City.

When he first arrived in Nashville, Cromer hung out in places where he liked the music and started making connections to land his first few gigs. His classical training gave him an edge and helped firm up his reputation, which led to bigger gigs.

“I ended up getting hired at the last minute for work with larger artists,” Cromer recalled. “They would say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a big crowd in Indiana this weekend. Our drummer is having a baby. Can you show up?'”

Cromer found his priorities changing after about five years in Nashville. He wanted a family and a dog and saw that making a living as a musician was becoming harder.

Cromer’s time in the music business coincided with the rise of file-sharing and streaming services, which radically changed how music is distributed and how artists are paid. And for those who do make a living as musicians, long stretches on the road away from home can be brutal, he said.

It was time for a change so Justin headed back to Florence to come up with a new plan. That was where he was living when his uncle, Rodney Godwin, was in a tractor wreck.

With his extensive injuries, it would take months of recovery for Godwin just to drive again, and he needed someone to run his business, Dun-Rite Automotive & Transmissions. Godwin saw it as an opportunity for his nephew to lead and to push himself to reach for higher goals.

“He did, 100%,” said Godwin, who owns six businesses in the Florence area. “He had operations running so smoothly I never did take back operations of that shop to this day. When he was leaving, he brought somebody else in and trained them how to do it.”

Cromer said that while he was running the shop, he knew he wanted to eventually do something else for a living, and that is when he discovered computer science and software.

He understood he would have to go back to college to pursue those interests professionally and began to prepare for math placement tests by studying after work on the Khan Academy website.

Justin and Annamarie Cromer walk their dogs near their Simpsonville home.

The stakes in his personal life were getting higher. He had met a woman from Myrtle Beach, Annamarie Haines Guest, and wanted to marry her. He sold two of his four drum sets to help pay for the ring, and she said yes.

Annamarie, whose last name is now Cromer, said she never doubted that Justin would make the transition from drummer to computer scientist.

“He is such a driven individual,” she said. “Once he puts his mind to something, there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s going to dedicate all of his time and effort to it, and that’s what he did.”

Annamarie was a student at the University of South Carolina at the time, so Justin moved to Columbia and enrolled at Midlands Technical College to start treading the path to a computer science degree. He taught drum lessons on the side to earn money.

When Cromer decided he wanted to transfer to Clemson, he took a close look at the curriculum and started preparing before even setting foot on campus. He bought a book, did the exercises it offered and took university courses available online for free.

It was also around this time that Cromer discovered Sorber’s YouTube channel. The channel, which has more than 124,000 subscribers, features videos of Sorber teaching programming and how to become a more confident software developer.

At first, Cromer had no idea Sorber taught at Clemson. But once Cromer figured it out, he reached out to Sorber, who encouraged him to get in touch once on campus.

By the time Cromer arrived at Clemson, he knew he wanted to write software for spacecraft. He showed up in Sorber’s office on his first day and told him about his plans and how enthusiastic he was.

Sorber found room for Cromer in the PERSIST lab, and he started conducting research on sensors.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, but through his guidance and the friends and mentors I’ve met here in the lab, I’ve been able to learn a lot and get that much closer to making my dreams come true,” Cromer said.

He is finding that his hard work and determination are starting to pay off.

In Sorber’s lab, Cromer has earned a reputation as an outstanding team member who regularly helps with debugging, data collection and other tasks while remaining upbeat, even with a heavy course load that keeps him busy as many as 80 hours a week.

At the end of the spring 2023 semester, Cromer won an award recognizing him as the Outstanding Senior in the School of Computing or Applied Sciences.

It’s taken some work, but the dreams that started brewing years ago are coming true. Justin and Annamarie have two dogs, a golden retriever, Jenny, and a Jack Russell terrier, Zack. The dogs, along with all Cromer has learned at Clemson and years past, are going with them when they leave for Washington this summer.

“The biggest change I’ve seen in myself since coming here is a real respect for perseverance,” he said. “I found that success isn’t always about being the smartest person in the room. A lot of times it’s just about keeping on going when everybody else might give up.”

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