Before NSS I was…a Zookeeper???

Mar 21, 2023
Jessica Grande

Students at Nashville Software School (NSS) come from a variety of backgrounds and many have worked in seemingly unrelated fields before finding their passion for tech. From service industry workers, to nurses, to teachers, our students are able to draw on their past experiences to help them grasp the fundamentals of their new skills that help them build their careers in tech.

Probably the most unsuspecting, but becoming fairly common, professional background we encounter from our web development students is zookeeping! And while at first glance, zookeeping and tech might seem like completely unrelated fields, our graduates can tell you, they have more in common than you probably think. Let's look at some of the similarities between the two and why NSS graduates and students decided it was time for a change after a career in animal training and caretaking! 

Problem-Solving Skills

First, both fields require problem-solving skills. In zookeeping, you have to come up with creative solutions to ensure the animals are healthy and comfortable. Similarly, in coding, you have to solve complex problems and find the most efficient solutions. Web Development Cohort 42 alumna, Mikayla Swinkels, shares how she developed the ability to think outside the box while she was a zookeeper.

NSS C43 Alumna Mikayla Swinkels in her previous role as a Zookeeper with a kangaroo.In her work with kangaroos, she was tasked with finding a way to check inside their pouches for babies without stressing or restraining them. “I had to find ways for the kangaroo to want to stay with us while we checked inside their pouch (something that is very invasive for them) and to keep the entire process positive,” she explains. “I first built a stand out of PVC with a bowl attached, unfortunately this limited our ability to check the pouch accurately. I then went back to basics and trained the kangaroos to put their hands on a bowl that a keeper was holding, and while they were eating a second keeper was able to look inside the pouch. We were then able to look inside every kangaroo’s pouch without any problems.”


This task required her to think creatively and try different approaches until she found one that worked. In her work as a Junior Application Developer, Mikayla has been able to apply this same creativity and problem-solving ability to her projects! 

Patience and Persistence

Second, both professions require patience and persistence. Zookeepers have to work with animals that may not always cooperate or respond as expected. Similarly, in coding, you might run into bugs or issues that require time and persistence to solve. Kirren Covey of Web Development Cohort 30, for instance, was working with exotic hoofstock and had to develop patience when she worked with skittish animals and design training plans for them.

NSS C30 Alumna Kirren Covey in her previous role as a Zookeeper with a Tapir“I was asked to write up and implement a plan to train a duiker for voluntary injections. I started working with a plan based on free contact (being inside the exhibit with the animal), but due to a management decision outside of my control, had to suddenly switch to protected contact (working with her through a fence),” she explains. “This created issues because she is very nervous inside the pen. Additionally, the setup of the fence didn't allow me to reach through easily or provide the mobility and access I needed.  I had to find new ways to get training back on track.” 

Kirren helped design a new training wall with panels that could be opened or removed in order for trainers to reach through different places! She also had to revisit multiple steps of the training process to ensure the animal was comfortable with participating in them. “[Eventually] I was able to reach in and poke her with a paperclip while she stands still on a marked pad on the floor,” she proudly shares. “Patience, determination, and persistence are paying off!” This experience helped Kirren develop skills that she could transfer to her new career in software development. 


Third, both fields require a certain level of flexibility. In animal training, there is no one-size-fits-all method for teaching animals new behaviors. Each animal has its own personality and learning style, and trainers must be willing to adapt their approach to fit the animal's needs. This same level of flexibility is required to be successful in software development. Software development is a challenging field that requires constant learning and adaptation to new technologies and programming languages, or having to pivot your approach if your initial plan doesn't work. 

NSS Alumna Melissa Fox in her previous role as a Zookeeper, training bears.Web Development Cohort 52 alumna, Melissa Fox’s experience as a zookeeper taught her the value of flexibility in a physically and emotionally demanding job. “Training animals can be frustrating and difficult; they often can't understand what we are asking from them right away and, depending on the species and the individual, there's typically no one perfect method for getting an animal to do what you want,” she shares. “While we often have established protocols in place that have proven to be effective methods of teaching a certain behavior - whether it's to simply stand up on its hind legs or stand parallel to a fence and allow itself to be poked with a needle - every animal learns differently and you have to be willing and able to adapt your strategy on the fly in order to capture that perfect ‘ah-ha’ moment where the animal finally realizes what it is you are asking them to do.” 

Deciding When It’s Time For A Change

It can be challenging to step away from a “dream job” to pursue a new career in tech. Melissa shares that zookeeping was her dream job, at least, she thought it was. “There are still so many aspects of [zookeeping that] I really and truly love, but I [found] myself wanting more of a challenge. Zookeeping is physically and emotionally challenging, but I [wanted] to pursue something more mentally engaging, with a healthier work-life balance.” 

NSS Alum Chris Meffley in his previous role as a Zookeeper training a tiger-After a 10+ years career in animal care, Chris Meffley of Web Development Evening Cohort 14 felt like he was “running in place.”  “Every time I [got] ahead, something [seemed] to set me back. The last few years [I was in that career], I [was really] contemplating a career change but I did not know where to go with my particular skill set, so I started talking to friends who left the field,” he shares. “One friend that recently went through a coding bootcamp was really enthusiastic about it and is now succeeding in their new career. I explored the world of full stack web development and liked what I saw. It is a challenging, ever changing field that [has given me] a purposeful job that [will] keep me learning while providing a sustainable vocation for many years to come.” 

Now a year removed from his Web Development bootcamp at NSS, Chris has been noticing more and more similarities between his new career in tech and animal training. “When training, you start with your end goal of what behavior or action you want the animal to do. Then you break the process down into small steps that need to be accomplished in order to get to the goal,” he explains. “Sometimes it works right away, but many times you have to readjust and create new or different methods to get to the goal.”

Chris shares that while he’s been front-end focused at his web development job, he constantly implements that same process! “I know how I want to style the page and what data I need to show on the screen, and I have a plan to get and manipulate it, but many times I have to readjust and rethink my approach.”

“I'm still very happy with my decision to switch careers as I have a much better work life balance, and I can easily disconnect from my work when I'm not on my computer,” Chris shares. “But I do get my animal fix occasionally as my wife is still a zookeeper!” 

Like Chris, other zookeepers have been inspired by the journeys and success of those that made a career switch to tech and are now diving into the world of coding themselves - and you can too! 

Learn more about our upcoming Jumpstart programs to help determine which tech path is right for you. 

Topics: Alumni, Student Stories, Web Development