It’s a Zoo Out There: Melissa Nelson’s Journey from Exotic Animals to Software Engineering
When people talk about their workplace being like a zoo, they usually don’t mean it literally. For Twin Cities resident Melissa Nelson, it was the honest truth. Melissa began her career at the Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, North Dakota. As a zoologist, she spent her days cleaning animal enclosures, feeding them, and even training them. “My daily life at the zoo was chaotic and unpredictable,” she said.
She yearned for a career that was calmer and more stable. “And I wanted a career in an actual office so that I didn’t have to work outside in the freezing North Dakota winters,” she said. The problem? With a degree in zoology from North Dakota State University and years of zoo experience, she wasn’t an attractive job candidate for any role that didn’t involve animals. “The hard part is when you apply for an office job with a zoology degree on your resume, people look at it and think, Well, she knows about animals, but how is this relevant?”
From cages to coding
After soul searching and even trying out a sales job (which she didn’t enjoy), Melissa was drawn to coding. “My husband does coding in his free time, and one of my good friends is a tech recruiter. They both encouraged me to go into it,” she said.
She soon found the University of Minnesota Coding Boot Camp. “Everyone in the program was in the same boat as me—we were all here for a complete career change—so I felt pretty comfortable,” she said.
During the full-time boot camp, Melissa worked on three projects. The first one was a tourism app that pulled up local attractions and activities after the user put in a city or country. The second was called Settle It, an app that allowed users to post two sides of a debate for others to vote on. A user would write up one side, then challenge another user to write the other side. People would then vote on which side they liked better.
A sweet melody
Melissa’s favorite was the final project. “At the point of the last project, you know a bit more and you can handle what you’re working on,” she said. “We created a Reddit-style app for music melodies, where people could create posts and upvote and downvote them, and leave comments. I love the way it turned out. And a big plus was that I had a great group to work with. We worked really hard and we laughed a lot in the process.”
Melissa came out of the full-time boot camp a skilled coder. And she also picked up a few soft skills as well as new collaboration techniques. Melissa recalls a daily stand-up drill at boot camp, which involved standing at the front of the classroom and giving a short explanation of current tasks and any challenges or obstacles. “Little did I know that this is a thing in the tech world, that companies actually do this regularly,” she said.
Chaos and calm
She particularly liked the philosophy of the boot camp. “The TAs and instructor would often point you in a certain direction, allowing us to solve certain problems on our own. That’s the big thing I got from the boot camp,” she said. “They can’t teach you everything in three months, but they can teach you how to keep learning on your own. I appreciated the fact that they weren’t spoon-feeding you; they were teaching you how to figure it out on your own.”
Melissa completed the program in December 2018. Two months later, she landed a job as an associate software engineer at SPS Commerce, a company that connects retailers and suppliers. She loves it. “My hope is that in five years I’ll be a senior software engineer,” she said.
She added: “Now my job is not at all as chaotic as the zoo, which is nice. It’s a lot more stable. I know what I have to work on for the day, and I can sit down and focus on that. It’s a great balance. And no more cleaning up after animals in the freezing cold!”