S1E9: Deciding if you should skip college to learn to code with Becca Refford

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In today's episode of the Learn to Code With Me podcast, I speak with Becca Refford. Becca currently works with TechGirlz, Chariot Solutions, and as an independent freelancer. Inside this ninth episode, Becca explains her decision to leave college and pursue coding full-time.

Becca started her career in tech while still in high school. After taking some time off before starting college, she later pursued a CS degree at Temple University in Philadelphia. But Becca soon realized that college was not right for her. In fact, she was learning more in her internships than she was in the classroom. This ultimately led her to leave school and work instead.

Volunteering played a large part in Becca's career goals. It helped her build new relationships and expand her skills, attributing to her current success.

Becca shares with us her strategy of saying yes as often as possible, and not being afraid to take on challenging projects. She also stresses the importance of learning how to figure things out rather than just relying on existing knowledge. Becca believes that taking a non-linear approach to coding helps beginners “learn by doing.”

Laurence:
What's up guys? It's Laurence Bradford from the Learn to Code With Me podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in today. In this episode, I have Becca Refford. Becca has an awesome story to share. She left college after one year to pursue coding and technology full-time. Becca talks about the reasons why she left college, as well as other things that shaped her professional development.

It's a really interesting interview that demonstrates that you don't have to finish college in order to make it in technology. I really like how Becca talks about the role volunteering played as well as how she landed some of these awesome opportunities. The show notes for this interview are at learntocodewith.me/9. Enjoy the show!

Hey Becca, thanks so much for being here with me today.

Becca:
Thanks for having me.

Laurence:
I would love if you could just start by introducing yourself quickly. Who you are, what you do, and how you got started in tech.

Becca:
Sure. My name is Becca Refford. I'm 22 years old and I've been working in and around tech since I was 17 or 18 or so. My career in tech started in mostly marketing and sales positions, not because I actively chose them but because I had sort of fell into them based on the connections I was making and the mentor that I had.

In the last year or so though, I've started foraying into web design and building custom websites for clients. I found that when I started doing design, hours were flying and I realized that this is the path that I want to continue on. This is the career that I want to make for myself, not just fall into, like I sort of did with sales and marketing.

Laurence:
Awesome, so I have to ask, how the heck did you get started when you were 17? When I was 17 I was hanging out at the mall and, I don't know, going to the movies or something.

Becca:
I was totally hanging out at the mall and going to the movies too but in my spare time, I really needed to get some glitter text on my MySpace page, so learning to code all began there for me.

Getting actually involved in a job was just a freak accident pretty much. I had an aunt who is pretty involved in the Philly tech scene, she actually works at The Hacktory, I don't know if you've heard of it. She was starting to get involved with this brand new organization called TechGirlz that brings free workshop plans to middle school girls, surrounding coding or hardware or electronics, things of that nature. Around this time I was 17, I was in high school, I was looking for internships. My aunt's mom started falling ill, so she started taking things off of her plate. One of the things she took off her plate was getting involved with TechGirlz, but she decided to say, "Hey, I have a niece who might be able to step in and work on some of the tasks that I'm working on, let's make an introduction." From that point on, i was a member of the TechGirlz team and we were still like three people and a couple months in, and it really all just started from there. I was doing mostly marketing, and I'm still working closely with the founder, Tracey, today. I still consider her a huge role model, she's my mentor. That's how I got into tech.

Laurence:
Yeah, that's so awesome that you started so long ago and you're still helping this organization five years later, if you were 17 and 22 now, right? Yeah, five years later. I know you did go to college for a bit, and you're not in school right now, correct?

Becca:
Correct.

Laurence:
So could you just explain a little bit, like what you went to school for and what you found while you were there?

Becca:
Sure. When I was in high school, it was a competitive school, I was top in my class and everything. There was this big bubble of excitement around where everyone was going to school and there was a lot of pressure. My high school wanted the numbers that 100% of people go on to college. So you had guidance counselors breathing down your neck. I had my parents breathing down my neck. it just felt overwhelming and it was the summer before I was going to start my freshman year of college, actually at Drexel where I had formally accepted.

I was camping with my family and in the middle of the woods one day I was like, "You know, I'm not ready. I don't want to go to school, it makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. I think I just need a year to breathe." So, I took the year off, I took a gap year. And when many of my friends were sort of getting their dorms and their roommates and their first year of college under their belt, I decided to just work and buy my first apartment and see if I could live. This was the year that I learned to pay bills, or to cope with being alone. I think that it was an extremely formative experience for me.

Somewhere along that line, I had been hearing from so many people, "You gotta go back to school, it's just something that you have to do. You need that diploma." So I figured, you can't knock it until you try it, so I'm just going to try it. I threw in an application to Temple University. I got a really hefty scholarship, I decided to check it out. I signed up to be a computer science major. The first year went really well, I got great grades, I had a 4.0, I was in the Honors College, but that same sinking feeling of, "This is just not a great fit for me," just wouldn't go away.

On top of that, I was working three different internships at the time. One of them was with Chariot Solutions, where I'm currently working. One of them was with TechGirlz, where I'm still currently working as well. One of them was with a B2B startup, kind of a spinoff of Chariot. While I was working, I was realizing I was learning so much more than sitting in class. I was learning about the marketplace. I was learning how to talk to clients. I was learning what AB testing was. These are all things, obviously, you could pick up in a business class. The fact that I was working in such startup environments, you just got your hands dirty with it.

I've been working since I was 14 so working feels natural to me, and it also is something that gets me excited in a way that school just doesn't. In my sophomore year of school, I started the first semester and after that semester I was like, "That's it. That feeling isn't going away. I'm making good connections working. I think I'm just going to head out the door." So I filed all my exit papers and I never felt better. I don't think I could have made a better decision for myself.

Laurence:
Wow, big decision. What you said about, you can learn things like AB testing in school. I actually think sometimes you can't. There's so much that school doesn't teach you. I didn't study computer science, I was a history major, I went to a liberal arts college, so my real world exposure was really limited. Even from people I talk to who went through computer science degrees, a lot of them don't feel prepared when they get into the "real world" because there's things that they never learned. Like how to work on a team or doing things on Github and pushing commits and branching and forking and working with others. A great one is Agile methodology, I don't know if schools teach things like that.

I'm digressing a bit, but I have a question. When you left school, after you gave it a try, were your parents supportive? Did they still want you to go back to get a degree?

Becca:
I'm really fortunate to have some great parents. My mom was like, "Becca, make up your mind girl. You weren't going to go to school, you're going to school, you're not going to go to school again.” She was like, "I'm behind you 100% whatever you do but you've got to pick something." So I think it was a relief to her that she didn't have to deal with any more FAFSA forms or the paperwork behind schooling. She really helped me with a lot of that. They were pretty supportive and it didn't hurt that within a month I had a really great job opportunity extended to me. So I was sort of able to say, "Hey mom, hey dad, it wasn't all a waste," you know?

Laurence:
Yeah, it's not like you just left college and you're sitting in their basement playing video games and eating Dominos or something. You were out there, you're networking, you're volunteering, you're doing multiple internships, and different kinds of jobs. So you're very industrious or proactive and that's something that I really admire, especially at such a young age. At 17, I was just not even thinking about these kinds of things when I was that age, or at least I don't think I was. That's really awesome that you were doing that.

Okay, so you're studying computer science in college, you did really well, it just wasn't a right fit for you. When you left college and you had these other jobs and opportunities, they were all coding related, right?

Becca:
Kind of, sort of. What actually happened was, I continued on with TechGirlz where I was doing marketing and graphic design and those things. It was a month after that I was working at Chariot Solutions, and I think I mentioned that I was there in a marketing capacity, but the CEO actually called me into his office and he sat me down and he said, "Look, you've been doing great work for us and I do want to tell you that, when I was young and starting out, people opened doors for me. So I want to pay that forward and open a door for you at Chariot. So how would you like working here, doing marketing tasks for about half the week and then the other half of the week or so, we're going to have you working under our developers, learning any programming language that you would like to learn and working on small projects?" And I was like, "Are you kidding me? That sounds great, I'm in!" We decided I would start with JavaScript and I've been working under my mentor at Chariot. There's a lot of stuff to do around marketing that I still find time in my week to sit down with him and putz our way through some JavaScript. I actually got really, really lucky.

Laurence:
Yeah, wow. So it's like you already had, I think, some computer science fundamentals from the courses that you took at Temple, or at least I would imagine so. Then you got to keep learning through doing at your job at Chariot Solutions and you got paid to learn it sounds like.

Becca:
Exactly, that is exactly the deal I worked out. And it's great too, I mean Chariot, one of the biggest staples of the company is that we are lifelong learners and we're teachers. The offer that Mike extended to me just really epitomized that I thought, for Chariot. They're really good folks over there.

Laurence:
Yeah, nice. Let's kind of fast forward today. What are you doing now? It's sounds like you're still at Chariot and you're still doing stuff for TechGirlz. What else is on your plate?

Becca:
Oh man. I like to call myself the 'etcetera girl.' I sort of just take whatever anyone throws at me. I have a website in the works. TechGirlz is doing a redesign. We've been growing and expanding so quickly that our old website just wasn't keeping up. I was the one that sort of had to deal with the pains of that. So I was like, "Hey, Tracy, how about this. This is going to be a good chance for me to learn and you'll get a website out of it."

So I decided to take on that total redesign and that's going to be launching next weekend or the weekend after? So keep your eyes peeled, I'm really excited.
At Chariot right now, it's conference season. So it's mostly just a lot of graphic design and making sure everything's in place for all of our conferences. I've been doing a lot of PHP programming for the Philly Emerging Technologies, for the enterprise website that's Chariot's super, deeply technical developer conference. It's basically just writing the schedule, making sure that the sessions and the speakers show properly, like the algorithms behind that. This is my first chance I've really had to work with PHP, writing custom controllers for the JSON API for WordPress to make sure the conference website can talk to the mobile application.
It's really just a smathering. I know I just threw a lot of things at you but I just have a lot of different things on my plate. I try to say yes to as much as possible because that's where you learn.

Laurence:
Yeah, great. So, Chariot, TechGirlz, are you doing any other kind of freelance work outside of that?

Becca:
Yeah, I am actually. I have been working with a guy at Chariot who has a new little startup idea, doing WordPress stuff for him. I actually have a client who doesn't know websites at all. He does auto glass and repairs and he's like, "I need someone to make a website for me and make me exist on the internet, basically." Which is refreshing because I'm so used to working around techie people with all the jargon and this and that. But this guy is just like, "Look, I just need a website built." So I'm working with him right now to get his website off the ground and the TechGirlz redesign is actually is a paying gig, so that's great too.

Laurence:
I know people listening are maybe thinking this. Where do you find these freelance jobs? What has been the way you've been getting them?

Becca:
Word of mouth, entirely. If you make good connections while you're at work or you're volunteering and just let them know a little bit about what it is you're working on or what it is you're interested in. It's been straight word of mouth for me.

Laurence:
Yeah, I could tell just from you talking it sounds like a lot of the projects you're doing, they all kind of stemmed from one to the next, so it's really been relationship building and the people you've met along the way. Which is really cool and I think that's something that can really work for anyone is word of mouth, getting referrals, type of way to generate freelance projects.

So I kind of want to dive in a little more to your time volunteering at TechGirlz because I tell people all the time that a great way to build experience for your portfolio or your LinkedIn or your resume, what have you, is by volunteering. Because you're giving back and you can also build skills while you're doing so. I just want to hear, kind of, how has your time volunteering at TechGirlz impacted your life.

Becca:
Obviously it's given me a chance to sort of explore different areas that I might be interested in. Like graphic design, I didn't realize I would like it until we needed some graphics for TechGirlz and I raised my hand for it. Not only do you build skills when you volunteer, like you said, you also build relationships. Tracy, the founder of TechGirlz, is still huge to me, she's huge in my life. All of the people that I work with there, the whole tech circle that I know has stemmed from relationships that I've made working at TechGirlz.

I'm not a networking person. The word 'networking' really freaks me out and makes me sick to my stomach. And I'm sure there are introverts out there listening who can totally understand. I don't like being in a room with a bunch of people and making small talk and handshaking and swapping business cards, it just makes my skin crawl a little bit. But I think one way that you can network without having it feel like scary networking, is by volunteering. It gives you something to do, it gives you a task at hand that you need to complete, and then you form those relationships with people as you complete those tasks together. Volunteering's been a great way for me to expand my circle and I hope other people consider doing that too.

Laurence:
Yeah definitely, I love what you said about, it's a way to get out and meet people but you're not in a room at happy hour, kind of forced interactions, or maybe sometimes it feels that way. I really am not a huge fan of networking events either. Whenever I would look for them, I think volunteering is great, or going to ones that have some kind of purpose. Maybe it's a workshop or something? Actually Girl Develop It is a great example. I would love to go to the Girl Develop It workshop where you actually learn something and you're building and it's not just in a room or a bar networking and whatnot.

Becca:
Exactly.

Laurence:
Yeah, it's great advice for people who are a bit more introverted. Out of curiosity, your time volunteering at TechGirlz, is a lot of it online or virtual or do you guys meet often in person or how does that work?

Becca:
There's no set schedule when we meet. We do like to meet in person once in awhile. There are some things that you just can't figure out with emails. I'm sure you know when you've reached the limit and you're like, "Okay, we've got to sit down and look at this together." I would say that probably happens around once a month or so, that I get to see the team, but most of it's virtual.

Laurence:
Yeah, that's really nice. That allows you, it can be so flexible then, if you can do it virtually, you can really do it from anywhere and give back on your own time, which is nice. In the beginning, you mentioned how you're now more interested in web design rather than web development or software engineering. When did that realization kind of happen? Was it more recent or a few years ago?

Becca:
It was more recent. I had actually always loved art, in particular, and been really good at it, I guess. I don't mean to sound like I'm tooting my own horn here at all but it was something in high school that, I wanted to take all the art classes but my guidance counselors were like, "You have to take your AP classes and make sure you get into good colleges and you don't have time to do art. What are you going to do with that?" And I sort of wished that they hadn't talked me out of it the way that they had. Granted, I do understand, the only person that stifles creativity is yourself. There's no reason for me to just be griping about that still when I was 20.

I was like, "I love art, I want to make it a part of my life, and I really like a good website." When you stumble across one you're just like, "Whoa, this feels good to use, it feels good to look at." It really started with the TechGirlz site, like I said. There was that pain point of 'this old website just isn't doing it for us.' So I was like, "This is a good way for me to marry art and technology in my life is making websites look good." So I was like, "Tracy, can I take this opportunity," and I took it. The hours just started to fly. They do when I'm writing JavaScript and they do when I'm writing PHP, but not in that fun sense. There's just something that's right about design for me.

Laurence:
It's like you lose track of time and it's just like, yeah I know that feeling, it can be really awesome. When you're designing this new website, are you just designing it? Or are you also kind of building it as well? Are you doing both ends of the spectrum?

Becca:
Both of them. Actually, I still get lost in the terminology, like the difference between the difference between web design and web development. So, I'm designing the site and I'm also implementing it using HTML and CSS and PHP. So, I guess, would you count that as web development?

Laurence:
The terminology can be a little confusing, especially with web design vs. graphic design. I feel like they really kind of blur together. But there's definitely some designers who don't really get on the web. Like they will just stick to, maybe the Adobe programs and more like, illustrators or something, vs. the people who bring the designs to the website, especially if you're coding with CSS and HTML. I guess you could say you're a full stack developer, right? You're doing both ends. You're implementing and you're designing.

Becca:
Yeah, exactly.

Laurence:
That's great and that's obviously awesome skills to have. In the future you're thinking just of sticking a bit more to the design route rather than the implementation?

Becca:
Actually, no. I think I like the implementation a whole lot too. I would like to get better at graphic design. I would like to start taking some Girl Develop It stuff around Adobe and everything. I like both of them equally, I would say, and I would like to continue down that route.

Laurence:
Yeah, well that's awesome. That's great that you discovered that, that you like both sides of it and you're having the chance to build this website. Especially a website that a lot of people are going to see. Not to say that building a small website for a friend is not a good thing, that's a great way to get experience, but building one for an organization like TechGirlz is a great thing to have on your portfolio.

Becca:
I also want to say, just to anyone listening, the best thing you can do is to take on clients, or a site that will be extra visible because it really kicks you in the butt to try your hardest. And if you can't figure it out then you
learn. It is trial by fire.

Laurence:
Oh yeah, definitely. And I'm sure you felt that way early on, when you were getting into some of these internships. Like maybe you didn't understand everything that was going on, but it really motivated you to figure out what was going on so you were able to stay there.

Becca:
Exactly. I heard this great quote the other day actually. It goes like, the feeling that I don't know what I'm doing will never go away. What you end up learning is the 'I can do it' part or the 'I can figure it out' part.

Laurence:
Yeah, that's great. I was just saying, before we started recording with podcasting, there's a lot I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to figure it out, cross the bridge when we get there for any of the difficult parts, and just keep trucking along with it. And I think same goes with coding. A lot of times your first job, your first website, you're not going to know what's going on, but you can figure it out as you move along.

Becca:
Exactly. And then all of a sudden, a year later you look back and you're like, 'look at all these things I know now.'

Laurence:
Totally. And maybe not 100% makes sense, but maybe you'll be at the 75% or 80% or even 90% mark. I feel like with technology, it's just the nature is that things are always changing and there are always new things to learn.

Becca:
Right. So you're not going to be the only one that feels like your head is spinning. That's the feeling you have to get used to if you're in technology. Being unsure and feeling unsteady. It's learning that feeling that you can figure it out.

Laurence:
Yeah, that's great advice. Great for people to keep in mind, especially beginners, because everyone everyone feels that way and things change all the time and it's just the nature. Okay, so last question. If a person has no technical experience whatsoever, but they want to get a job in tech, what is one thing they can do today to take a step in the right direction?

Becca:
I'm going to say, make a goal. You don't have to build, you don't have to take a Codecademy class or anything, you just need to make a goal. I think that's the best first step. Whether it's, like you said, building a website
for your friend, you just need to plan on what that thing is that you're going to do and when I say thing, as in project.

I've had a lot of success and I have a lot of fun with Codecademy and everything like that, but I think when people have this conversation about getting interested in coding or learning to code, it's almost as if they treat it like a checklist. Like, first things first, I want to learn Ruby on Rails. So you learn Ruby on Rails and then you're like, 'okay, now I'm going to try and figure out databases.' So you figure out databases. It's good, you get to see these different technologies, but there's something about working on a project and seeing how they all fit together that, in a nonlinear way, how it all kind of smooshes together, that I think the real learning starts to happen.

So if you say 'yes' to a client project, or a friend's website or something, you begin to see where the Ruby on Rails comes in, or where you're going to have to deal with, if you choose a WordPress site, what the WordPress weirdness is. Or maybe there's going to be a part of the project or a feature that your friend needs you to implement that requires you to dig into the database. I think people need to stop thinking about learning to code as something that's linear, and just start getting their hands dirty with projects. So I would say, make a goal to work on a project. That's the first step that you can take.

Laurence:
Awesome advice, thanks so much Becca. So where can people find you online?

Becca:
You can loosely find me on Twitter. I'm @bexrefford.

Laurence:
Alright, thanks so much. For all the listeners, we'll definitely have links to anything mentioned today in the Show Notes as well as where you can find Becca online. Thank you so much again Becca!

Becca:
Thank you, have a good one!

Laurence:
You too.

Becca absolutely blows me away. She has so much wisdom for such a young age. You can get the Show Notes to this episode at learntocodewith.me/9. In this episode, we talked a lot about the different ways you can get opportunities when you're getting started in tech. Aside from putting yourself out there in person, you also need to put yourself out there online. One of the best ways to do this is through a personal website that shares who you are and what you do, or as I like to call it, a portfolio.

To help you get started on your portfolio, I've created a free course, just for you. You can sign up for it at learntocodewith.me/freecourse. Inside this portfolio course, I'll show what makes a great portfolio site, what to include on your site, even if you feel like you have no work to show, and more. Again, you can sign up for it at learntocodewith.me/freecourse. Thanks so much for tuning in today and we'll see you next time on the Learn to Code With Me podcast.

Key takeaways:

  • Internships are a good way to step outside your comfort zone, and learn how to talk to clients as well as how the marketplace works.
  • Say “yes” as often as you can. You learn by doing, so don't pass up life-changing opportunities when offered to you.
  • Freelance jobs are often found through word of mouth. Make good connections with people and talk to them about your interests and skills.
  • Volunteering allows you to explore different areas of interest. The more you try, the more you discover what you like to do and where your skills are.
  • If traditional networking is difficult, volunteering can help you build relationships. Completing tasks with others is a great way to expand your circle.
  • When building side projects, the more visible your final product will be, the more motivation you will have to work hard and get it done right.
  • Don't be afraid of something that's unfamiliar. Knowing how to figure things out is more valuable than having all the answers at the start of a project.
  • Don't treat learning to code like a checklist. Have a clear goal and then get your hands dirty. Learning languages is good, but it's more important to see how all the parts fit together in a project.

Links and mentions from the episode:

Thanks for listening!

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