website development

Finding Superwomen: How supportive mentors and a love for art jumpstarted Becca Refford’s career

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

Becca Refford ● Web Developer ● Women in Tech Summit, TechGirlz

“I have this old busted-up computer. You want to take it apart and get to the guts?”

When Becca Refford heard those words from her aunt, Steph Alarcon, she had no idea that her childhood love of making would later help other young women launch their own STEM journeys. Becca’s aunt introduced her to an organization called TechGirlz, which provides free, hands-on workshops for middle school girls to help them “get their hands dirty” with all kinds of technology.

“We offer a little bit of everything. We offer plenty of programming workshops, but we also offer workshops in graphic design, virtual reality, security, robotics, smart textiles, the list goes on! The more that I started learning about TechGirlz, the more I started thinking, ‘wow I wish there was something like this for me when I was growing up.’ ”

As a student at a competitive high school, Becca encountered negative attitudes toward careers in creative fields, often being asked “what are you going to do with an art degree?” so she looked for alternative ways to do what she loved.

“The minute I found out that there was a path to creative pursuits using technology, I was sold. There’s no dichotomy between being creative and being in tech. If you’re into art or design, consider UI and UX, how people interact with technology or graphic design. In this day and age technology touches absolutely everything. I want to break down that misconception of ‘you need to have a math brain to do tech.’ ”

Becca knows this firsthand, because it was her work in marketing that initially led her to web design. After producing numerous graphics for TechGirlz, she decided that she could scrape together enough knowledge of the scripting language PHP to completely overhaul the website in 2016.

“TechGirlz was the first website that I ever launched by myself and took from start to finish. That got me really excited about web design, thinking ‘I could do this as a career.’ ”

Becca went on to design the website for the Women in Tech Summit. Her belief in her abilities to design websites from scratch took off because of support from other women.

“The TechGirlz founder, Tracey — she’s my Superwoman. She exemplifies what a super savvy business woman looks like: knowing your strengths, but also knowing exactly where to find a solid group of people to fill in those blanks for you. I watched her do that with hiring Karen [long-time Program Director, now Advisory Board member at TechGirlz], another one of my Superwomen. Karen is detail-oriented, she’s got spreadsheets for everything. She is more on top of it than I could ever hope to be in my entire life.”

The mentorship Becca received from women like Tracey and Karen proved pivotal in her professional journey, and she encourages other young women to find mentors early in their lives as well.

“Finding a mentor — not just anybody, but somebody who you look up to personally and whose values you respect — is huge. Get your hands dirty. Say yes. Find a little bit of time to volunteer, join a group, or offer your skills or talents to an organization that you can really get behind. That opens doors to meet women who can speak to the specific challenges you face. Ladies gotta stick together!”

The value of mentorship goes both ways, with mentors often learning a great deal from their mentees. Becca mentioned that she learned from the girls she taught in TechGirlz camps.

“They knew what they wanted. All we had to do was put the tools in their hands and they would fly. When we were packaging our workshops, TechShopz in a Box, so that people anywhere could teach girls, we faced doubt from parents and organizations who thought the curriculum would be too hard for twelve-year-old girls. They could not be more wrong. These girls were capable of grasping big concepts: minimum viable product, prototyping, user flows. Don’t undersell these girls for a second, because they are whip smart.”

Ultimately, the value of mentorship is far deeper than career advancement and networking connections. In December 2017, Becca was biking in Philadelphia when a delivery truck struck her and ran over the bottom half of her body. She spent a year re-learning how to walk.

“The women who I had surrounded myself with for the first couple years of my career — Tracey and Karen, these superheroes — were the first ones to scoop me up in such a scary and awful time. Coming out to my parents’ house way outside of the city just to spend time with me. Helping me transition back to working again. To have emotional bonds with these women was just absolutely breathtaking. That’s the power of community.”

Just as Becca seeks to do away with the notion that technology and creative pursuits are diametrically opposed, her personal story evokes the idealism and values of the early internet — the idea that technology, at the end of the day, is about bringing people together.

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This story was written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Twitter.

WITS has several summits happening around the country. Learn more and check out their event schedule at https://womenintechsummit.net/.

Learning New Keys: How Washington D.C. Developer, Natassja Linzau, Is Transforming Data Literacy in Government

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Like engineers, piano teachers are guided by best practices. Piano teachers typically advise their students to think carefully about the composition and the structure, work through trial and error, and think about what outputs they want to achieve.

In high school, Natassja knew she wanted to pursue a career in music. She studied music and psychology at the Brigham Young University and later received her in Masters in Music at Catholic University. While running her music teaching studio, Natassja would guide and mentor her students on the best practices of the piano.

In the mid-90s, she began working at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington D.C. as a secretary. Still passionate about music, during her spare time, she volunteered at the D.C. Federation of Music Clubs. The organization needed a website and she offered to help, as she had taken a programming class in high school. She enjoyed building their website and knew from there she could do more. She wanted to understand web development and front-end engineering better, so she took online classes at night through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. During this time, she was also taking care of three kids and balancing three jobs but was able to pursue a new career path she never considered before. Over the next 18 years, Natassja transitioned from her administrative role to an official Web Graphics Designer to Web Developer.

From piano keys to a computer keyboard, Natassja took her career to the next level. Natassja joined Women Who Code DC in 2015 and met other women passionate about technology who wanted to enter the industry. However, in the beginning she noticed a lack of female mentors. So, she started the Mentoring Program within their chapter, which helped connect women with role models in the tech industry.

In 2016, she took a position with the U.S. Department of Commerce as a lead front-end engineer. In this role, she oversaw the Discovery team of the Commerce Data Service, however, after a couple short months, she found another opportunity to help lead the Data Education Initiative. This new project, also called the Commerce Data Academy, created opportunities for the U.S. Department of Commerce employees to learn more about data science, cybersecurity, and new programming languages. Natassja lead this project because she wanted to foster mentorship within America’s Data Agency. More than 1000 employees signed up for the initial classes. The program she designed contained over 38 technical courses, and was so popular it began attracting interest from other federal agencies.

Moving beyond the Census Data Academy, Natassja was the Lead of the Data Talent Working Group for the U.S. Data Cabinet, which was responsible for developing guidelines and standards for data training, education, and professional development for many data roles in the federal government. This was especially important so that federal agencies can find the right data scientists for the right jobs. She also helped standardize the terminology for data on USAJobs.gov, while developing the Data Science Jobs microsite.

Over the past couple of years, Natassja has created new opportunities for female technologists, her co-workers and future data scientists interested in joining the Federal workforce. Her musician mindset of persistence and discipline allowed her to keep going, despite not starting out on a traditional path to tech.

“Be patient, and persist. Keep going and learning. Like in coding, there’s always something new to learn. Things are always changing.”