How 2U's Liza Ramo Sessler Manages Professional & Personal Growth
Liza Ramo Sessler isn't afraid of change. In fact, she's built a life around embracing it.
From starting out her career in PR to working as a technical writer at IBM, from leaving that job to attend a coding boot camp and transition careers again, and from taking a break from being a coding instructor to travel the world for over a year, Liza is no stranger to transitioning between industries, roles, and locations.
Now, living in Austin and working remotely as a Senior Software Engineer and Tech Lead at online education company 2U Inc., Liza is navigating a different kind of change: being a new mother during a global pandemic.
But by leaning on the skills and values she's always had—like collaboration, curiosity, and a willingness to teach and learn—and adopting some new ones along the way, Liza is making these latest changes work for her, her family, and her career. We sat down to hear more about her story.
Leaning into the pivot
When she was in college at Chapel Hill, Liza was sure she wanted to work in PR. But upon graduating and moving to New York, the environment she found there wasn't quite her style.
"It was really cutthroat, and I just wasn't totally enjoying it," she says. That led to her first pivot, which was into technical writing at IBM.
"They purposefully hired people that didn't have a technical background because the content that we were writing was public-facing, and they wanted it to be as engaging as possible," she says.
While she enjoyed the role and the environment, she realized that she wanted to be building things, not just explaining them, so she attended a General Assembly (GA) boot camp on a Google scholarship.
"It's scary to not have an income for three months, but I had nothing to lose," she says. It felt like the right time to make that big switch, too. "A friend said that if you're going to make a change, do it all the way, before it's really hard to make that switch," she says. "That really helped me a lot."
Liza says she got used to "staying up all night long for three months straight—great practice for having a baby!" before being hired into her first developer role. She found the work interesting, but missed being in a learning environment, so she pivoted again and became a coding instructor for the GA bootcamp she'd graduated from.
That gave her a chance to create the kind of environment where more people could succeed.
Whether working as a technical writer or a developer or an instructor, all of Liza's jobs in the tech space have played into her natural sense of exploration and curiosity. "In PR or marketing, you kind of always feel like you have to give these really well-formed answers to things," she says. "In the engineering world, you don't have to do that. It's a really great place to scrape your knees and just say 'I don't know, let's find out together.'"
Packing up that curiosity
While working as a coding instructor, Liza decided it was the right time to make use of the travel fund she'd been contributing to for over a decade. "I had always dreamed of traveling," she says.
So Liza and her now-husband sold their furniture, packed a backpack each, and set off, traveling to 35 countries over 14 months, staying with family in Europe and Israel and visiting "as many far-fetched places as we could," says Liza.
Most impressively, Liza didn't let the stress of finding a job upon her return dim the excitement of the trip. "I just kept thinking, it's really not worth worrying about right now because I'm in Switzerland and these mountains are beautiful and I waited my whole life to do this," she says.
(It also didn't hurt that her husband is a developer too, so they opted to spend a week in a tiny coastal town in Australia and "do nothing but code and play," to get the ball rolling again.)
Finding the right environment at 2U
When Liza did come back to work, it was at Trilogy, an all-remote startup that created turnkey bootcamp solutions for universities.
When Trilogy was acquired by education company 2U, her work expanded. She's now the tech lead for student-facing products across 2U's business, which includes creating customized solutions for different short courses, boot camps, professional certificates, undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
Her work allows her to lean into the empathetic teaching she loved doing as an instructor, only now she's doing it from the inside, as an advocate for her products' users.
"At the end of the day, whether it's dealing with stakeholder requests or business restrictions or not having enough resources, it just doesn't matter—you have got to give a good product to the end users, which in our case are students," she says. "I've been an instructor and you can see the immense amount of pressure that is on those students; they have given up so much to be there and they need to focus on the content."
From building intuitive attendance tracking or assignment submitting tools, Liza makes sure her team keeps students in mind, and she takes that same energy to the rest of the company's stakeholders. "Users don't care about bells and whistles," she says, "especially because the platform here is not the product—it's really the curriculum. What our users really want is for existing features to work even better so that they can have a really easy time while they navigate through the product."
Leaning on her team
Liza is good at dealing with change, but adjusting to life as a new mom during a pandemic was a particularly big wave of change to deal with all at once.
First came the pandemic changes. Luckily for Liza and her team they were already used to working remotely from their Trilogy days. However, the extra support 2U provided was greatly appreciated.All employees received a home office stipend—which Liza used for a bike desk!—and there was regular leadership encouragement to take mental health days as needed.
Then Liza had to start planning her maternity leave. She had 12 weeks of paid leave, with an option to come back part-time for 30 days and be paid for the hours that she worked, which she took.
"I thought maternity leave was going to be like cuddling with the baby on the couch and watching a movie. And I don't think that happened once," she says. "I really needed that time to be with my little family and try to figure stuff out. And it was really nice to not have to have any work obligations whatsoever." (And, she notes, she benefitted from not even having the temptation to check in—2U's policy is to deactivate Slack and email accounts when employees are on leave.)
Most importantly, she knew she could take that time off because of how much she trusts her team. After being the only woman on the tech team at her first developer job and the only woman instructor during her time at General Assembly, she's particularly thrilled to have a more balanced team at 2U.
"The number one thing that's been helpful is that half my squad is women, so they just get it. I don't have to explain anything. It wasn't a big deal when I went out on leave. It was just like, 'No problem, I gotcha,'" she says. She adds, smiling: "And that's why it's so important to hire women in technical fields. Thank you for coming to my TED talk."
When she came back part-time, she became "very, very intentional" about how she spends her time. "If people wander off topic in meetings, I have to say, 'Yeah, we gotta get back to this or I have to leave this meeting because I have work to do, and I can't do it later,'" she says.
The development of superhuman time-management skills didn't come as a surprise, however. Her days as an instructor taught her that people with small children are the best students, and now she knows they're the best employees, too. "They have to get things done," she says.
Thanks to the environment at 2U—which affords her the flexibility and autonomy she needs to get things done on a schedule that works for her and her family—she's navigating yet another major life change with poise and confidence.
Encouraging others to embrace change
If you're considering a major life move like one of the several Liza has orchestrated over the past few years, here are her top three tips:
- Do your research. "It's not like I woke up one day and was like, 'Okay, I'm going to do this,'" she says. "It's a lot of research and talking to people; it's a calculated risk."
- Chip away at what scares you. If you're nervous to leave your current job and go into your dream field because you hate interviewing, you could do an interview—simulated or actually scheduled—every single day for 30 days, says Liza. "It sounds so gross and startup-y, but you need to find those areas where you can safely fail," she says. "Call it iterating rather than failing."
- Recognize that your career is an investment in yourself. If you'd prefer to be doing something else with your work or with your life, it's worth pursuing that. "You can start really, really small, but just start," she says.