For Amber O’Banion, leadership isn’t a day job — it’s a lifestyle. She is always on the lookout for talent she can foster and connections she can make.
“Untapped potential is the most depressing thing to me. I am always amazed at what people can do,” she told Fairygodboss in a recent interview. “I spend a lot of time with different women in different roles to coach them to be more confident in their abilities.”
Working in technology gives O’Banion a special opportunity to make change by empowering others. After all, as she reminded us, “without empowering women in technology, we would still be looking at the moon from really long telescopes.”
As Staff Technical Program Manager for the Intuit AI (artificial intelligence) group, O’Banion has found an organization that encourages her to invest in other women. And, a company that’s given her the opportunity to think creatively when it comes to people management and innovative technical solutions.
Experience has taught her that three characteristics can be found in strong leaders — and they can all be learned and practiced by anyone. Keep reading for leadership insights gleaned from a curving career path that’s led to O’Banion finding her place at Intuit.
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I have been at Intuit for five years, with two and a half years in the Intuit AI organization. Previously I was a program manager for the Intuit Consumer Group Program Management Office Core Team. That was such a fun team to work with because we used to geek out about program management concepts and ideas for implementation. Engineers would leave our working area because they thought we were the nerds!
How did you first become interested in a career in technology?
To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in technology. I have a distinct memory in elementary school of using the mimeograph machine to make copies of our class handouts. When it would break down, I would get my seven-year-old fingers in there and fix it. Eventually, my school admin staff would pull me out of class to fix the mimeograph because I had “a way with machines.”
Every job along my career path has had an element of technology. I was always the person researching error messages and asking awkward questions of tech support. I’ve always enjoyed science, research and analyzing problems, and the tech space seems to be a perfect combination of all those things.
How has your previous work experience contributed to your success at Intuit?
My previous experience helped me learn to be comfortable with knowing what I don’t know and educating myself. It’s okay to be the newbie, as long as you have a plan to fill in your knowledge gaps and hone your craft.
Before Intuit, I had what some would consider an unconventional career path. I started as a paralegal then joined the University of California San Diego’s Research Compliance office, where I was able to apply my love of science and explore innovative ways to get things done. This is where I learned about best practices in collaboration, how to bring people together in a difficult space, and how tech can scale. I went on to apply this at a biotech start-up and in finance at a bank. It was at the start-up where I met one of my favorite colleagues, Mark Hughes, who would go on to recommend me for a role at Intuit because of my ability to organize work and wrangle engineers in technical areas.
My previous experience also helped me establish a realistic point of view of myself and others. I learned to see the value of all people regardless of their skill, length of experience, personality, or any other characteristic. My favorite teams have always been the ones where other people thought we were weird and did not understand how “we worked so well together.”
What projects or programs are you currently working on? What about this type of work most excites you?
I work on a wide variety of programs. With respect to Intuit AI, I'm really excited to see how we're going to democratize artificial intelligence to unlock prosperity for our customers. The organization is made up of principled individuals who care about solving the financial problems facing our customers. There’s no other motivation. I think we're going to see something truly phenomenal come out of it as we scale our capabilities.
I am currently transitioning to another group that’s focused on building core capabilities that will enable Intuit teams to build cool stuff and work faster. I am super-excited to join this team to deepen my technical knowledge, and to help us become a force multiplier for one of Intuit’s most profitable business units.
In your opinion, what are the most important characteristics of a leader?
Humility. I’ve worked with leaders who only cared about how they were perceived (they were always perceived as overpaid trash pandas) and whether people respected them. Because of this, they did not care about their teams and did not care about their customers. They were resistant to learning anything new or accepting that they did not have all the answers. These types of leaders inherently create toxic work environments where good talent cannot thrive and does not stay.
Patience. It’s important for leaders to understand that they are working with humans and not machines. By cultivating patience, leaders understand that not everything will happen immediately or as quickly as they want. They will understand that there is always a short term and long term plan. They will be invested in helping to coach their organizations in transforming into thriving, high performing teams who can truly make phenomenal impacts in their industries. And who doesn’t love a patient leader who you know will not make wild assumptions or uninformed decisions?
Respect. My favorite leaders have always been those who respect the talent of their team but also have a healthy dose of self-respect as well. There is nothing more nightmarish than working for an insecure leader. They are the ones that micromanage, lose their temper, belittle their team members and are hard to please. Why? Because no one can give them the self-respect that they lack. To quote Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual or team that you think has been particularly effective?
Leading with inquiry and not making assumptions. I have found this to be incredibly invaluable in every circumstance. Do not make assumptions. Ask questions to understand what the problem is. Asking questions often helps uncover the true problem and allows you to architect the right solution, whether it involves people, process or technology.
Throughout my career, I’ve been able to learn different ways of refining my approach to managing different points of view. Because I have influence, I want to use it in a way that empowers everyone and makes sure everyone is heard. I’m committed to true diversity and inclusion for all my projects and programs, so that everyone feels comfortable and safe to speak up even in sometimes heated discussions.
How does Intuit empower women who are pursuing careers in tech? Do you participate in any employee networks or programs for women in tech?
Intuit has made significant progress over the past five years on empowering women. We have a fantastic group of allies who help uncover and mitigate unconscious biases and who support us.
I am a member of the core team for Tech Women at Intuit (TWI) at our San Diego site. TWI’s goal is to empower women technologists through career development programs and learning opportunities. From providing a platform that encourages open source contributions from our female software engineers to spearheading our presence at key recruiting events like the Grace Hopper conference for women in computing, TWI provides a space for women in tech at Intuit to network, learn and innovate.
How have you used your role to help bring up other women behind you? How do you build time into your schedule for this kind of work?
It is vitally important to make time for anyone who needs mentoring and support. I have been characterized as a person with “a lot of self-confidence.” And so I spend a lot of time with different women in different roles to coach them to be more confident in their abilities. I provide advice and mentorship to women from all backgrounds and roles: executive assistants, designers, program managers, engineers, leaders, facilities personnel, etc.
Why is this type of work important to you personally?
I think it is important for every woman to understand her strengths and weaknesses in order to determine where she wants to put her energy. I love having conversations with women when they discover what really brings out their inner superstar and help them put a plan together to get there.
Untapped potential is the most depressing thing to me. I am always amazed at what people can do. And it is so disheartening to see truly outstanding talent be hampered by negative thoughts, comments and behavior. I believe that women have to continue to be resilient and persevere to bring their unique contributions to the workplace.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Advice from my mother: How other people act shouldn’t dictate how you treat them, so don’t look down on anyone. Be kind.
It's a heavy burden to bear, constantly making value judgments about people. If you carry that kind of mental baggage with you into the workplace, it makes it very difficult to work with people. So, the way I approach people is not pre-judging anyone, because I'm hoping to find something amazing about each person. This helps me in my approach to work.
What advice do you have for women in tech who want to take their career path to the next level?
Do not be discouraged. Do not give up. We all have at least one superpower. Don’t stop until you find yours. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and love you. People who believe in you will support you. People who love you will help you become the best version of yourself. And probably most importantly, love and value yourself.
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