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  • Kim Meninger

Leveraging Mentors to Grow Your Confidence

Updated: May 12, 2023

Leveraging Mentors to Grow Your Confidence - Amber Barber

In this episode of the Impostor Syndrome Files, we talk about how easy it is to experience self-doubt and impostor syndrome when you feel different from those around you. My guest, Amber Barber, a senior director of program management in the high-tech industry, talks about her experience as the only woman studying physics when she went to college. She also talks about how often being the only woman in her workplace has led her to feel pressured to constantly prove herself. Amber shares how her experience with mentors has helped her to navigate challenges and stay focused on growing her career. She also shares tips for how you can find a mentor and maximize that experience.

About My Guest:

Amber Barber is an experienced problem solver, with nearly 22 years of fixing other people’s mistakes in the high-tech world. After earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics, Amber started at National Semiconductor in Texas. She has since held roles at several other companies, including Microsoft and Lam Research, and is currently the senior director of Jade Global’s program management office, working remotely from a small town in Oregon. Her passion for learning and guiding others drove her training and certifications in both PMI Project Management as well as Lean Six Sigma, where she earned Master Black Belt. Amber is a proud mom of four adult children, and lives in her empty nest with two spoiled cats and her incredibly patient husband Brad. Amber loves all things geek, reading for hours, and traveling the world.


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Kim Meninger Welcome, Amber, I am thrilled to have this conversation with you today. And I’d love to kick us off by inviting you to introduce yourself.

Amber Barber Thanks, Kim. I’m thrilled to be here and have a nice chat with you today. I’m Amber Barber, I am currently the Senior Director of Program Management for Jade Global. My background, I’ve been in tech all of my life, I started as a physicist. I earned my Master’s at the University of Oklahoma. From there, I’ve worked in semiconductor companies like National Semi and Lattice Semi, as well as spent some time at Microsoft. And, of course, here I am, as program manager, helping to guide software consulting groups as we do deployments, as well as managed services and other activities to help our customers succeed. I’ve got a lot of interest and excitement around talking to you about impostor syndrome and how women can succeed in the workplace. Myself, of course, growing up in tech, surrounded by men from pretty much the moment I started my bachelor’s degree, there’s been a lot of that. I also have hidden disabilities. So working around those is sometimes a challenge, particularly since I’m generally not out to my employer. It’s, it’s something that I think, particularly at my age, not really encouraged, it would have been seen as a reason to not employ somebody. But it’s overall been a really fantastic career. I’ve enjoyed being able to move around and change quite a bit. I’ve lived in several different places throughout the country. I’ve been able to travel for business. And all of that has really shaped my own personal worldview of how we can grow together and be productive as a society, as a world. Well, bringing in more people of diverse backgrounds, particularly women, but also people of color, people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Kim Meninger I have some questions for you because you mentioned studying physics. And we know that that’s still primarily a male-dominated field. What did it feel like to you, especially at that age, when you’re just starting to think about what you want to do with your life and with your career? Did you ever question whether you were going down the right path based on some of the external pressures that you got, feeling different, feeling insecure as a woman in a space that’s dominated by men? Oh, absolutely.

Amber Barber And I still sometimes have those feelings, but not, not nearly as much. When I started my bachelor’s degree, I initially thought I would be a teacher, right? I’ll learn physics, and I’ll go teach others. And I realized I wasn’t actually very good at it. And I didn’t really like teenagers, despite being one myself, so I changed to straight physics in my sophomore year. And at that point, boy, I just struggled to, to feel like I fit in. It was all men, all the faculty were men. All of my fellow students were men. The only woman in our department was the secretary. So I was very fortunate, though, that I had a mentor that I connected with in the chemistry department. And she really helped to kind of shore those things up. So when I would come to her, and we did research together too, but we also had chances to talk about being the only woman and what it felt like and what, what’s the right way to respond to some of these challenges. So that really helped keep me there. It really did the most, I think it was my fall of senior year. I was doing some research work for one of the, the physics faculty. And we were sitting in his office and we were talking about the latest results that I just brought to him. And then we kind of transitioned to just chatting. And he asked me if I had seen the latest research on women and math and science. And I said, no, no. And he goes well, it definitely shows that women really aren’t as good at math, and they really aren’t going to succeed in science. And it blew me away. There I am. I’m, you know, half a year away from graduating in physics. I had done multiple research projects, I had nearly a 4.0. And in fact, within my physics curriculum, it was a 4.0. Stupid German class kind of brought me down a bit. So, so yeah, I couldn’t believe it. And to have the person who was supposed to be leading me and mentoring me within this, say that to me, really rocked me on my, my core. So having, having Dr. Coleman in chemistry was very helpful. She kind of helped me to understand that it really wasn’t about me, it was about him, and encouraged me to continue my plan to go on to grad school. So that was the worst of it. But there were definitely times where you’d walk into a room full of men and just feel like you didn’t belong. As I started my career, you know, I’d walk into these rooms, sometimes there’d be a woman engineer about my age, but everybody else was male. Right? And so when you had to present to them, when you had to tell them you’d found a problem, whatever it was, it was a lot to kind of take a deep breath and go, I belong here, I really belong here and say that, and hope that they agreed with that and listen to you. And most of the time, that’s true, but not always. There were definitely times when I was overlooked because of my gender.

Kim Meninger Well, and it seems like such a vulnerable time too because when you’re young and early in your career, you’re already feeling insecure. And thinking that you don’t know enough and that other people are so much more experienced than you are, and then to be feeling that different from the people around you and wondering if they’re going to take you seriously, that’s got to do a number on your confidence.

Amber Barber It really does. It’s very difficult at that age, particularly to stand up and say, No, I know what I’m doing. Because, well, you’re pretty new. I mean, you, you know what the book said, and you know what your test said, but when it comes to doing your job, do you know what you’re doing?

Kim Meninger And one thing that strikes me about what you’re sharing is how important it was to you to have that female mentor, and just how much she was there for you as you were navigating certain situations and certain feelings. Did you find something similar in terms of support when you got into the workplace?

Amber Barber I have really sought out mentors that I think would be very helpful. And sometimes they came to me, and sometimes I tracked them down. But having her support really set that standard for me that there are other people who can provide insight, and they don’t always have to be female. So my first job, my, my boss really kind of was a mentor as well because he very much felt I knew what I was doing. He supported me, he went out and advocated for me more than just a standard boss would do. So he was amazing. And I’ve had great mentors at other companies who have really helped me to understand where do I want to go, to help me navigate when we have challenges, for whatever reason. And even now, I try to reach out to other people when I know that I’m reaching to an area I’m not as sure about and it helps me feel like I’ve got some support. Even the decision to take this position. You know, stepping into my first director role, I went to a woman that I deeply respect, Kim Haar, who works at my former employer Lam Research. And I talked to her about it. And I said, Kim, I think I’m ready but you’re a senior director, I want you to tell me what you think I need to work on. You see how I work, we’d work a lot together. What do I need to do to be better? How do I, how do I feel like I’m growing and ready for this? So all of those kinds of mentoring conversations formal or informal, have really been able to keep me on my feet, stable feeling like I can handle this, even when it’s I don’t know if I can handle this.

Kim Meninger But it is also strikes me that you have to have a certain amount of courage and vulnerability to even access those kinds of resources. Right? So I, I think a lot about how uncomfortable it might feel to even express any insecurity when you’re in a new role, or when you’re in an environment where there’s a lot of pressure. And so being willing to trust and being able to say, this is hard for me or I could use some help. I could use some advice. It sounds like that’s something that you were able to do despite some of the challenges in doing that.

Amber Barber Yes, but I would say that I, I’ve grown that muscle. It’s, it’s a skill, like any other skill of being able to calm the anxiety levels, right, and try to say, this is how I want to say it, this is who I want to reach out to. Certainly, when I was first dealing with issues even with that first boss, or taking things to Doctor Coleman, the mentor that I had in college, I was a ball of anxiety. I wasn’t sure how to phrase it or what to say or who or what to even ask for. Right? You shouldn’t just walk in and be like, I’m not going to dump everything that I’m worried about on you, you got to have something that you’re looking for. So, so it’s taken a lot of practice, it really has. And I think though that’s a good thing because that means that any of us can do it. Right that that first one is going to be the worst. But if you prepare, I think it goes a little bit better. And then the next time that you need something when you go to approach somebody is, hey, I have a question or, Hey, I’m looking for a mentor. And it’s a little easier and it gets a little easier each time you do it.

Kim Meninger Is there anything you think would be helpful for people listening to think about in terms of identifying those potential mentors? Or, and or preparing for that very first conversation?

Amber Barber That’s a great question. And it’s something that people always ask, How do I find a mentor? I think the first thing to do is look around you, look at people who you work with, or you’ve interacted with some within your internal company, who is one or two levels above you, right? You don’t have to go trying to talk to a VP, particularly when you’re, you’re new. And you kind of get a sense as you work with people of whose business only and a bit standoffish, as well as who’s more friendly, who comes in and says Happy Friday, when it’s a Friday meeting. Pick those people, right, pick the ones that seem friendly, and approachable. Go to them again, with something specific, right? If I’m working on this particular project with them, whether they’re directly in the meeting, or they’re somebody’s leader, just go in and say, you know, hey, I wanted to ask you about this and this piece of it, or we seem to be having a challenge, I wanted to kind of see your thoughts on it. And when you start with those specific pieces, they understand that you’re not just walking in and going, I want you to mentor me. I’m opening my mind, dump something in there. Because most mentors are busy, right, just like everybody else. So, so going in and starting that conversation that way with specifics, then if you want to go back to them and say, you know that, that was really helpful. Could we maybe do that, again, if I have other questions? That can start that first mentoring opportunity without having to say the word mentor, without having to make it formal. And I’ve had, I’ve had a lot of success that way. And sometimes all you need is that one or two connections with somebody that might be enough to kind of bump up your confidence that you get through a low period. Other times it will develop into a relationship, they, you know, you talk all the time, you chat about challenges, just because you see them in the hallway. And hopefully, those are people that you keep with you or stay friends with throughout your career. I’m very fortunate, I do have, do have those kinds of relationships. And even now, if I run into something interesting, I’ll reach out to them and be like, this happened and I was kind of surprised. Have you ever seen that before? And if they have, we talk about it. And if they haven’t, then we both go, Wow, I don’t think we should do so.

Kim Meninger That’s great. And I really liked the way you talk about not having to use the M word because I do think that can be really intimidating asking someone to be your mentor. And, and the other thing I really appreciate about what you said is you can strike while the iron is hot, right? If you’re having a good conversation, if you feel like this person is supportive and open, there’s always more discomfort after the fact if you close up that conversation, and then you feel like oh, I want to go back to them. And you haven’t already established that expectation that you’re sort of going too many times to the same well. Whereas if you say that in the moment of I’ve really enjoyed this, I really appreciate your support, I’d love to be able to do this on a more regular basis, get permission from them, and then it doesn’t feel like you’re stalking them right. Doing something inappropriate.

Amber Barber Absolutely. The other thing I do have to say about mentoring, and I have actually done a number of talks about it. But this is key. Mentoring has to be a two-way street. And that doesn’t just mean you should mentor others eventually. That means, if you can bring something for them that they don’t know, right? If you can talk about, you know, what’s, what’s happening in your world that’s kind of interesting, it becomes more of a conversation. And that builds a deeper relationship as well. So sometimes it’s going to be just about you and just about your one problem. But really look for opportunities to develop a true relationship there. And you’ll find it much more successful.

Kim Meninger But that’s a great point, too. Because I think sometimes we doubt ourselves when we feel like we’re taking too much and not giving and so even asking the question, How can I help you? What are you working on that I can support you? And you never know. I mean, it could be something simple, like you might have a friend if they have a job opening and it might make it easier for them to find somebody or you might be using a tool that they haven’t used before. So I think not, not assuming that just because they might be at a higher level on the org chart. They don’t need anything from you when it could be anything.

Amber Barber Right? Absolutely. We all are learning even the people with those big titles.

Kim Meninger That’s right. One question I want to ask for you is proving yourself right. I think that’s something that tends to be more challenging for women, especially in male-dominated fields, there’s this sense of, I need to work that much harder, I need to be perfect. How has that shown up for you? And do you feel like you have found some ways to lessen that a bit?

Amber Barber Unfortunately, that has shown up for me so much. And I typically find it either because I’m starting in a new job. And there’s always a little bit of prove yourself, but it feels like it’s a bit deeper for women, but also within the same job, the same role. If I do new projects and work with different teams, I have to prove myself again. And for a while, I really let it bug me, that, that the biggest thing that I heard, particularly when my title wasn’t engineer, which it always was, sometimes it was, but it hasn’t always been. If I walked into a room, they would assume I wasn’t technical, that I didn’t know technical stuff. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, Come on, guys, I know the physics behind this, give me a break. So. So part of it is realizing that you really can’t stop it. It’s a cultural thing. You know, once you get to the point where you’re the leader in the room, you have the ability to try and, you know, stop making people have to prove what they’re doing. And just yeah, we trust you, you know what you’re doing, you got a degree, you got background. But when you’re the one walking in the room having to prove yourself, I think the best thing to do is simply have a quick intro that you’re going to give when you first walk into the team and hit the high points, right? If, if this is a technical project that I’m doing, where we’re doing some kind of let’s say, Lean Six Sigma improvement, which I’ve done that before. Then when I introduce myself, I don’t just say, hey, yeah, I do Lean Six Sigma, I say, I’ve been doing this for this many years. I’m a Master Black Belt, I’ve run this kind of project similar to this. And it gives them some concrete things to bite into. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not still going to expect amazing things from you. But it does kind of bring the tone down a little bit to a bit more trusting. Versus if you just walk in and go Hi, I’m here to help. So that’s, that’s the best that I’ve found. And I use that even now. I just joined Jade Global back in March. And so all the introductions that I’ve had to do to the different executive, the different teams have been that kind of way, right? This is my background, these are the kinds of things I’ve done that are similar to what you’re looking for. And this is how I’m going to help you. And that really has been very effective. I’ve had a lot of, of good engagement from people that needed to be engaged with me, by approaching it that way.

Kim Meninger I love that you’re being proactive when you do that, because in some cases, although you know, there will always be exceptions to this, you’re kind of nipping that in the bud, right? You’re, you’re leading with it. So there isn’t the chance for them to draw their own conclusions or make assumptions about you. And so you’re getting the context upfront. And then I wonder, in this, I’ve had this question before. And I’m curious, if you have ways of navigating this when you’re in the moment, and somebody assumes you don’t know something, when you’re, when you’re kind of in the moment and somebody talks down to you or acts like you don’t have the experience that you actually have, is there a way to gracefully let the person know, actually, you know, I have an advanced degree in physics, and I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Amber Barber Yeah, I’ve been tempted before to say, Hey, dummy. Obviously, that would go over real? Well. No, I think the best thing that you can do is, again, try to go back to your background in a friendly, I’m connecting these two dots, right? So if somebody says, you know, this is, this is this kind of project, and it’s really technical, and we would really need people who understand how this kind of tool works. When you have the background already you go, okay, you know, I think that my own background working on this project and doing these things with this very similar tool will be very helpful. Now, again, if somebody is already that aggressive with, with pushing on you about how much you don’t know, it may not totally defuse that, but it makes you look much better in your response. It does give them a bit of that background. And most importantly, the rest of the team goes, Oh, wow, he’s being a jerk. She does know what she’s doing. So it kind of it helps build that team relationship. And sometimes what you need is the rest of the team at some point to go knock that off. She knows what she’s doing.

Kim Meninger I like that a lot because I do think about that if you can’t, you can’t, certainly can’t change somebody else’s way of responding. And so if that persons being difficult, your best option is to neutralize them by doing exactly what you said, Get everyone else on your side by the bigger person taking the high ground, right? And then they’ll start to realize, oh, wait a second, it’s he’s the one the problem.

Amber Barber Yes, it’s, it’s sad, but it’s true, we have to kind of regulate our emotional response as women to what, what people do. And so even when you’re very frustrated, and you’re like, I’ve answered this before, or whatever it is, the best thing you can do is not show it. Right? Don’t, don’t have your resting bitch face show up, put a little smile on and remind them and that the team will come to your rescue once you’ve developed that relationship, and they trust in you. Because I’ve actually heard that. I’m not saying this because I think it’ll happen. I’ve had different projects where I’ve worked with people, and when something like this would come up, she knows what she’s doing. Trust her, trust her process. So it does, it does take a little more work. It does put the impetus on us as women again, but it smooths the way much more than trying to be confrontational about it.

Kim Meninger Have you found that there are differences in your experience? As more women… I guess my first question would be, are you seeing more women coming into the space now? And if so, are you feeling meaningful changes in the experience as a result of greater gender diversity?

Amber Barber I’m definitely seeing a lot more women moving into tech, primarily in engineering kind of roles. You know, most people aren’t into the pure sciences. And that’s okay. And I think it’s great, I think that there’s a lot more ability to support each other, there’s a lot more awareness for companies that, that truly pay attention to it of, you know, this isn’t just a woman thing, it’s a parent thing, or it’s an all people thing. When we talk about things like flexible hours, right, or reimbursement for childcare, or FMLA time off. I think having more women has definitely brought that to a bit more attention. I know when, when I had my daughter in 2003, I got eight weeks of leave. That was it. And I had a C-section. So I was recovering from abdominal surgery. And going back on that, that, you know, one day past eight weeks point, because there just wasn’t anything like maternity leave. It was all, well take your short-term disability and then come back. And doing things like trying to continue to breastfeed her at that point. And pump. I was tucked in a little closet at the nurse’s office for the facility I was at so the changes that I see are so much better. There’s, there’s dedicated time and space, there’s Yes, you can go ahead and leave campus if you need to. There’s a lot more awareness and a lot more flexibility, not just around having children. But in general, I think the one thing that we risk is that there are definitely some companies are starting to say well, we’ll put some employee resource groups together. We’ll set up some things like maternity leave, and maybe childcare. And that’s good enough. And those are great, but they really don’t address. Okay, well what’s the day-to-day job like? And what’s my opportunity to continue to grow in my career? And that’s the part that I don’t see. I mean, some companies are definitely doing that. They, they set up things like mentoring programs for women. But it’s still not quite enough. So it’s still a little bit too focused on the personal side, not quite enough on the growth side. And I think that’s now becoming the limiting factor that there’s a lot of young women I see coming in, straight out of college, early career, who then look around and go. Now what, huh, right? And I think they’re still seeing a lot more of their male colleagues promoted. And so that, that’s a situation that I had myself. And unfortunately, it drove me leaving to different companies because I wasn’t growing my career and the opportunities that I said I was interested in and prepared for they gave to men.

Kim Meninger How much of that is a function of the fact that when you work in a male-dominated space, it’s just easier for men to access the power and networks that make those decisions? And so you see commonalities, you know what you have in common with somebody who’s more like you, you probably have an easier access point to build a relationship, and then you’re just going to be more connected to people who are making decisions. I mean, I feel like, that’s always going to be a barrier until we figure out how to break down some of those. Networking blocks.

Amber Barber Yeah, for sure. And, and I think that’s true. I certainly, there’s research out there that says you tend to hire like you. So when you have a hiring manager and their hiring committee, and it’s all male, right? Women don’t look like you. Just like, if it’s all white, and you have a candidate who may be of color, they don’t look like them. So that’s, that’s a big deal. And I think hiring is the immediate one that people are starting to think about. And, you know, oh, we should have a woman, a diverse person on the hiring committee. But I think it’s absolutely true for things like promotions as well. And having, having been an actual manager with, with people that I had to look at for promotion opportunities. When I would be in the room, again, I’d be the only woman. And it was very buddy, buddy, hey, this guy, he’s a good guy. He’s been working here a long time, you know, it didn’t seem to matter that they’d have these criteria, lists of things that people should be doing and where they should fall on skill sets to promote, it really seemed to be about he’s a good guy. Yeah. And, you know, if you don’t have women in the room to say the same things, yeah, she’s a great employee, she just, you know, she’s got it, then that’s going to be harder, right? And it’s dependent on an individual manager, in that case, to think about you and to promote you in that way.

Kim Meninger And I always like to think about things from the perspective of the system, and what can be done at a macro level. And then given the realities of the system, what we can individually do, because obviously, we don’t have control over the whole culture and how things operate. And one of the things that jumps out at me from our whole conversation, you can let me know if you agree or would add to this is just the importance of being proactive and building those relationships. It sounds like that’s something that you have done consistently, throughout your career. Are there other things that you think about in terms of driving your own career success in the absence of some of those structural systems that can help that?

Amber Barber Yeah, that’s, you definitely hit the nail on the head, being proactive is the key. It’s, it’s really important to know this is your career. So you need to know where you want to go. Even if it’s just the next job. Not all of us go, oh, well, in 20 years, I definitely want to be this. But, but know what you want next, know where you want to be. What’s the kind of role? What’s the kind of responsibilities? And yes, be proactive, talk to your boss, talk to a mentor. If you can get to your boss’s boss, and they’re willing to talk to you talk to them, and be upfront, right, I want to move into a director role. And I’d like to do that in the next five years. How can I get there? And continue to own that and drive your own career, but also be ready to leave. Right, if you hit a point in a job, even if you love that job, but it’s not growing for you, start making a plan for how to do something different. And maybe it’s at the same company, right? If you’re building relationships there, maybe there’s something that you can move to, maybe it’s a totally different company. But don’t be afraid to leave, don’t be afraid to say I’m not happy here, and I need better. And, so, I’m gonna go look and do that. Because you’re the only one that really cares about your career. At the end of the day, that’s the biggest message that I’ve heard.

Kim Meninger I could not agree with you more. And I think that it’s also really helpful to have that plan because it reminds you that you have options and a lot of times if we maybe haven’t looked for a job for a while or we’re in a situation where we’re experiencing a lot of self-doubt, we may believe this is the best option available to us. So we settle for less than we deserve. And we aren’t feeling respected. We aren’t feeling valued. And so I think it’s really important at like you said, anytime we feel that way too immediately. It doesn’t mean you have to leave it doesn’t mean you have to do it make any decisions but to immediately start to explore those options so that you know that you have other this is you’re not a hostage to the situation right?

Amber Barber Yeah, absolutely, and definitely have relationships outside your company, no matter how much you like your co-workers and your boss, you know, it’s important to join groups that are similar to you. So you’re your Leading Humans group is an amazing one for that. There’s other organizations that I’m also participating in, I do a lot of DEI kinds of groups and activities. I’ve also been in group called Women in Lean for my Lean background. And so having those different communities can be incredibly helpful. When you’re having a rough day, you’re having a rough month, you can go and you can talk to people who are like you, and they can support you, and then in return, you can support them back, right, we all have bad days. But that also gives you a chance to kind of learn and grow and thinking about, you know what, maybe I want to try what they do. Or maybe they could introduce me to somebody at their company. So it provides so much to be reaching out to other communities of similar people.

Kim Meninger You’re so right, it broadens your horizons in ways that I think are really important, because I know when I joined tech, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, I wasn’t on my career radar, it really happened spontaneously. And then I found myself in this company for almost 10 years, it was the only thing I knew, I just assumed all companies operated the way that this company did. And so I didn’t know whether I was being treated fairly, I didn’t know that there might be other ways of operating. And so the more you can have access to people who share their stories and can tell you about the values of their organization, the more you can decide for yourself, Am I where I want to be? Are there other options out there, that would be a better fit?

Amber Barber Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the big advantages that, that social-media-driven internet connections that we have, right now, you know, that that didn’t exist when I was walking out of grad school. So same kind of thing. You get into your first job, and oh, gosh, is this right? Am I getting paid? Well, I don’t know any of these things. But now people who are new college people who are, you know, at the level that I’m at the age that I’m at, all of us can still reach out to each other very easily. We can find people all over the world who do things like we do, and connect with them. So the resources are out there, and people should definitely take advantage of them.

Kim Meninger Oh, this has been such a great conversation, Amber, any final thoughts?

Amber Barber I want to encourage people to reach out and connect with me on LinkedIn. I do a lot of different posting and amplify messages around DEI, mentoring, public speaking, and then project and program management, which is my latest passion. So I’m always happy to talk to people about those different topics. I’ve even got a few articles on some of those if they’re interested in it. But let’s just connect right that Okay, let’s keep building a community. And if you want to be part of mine, I’d love to have you be part of it.

Kim Meninger That’s wonderful. And I’ll link to that in the show notes as well. Thank you again, Amber, for sharing your story and sharing your thoughts with us.

Amber Barber Thank you, Kim. It’s been my pleasure.

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