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From technician to manager: Sahar Ibarra on growing a career at Intuitive

Sahar Ibarra

Close to a decade ago, Sahar Ibarra joined Intuitive as a failure analysis technician—while in grad school for management at night. Now, she’s a senior manager on our Manufacturing Operations team, helping others find their best: “To build strength in someone, you have to give them autonomy. That surprises people sometimes—when I trust them right off the bat.” Below, Sahar shares her path to and through Intuitive, how the company has changed since those early days, and what she finds most challenging—and most exciting—about her work. 

First, tell us about your background and what led you to Intuitive. 

I’ve been interested in biology since I was a kid; even now in my free time, I’m always Googling things and listening to podcasts about the body and health. I want to make the years count—to be mobile, and to keep my brain sharp, for as long as possible. I majored in biology as an undergrad, thinking I’d go to medical school. But I wanted a more technical focus, and then my school developed a new program in biomedical engineering, so I converted to that and ended up loving it. 

I joined the Biomedical Engineering Society and eventually became president of the chapter, which is part of what led me to management; I enjoyed the leadership experience and decided to go to grad school for engineering management. It’s also part of what led me to this company—Intuitive was a sponsor at one of the Society’s conferences, and I remember seeing their name on our list and thinking, “Holy cow, Intuitive’s coming.” I spent so much time at their booth! That was more than nine years ago, but even back then, the culture really stood out. Everyone was so engaged, and so proud of the product. And I thought, “How could you not be? It’s so cool.”What was the path like from joining the company to your current role?

I joined as a failure analysis technician in Service Manufacturing Operations, which handles all returned material, including instruments and accessories. When a customer reports an issue with their system, a field service engineer will go on-site to troubleshoot, and if need be, will pull the part that’s causing the problem and replace it. Then it’s sent back here for failure analysis, and we’ll repair it as quickly as possible so it can go back into service. 

That first role not only gave me a foot in the door at a company I loved, it also enabled me to go to grad school; the hours allowed for night classes, and Intuitive’s tuition reimbursement program helped pay for them. And the cool thing about working in service is you get to touch everything—every system, instrument, accessory, and scope—so if you start here, you can go anywhere. I’ve had the opportunity to try so many different things and manage such a variety of teams. 

When I finished grad school, there was an opportunity for a supervisor job in the Failure Analysis department, which gave me a chance to really prove myself as a leader. From there I was promoted to manager of Service Operations, and then a few years ago we developed the New Product Introduction (NPI) team, which focuses specifically on launches. We work directly with engineers and vendors when new products start going out in the field, troubleshooting those first failures that come back and making sure everything’s ready before we start working at a higher volume to make sure we are creating reproducible processes. 

How has the Manufacturing Operations organization evolved since you joined? 

Our production culture has become much more collaborative over the years. When I first started, Service Manufacturing was part of the Services organization, which meant we were somewhat siloed from the rest of manufacturing. We moved into Manufacturing Operations a few years ago, and that was an opportunity to share more best practices and learn from one another, which has been incredibly valuable. 

I’m part of a pilot rotational effort right now that’s a great example of how we’re collaborating these days. I’m currently working in Systems Manufacturing, where my director, Ian Elmazaj and I are leading the manufacturing plans for the da Vinci Patient Side Cart. I also still manage some awesome teams in service manufacturing including industrial engineers, NPI, and debugging.  

Manufacturing Operations is also evolving to be more global. Our footprint is expanding all over the world, and we’re continuing to see more collaboration between sites. What’s great is that it's not just pushing out from Intuitive’s headquarters here in Sunnyvale. There’s a lot we can learn from our teams in Southaven, Mississippi, Mexicali, Mexico, Germany, Peachtree Corners, Georgia, and more! Helping share those best practices is one of my favorite parts of the job. What are your priorities as a leader? 

Our leadership expectations are posted on the walls in our conference rooms, and my favorite one is “building strength in others.” People have done that for me so many times in my career. I try to pay that forward and give other people opportunities. 

To build strength in someone, you have to give them autonomy. That surprises people sometimes—when I trust them right off the bat. I let them know that I’m always here to bounce ideas off of, and course correct as needed. I want to do whatever’s necessary for someone to feel comfortable taking a project on. But beyond that, I just let them roll with it and get excited to see what they come back with. 

I also think visibility is important. When a someone has a new project to propose, I want the team member who led that effort to come into the director-level meeting and present it to the team. Again, that’s something I learned from the people who did it for me. I want my team members to be proud of their accomplishments, and to defend them, and answer tough questions. I want them to be seen, and to get credit for their work. 

What do you find most challenging about your work? 

I’m someone who thrives in routine, and in Manufacturing Operations, every day is different. There’s always a risk of a parts shortage, or a technician calling out, or a line going down, or a power outage—you name it. And we need to move quickly despite those unexpected events, because you never know what delays could mean for a patient waiting for surgery. 

So it’s been a learning curve for me to get comfortable with change, and to strike a balance between structure and flexibility. But I’ve learned to embrace the unpredictability. It’s part of what makes this job so fun! There are so many different facets of manufacturing I get to learn, and the days fly by.  

Because I’ve grown up at Intuitive—I’ve gotten engaged, married, and now have two kids under two, all since joining—finding work-life balance has been a journey, and I’m still learning every day. I’ve worked with some great mentors here who have helped me; their support has been wonderful. And it’s yet another reason our culture of teamwork and collaboration is so important. When you have something personal going on, you can go take care of that and do what you need to do, and there will be other people to step in and keep pushing the mission forward—putting patients first. 
Tell us about your goals and what you’re looking forward to right now.
 

One of my areas of focus right now is ramping up system builds in Sunnyvale and supporting the same effort in Peachtree, GA. I’m also excited about our organizations growing globally—developing our footprint in new locations, and I hope I can continue to help make it happen. I love traveling, and I’ve always enjoyed going to our other sites. 

I’m also thinking about continuing to grow the people who join our organization. Having started as a tech here myself, it’s a passion project of mine to bring other recent grads into those roles and support them. We’ve had techs move into Manufacturing Engineering, Quality Engineering, Industrial Engineering, leadership positions—all over the company—and that’s such a joy as a manager. It might sound backwards to be excited about someone leaving your team, and of course I’m sad to lose them. But it means they’re growing and getting what they need, and then I get to see what great things they’ll do next. 

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Sahar Ibarra

Close to a decade ago, Sahar Ibarra joined Intuitive as a failure analysis technician—while in grad school for management at night. Now, she’s a senior manager on our Manufacturing Operations team, helping others find their best.