Episode 132: What technologists can learn from superheroes

Episode 132: What technologists can learn from superheroes

Episode 132: What technologists can learn from superheroes 560 420 Carlos L Chacon

Bang! Pow! Crash!  Besides just awesome fighting techniques, are there things we can learn from superheroes?  My guest, Will Fehringer, gave that very question some thought and came up with some very interesting ideas I thought were worth passing along.  Wonder Woman and the Amazonians give us something to thing about preparing for our ultimate goal.  Drax, from the Guardians of the Galaxy, gives a great example of the Fool’s Choice in conversation.  Every good superhero has a value system.  What is your value system and how do you enforce it?

One of the biggest challenges to technologies is the Superhero Syndrome.  Sure, it feels safe to save the day, but the danger is we might get to the question Mr. Incredible posed “Can you keep this place in order without me?  Didn’t I just save you people?”  The ability to be the superhero all the time is not sustainable, so we won’t be able to work alone all the time.  The ability to work in teams and trust the process is becoming a bigger and bigger part of what is determining a great IT resource from everyone else.

This episode explores some of these topics and gives some thoughts about how we can apply the lessons super heroes have to battle on a regular basis.  What are your thoughts?  What can you learn from a superhero?

Episode Quotes

“Superhero Syndrome: [When] we over-commit to something or we set too ambitious of a deadline. All of a sudden, we have that “uh oh” moment where we realize that we’ve got way more work than we’re able to get done.”

“When you become the go-to person, it’s very easy to feel like your role in the world is a bit inflated.”

“The Fool’s Choice: You can either tell an uncomfortable truth that you need to tell to move the conversation forward, or you can stay silent and keep the peace.”

“I want to encourage people to think in terms of And. ‘Can I tell the uncomfortable truth And still maintain that relationship?’”

Listen to Learn

00:40   Intro
01:18   Compañero Shout-Outs
02:30   SQL Server in the News
03:43   Intro to the topic and guest
04:59   What is Superhero Syndrome?
06:25   Get your playing field in better shape to avoid constantly having to “save the day”
07:30   There are downsides to Superhero Syndrome
09:16   The Amazons may have lost the vision of what they should be preparing for
11:10   Are you open to learning new technology?
14:19   The Fool’s Choice
17:50   Drax’s Fool’s Choice conversation with Peter
19:10   Drax’s Fool’s Choice conversation with Mantis
21:28   And Thinking versus Or Thinking
23:25   SQL Family Questions
26:03   Closing Thoughts



About Will Fehringer

Will Fehringer is an Agile Coach & super hero movie buff with CapTech consulting who combined his two passions at the InnovateVirginia conference with a talk about “What Can Agilists Learn from Super Hero Movies”.

*Untranscribed Introduction*

Carlos:             Compañeros, welcome again to the SQL Trail. This is Episode 132 and our topic today is what technologists can learn from superheroes. Our guest is Will Fehringer. He is a consultant with CapTech Technologies in Richmond, Virginia. I heard Will speak at an Agile Conference and he gave this talk and shared some ideas about this idea of what we can learn from superheroes and I thought it would be very applicable to our podcast. We pluck a few ideas from his talk and we’re going to go through those today. I think you’ll find that interesting and I hope you enjoy the conversation.

Before we get into that, however, we do have a couple of Compañero Shout-Outs. I was lucky enough to make it down to SQL Raleigh this last weekend and I got to catch up with the organizer, Kevin Feasel. Luckily for us, Jonathan Stewart was on the other side of the country. We had a good time. Kevin actually broke out his drone and started flying that around. There was actually a picture of us on Twitter, if you happened to see that. It was also nice to catch up with some other compañeros: Tom Norman, Paul Popvich, Chris Voss, James Howard, both excellent volunteers and we need to figure out how to get them up involved in Richmond. Mark Wilkenson has been a guest on this podcast, as well as Kevin Wilkie. Kevin, if you’re listening, just remember you still owe me that thing that you owe me. I’m just saying. Good things come to those who wait. A special shout-out to Stephen Bennett and Andrew Notarian. Especially for Stephen in that through a clerical error, we failed to get him on the show earlier, so thanks Stephen, for hanging in there.

Compañeros, we do have a little SQL Server in the News I wanted to pass along to you and the SQL Cat team, so this is going to be on Twitter. If you are on Twitter, actually it started this last Monday, they will be posting– this is the account @SQLServer. They will be posting a tweet each Monday at 9am Eastern, I believe. No, 9am Pacific, obviously, because they’re in Redmond, makes more sense. They will be using the #sqldatawins and they want you to respond to that scenario, the scenario that they put out. If you’re selected, they’ll enter you into some cool prizes. Unfortunately, everyone’s welcome to participate, but if you want to win, you do need to be a resident of the United States, so there is that for all of you who are listening overseas, so I apologize. That started this last Monday, so I’m interested to see what happens there and we may pass along a couple of those that we think are funny, if it makes sense to do so.

Our episode show notes for today is going to be sqldatapartners.com/superheroes or sqldatapartners.com/132. I will go ahead and say that I managed to switch a character. I said that they were from the Marvel and DC universe. I got them mixed up because I hadn’t seen the movies and so I’m just going to throw that out there, now. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, then please don’t listen to this episode, because it’s going to happen.


Carlos:             Will, welcome to the program.

Will:                Hi, Carlos, thanks for having me.

Carlos:             It’s great to have you on today, a local Richmonder, at that. Thanks for taking a little time to chat with us. I saw your presentation at an Agile Conference and I thought it was very entertaining and enlightening. Ultimately, what we wanted to talk about today was Superhero Syndrome.

Will:                Absolutely.

Carlos:             Maybe why it’s bad, not bad, but how it affects us and maybe ways that we can get around that. You have some great examples from our current superhero movies that are out, from both DC and Marvel, so we’re kind of an equal opportunity.

Will:                Absolutely, gotta represent both sides of the house.

Carlos:             That’s right. Let’s go ahead and jump into that idea. What is Superhero Syndrome?

Will:                Superhero syndrome, I see this all the time with teams that I work with. It’s this idea that we over-commit to something or we set too ambitious of a deadline or whatever it might be. All of a sudden, we have that “uh oh” moment where we realize that we’re in trouble and we got way more work than we’re able to get done. So, what I see most teams do, and I do this myself, as well, is rather than great transparency and say, “uh oh, we’ve got to push our deadline. We’ve got to do less. We’ve got to limit our scope,” we try to really buckle down. “I can get it all done. I know I can do it,” and we try to pull heroics to get everything across the finish line. Sometimes this can work and sometimes it can work well. I’m sure you might remember days of trying to do that, buckle down and really cram right before a final exam. Sometimes that’s exactly what you need, but it’s not a sustainable way of doing work. I’m sure you remember you cram really hard for final exams and as soon as you finish, you want to go relax and take a break for the next couple weeks.

Carlos:             Yeah, you’re not interested in looking at that textbook again.

Will:                Exactly, so it’s something that you don’t want to make it a habit in your organization. So, I see this all the time and really wanted to talk about it. I thought, what a better metaphor to talk about Superhero Syndrome than using actual superheroes.

Carlos:             That’s right, and we’ve got some great references there. There is one more angle that I thought of or that I think applies more particularly to the listeners of this program. That is this idea that you’re going to swoop in and with your skill set, you’re scooping in and kind of saving the day, but almost to your point, you’re not putting in processes there that are going to allow you to not have to do that anymore. We just kind of get these continual swoop-ins and “oh, let me save the day.” When “hey, maybe spending a little bit more time making sure that our playing field is in good shape would not require me to do that.”

Will:                Absolutely, and I get the sense there are some people out there, and I’m sure it’s none of your listeners, but who kind of make a career out of making emergencies and then swooping in and saving the day. That’s certainly one way to do it, but you’re completely right. If upper management never realizes that there’s a problem, there’s never the time taken to sit back and think and really try to problem-solve and say, “is there a better way we can be doing this because something’s broken?” If we’re always delivering on time, you never realize that there’s actually a problem there.

Carlos:             Exactly. That brings us, then, to the downsides of the Superhero Syndrome. Not being able to recognize that there is a problem.

Will:                Yeah, I think a great example of that downside, like you mentioned, of not recognizing the problem, and I talked about this in my speech is from the movie Wonder Woman. I love to talk about this example because I saw this movie and I was sitting on my couch watching this and thinking, “this is a crazy scene right now. I can’t believe what’s going on in front of me.” It’s the scene in Wonder Woman where the German army, it’s set in World War I and they come onto Paradise Island and they start attacking the Amazons. The long and short of it is that the Amazons were woefully underprepared for this attack, despite being these elite warriors and they needed Wonder Woman to save them. It worked, they saved the day, they had a literal superhero save them, but then kind of my thought after this was, “have they learned? Why were they underprepared? Have they made the changes they needed to be prepared in the future?” Really, part of what they weren’t prepared about was that they had this vast new technology. They had guns and Amazons didn’t, and so it made me think, “are the Amazons going to get guns and learn from this experience?” Sure enough, they don’t. Obviously, it would break the Wonder Woman universe if you gave Wonder Woman and the Amazons a bunch of guns to go around (?). But, I think it proves a great point of that’s one way of thinking about it, but the other way is maybe they just didn’t feel like they needed guns because they didn’t recognize there was a problem.

Carlos:             Using that Wonder Woman story as a backdrop is the perfect scenario. There are a couple of points that you mention. Let’s dive into a few of those. One is that you mentioned, they’re on the island and they’ve been put there to save mankind from Ares, from the God of War.

Will:                Exactly, yep.

Carlos:             That’s what they think they’re kind of preparing for, but as time goes on, it seems like they kind of lose that idea or that vision and they just become really, really good at fighting.

Will:                Right, this was another moment where I’m watching this movie and being like, “this is crazy. I can’t believe what I’m watching here.” Their goal, at least as the movie states at the beginning of the movie, is to protect mankind from Ares. Prior to Wonder Woman’s starting, Ares comes in and nearly wipes out all of the gods and it takes Zeus himself to stop Ares. Zeus says, “you know what, I need to make sure that this never happens again.” So, he creates the Amazons and puts them on Paradise Island to try to make sure that that never happens again. What ends up happening, and I feel like I see this a lot in organizations, is they’ve been on this literal island where they’re talking amongst themselves about what they have to do and they start to slowly lose sight of what it was they really were intending to do in the first place, which was defeat Ares. Like you said, they’re training all the time, they’re battling all the time, and you get these great fight scenes where they’re training and using their spears and their bows and arrows, but I think they really lose sight of the fact that the goal is to make sure that they prevent Ares from coming back. To do that, you want to be the best warrior possible, not necessarily the best archer or the best spear fighter in the world. You want to be the best warrior. You need to keep up with the trends in warfare, essentially, to be able to be competitive with the most elite warriors that could come at you, in this case, the most elite warrior being Ares himself.

Carlos:             Right, and that’s very challenging for all of us, particularly in technology. You feel like you’ve just spent all of this time, I’ve spent 10 years finally understanding client server architecture, and then they’re like, “oh, let’s change the game or let’s do something different.” And “we’re going to introduce server lists” and you’re like “oh brother! You’ve got to be joking me!”

Will:                Right, so it’s tough, but I love the metaphor in Wonder Woman of them being on a literal island. It’s so easy when you’re at your organization and you start to get the hang of whatever technology staff that you’re using at your organization and then all of a sudden you pick your head up and you look around and you realize you’re 10 years behind everyone else. It’s a tough thing to do, for sure.

Carlos:             When you become the go-to person, it’s very easy to feel like your role in the world, it is a bit inflated. Because yes, when you’re on the island and you’re the best warrior, that’s great, but obviously listeners of this podcast know, my compañeros, they’re trying to expose themselves to different things. Not saying that you have to be the best whatever, but at least knowing what it is and being exposed to it, being able to speak to it, I think, at least is a huge step in the right direction to help you get off the island when the time eventually will come that you have to do that.

Will:                Absolutely, and I think that the fact that you’re listening to this podcast is a great example that you’re looking to expand your knowledge, so hopefully this isn’t too tough of a sell to the listeners right now, to go out and find the information about what else is going on. Hopefully this should be a great audience for that message.

Carlos:             Yeah, that’s right. Then I think you mentioned that evolution, obviously Wonder Woman goes on to save them and you mentioned, “hey, after that first Wonder Woman movie, you’d think, do I have improved weaponry, or am I getting better?” Here, you actually reference a behind-the-scenes shot. They’re making the final Avengers movie, where everybody comes together and there’s a shot there of the Amazonians. It looks like they’re pretty much in the same garb as they were in Wonder Woman.

Will:                Exactly, and this is this idea that “well, if you’re the director, you can’t put the Amazons in guns or whatever.” But I have this great screen shot and I put this together, this was for the Justice League movie, where we get all of our DC heroes together and it hadn’t been released when I was putting this together, but I found this behind-the-scenes clip. I’m sure there’s a screen shot now, but it’s such a great screen shot because you’ve got them with shields and spears and there’s even someone with a trident in there and I just love that as the peak of technology that they’ve gotten to is a trident. That’s not very far from a spear. They haven’t made any progress, really.

Carlos:             We’re testing my superhero knowledge. I called Wonder Woman, I put her in the Avengers movie. Oh yikes, and then I referenced the Batman movie, which I haven’t seen yet. So, man.

Will:                You might have some angry Marvel fans writing you up about that one.

Carlos:             Yes, I’m sorry compañeros, it was an honest mistake, I promise. In the heat of recording, I made a mistake there.

Will:                Yeah, it’s all good.

Carlos:             This leads into an interesting idea or conversation about prioritization, because there are only so many hours in the day. We are human. Where to go, not only with our teams, but individually, professionally, how do we make good choices there? You mentioned this idea that I thought was interesting. You called it The Fool’s Choice. Talk to us about this. What’s The Fool’s Choice?

Will:                The Fool’s Choice. It’s from the book called Crucial Conversations. The idea of the book is talking about what they label Crucial Conversations, which is any kind of conversation where there’s high stakes, it’s a difficult conversation that you have to have with someone. I think it’s a great book. I really recommend it. It’s a great book to work on soft skills and communication skills. I really enjoyed it and I’ve taken to it. They talk about The Fool’s Choice, which is this idea in a crucial conversation that you only have one of two choices. You can either tell an uncomfortable truth that you need to tell to move the conversation forward, or you can stay silent and keep the peace. The example that I like to use with this is a boss who comes to you and says, “we need to figure out a new money-saving initiative. Brain-storm some ideas and come back to me with some ideas on how we can save some money. Maybe we can print on both sides of the paper, going forward, or maybe we don’t get the trash taken out, only three days a week instead of every day of the week. But let me know what you guys come up with.” And after this conversation with the boss, the boss goes away and the team comes together and says, “hey, didn’t that boss just spend a ton of money getting a new corner office with all these nice new furnishings?” So, the team isn’t bought into this idea whatsoever, and they kind of do a half-hearted effort. The boss comes back and asks for the ideas and there’s a bunch of half-hearted responses and the boss says, “what’s going on? You guys usually come up with such great ideas. What’s going on?” This is kind of a perfect example of a Fool’s Choice, where there’s missing information from the conversation. The boss doesn’t realize that the team is kind of doing a half-hearted job because they don’t believe the boss is fully invested in this cost-saving initiative and “why should we have to suffer and save all these pennies after you just spent all this money redesigning your new corner office?”

Carlos:             “You’re asking us to be penny-wise when you’ve been pound-foolish.”

Will:                Exactly. This is The Fool’s Choice and this is something that I run into all the time, where you can either try to tell that uncomfortable truth, but there’s always that risk that how are they going to react? Are they going to react poorly? Maybe I should just stay silent instead and not say anything. That’s The Fool’s Choice, and what the book talks about and what we’d like to think about is, how can we break away from that Fool’s Choice? How can we tell the uncomfortable truth that gets that important information out there but also still maintain a good relationship with that person going forward? It’s not an easy thing to do, and it’s so hard that someone wrote a whole book about it. A lot of great tactics in there, but the idea of a Fool’s Choice in a more generic sense is that maybe you’re tunnel-visioned in and you’re thinking that you’ve only got one of two choices. Maybe there’s a third choice where you can get both of the things that you want. That’s what I recommend people to think about is take a step back and say, “is there a way we can figure out how to not have to make this difficult decision and actually get both things we want?”

Carlos:             We’re going to use a superhero example here and we’re going to use Drax. You gave two interesting examples with Drax. This is from Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume Two where Drax is talking to Star Lord. They show this in the trailer and he says, “you need a woman who is pathetic, like you.”

Will:                Exactly, in my mind this is a perfect example of a Fool’s Choice. He thinks that Peter needs to hear this information that he needs to maybe lower his standards and find a different woman, but he is a little brash about it.

Carlos:             I think this resonates because a lot of technologists tend to go the brash way. People, they try to do something and you’ve had all this experience with computers, they do something that’s incorrect, and it’s, “you need to get away from the computer because you are an idiot.” Well, okay, that’s one option.

Will:                Exactly. It’s figuring out that way, can you get that important information of getting access to the computer without damaging that relationship with that person, as well, and it’s a tricky thing to do.

Carlos:             I think that then gets to the point of it doesn’t have to be either/or. You can say something, but it doesn’t have to be blunt force trauma to the head, either.

Will:                Yep, exactly. I think that leads perfectly into the example I followed up with, which is it comes later in the second Guardians of the Galaxy where Drax is talking to Mantis and explaining how she’s very ugly as a pet of, it’s Peter’s dad in the movie. She’s his pet and what he’s trying to get across is that “it’s good that you’re ugly because people want cute pets, so if they love you when you’re ugly, that means they actually love you for who you are.” It’s actually a very sweet message that he gets across and she ends the conversation saying, “oh, well I’m certainly glad to be ugly, then.” It’s a funny scene, but I think it’s a good example of where he finally, after two full movies, overcomes this Fool’s Choice at least a little bit. Maybe telling someone they’re ugly isn’t the best example of that, but I smiled when I saw that part, because I was like, “well, he kind of overcame it. He got that information out there and she was happy by the end of the conversation.”

Carlos:             Right, and if you’re known for being that very direct kind of person, any time you can then tie that in and at least helping the person understand where you’re coming from, and having them appreciate it, you’re headed in the right direction.

Will:                Absolutely, so there’s a lot of different techniques you can use to overcome this Fool’s Choice. I encourage listeners to check out the Crucial Conversations book if this is interesting to you. They go into much greater depth about what these techniques are, but some of them in the Drax example here, is kind of explaining the purpose and taking a step back and saying, “hey, I’m not here to attack you. I’m not saying you’re ugly just to hurt your feelings. Why I’m telling you that you’re ugly is because I’m trying to convey this information that it means that you’re actually loved for who you are.” Just being able to step out of the conversation and explain why, make sure that you’re explaining your purpose for giving it and making sure, “hey, I’m not attacking you. This is why we’re here,” is a literal textbook example out of the book of how you can avoid that Fool’s Choice. There’s several other techniques as well, but I thought that was a great example of one that came right from the movie.

Carlos:             I think that this is something that for most of us we’ll have to practice. We’ll have to try to get better with. It doesn’t take long, as humans we’re a social bunch, and you can see in certain areas where they’ve pretty much abandoned this And Thinking. I think, to get political for a second, most of what we see in political commentary now is definitely an Or. You’re either for me or you’re against me.

Will:                Yeah, so that’s a great point there. I talked about in the talk as well is this idea of And Thinking versus Or Thinking. Where with The Fool’s Choice, you’re really thinking in terms of Or Thinking. I can either have one or the other. I can either tell the uncomfortable truth Or keep the peace. What I want to encourage people to think about is looking for those opportunities to think in terms of And. “Can I get the two things that I want? Can I tell the uncomfortable truth And still maintain that relationship?”

Carlos:             Right. Tell my boss, “well, I’m not sure I can meet that deadline,” but then give him something so that he doesn’t go through the roof, or she.

Will:                Exactly and there’s nuance there because sometimes And Thinking is the wrong thing, it’s give me everything I want and we’re not making a priority choice. So, there’s the subtle nuance there that when we talk about And Thinking we’re not just talking about doing everything. That’s kind of the opposite of a lot of what I talked about, which is how to make good priority choices. But it’s finding is there a third option? Is there a different way we can approach this problem that gives us everything that we want without forcing us to do a bunch of work, to fall into that superhero syndrome that we talked about earlier, to get everything that we want? Is there a clever way that we can approach this problem?

Carlos:             That’s right. Awesome. Will, great information and I thought it was very interesting the way that you put that together, and of course, used the references there. We’re glad to have you on the program today. Shall we go ahead and do SQL Family? How did you first get started in technology?

Will:                It’s been an interesting career path. I guess I’ve always been interested in technology and using technology. I ended up getting an engineering degree because I was good at math and fairly tech-savvy. Got a systems engineering degree and then started working for my current company, CapTech Consulting, which does IT consulting. I kind of meandered through more technical roles and less technical roles and landed in my current role, which is very non-technical, working with Agile teams as an Agile coach to help them with their team dynamics. So, it’s been an interesting journey of coming from a somewhat technical background and then winding up in this role that is almost non-technical, entirely.

Carlos:             In that winding around, what’s the best piece of career advice that you’ve received.

Will:                I think that I talked with my mentor one time and she works really well with teams and has had really awesome success at getting teams to come together and collaborate. I asked her, “what’s your secret? How are you so successful with this?” What she told me is “you just have to actually care about them.” She didn’t phrase it exactly like that. I think she used a word that’s probably not allowed on this podcast, that you have to give a blank about your teams. But I think that that piece of advice has taken me so far, is that if you really care about something, really actually care about the teams and care about what you’re doing and have that passion, that that will take you really far. I found that to really be helpful, is just really having that passion for what you’re doing and really putting in that time.

Carlos:             Our last question for you today, which is ironic, seeing as normally our only superhero talk is at the end. Our last question for you today, if you could have one superhero power, what would it be and why do you want it?

Will:                I’ve had this asked a few times and it’s tough. Superman by himself is so strong, so powerful, I think that there’s something to be said for that in the sense that he’s virtually indestructible, so that’s kind of my cheap answer. But I think time travel would be pretty interesting. There’s a lot of interesting things you could do if you could go back in time. We could certainly help our editors today not to have to go back, if we had that.

Carlos:             Awesome. Will, thanks so much for being on the program today. I do appreciate it.

Will:                Absolutely, thanks for having me.

Carlos: So, this is interesting, and again we shared some ideas, the whole idea of learning and evolving, this idea of the Fool’s Choice. We didn’t have enough time to dig into it as much as I wanted to, but this idea that you have two options. Tell the truth or to stay silent and keep the peace. Suffer in misery. This idea in this book, I haven’t gotten through the book, but in looking at the feedback and the other comments about the book, one of the things that they do put it out is that you then have to have a framework. One of the things that they talk about is the ability for you to express your voice in a safe place. I’m not sure that enough of us do a great job of making our work a safe place. I think a lot of times as technologists, we tend to pound our chests a bit. We know more than others and if they differ from us, then they’re incorrect. Obviously, you’re welcome to that opinion, but I think if we’re going to have these conversations, and even though you may know quite a bit, you are going to have a crucial conversation at some point with someone. Whether you’re the nervous one or they’re the nervous one. Creating that environment where everyone can share that opinion, you don’t have to agree with it. In fact, I’m thinking about a social media post that Jimmy May posted recently, going back in the day and talking about how they were able to, in their SQL Server training, get into politics a bit and share different ideas without it boiling over into contentious nuclear waste site. If you’re interested in that, be sure to go and take a peek at the book. Again, that book is called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Some interesting thoughts that were shared there. Our music for SQL Server in the News is by Mansardian, used under Creative Commons. Of course, compañeros, we’re always interested in hearing from you, what you have to say. If you think there’s topics that we should be talking about, please let us know. You can reach out to me on social media. On LinkedIn, I am @carloslchacon and we’ll see you on the SQL Trail.

1 Comment
  • Dew Drop – April 20, 2018 (#2708) – Morning Dew April 20, 2018 at 6:37 am

    […] SQL Data Partners Podcast Episode 132: What can technologists learn from superheroes (Carlos L. Chacon) […]

Leave a Reply

Back to top