Everything I Needed to Know About IT I Learned From The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Part Two)

(This piece was co-authored by Alex Taylor and Leon Adato)

As we did in our first installment, we want to provide fair warning: spoilers lie ahead. If, even after all this time, you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what happens yet, you can bookmark this article and come back to it later.

In our previous post, we started to look at the way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explored topics relevant to both comic book protagonists and real-world IT analogs—topics like imposter syndrome and the value of recognizing previously unsung heroes. But the series was notable (and enjoyable) for its fearless exploration of sticky issues, including some topics many might find downright uncomfortable to confront.

With this said, let’s see what other lessons The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to teach us about life and IT.

Don’t Let Problems Get in Your Head

Near the start of the movie, Bucky comes back into contact with Baron Helmut Zemo, the mastermind who set in motion the events leading to the break-up of the Avengers. In the past, Zemo also had keywords he used to control Bucky in his incarnation as the Winter Soldier. In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, the trigger words don’t work. This is largely due to the therapy and healing Bucky received from Black Panther’s sister, Shuri, in Wakanda.

The lesson I’m pulling from this is about how certain problems can cause us to have unwanted (and undesirable) reactions. It might be a type of problem (syntax errors in our code), the time of day when certain situations occur (after hours), or issues from a specific vector (people walking up and asking an innocent question). Regardless, the problem is when our response is completely out of proportion to the issue itself. After one such incident, we may even ask ourselves, “Why do I let it get to me like that?”

Like Bucky in Wakanda, the path to resisting these triggers may be a long one, but it always starts with the important first step of recognition. From there, we must do the hard internal work to learn, grow, and improve.

Because allowing a problem to control us is never good.

Faking It Without a Plan to Make It Isn’t a Great Strategy

From the moment he’s introduced, John Walker (the “new” Captain America) is clearly a man struggling with imposter syndrome. This isn’t far from the emotional state we find Sam Wilson in at the start of the series, struggling with how he could possibly fill the shoes of a “living legend.”

To be sure, both have experience and achievements to recommend them for the job. But whereas Sam chooses to sidestep the promotion, John (with the encouragement of his friend and his wife) tries to mask the doubt and push forward.

In and of itself, Walker’s choice isn’t a bad one. The flaw—and it’s an expression of his underlying character—is how he has no visible plan to overcome his doubts. In the end, it becomes his undoing.

The IT analog relates to situations where we feel out of our depth, unequal to the task, or simply unprepared. In these moments, imposter syndrome can hit hard. Faced with crushing self-doubt, “just push through it” may be the only option available to us, and that’s OK. What’s NOT OK is to stop there.

If our doubts are anything more than momentary, if we know they’ll haunt us and affect our work and personal lives, we need to formulate a plan. We need to plan a path forward, one where we can gain the skills, experiences, or insights to put those fears to rest (or at least quiet them down a decibel or ten).

Within the context of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, this was the meaning behind Sam’s training montage in the later episodes. The answer—or at least Sam’s answer—to “how can I fill Steve Roger’s shoes?” was to learn how to master the shield, to hone his body, and to combine his skills as the Falcon with a new Captain America persona—one that’s authentically Sam Wilson’s take on the role.

Strength and Power Come in Many Forms

There are many kinds of strength and power, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed us several of them.

  • Karli and the FlagSmashers (and later John Walker) had the raw strength of the super soldier serum
  • Helmut Zemo had a sharp intellect, not to mention the privilege and resources associated with wealth
  • The Dora Milaje had technological advancements, superior combat training, the insight derived from a complex web of information systems, and the teamwork to fight seamlessly as a single entity
  • Sharon Carter/the Power Broker had the power of knowledge about her adversaries

Despite all these strengths, each of them ultimately failed to achieve what Sam and Bucky could. Why?

Throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a subtle lesson is how strength of character is the missing piece allowing us to leverage our other strengths to achieve goals. Yes, it’s trite. It’s cliché. It’s embarrassingly Pollyanna. Yes, it’s not always like this in real life.

But part of the job of comics is to hold up a mirror to ourselves and let us decide what and who we want to see reflected. There are worse ways to go.

In our tech careers, there are different kinds of strength as well—everything from wide-ranging experience to in-depth knowledge of command sets, the ability to inspire others to achieve a goal,  and intuitive understanding of an architecture or technology. But like the heroes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, what sets us apart and allows us to achieve great things is not so much our raw strength as it is our character and willingness to hold to our moral compass in the face of adversity.

Working With Someone Doesn’t Mean Liking Them

Moving past the buddy cop cliché hyped by the trailers and an even cursory review of the series, it becomes clear at the outset our two main protagonists, Sam and Bucky, don’t hate each other. But they also wouldn’t seek each other out—they make each other uncomfortable, both because of their personalities and because of their complex relationships with special abilities, super-heroism in general, and—most importantly—with Steve Rogers.

With all this said (and comedic bickering aside), they quickly fall into a relationship where they freely challenge each other’s excuses and force each other to justify or reconsider their motivations. They also have a shared sense of commitment to whatever goal is in front of them and have specific requirements for how the goal is achieved and which outcomes they will (and won’t) tolerate.

Finally, because both Sam and Bucky have their own baggage, they develop a relationship where they won’t allow each other to shirk their responsibilities—to the mission, to others they respect, and to themselves.

Pair programming, agile development, and scrums are just the latest in a long line of team-based structures IT has embraced. The stereotype of the lone IT person working in a dingy, windowless space lit only by the flicker of fluorescent bulbs is as incorrect as it is persistent. More often, we’re working in highly fluid pairs and teams whose composition shift and change depending on the day and issue at hand.

There’s every chance the folks you work with in these situations are easygoing, delightful, and mesh well with your work style. There’s an equal (if not greater) chance this isn’t the case. So how do you deal with a team member who’s effective (if not skilled) but who you find hard to stomach?

I want to clarify—I’m not talking about abusive coworkers. While the so-called “genius ***” is certainly a real thing (both in comics and in real life), I won’t for a moment suggest they should be tolerated, let alone encouraged. Technical acumen can be taught and nurtured. Someone who refuses all offers of counsel to change their behavior, however, should be shown the door.

Disclaimers aside, I think The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has a lot to teach about respectful disagreement, about the difference between arguing about a goal and arguing about the plan to achieve the goal, and about ways we can work with someone we may not particularly like.

It’s a lesson I feel is urgently needed in these days of widespread contention, opinions presented as absolutes, all-or-nothing ultimatums, and my-way-or-the-highway leadership.

The Comic Book Story Gets Real

I’ve done a bunch of these, and most of the lessons are true but also “light”—which is fine because it matches the tone of the comics themselves. But in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the writers allowed some of the “real world” to shine through. It would be a disservice to their work, and the overall story, to leave those aspects of the series unmentioned.

To be clear, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t super dark and morally twisted like The Boys. Nor is it cynically world-weary like The Watchmen. Neither is it unnecessarily “dark and gritty” simply for the sake of attempting to shed its super-colorful spandex-clad origins like Batman v Superman.

In actuality, this is Marvel being true to the same sensibility as the comic books themselves. Early on, DC chose to place characters and events in fictional (albeit analogous) locations. This helped them avoid having questions like “Where was the REAL mayor when SuperBaddy was holding everyone hostage?” or “Why didn’t you have an issue about the hurricane in Florida last month?” Marvel, on the other hand, has always tried to integrate the “real world” into its stories as much as it was both feasible and logical. Marvel heroes live across the globe in real cities like New York, Beijing, Sedona, Calcutta, and Los Angeles. They’ve gotten involved in (or explained their conspicuous absence from) world events—everything from World War II and 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina.

Therefore, it’s both natural and welcome in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to see characters acknowledge, wrestle with, and attempt to address the history of harm and consequences of poor choices, which is very much a reality of the non-comic book world in which we live.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to imagine a few comic book TV episodes can even begin to heal the iniquity persisting across our country. The best it can do is, once again, hold a mirror up to it and allow us to come to our own conclusions about whether we like what we see reflected back and what we can do to change it.

In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, we’re brought face to face with the realities of systemic racism in America and the ways systemic injustice expresses itself for folks who are otherwise just trying to get by. We see the adaptive support systems communities of color have had to build despite a general lack resources.

In perhaps the most explicit example of this, we see how Sam’s membership in the Avengers—who brought half the universe back from non-existence—still doesn’t confer enough “credit” for him to help secure a loan at a local bank. It’s the ultimate expression of the truth for BIPOC folks—no amount of success will ever be enough to give them a “pass.”

Much has been made of the fact it’s difficult (if not impossible) for children in underrepresented populations to dream of pursuing a role or career if they never see anyone doing it who looks like them.

Less often mentioned (but perhaps equally important), is the impact on children in overrepresented populations. Seeing people who don’t look like them in certain roles—and understanding those folks can be those things, too—is essential. It creates the knowledge and instills the expectation for those who see their faces everywhere to make room, be gracious, and share the space.

Finally, Bucky’s past incarnation as the Winter Soldier—an assassin without conscience who killed without regret—isn’t terribly far from some of the military operations our country has been involved in. Like Bucky, our attempts to simply forget past actions have led to nightmares that won’t let us go. We need to find a way to accept (as Bucky does at the end of the series) the hard truth: nothing will ever erase the harm we’ve done in the past. But the only way we can regain a measure of self-respect is to own our actions, admit this recognition to the people we’ve harmed, and be present as they work through their own grief and anger.

From our seat in our respective living rooms, these are the insights and lessons we were able to glean. What thoughts did you have while watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Did we miss anything in our analysis? Let us know in the comments.

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