Theodore Wilson: Thinking Like a Turtle

Cameron Boozarjomehri (Left) Theodore “Turtle” Wilson (Right). Photo: Mary Clark

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. In this series, Software Systems Engineer Cameron Boozarjomehri interviews technical leaders at MITRE who have made knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Theodore “Turtle” Wilson has made a name for himself inspiring change. MITRE has never been short on good ideas, but getting others to embrace those ideas is always a challenge. That’s when you need to call in someone who can empathize with the folks you want to help, while seeing the big picture—someone like Turtle. Listen in as he shares his secrets to starting meaningful dialogues and getting even the most closed-off folks excited about a smarter way of working.

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:15 Hello everyone, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast, a show where I, your host Cameron Boozarjomehri, have the great fortune of interviewing brilliant minds across MITRE. Today we are joined by the elegant, the simple, the energetic, but always on topic, Turtle. And Turtle, as you specifically told me, you wanted to be introduced as Turtle.
Turtle: 00:37 Yes.
Cameron: 00:37 That is the energy you bring. I love how it perfectly sets the person you are, the exact kind of energy and charisma and excitement. But all these elements I’m describing right now, please give us your take. How do you introduce yourself when you say, “Hi, I’m Turtle.”
Turtle: 00:54 Hi. I introduce myself as Turtle and I usually say that just because I’m slow and lethargic and that creates a laugh out of most folks as I run into the room with my hair on fire. But it’s a good icebreaker, right? It kind of takes everyone out of their kung fu stance and allows you to lighten an atmosphere and try to focus on the things that I like focusing on, which is bringing some optimism and positivity to the room.
Cameron: 01:18 And the reason we wanted to have you in this room is because of exactly the work you do. You do many things at MITRE, but I think the best descriptor of what you do and the way that I have been informed to a first topic is you are a mind changer, the unapologetic role of helping people take ideas that they probably would not want to approach or not want to change their way of thinking and help them see a better way.
Turtle: 01:45 Well, thank you. That’s a heavy load there because I see myself as trying to inform change through bringing a positive attitude, a positive approach to it. I try to eliminate as much negativity as I can from almost anything and everything and provide new ways to tackle problems, because that’s fun. That’s getting outside your comfort zone into that magic area.
Cameron: 02:09 And so, today on this episode of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast I wanted to explore what your journey was like starting at MITRE and becoming someone who fills this role and how you typically help our sponsors or anyone you engage with see a better way.
Turtle: 02:23 Wow, that’s interesting because I would say my journey didn’t start out this way, that’s for sure. I retired off active duty after 24 years in uniform and I joined MITRE. And those first few months, it was interesting because I was trying to really understand what MITRE was about. Right? And although I had worked with MITRE throughout my military career, being in the inside of it was a little different. And I felt a lot of intimidation, because MITRE has a lot of rock stars, a lot of guys that swing for the fence their first time up to bat and I was intimidated by their knowledge and depth. I was just a knuckle-dragging C-130 ops intel guy coming into this world of system engineering.
Turtle: 03:09 But in that, I was very fortunate to be surrounded by great mentors, some guys and gals who have left MITRE, like Drew Miller, who recently left MITRE, or guys like Patrice Isbell who also left MITRE to do other things. But they kind of helped me understand the value MITRE brings to bear and almost like I wanted to go tattoo an M on my chest, right? And I says, “Okay, I can do this.” And I love the ability of MITRE to be kind of that honest broker and then I took that all in, I drunk all that Koolaid. Right? It’s like, “Wow, I can be honest. I can be truthful?” You know? Well, everyone should be truthful of course. But that ability to be honest and not be driven by profit just inspired me, right? To turn over rocks and look for ideas and concepts and start building that tool bag. I had some decent tools from my time in uniform, but through MITRE, through just the MITRE Institute pursuing a second master’s degree in system engineering, I started upgrading those tools.
Cameron: 04:20 You just touched on a whole swath of things I imagine come together to make how you approach your work because, yes, MITRE is a not-for-profit so we don’t always have that commercial interest driving us. And then also you pointed out you have an extensive background in education and also a lot of experience coming from your active duty role. So I see a lot of these things coming together. So maybe at this point it’s worth asking, when Turtle wants to go change minds, who are the minds you’re trying to change and what is your goal? What is the desired outcome?
Turtle: 04:52 Very interesting question. Actually, I went through, while I was supporting AFRICOM, one of the tech centers came in and the organizational change management guys came in, and we had the whole department come together. It was fantastic. I loved when we did full-department training, because you got to share all your insights with the guys and gals you work with, right? And it was like you’re all together. It becomes a force multiplier when you’re all taking training together.
Cameron: 05:20 And just to be clear, this is at MITRE or was this before you joined?
Turtle: 05:23 This was at MITRE. This is at MITRE. And that started to spark some interest in me of like, okay, how do you actually do change. Right? And it’s a lot of different things. In the military it was usually, “Because the commander said so,” and we would just wait for that commander to leave. No, I’m just kidding.
Turtle: 5:45 So that kind of started the wheels turning. And what I learned from there is kind of building that coalition is just not leadership, it’s also that organization, it’s those pieces where you got to get in the trenches because those are the guys that need to adopt it. So my approach is really sitting down with leaders trying to shape where they want to go, but really sitting down with the guys and gals that have to act it out, because that’s where the rubber hits the road. And I feel you have to build this environment where they’re not afraid of the change, right? And they’re willing to champion it and they go from naysayers to the zealots.
Cameron: 06:30 And I feel like this is a good point to step back and just unpack everything you’re saying because you’re talking about business process innovation, which is like that loaded corporate term we always like to throw around. But really what you’re saying is you’re trying to inspire change and what you’re pointing out is a lot of the times it’s managers saying, “This new thing is cool or good or whatever and it will help us and we should do it.” But your entire philosophy is, “We can’t just have managers telling people to do that.”
Turtle: 06:55 Exactly.
Cameron: 06:56 The people who have to do it are the people who should understand why this is the good thing.
Turtle: 07:00 Exactly. But so you run the wishbone offense at the Air Force Academy, right? And you’re running down the field and you throw that ball back, you want them to take it and keep running, right? So you’ve got to work on that backfield. You got to work on those that are below the management level, that are the doers of the work. And I’ve been very fortunate throughout my military career I had some leaders that were very inspiring and not only were they inspiring to setting vision, they also had some of their staff that can implement that vision. And that’s why I see my niche is trying to be that optimist who tells him like, “Hey yeah, I know the manager said this. I think this is what he means. And, really, I think we can get there together,” and make it kind of a team sport.
Cameron: 07:43 And when you’re starting those conversations, do you have to do any footwork ahead of time to figure out–
Turtle: 07:47 Oh my God.
Cameron: 07:47 I know it’s one thing to say, “We’re going to figure out what this company needs to change,” but do you do the footwork to figure out who we need to change? Are you doing the work to figure out, “Who are the people on the ground? Who are the actual names on this actual list I have to go talk to in person to convince them that this is something that is worth trying?”
Turtle: 08:06 Yes. So I think a lot of that is, I do a lot of research and this is where I continue to kind of struggle because I don’t want to have analysis by paralysis or whatever that that term goes, because I mess it up all the time. I’m scatterbrained. But I usually deep-dive an organization. I get into, “Okay, who are the players in the organization?”
Turtle: 08:26 And this is something I learned in my time in the Pentagon. There are A players, there are B players and there are some minor league C players, right? So I look for those guys who have ideas and then maybe just are unable to express them, because those become your internal change agents. So I kind of do a study of the organization, understand what the organization is about and that kind of helps engagement with the manager, but it also really helps at the lower levels because you see the guys that are actually trying to do good things and I think almost everyone is always trying to do something right. Right? I give them the benefit of the doubt.
Cameron: 09:01 And once you find these people, how do you go about the next step of approaching them or getting in touch with … Do you go directly to them or do you prefer to have them come to you? Or what’s–
Turtle: 09:10 I cold-call them.
Cameron: 09:11 Cold-call?
Turtle: 09:11 I cold-call them. I go by their desk. I introduce myself and as we started this conversation, “Hey I’m Turtle. I’m slow and lethargic.” And they go, “Ah,” and that usually breaks down the ice. Right? And then I look for opportunities. A great example, we ran a use case workshop with the sponsors. We used some techniques from the Value Proposition Canvas. And we had this one sponsor the first day of the workshop, it was a three day workshop, he just sat with his arms crossed and had that physical look like, “I don’t want to be here.”
Cameron: 09:45 “I’m here but I’m not here.”
Turtle: 09:46 “I’m not here.” Yes, exactly. Well, we got into this Value Proposition Canvas where you get to talk about your pain and he opened up. And then I saw that as an opportunity, right, because he was passionate about something and he just needed to get his ideas out. And that was the hook for me because then I’ve had three or four followup conversations with that same individual, further developing those pains and okay, like “What’s the root cause of that? Okay, how can we address that? Well, tell me a little bit more about that?” And then allowing that individual to talk, it just took down those barriers.
Cameron: 10:24 I appreciate the genuine interest in going out of your way. It’s another thing where a lot of the times it is an expectation of, “We’re going to inspire change by just saying we’re going to do it.” But you’re saying that the moment you decide that your organization wants to take on some sort of change, you need to go into the trenches. As I mentioned before, you want to be talking to them. But I admire that the attention on the individual level, knowing these people are open to doing the right thing and are open to this new idea and this person who wants to do the right thing, but they don’t agree that what you’re trying to do is necessarily that way and you try to help bring them around. So again, what is that conversation like when someone walks in? And fortunately here we have an excellent example, you got them to open up. Are you usually that successful?
Turtle: 11:12 I don’t bat a hundred that’s for sure. So sometimes it takes a lot of work and sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to get them to open up. And this is where I really rely on the MITRE tech centers and I’ll go to the organizational change management folks and go like, “All right guys, this is what I’m dealing with.” We talked about earlier about doing some of that early leg work. Before I call those guys in, I kind of test the waters and then present to them, “Hey, this is what I’m working with. This is kind of where the sponsor is. This is my assessment of where the people are. What do you guys see as some of the best avenues of approach?”
Turtle: 11:52 And usually I bring in the pros from Dover to go after the senior guys because I’m a trench guy. As we said earlier, I go down in the trenches and understand their environment. And then I’m kind of spoiled. I’m spoiled in the fact that throughout my military career, at least with this sponsor, I’ve been on every level, right? So I’ve done almost every job and at some point or another, probably not very well or I’d still be in, but I’ve done almost every job. So I have a little bits and pieces and I can relate to them. That’s been the way that I open that door. Did I answer your question?
Cameron: 12:29 No, that was a great way of saying you have context. It’s always important to do your homework and research, but when you have lived it firsthand and you have the context and this person’s coming to you, and it’s not just that you know that they’re not opening up to you because they disagree. You know that they’re not opening up because you have the context of knowing, “When I was in this position, this is what it was like.”
Turtle: 12:48 Yeah. And then for those ones that I don’t have the context, I reach into my Rolodex of Turtle and I call in my friends. I am very quick to call in the calvary when I’m over my head, which is most of the time because I kind of stretch myself. But I always, in MITRE or outside of MITRE, I rely on a network of people to help bring things forward.
Cameron: 13:12 And so from that first moment of contact where you’re like, “I’m here to help you engage in change,” to when you feel like your work is done, if you ever feel like your work is done, what are the steps along that road?
Turtle: 13:25 Well, man, should I admit that I don’t think I’ve ever finished it?
Cameron: 13:31 I mean, that’s a fair-
Turtle: 13:31 No, it’s always still a work in progress. How would I say that? How would I admit that I’ve [inaudible 00:13:38] done those steps in the process? So I kind of start with those engagements and then I try to tell the story, right? And this is something I’ve learned recently from other members of the MITRE team of being able to tell a story and then from some of my closest coworkers now, trying to tell a story in simple graphics. And I build little story maps. I hate PowerPoint by the way. Hate it. I like hand drawing stuff and going back to the sponsor to have that discussion.
Turtle: 14:13 So you kind of put a placemat down in front of him that says, “Hey, this is kind of what I captured of your story. What parts am I missing? Because I think it’s important that I understand your story and I think it’s important that I should be able to tell your story to someone else.” You know? Because now I’m building that coalition and that really draws them in like, “Those are my words. Those are my thoughts. Wait, I didn’t … yeah, that’s how I said it. Well, maybe I meant it this way. Can you–” I was like, “Yeah, it’s written in pencil. Let’s arrange that story,” because I think it’s important to tell that story and let it live.
Cameron: 14:46 It’s not just change, it’s compromise. You’re saying you come in with a picture of how you understand what the specific change is to be and you want to work with them to make sure that they know that A, you guys are on the same page.
Turtle: 14:59 Yes.
Cameron: 14:59 You want to make sure that you have their best interest in mind and B, maybe you didn’t get it all right. You did your homework as best as you could, but we all mess up. Or even when we get all the facts that we know that’s not all the facts.
Turtle: 15:11 Yes. And they could change. The whole concept behind waterfall engineering where you knew all your requirements going in and you built to these specifications, that hasn’t proved to be very good for some things. And that’s another way I approach a sponsor with, “Hey this is a snapshot in time.” As one of my portfolio leads have said, “Truth has a daytime group.” So this is a snapshot in time and I let them know things can change because their priorities change, right? And I try to get a consistent battle rhythm, especially when I’m working on a task with someone. And that’s really, really challenging sometimes with some of our sponsors to get that battle rhythm with them and being able to adjust because their superiors may send them high right and if we want to be value added to them, then we need to respond to that and go high right with them.
Cameron: 16:06 How do you usually find the things you’re going to help people change with?
Turtle: 16:09 Usually I’m brought in to support another team. A few occasions I’ve kind of led some efforts with certain sponsors. In those instances where I’m leading efforts, I have a Rolodex of great people. Build a good bench. Because the rock stars are always busy, always busy. So you build a good bench of people and you start that initial engagement, go find those folks to execute on them.
Cameron: 16:39 So I guess this all brings us full circle to, can you walk us through some of the examples of when you actually went in and there was someone who said, “All right, Turtle, you’re on deck. We need you to help us inspire change”? What was that like?
Turtle: 16:53 A good example or a bad example?
Cameron: 16:56 I’m just kidding.
Turtle: 16:57 Both would be great.
Cameron: 16:59 What was the one where you got it there, but this was the time where nothing was going right? Or even if you didn’t get it there.
Turtle: 17:08 Nothing was going right. I would say that would have to be probably when I first came into MITRE and a lot of that was I think my inexperience and not really having a true grasp of all my options. There was a time I actually deployed into a hustle area combat zone for MITRE. That was different for me because that was my first time deploying out of uniform. And so I’m kind of like, “Oh, there’s no weapon there. This is kind of scary.”
Turtle: 17:46 And we went in and with really good intentions and we attempted to do some things and I think we got caught in the middle of sponsors that were back here at CONUS and then the sponsors we were supporting directly forward. And there was a different understanding between those two. And then we were in the middle trying to serve both masters. Hindsight being 20/20, we should have known it wasn’t going to end well, at least the stuff that I personally was working on. So I left there and I felt things were just not done and then it kind of fell apart as personalities started to change.
Cameron: 18:28 And if you could have gone back and maybe talk to some version of your past self in this situation, do you think there’s advice or guidance that you would have given yourself that maybe it wouldn’t have solved the problem but at least help you have a better outcome?
Turtle: 18:40 Oh most certainly. Most certainly. And a lot of that deals with I think I would have approached it a little different. I think I would have done kind of what we talked about earlier, kind of walk the grounds and build that consensus up from the bottom and in those middle areas, because there were good intentions on both sides. There were good intentions. Everybody was trying to do the best work that they could do. But I think I would have spent more time trying to build that consensus so you could have that adoption of the policies and procedures that were coming down instead of them feeling like they were being a victim or being pushed things that they had to do, if that makes sense.
Cameron: 19:20 I think that makes a lot of sense. Just having those dialogues, having those open channels.
Turtle: 19:25 Yes.
Cameron: 19:25 It sounds like that’s a big theme in all your work.
Turtle: 19:28 Yes.
Cameron: 19:28 So for anyone who’s interested in learning more about systems engineering and the way you go about inspiring this kind of change, what kind of advice, what kind of resources might you send them to?
Turtle: 19:39 That’s a really good question. So I think, yeah, again Turtle’s been spoiled. I’m always surrounded by rock stars. The model- based system engineering path is just fantastic. I really enjoy my time with that. I enjoyed the organizational change management classes offered by the MITRE Institute and not just the learning I got from those classes, but through the MBSE learning path and the org– I got names and points of contact in those tech centers and they go on the Turtle Rolodex. And when they’re not available, they usually have a slew of other people. So, I think if I had to do over, I would have probably vested in trying to go to more classes here at MITRE, especially ones that you’re interested in. Like I’m interested in model-based systems engineering, so I was all in on that. If you’re interested in something else, maybe it’s Python or machine learning or AI or cyber go after those learning paths and sit in your front of the class, actively participate because you’re going to get out of that what you put into it.
Cameron: 20:52 And I feel like I should point out that MITRE Institute courses aren’t unique to MITRE employees. As I understand, we have lots of opportunities where outside sponsors or individuals can sign up for these classes and come take them either at MITRE or MITRE will go to their site and present them.
Turtle: 21:05 Yes. And I think that is one of the beauties the things that we offer. Especially if you’re, if you’re doing something for a sponsor, sometimes you have a situation where they may not have enough knowledge in it as well or they need an update. So bringing them in and attending a MITRE Institute class with them. And this is an old … back when I was on active duty, air combat command had this great program where they would bring in the squadron commanders and their chief of intel and basically had Intelligence 101 for their squadron commanders with their intel guy sitting next to them. This just raised the bar. So you get that same kind of effect here at MITRE if you’re doing a class on machine learning or artificial intelligence or cybersecurity and your sponsor, who’s also working in that space, you can sit there and you can create that same shared understanding. And now you’re laying the foundations to really, really impact change, right? Because everyone understands where they are, they understand their good, their bad, their ugly, and they’re able to move out from there.
Cameron: 22:08 I think that’s an excellent note to end on just because having that common language is always so hard to achieve, especially when you’re two separate organizations.
Turtle: 22:15 True.
Cameron: 22:15 Thank you to MITRE and the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise for helping make this show possible. I definitely don’t get to just do this for free. I’m definitely out here highly motivated to bring everyone these stories. And a huge thanks to you, Turtle, for taking time out of-
Turtle: 22:29 I appreciate it, my friend. This is fun.
Cameron: 22:30 Yeah. Thank you for taking time out of your incredibly, I know it’s a busy schedule, I tried to book you, to come and talk to us about this subject and thank you for helping make change something that people look forward to.
Turtle: 22:42 Thank you, my friend. Thank you.


Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2019 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 19-3627

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See also:

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Interview with Julie McEwen on why privacy is key

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Interview with Dan Ward, Debra Zides, and Lorna Tedder on streamlining acquisitions

Interview with Dr. Philip Barry on blending AI and education

Interview with Dan Ward, Rachel Gregorio, and Jessica Yu on MITRE’s Innovation Toolkit

Interview with Tammy Freeman on Redefining Innovation

Interview with Jesse Buonanno on Blockchain

Interview with Dr. Michael Balazs on Generation AI Nexus

Is This a Wolf? Understanding Bias in Machine Learning

A Spin Around the Blockchain—Exploring Future Government Applications


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