looking at the numbers my team (5414) had an amazing season, from chairman district champs to IR@H finalist, WFFA, and the designers award for the game design challenge. The entire team including myself is extremely happy with how our season went. This year has taught me so much and it wasn’t primarily because of our success. A large portion is what I learned was on the hidden failures that are unknown but to a few outside observers.
Fail Early and Fail Often
While we’ve never bagged a competition ready robot by the time we get to our first match we can at least drive, but this is the first year we have had a robot not finished enough to compete, and that is such incredibly scary for me to admit. Everyone talks about how we should fail early and fail often so we can learn quicker and while there is some merit to that I think there’s another reason that few people talk about.
Failure hurts, and nothing I do or say, nothing you do or say can change that, it’s simple human nature. Even now, weeks after the competition has ended, I can still feel the sting of this failure, and it is going to be something I have to co-exist with for the rest of my time on 5414.
Ed Catmull, who is the president of Pixar animations has this great example in his book creativity inc., when learning to ride a bike you should buy the bike that sits the lowest to the ground and wear a helmet and pads. Because when you fall off, and you will fall off it will hurt a lot less than if you were learning on one of those comically tall bikes without a helmet. The reason you should fail early is because you fall a lot shorter than if you design and manufacture a robot only for it to not work in the end.
The Meta is not Always Right.
In 2020 I didn’t pay any attention to chief Delphi or similar places where FRC students and mentors can gather and discuss design. Over the pandemic I have become increasingly dependent on these sources for my ideas and on kick off I made the mistake of having these sources open on my second monitor while I was setting goals with my team, and this led me to get sucked into the Meta.
I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we had followed the meta of a swerve mini bot with just an intake and no shooter we would not have done as well as we did. In our group we had the highest accuracy and power port scores which allowed us to make it to finalist and I believe no matter how much went right for us we would not have been able to beat team 359 who was the winner of our group if we followed the meta.
This has led me to realize that I cannot rely on other people for goals or robot ideas for my team because the meta might not be what is best for the team. This has led me to make a promise to myself and my team that the first 3 days after kicking off I won’t be on any FRC related forums.
Communication is Key.
After the season was over, we began an intense effort to overhaul or shop’s organization and infrastructure. As one of the leaders of this effort I reached out to some leadership members to see if they wanted to come in and organize their respective areas. When our safety captain came into organize our first aid supplies, he walked past the table where our 2021 bot’s parts where still strewn across the tabletop because I couldn’t and still can’t work up the courage to clean that table.
As it would turn out he had no idea we were building a robot, something I thought was obvious, we are a robotics team when everything is said and done. But of course, it was obvious to me that we would build a new robot, because I was there when we made the decision. Meanwhile the game design people or the people who were not at the kickoff meeting had no idea. This revelation led me to connect the dots on a few other reasons we failed that I will discuss in a later section.
Returning to Normality is Hard.
The last in person meeting as a team before the pandemic struck was our week two competition at Plano. We would continue to meet over zoom and talk over slack, but we saw a huge dip in engagement and attendance as many teams did, especially once we knew that 2021 was going to be “at home” challenges. Not only did we take on less rookies than we have been the last two years we also saw a sharp drop off of our veterans and even a lot of the team leadership became unengaged.
Looking back at it I must give massive credit to our lead mentor Andrew (who is the WFFA for FiT this year), this season has given me perspective on what a challenge it was for him to try move the team completely virtual.
When we were out lining how we wanted to approach the design of our 2021 robot the lack of engagement we had seen from the team played a factor in the discussions, but we had assumed (wrongly) that once we began meeting in person again all the people who had been radio silent would magically re-appear.
Looking back that was a bad expectation, this year was hard on myself and my fellow students and many were too bogged down to even think about the possibility of robotics.
Burn out, like failure, is a much-discussed subject in the FRC sphere. This year has given me the first taste of what burn out feels like. Nothing could have prepared me for it, most people talk about how to recognize the signs, having read those articles and sat thought those talks I thought I could prevent myself from burning out. I was wrong, by the time I realized what was happening it was already to late.
Most of the design was completed by me and one other person, with support from some others on minor things. As you can imagine that put a lot of stress on us and I would routinely find myself cadding 4 hours every day of the week, which is not an issue of itself. I regularly compete in cadathons in which you design an entire robot in just one week. But when this dragged on for 4 whole weeks it starts to wear you down, we wanted to have the cad done on the 30th in time for our first meeting but as that deadline approached found myself unknowingly making up excuses not to cad. Sometimes I would cad and just sit there staring at the main assembly for hours on end not doing anything without realizing it. Looking back at it that is textbook definition burn out. But at the time I didn’t know I was burned out, at the same time the other person working on the cad was unknowingly burned out as well and this brought the entire robot design to a virtual standstill. This made us miss the deadline by almost 2 weeks and we were rushing to try to keep up on our manufacturing pace so we could get this done on time. This Manufacturing problem was compounded by the fact that a lot of teammates either unable to come in, or similarly struggling to find the motivation, the manufacturing queue stacked up quickly.
Putting your Eggs in One Basket
From the offset of the season, we knew that maximizing our in-person time was of up most priority. We are lucky enough to have a CNC router and we wanted to maximize its usage for the fastest possible manufacturing. In plain terms we put all our eggs in one basket, and we ran into an endless number of problems when trying to CNC something. Part of this was caused by our lack of CNC experience and the fact that the people who did the CAM and ran the CNC where completely detached from the design team, which is something I hope to address in the offseason. It took us until we had two weeks’ worth of back log that using just the CNC was not going to work and so we began a frantic effort to get someone on the mill so they could manufacture many of the tubes we needed.
Reflection is important when you fail, lots of times we do it without realizing; and While a large majority of reflection is done in our heads. I’ve found that the power of writing it all down and writing this out like it’s for a stranger has helped my reflection on this season an order of magnitude more than if I had just kept it rattling up there in my brain. Reflection is something we all should take the time to do, and it’s not just something you need or should do alone. Many of these points I’ve gone over with the people who were directly involved in our robot this year to help my fellow teammates, because I know there just as sad and disappointed as I am this robot never got finished.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
After talking about failure, you have to discuss your success and while we had a lot of failure we had just as much success. Our 2021 robot was a swerve and while it’s not completed after the texas cup we’re going to get the base up and running so we can have a swerve test bed for the programmers to experiment with because the new control system makes swerve more viable than years before for our team. Additionally, it made us cut down and optimize what we spent our in-person time on while they were not all good there is a lot of practices, we adopted this year that we could carry on to the next years. 2021 also allowed us to explore the concept of using gas springs in place of pneumatic pistons for intake deploy which I think could be very valuable for future designs. We also learned how badly the disorganization of our storage could hurt us, looking back we were ordering stuff and waiting a week for it to ship, when we had it in the shop but couldn’t find it.
I’m approaching 2,000 words so I’m just going to re-state my points here. If there is one thing that I want people to take away from this is that failure hurts and trying to keep it from hurting is wasted effort. I’ve learned that while the views and ideas of other people outside of my team are important, I need to stop letting them dictate to me what I should do all the time. I learned on a team as large as 5414 not everyone is going to know what seems obvious to me or the people in my subsystem. I need to realize that returning to “normal” or whatever the world looks like post covid is going to take a lot of time and hard work and I shouldn’t expect my team mates to come back magically. After my encounter with burn out I think I’m more equipped to deal with it in future and help protect my teammates from it. I’ve learned that putting all your faith in one or two people or in one or two machines is going to drive those people and those tools break down much faster than they would otherwise and expanding the number of people and machines involved can vastly increase creativity and productivity. Most importantly (to me at least) is the new appreciation and importance I have on reflection, being able to looks back and see what went wrong, and while hindsight is defiantly not 20/20 it’s a lot better than being blind.
2021 was still a great year for pearadox despite what I said, and with the things myself and my teammates learned we’re ready to tackle whatever the 2022 season may have in store for us head on.