Mentors: What's something you wish you knew going in?

When you got into FIRST, whether by choice, or not, what are some of the things you wish you knew?

Last year was our rookie season. A succinct time line and overview of team and event registration, FIRST choice ordering, grant application time frame would have been nice. We did some scrambling…

How addicting it would be. I would probably still be married if I was better prepared for the amount of time I spent roboting.

I have to second that. FIRST should come with a warning label.

My senior design professor in college actually warned us about this. After putting in untold hours and effort into a major project, the elation at the first time it works is an indescribable feeling. It also seems to effect some people differently. For me, I want to jump back in do it again, but for some of our other mentors they are content with less time spent in the shop.

In that vein, it really is a matter of getting out of it what you put in. The more time we spend there, and the more investment we have in the team, the more rewarding it is.

Also, in contrast to the fun, there is a lot of behind the scenes stuff that mentors end up taking care of; the less glamorous side of engineering that mostly entails paperwork. Inventory, purchase orders, travel documents, transport rentals, insurance, team finances, logistics…it really adds up sometimes.

You’re here for them, not for you.

I was barely 17 years old when I started mentoring in college. I wasn’t an adult and it showed.

This doesn’t mean you can’t help out, have fun, draw stuff in CAD, make parts, or anything like that. But every decision you make should be in the students’ best interest, always.

How hard it is to convince others that it is amazing.
You can’t tell them, you can’t show them pictures, you can’t just show them videos either.
You need to have them AT the competition, and then the light goes off.

I started mentoring before I finished college in 1996.
I wish I had a chance to go back and chart a more clear path to the level of achievement I would like to make possible for my students.

As time and my leadership skills have improved I have found that sometimes you have to plan ahead even if it is unlikely you will be able to execute. This way if the unlikely happens you are immediately prepared.

I seriously couldn’t believe that 20+ years later we’d still be doing FIRST. I participated in 18 or more competitions in high school and they mostly didn’t last a year, let alone a decade. I should have realized and had more confidence that if you try hard enough, long enough, you’ll find success. Still there’s always more to do and there is always more risk and reward.

Be confident for them and build fast & simple bots.

That the best way to deal with the large number self absorbed jerks in this program is to ignore them.

I would second that notion. At competition I am the mentor nominally in charge of the pit crew. My duties consisted in wandering by once in a while and asking “Is the Robot ready?” As we had constructed a simplistic but functional tank the standard answer was always the same: “The Robot is Always Ready”.

As a build / pit mantra you can’t really improve on it. The best, most advanced machine is only a fancier paperweight if it does not run when needed.

Keep your ego in check and be open to learning new ideas

I get back into robotics 4 years ago by accident when my brother and sister asked me for help with their team. Now I’m the lead mentor and I wish someone had told me to get the parents involved EARLY and OFTEN! Before I was lead mentor we didn’t have as much parent involvement and all the fundraising and “other stuff” fell on the mentors and kids when they should be focusing on the bot. Now it is a requirement for our parents or some family member to participate and we have found our parents want to get involved just didn’t know how. Remember that FIRST is about more than just bots and having a cohesive team is a having a good partnership between students, mentors, and parents.

Also I parrot what other people have said. It is the students robot. They need to succeed or fail on their own or else they aren’t learning.

Get all the help you can get. Whether that’s from recruiting mentors, friendly local teams, strangers on chiefdelphi - it takes a village to raise a robot.

When you mentor, focus your involvement in FIRST primarily (solely?) on the team. The kids, their parents, the kids, mentors, the sponsors, the kids and the kids are the priority. Working with multiple teams should take a back seat. Developing your own portfolio should take a backseat. Building a social circle in FIRST should definitely take a back seat, and volunteering in FIRST might even need to take a backseat. It is a marriage in FIRST where you and your team are the same entity. Anything you do that is not in the best interests of your students is a waste of everyone’s time and effort.

Your primary job is not to build the most technically advanced robot, but build the best possible team. The higher up the rung you get in the mentoring pool on your team, and the bigger your team gets, the greater the focus you must put on leadership skills. To be an effective leader that can build and sustain an effective program, you will have to compromise and sacrifice without gratitude and even when facing great turbulence and headwinds.

Never settle into routine. Always be willing to change your program to make it better and always be willing to ask for and accept help, for your own sanity.

I don’t say this solely because acting the opposite of what I described above is bad or unsustainable, but the reward of mentoring comes when you put the students on the team first and watch them fly.

(emphasis mine)

THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!!! Too many mentors in FIRST regard this as some sort of personal challenge or a social club for adults or even worse, they are trying to climb some imaginary ladder that does not even exist.

FIRST is about the KIDS!

There is some great advice in this thread.

The moment that a student takes ownership of a project, accomplishes a task without being prompted, or does something I thought was impossible… that moment never gets old and it happens a lot.

Don’t make it about yourself. Especially if you are an alumni turning into a mentor, put your ego at the door and put everything into helping your students grow both as FIRSTers and as people.

And just because you are a mentor doesn’t mean you can’t keep learning. None of us know everything. Keep learning so you can more effectively teach your students.

Most of this is written under the assumption of a newer mentor looking to grow a program to a “high level”. That is a personal/team decision though, and I’m not implying that is the only route to take.

  • No one is perfect, and mentoring is a trainable skill that you get better at over time. It’s good to have a 1/3/5 year plan, but it is also equally important to keep chipping away and make solid progress.
  • Along the same lines, know your faults, surround yourself with people you trust to give you critical feedback when needed. Accept your faults, do what you can to minimize them, and delegate around them if needed. AKA, if you stink at planning and organization, you need to find someone to help you with it if you are the lead mentor.
  • There is always more to do than time. FIRST gives us an endless buffet of opportunities. I’ll second the comment on how good it feels to see a student (or a new mentor) knock something out with minimal instruction. It is awesome for them personally, but it is such as relief as you transition someone from a resource drain (in an acceptable way, people need training) to a new resource, as they can help with projects, help train new people etc.
  • Again, along the same lines, you need to manage the amount of resource “drainers” and “suppliers” in your group. If you have 5 people that know what’s going on and bring in 30 newbies, it will stress everyone. Focus on training people and getting them over that hump. You can’t do the work of 5-10 alone, you have to train your team.
  • Everyone has something to give or contribute. Find out what the skills are of people in your group and practice organization and delegation. You can’t grow people if you try to do it all yourself. Nine times out of ten in the offseason, it is more important to grow the person than to do the thing… during build season, it’s maybe more 50/50 for me.
  • Make sure every meeting has a purpose. Don’t just meet to hang out. It will burn you out. Leave time for planning and to be able to come in prepared.
  • Focus on what’s important. Write it down. Review it annually, you’ll be surprised at how much you have accomplished.
  • Know what is holding your team back. If you don’t know, talk to mentors on other teams and get their perspective. It’s too easy to look at the Tier 1 teams, and start selecting items off their “done list”. I’d argue for many, it is the lack of team skillset (thoughout the team) and inability to plan and execute effectively. It is likely not… the fact that your pit isn’t as cool, or that you don’t have a $50K CNC machine. However, building a pit can give you an opportunity to train/plan/execute. Almost every offseason project should be viewed as a training exercise in some way.
  • Communication is critical. Find a way to keep info out in front of your team. However, you need to watch over-communication. Not everyone is “on board” like you yet. Give people the information they need, and an avenue to get more if they choose.
  • Document things. Blogs are great, just don’t obsess over quality or audience. I shoot for one a week and to spend under 15 minutes writing it. It’s ok to just have a blog for you, to remember what you do. Take lots of pictures, you’ll love looking back at them in 2-3 years to see how far you came.
  1. Knowing how to set boundaries. It’s ok to say no. It’s even ok for you to not be there for every little thing that happens in your knowledge domain.

  2. 90-95% of robotics is planning. If it’s important, prepare for it as if it’s going to happen well ahead of time, even if there’s almost no odds on it happening. This includes good things like going to Worlds as well as bad things like a part failing.

  3. Knowing when to let kids fail. You don’t learn much from success. Failure should not be considered a judgement but a datapoint and a challenge to work through.

  4. When traveling by bus over very long distances (more than 8 hours each way), hire a reputable bus company that drives in shifts, even if it costs more. Your team will be safer and the ride will be more comfortable.