Hi, I founded a rookie team this last season as a high school junior. I learned a lot, but along the way made some really boneheaded decisions that at the time seemed good but now in retrospect probably damaged our team’s performance going into FRC. A lot of these were during the first semester, causing it to be really slow. Still, we made it to worlds so I’m not too upset ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I’m making this post in the hopes that other people who are founding their own FRC teams won’t make the same mistakes I did.
You don’t have the right objective from the outset
- Your goal should be to win the rookie awards - highest rookie seed, rookie inspiration, and especially rookie all-star, as it will qualify you for worlds. Also, I’m not sure if they’re continuing this next year, but a RAS win will also have your champs registration sponsored as well which is dope.
- Rookie All-Star is meant to celebrate a team that is a “young but strong partnership effort” with their school / community and sponsors. This means you’ll want to get some sponsors. Bonus points if you work with your school to get a room, or demonstrate at rallies, etc - FIRST loves that kind of stuff.
- You should have two goals - attend an off-season competition and help start or mentor local FIRST programs in your area. The reason we won RAS is because we help with the FLL program at our middle school. To quote a driver on another team - “There is nothing FIRST loves more than FIRST.”
- Try to go to at least two regionals / district events. We almost did but we didn’t have the funding at the time to go to both regionals so we pulled out of one.
Regarding the above, I’m actually going to speak about my personal mistake - I wanted to build a T-shirt shooter. I figured, good building/coding experience, and fun thing for rallies! Turns out it was very difficult to get anything to come together for that. It never came through as we were stuck in the design phase forever. I would absolutely recommend going to an off-season near you, as it will force your people to get moving on all fronts - build, code, and business, thanks to the time crunch.
You’re not fully taking advantage of your resources
- If you don’t have a mentor team, get one. Just check that little box in the team sign-up on STIMS that says “I would like to be mentored by another team.”
- Once you get a mentor team, use them. Go to off-seasons with them. Have workshops. Have joint meetings with them.
- It is your responsibility to reach out to your mentor team.
- Additionally, lean on your parents for sponsorships and mentorship. Don’t rely on your parents for mentorship though, as they have their own schedules and may not be available a whole bunch. But for sponsorships, that’s a whole other story - we got some fat stacks just by asking our parents to talk to their employers to contribute.
- Reach out to your regional director / senior mentor for “professional” FRC mentors. We actually got insanely lucky and got the lead mentor of a school in the city adjacent to us and she made our team a million times better.
- Look at the documentation other teams have written. Team handbooks, business plans, design standards, all the documentation you can get your hands on. Teams I would highly recommend are 254, 148, as well as The Compass Alliance. But don’t limit yourself to these top teams - look at teams of all levels. Speaking of documentation…
You didn’t document your plans and engineering well enough
- If you’re just reading this now and haven’t gotten started on a team handbook, get on it. Not just for your team, but for you yourself - what do you want to do with your team? How do you want to structure it? Making a proper team handbook takes a long time (I was working on it all throughout the summer and part of the first semester)
- Keeping track of your engineering through a well-made engineering notebook is more than just stuff to show judges - you’d be surprised how often you may want to look at past notes so you know what you did earlier. This actually came to bite us when we wanted to remember how we solved a recurring software problem, but didn’t take notes on how we fixed it in the first place.
You have goals, but not much focus on those goals
- Again, I highly implore new teams to go to an off-season. This will provide a huge time-crunch that will give your team an extremely good experience going into the season. If I could’ve gone back and done one, I absolutely would.
- Start each meeting off with a five minute long meeting to discuss what your plans are for the day. To quote CGP Grey, a good plan is SMART - short, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. “I am going to work on tuning these PID constants for x manipulator from 5:30-6:00 today,” is a good goal. You don’t want VAPID goals - Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed. “I’m going to finish this whole manipulator… sometime today” is a bad goal.
You aren’t recruiting from the right sources
- I do marching band (#BassClefBestClef), so naturally, given we spend so much time together, I recruited mostly from there. This was both good and bad - we already knew each other fairly well, but unfortunately there were meetings in which extremely few people were there.
- Do recruit from whatever you already do, but make sure you recruit from outside those too. Freshmen who don’t have any major commitments already are especially desirable, as are seniors who have experience with software / mechanical. We had a senior who was really good at mechanical and was a major boon to our team.
- Get at least one or two members who are familiar with the Adobe creative suite. We had one who was familiar it and they pretty much won RAS for us by making one heck of a business plan.
You underestimated the required level of commitment
- I’m not going to lie - FRC is hard. Founding your own team, especially as a student yourself, is very hard. If you’re already doing any other time intensive activities, ie Marching Band or Sports, especially in the second semester, you’ll have to take a good hard look at your schedule.
- Do schedule for people who already have commitments to attend, but know that in the future this may not be as easy.
You didn’t enforce your plans enough
- Once you have a plan of action, you must stick to it. Keep on people about objectives you’ve assigned them.
- This can also apply to parents, mentors, and even administrators. Don’t be rude by any means, but if an adult is behind on something, just talk to them and ask “Hey, I was just wondering what the status on x, y, and z are.”
Honestly I doubt I’ll ever get everything I want to suggest in a single CD post - I could probably write a whole book on my experiences founding an FRC team. Nonetheless, for all the mistakes I made, I would consider it probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. If your school / community doesn’t have an FRC team and you’re looking for a challlenge and willing to put in some elbow grease, I would suggest starting one. You’d be surprised by the amount of direction this gives you, and the good you can do through FRC.
Remember: You can’t win any awards or events in the first semester, but you can lose them.
Disclaimer: Even though I’m talking about my experience with my team, know that I do not necessarily speak for my team, the mentors, the dogs, etc in this post.