Sunday, May 8, 2016

Celebrating Worlds

One of the fleet of Google buses that ferried kids between
venues - showing how much corporations supported the event
I didn't know quite how exhausted I had become this robot season (other than the late night whimpering - can't it be done yet?...please) until we flew back from Worlds last weekend and I knew I had the flu AND a sore throat.  Six days of laying on the couch later and sleeping, I am finally up and can see an end to being sick.  Many of the kids have been ill too.

Our 'season' started March 15th, 2015 and seamlessly joined with the season that had started August 30, 2014.  Soooo as we sat on the plane, one kid said 'geez, that is the longest season I can remember!'  Yes, it has been almost two years non-stop with the guys in the house working.  Today will be the first time they show up again - this time to tear down and take apart things so we can see the floors again and move the furniture back.
How tired was I during the event?
I actually wore my husband's shirt
one day by accident!

While there are many, many things I would change about the FIRST experience, the one massive good thing is that kids can set a near impossible goal and set themselves to work on it, doing extensive planning, coordinating and learning to deal with each other through massive ups and downs.  There is no walking away, they learn to sacrifice and put their nose down to work.  There is really nothing in the school experience that compares to it.  The unit is never over and you got a B- on the report and immediately forget it.  That same robot challenge is there for nine months to tackle and you are never done as your competition, as it whittles down, is also always improving and adding functionality as fast as you are.

We really saw the effect of this when the week before we had a chance to go on college tours and have our son ask questions about the engineering programs at some of the top programs in the country.  He is only a sophomore and his questions were really sophisticated.  At almost every college he had an opportunity to visit a few facility members that he sought out and had conversations about what he had been doing and how their programs aligned with his interests.  For the few that I was present, I could see the faces and their responses and knew that the very tough robot experience had been worth it.

The booths of each robot team in the pits.  I just haven't been
able to get to this level of crazy.
The two boys in the middle are 'twins'.  Actually not.  Ben and David have
been mistaken for each other since they were in kindergarden.  One is jewish
and the other half asian (and my son).  But even family can't tell them
apart from a few feet at times, especially in their team shirts.
Funny going to school and being friends with your doppelgänger.
They figure that they will be each other's wingman some day.
Explaining the machine vision system
He would effortlessly describe (as all the team mates can) how we had abandoned the Waterfall engineering design process taught for traditional development (think cars and planes) and adopted an Agile process used in current software development and adapted it to mechanical engineering.  This is something that is just starting to happen in the engineering community and the kids understand the difference completely.  Waterfall essentially is what you think of as engineering a system; you define the system specifications and do very detailed design and then built to those specs and then test to them.  It is what the entire competition is based on and the awards are predicated on the evidence of it.  Detailed CAD of subsystems, extensive notebooks and documentation, etc.; but this takes months to get through the design process.  This year our state was in a league system, a new mode that is being tested and instead of getting the challenge September 1st and having until Jan 1st to build before our first competition, we had until mid October and then from then on had a competition every four weeks.   That is the root of why we are exhausted.

The Russian team (one dressed as the mascot) going over
our system.
In waterfall, you look at the game challenge and make assumptions about what is feasible and make those your design targets.  The game always has too much to accomplish - that is the purpose.  In fact we met the game designers at Worlds and they admitted that they never expected alliances (2 teams) to break 300 points on the field.  We were regularly hitting 480 at home with just one robot.  The scores in the quarterfinals/finals at Worlds topped 700.  The kids had out-engineered the game designers expectations for them!  So our early 'goal' was pretty low and had we used traditional waterfall design we wouldn't have designed a winning robot.  Instead, we started with that goal and decided to abandon CAD design, which tends to drive teams into making special and expensive parts that they are then wed to.  We used my son's ability to 3D visualize in his head and build uber-quick and designed that way.  We relied on the erector-set like kit of parts available to us and only 3D printed special items as we went.  That way the parts weren't that expensive and a design could be abandoned or changed dramatically without much relative cost other than labor.  Waterfall makes total sense when designing an airplane as the 'costs' of mistakes is high and you can't easily prototype and test the whole system against the challenge.  In this case, it is more like small scale consumer electronics with a very short life and quick development cycle.  Iterative changes are made trying to keep up with a very fast moving market (think iPhone 3, 4, 5, etc).  So they built the first robot for our goals and would make massive changes to it every month to add more functionality or better performance as the competition would tell us quickly how good that system was under stress.  Often we would put the robot aside and build an entirely new one in those four weeks - two for build, one to program and one to train the drivers on the new system.  We kept the old in case we didn't make it before the four weeks was up.  Then tore it down for the next cycle.  

Conferring before getting on the practice fields
An emergency repair only minutes before fielding has
six kids with drills, saws, and other furious tools

They went through eight cycles like this.  Eight significantly different robots, all based upon one general design we came up with based on the game.  We left our original targets in the dust around version 4.  If you had told me our robot would do everything on the field and more on Day 1, I would have laughed until I fell on the floor.  That is the benefit of Agile, the process assumes that the market is not static and thus that your initial product requirements will have shifted during your development and thus allows points in the process to adjust for that and thus launch a product that meets new and unknown requirements from when the development started.  It was funny as the parents on the team were often critical of some aspect of our design when compared to some competitor on the field who seemed to have a much more elegant system (usually more complicated) but as we moved up past the state level, they would come back and say 'ohhhhh' you designed that for anticipated defense in Super-Regionals finals or some other thing that we anticipated IF we got to a higher level.  Those other 'elegant' systems dropped out at lower levels as they got caught in the more sophisticated play that happens at a tougher level that we had anticipated by having the kids watch videos of past Worlds final competitions.

This is no Daddybot.  If I was to touch it I
would get my hands slapped.  
The only bad part was that the awards are all predicated on the Waterfall approach and so we knew we would cut out all judged awards if we went this way.  This kids knew it and as coaches we decided to train them for the modern start-up company atmosphere that their personalities strongly desire.  After being shown the World's winning notebook at the contest last week, our team's overall impression was this:  'nobody buys a 53rd ranked product because it has the best documentation'.   But the notebook was a thing of amazing beauty - each entry taking 2 hours to carefully do in exquisite penmanship and ruled boxes - kudos to them for that feat of patience.  But our goals have always been to train our son and his friends for the new economy - not be 'squirrels at the feeder', modifying their actions to artificial goal posts to get the seeds.

So to come into Worlds for the first time ever and have our booth (which isn't really a booth as we haven't spent any time making a booth) be mobbed by teams we had watched on YouTube for years was really amazing.  Usually a new team would be ignored and instead coaches were asking if we would be willing to give a software seminar this summer to their teams - from as far away as CO and FL!  It just made the kids feel really good.  They had improved their robot since Super-Regionals and added a second machine vision system to it.  This is pretty amazing.  The 'brains' of the robot is an Android phone and we mounted it so the back camera can see the field and the front camera can see the block hopper.  The program switches between the two cameras during autonomous and takes pictures and then processes them to figure out if the beacon we need to press is red or blue and also checks the hopper to see if we have collected five (the limit before penalty points) cubes and then spits any extras out.  And it does it efficiently so the program doesn't stop driving.  No one collects cubes in autonomous.  When we showed it on the practice fields the teams surrounding screamed 'No Way!' - including the local high school my son goes to.  The four programmers who worked non-stop one weekend to develop that in a tag team felt really vindicated.

Trying to butter up the FedEx group to give us a prize in their
scavenger hunt competition.  "find a fedex guy and take a funny pic" was
one of the many items on the list.
As we told the kids, at this level it is all about luck.  It is the strength of the division (8 of top 9 world teams in ours), your schedule (we ended up with the highest RP - meaning how good were our match competitors) and the strength of our partners we are randomly assigned.  One could only score 20 points.  As many get there on judged awards, they don't always have strong robots but great design processes.  And then there is lady luck -- these robots have been shipped across the world, jostled in competition and ours was purposely rammed constantly by the competitors who built autonomous programs to foul us up by running across the field to bash into us to make sure we couldn't score as our videos were online from Super Regionals.   (Had to say to the kids - how cool was it that two teams would forgo their points in autonomous to make sure we didn't score any, that was a sign of respect for your system).  And even with all this, in the last qualifing match we had the chance to win and be the 3rd ranked robot and a captain for eliminations.  Then the servo dumping the cubes failed. We lost by a handful of points that we would have easily scored.  Down to 13th.

Posing with the robot FedEx box for the scavenger hunt
Run back to the booth and we were given minutes to repair the system.  A new servo installed and all seemed well.  The #1 and #3 captain were all over us.  Who would pick us?  Or would they not?  #1 was in a quandary - they wanted two teams equally - us and their long-term practice buddies who were also a totally fantastic legendary team and due to graduate - this was their last shot.  We had been partnered with #1 in the SuperRegionals.  So they asked us to... maybe imply that our system might not be fixed quite yet.  Maybe not 'advertise' ourselves so we would be passed over and they could pick us as second partner (the alliances are three teams).  But the #3 captain was our local high school and now friendly competitors and they came up and told my son - we did extensive scouting and you are #1 over those other two teams. We want to pick you but know they want you.  We will pass you by if you want to be on their team which might be a guaranteed world championship.  But we would like you to be on our team.  Since the #2 and #4 captains would have a shot at us, my son did the right thing and told them - we would be happy to graciously take any invitation we are offered; knowing that the local high school team and us had a shot together as well but the #4 captain from a foreign country was just in that position due to lucky schedule.  After all the qualifiers for four days, only 24 teams get to the eliminations from the original 128.  So we were thrilled to make the cut and to go onwards.

The judged awards at the opera house with over 2000 of us
in FTC - the CEOs of Raytheon, PTC, Rockwell-Collins
and Segway were on stage to hand out awards and give talks.
So that is how it went.  We paired in the selection show with #3 and it came down to the third match in the quarterfinal.   We lost by 7 points.   That darn servo broke again and stopped working early in the match.  1 cube = 15 points.  We normally scored 20 cubes per match by ourself and only scored 4 that match with our hopper full and that servo wouldn't work to dump them in the scoring bucket.   It was a hard loss - we lost the chance to go head to head for the World Championship because the servo broke.  The team that asked us to slyly let ourselves be passed over won it all.  Their third partner didn't contribute.  So we would have done it - but it would have been a risk to ask to be passed over and it wouldn't have been fair to our local team to lie to them.  So in the end we felt good about it - the kids are holding their heads high.  The teams that won it all deserved it - it was an amazing last match.  And in an amazing moment, as they were all hugging and crying, our guys spontaneously got up from the stands and walked under the barriers and congratulated them.  I was so proud of them, nobody else did that.  And in return, the winners asked them to sign their 'World Championship' cubes out of respect.

In the end, we are considered top 10 in the World.  The 0.3% of the 5150 robot teams.  If you had asked me if we would have gone to Worlds at the beginning of our season, I would have told you 50-50 at best, maybe.  If you told me we would have been in the eliminations I would have laughed at the absurdity of it.  If you would have told me that we could have been world champions this year but for a loose wire in a servo I would have known you were 'on something'.  I am SOOOO proud of them - not because of their accomplishment but because of their character and humility.  They are going around so proud and thrilled.  Not mad and disappointed.  As my son and many of them have said with incredulity on their faces - 'it's not often in your life you can say you are world class at anything'.

Of course they aren't getting many positive strokes at school - to everyone not in it they see that three of the top 10 teams in the world are in Lexington-Lincoln, so it seems expected.  Yes - three of the four teams MA sent ended up in the eliminations.   But that is just mind-blowing.  3 out of 5150 go to school together.  No wonder we are exhausted.  Our competition in our local league was world class.  We have become friends with all of them (And funny enough - girls on both of the others are dating my guys now at the end of the season.  ha ha.).  It has taught them quite a bit about surrounding yourself with peers that are better than you and how it makes you better.

I am proud of other things.  Our booth was full of coaches who wanted to get a download on the system.  They would start asking us and we wouldn't be able to go very far before the robot would need to be turned over to show the internals.  Something we coaches are just not allowed to do on our team - as the team is deathly afraid we (morons) will break something.  So we would search for a kid and have them do it and take over.  The coaches would look confused and then they would brighten up and realize that we weren't a daddybot and later effuse about how incrediably impressed they were with our kids because they were soooo competent.    Daddybot is the term coined for a team where the coach is too involved in the build and software.  That is something that FIRST needs to work on.  There were far too many daddybots and they weren't being too shy about it, kids playing on their phones in the booth while the coaches fixed the robot.  We can proudly tell anyone that everything we both know about robotics - we have learned from the kids.  Our roles are 'feeding, driving, coordination, ordering, and slapping them upside the head'.  ;-)  Other words just as I told them two years ago - I am a credit card with wheels who will tell you when you screw up.  That is why I am so proud of watching them go at the robot like the Apollo 13 engineers when it has to be fixed in 5 min or less and we stand out of their way.   Daddybots don't tend to be at the very top, thank goodness.  But they really don't have anyplace being in the top 5% either and should never advance.

The other thing that makes me so happy is the change in the kids.  It was a very emotionally hard season.  The growth in each of them is so visible and the Worlds experience just validated that immensely.  Kids who engineer don't get positive strokes by society, it is the football jock who does.  The concept by FIRST is to make it like the Final Four Basketball tourney so culture would change bit by bit.  While the lower competitions are exciting, they all still seem like it is only noticed by the internal nerd community.  But Worlds is so different.  It started when we boarded the plane in Chicago bound for St. Louis and the pilot came on the intercom to wish the plane full of robot teams success at Worlds.  Their faces lit up.  The airport was ablaze with banners, welcome signage and people in special outfits welcoming us to the festival as if it was the NFL draft.  There was no doubt that the robots were in town driving around St. Louis - the only thing missing was a banner off the arch!  Even the FedEx (a sponsor) drop boxes were painted like robots.  There were fleets of special Google Buses to take everyone between the venues ablaze with 'you are our tomorrow' type messages.  Rock concerts and laser light shows for the events.   The worlds largest companies were there in force - the innovation faire had companies like LEGO, Boeing, Google, Disney Imangineering, Fed Ex, Air Force, etc. with huge trade show booths special built for this event, courting the kids and giving them gifts.  47 colleges recruiting.  I had my kids make special business cards and taught them how to network in the booths.  Companies hosted competitions where teams could win as much as $10,000 for their team.  Roving companies came into your booth and suggested further talks of sponsorship (we are soooo thrilled as all of this has been out of pocket!!).  It really made an impression on them all.   Even our pilot on the way home congratulated our team on their quarterfinal showing on the speaker - you should have seen my son's face....and I didn't tell them, a ref who was on the flight had.

Getting ready in Quarter-Final Game 1.  Our partner's robot was reprogrammed
to rush out and block for us to prevent the other side from pinning our robot.  It
kinda worked.  But the other robot pushed them into us.  Amazingly our robot
still turned, and pushed BOTH robots out of the way by itself and course
corrected and went on to do all the stuff and end up on the mountain
relying on all that autonomous proramming .  The crowd
became unglued in the stands.  It was quite a sight and an extreme high point.
Sitting next to him was one of 'my kids' who has had so many challenges with his ADHD and turned it around this year - he got off the focus drugs, got a tutor for executive functioning, and now is getting A's - he had almost quit the team last year afraid that he would fail his classes as he started high school.  He looked me in the eyes and told me he was going to build and program next year too,  he now believes in himself and has hired a college councilor.  I have known this kid since he was six,  he was the epitome of 'surfer dude' including the long curly blond hair.  Now he is so intense and the desire to be better and win is leaking out of him - he is unrecognizable from the kid he was in August.  No more video games and hiding from his fears of school.   He is world class he says.  It reminds me of my son and his extreme dyslexia - sitting with their first state Lego Robotics trophy in his hands with disbelief on his face and muttering how 'hard work gets results' and then applying that new found wisdom to school.  No one who meets him today would recognize him as the shrinking violet in the back of the room that used to beat his head on the counter and cry over all homework daily, being called stupid by peers (and shockingly by peers parents!).  As many faults as FIRST has (as any competitive organization does), I have to look at these two kids and thank the organization for providing a forum for children like this to learn that they have value and to excel.  We came home to an invitation for my son from the MIT mechanical engineering department to watch the finals of the class that spawned FIRST.   One of the girls on the team had only two years ago switched schools as her anxiety attacks were getting the best of her.  Now she is confidently one of our best drivers under pressure, such a turn around.  Many of the kids have faced their demons together this year, the stories are too many to recount.

So a big thank you to my customers for dealing with the intermittent blogs, late emails, and extra day to pack their package.  Your support of my company allows me to also give my time to these kids.  So I thank you for your patience to allow me to give them my patience.  And thank you for following them - I got many text messages and emails during the last few weeks of support and I know many were wondering how they had done.  I was just too sick to pen a blog.


  1. WOW--just . . . WOW! I have tears in my eyes reading this, tears of absolute joy for the team.

  2. Thank you so much for the report on the Worlds, so pleased for all of you - huge congratulations....

  3. Very proud of them!!! GP

  4. Just amazing! I always get tears in my eyes reading these posts about these wonderful kids. You're right - society doesn't reward the engineer kids - until later. In the end, they win, while the football hero sits and wonders what went wrong... But some positive reinforcement now, while they're young, will do our world so much good, because it will encourage more kids to do this kind of work...