On April 10th, I hosted The Daily WTF: Live! in Pittsburgh. It was a blast. We had a great crowd, and some great performances.

Sarah is a long-time reader of The Daily WTF, and manages to be "all over" the local tech scene. I've met her at a few TDWTF meetups, but also seen her at Code & Supply events. And today's story features robots, so what's not to love.

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FIRST is always looking for volunteers, and if you have the time, it's a great opportunity.

Next week's story is bittersweet: It's our last installment of TDWTF:Live, for now. It's also an explanation for why we generally don't like to run "bad boss" stories- tales where your PHB is TRWTF just don't do much for us here, and that's because I had the worst boss ever. Next week: I'll prove it.


Hello, my name is Sarah, and I’m an engineer. Sorry, wrong meeting.

Uh, no. I’m here to tell you a little about why I decided to stop sleeping for awhile. A little bit of backstory, like Remy says… let me follow my notes. So, I graduated with an EE degree in 2007, spent some time in the Navy, and went back to school, got my double-E degree, started working for a defense contract in the Scranton area, and I heard about a volunteer opportunity. They really wanted some people for a robotics competition, so I talked to the guy and signed up for it, and that was my introduction to what’s called FIRST robotics.

I see somebody bouncing in the back, are you… (unintelligible audience member has participated in this event before). So, yes, it’s awesome, right? It’s the best.

It’s a huge robotics competition, started by this guy named Dean Kamen. He’s an inventor, you may have heard of him. He invented the Segway, among other things. He started FIRST- FIRST stands for For Inspiration and Recognition Of Science and Technology- and basically it’s a way to get kids excited about STEM-related fields (Science Technology Engineering and Math). 

The first FIRST competition was held in the early 90s, with I think 48 teams in this high school gymnasium in New Hampshire. Dean has an accent you can cut with a knife, it’s awesome. It’s now spread. It’s a worldwide competition, with teams all through the US and all throughout the world.

There are several different layers, levels. There’s one for grade school, junior high, high school, and I work with the FIRST robotics competition which is at the high school level. So, the way the season works, is that every year the first weekend in January the new design challenge is announced. The design challenge is always a game. You have to build a robot to play a game. These aren’t Battlebots, these are machines that are designed to do a repeated task again and again.

These teams are comprised of high school-aged kids, most of them from high schools, but not all. There’s lots of 4-H Clubs, Boys and Girls Clubs, that kind of thing. In fact, in the Pittsburgh regional, there’s a tremendous amount of 4-H clubs, and I’ve heard that 4-H is like a primary educator of STEM in America right now.

They announced the game the first weekend in January, and then the big deal is that you only have six weeks to build a robot. I challenge anybody in this room to ship a deliverable with your company- go back and see, can you ship something in six weeks? Where I work- big company up the road you’d know- we can’t even get the charge code set up in six weeks to start the project, much less deliver something. So in six weeks, you have to put a thing- it used to be in a crate, now they just bag it up- but six weeks to build a robot.

Every team gets a kit. You get a kit of parts that comes with a standard control system, batteries, some other components are standardized. The radio is standard. Then there’s just things like wheels and gears and various pieces, so that any team- I always pick on the 4-H Club from Denango County- a team from a rural part of the country that doesn’t have installed technology base can still put together a robot and enter it in the competition. Put it on the field and get it to count. That’s really what this goal is about, is to get them to that point.

I was a mentor for a couple of years for this team in Scranton- team 1151- and then I got laid off, which was a great career move for me. I ended up here, and Pittsburgh’s awesome. I’m really happy to be here. I didn’t have a FIRST team when I got here, because I’m new to the area. I liked my job, and I liked what I was doing, but I really missed having a FIRST team to work with. 

And then I heard, through somehow- IEEE, or somehow- but I heard that they needed volunteers, and I jumped on it. So the FIRST Pittsburgh- Greater Pittsburgh expanded- regional competition- that year that I went it was at The Pete [Petersen Events Center, at the University of Pittsburgh] but now they do it at Cal U [California University of Pennsylvania]. I was assigned to be a judge as a volunteer. The judges have a unique role, in that they go around and evaluate the robots for non-game criteria. Things like technical excellence and so forth. I worked with another engineer who was a mentor of team 2051- every team has a number. 

Much like Homer and the Stonecutters, they’re assigned a number in the order in which they joined. I worked with 2051 which is the Beattie School, Beattie Career Center, in Allison Park. It’s a really cool school, and if you ever get a chance to get a tour of it, or know someone who’s interested in a career and not ready to go to college, consider sending them there. They have all sorts of career options schooling- a culinary program and stuff.

The program that we worked with, mostly, was their advanced manufacturing program, where they teach kids how to do things with electronics. Or 3D printers- they have three 3D printers in their classroom. They have a FANUC Industrial Robotics Arm, and they have all this kind of modern manufacturing equipment, that a kid would see when they go into the industry. It’s really helpful for having a robotics team, and you’ll se the comparison that I’lll get to in a minute.

They have a base, an infrastructure, tools and soldering irons and multimeters and the things you need when you build a robot. They know how to do 3D modeling and will actually model up the whole robot in 3D and figure out the dimensions that we need.

The no-sleep part: I hear through the grapevine, that there’s a new team in the area, and they need some help. Turns out, it’s a team at a new Catholic high school in the Cranberry Township area. Someone had set up a team there and needed some help.

Now, I got the message about them needing help about 2.5 weeks into the build season- remember it’s a six week build season, and they’re 2.5 weeks in and now asking for help. I went over there, and got in contact with the teacher. It’s a brand new building, very impressive, shiny and nice. I walk into the classroom where the teacher comes and meets me. What do I see? Nothing. They don’t have tools. They have some robot parts kind of scattered around there. They don’t really have anything. It’s 2.5 weeks and they should have a chassis, they should have something. It’s a short build season.

I see one of the students, Matt- he’s holding a piece of stock that you would buy from Home Depot or something, aluminum stock. He’s got a hacksaw, and of course, he’s not wearing safety glasses, he doesn’t know any better. It’s a big deal! You’ve got to wear safety glasses if you’re working with tools.

“Hi,” I say, “I”m here to help. What are you doing?”

He says he’s trying to fabricate a key, because they have a motor with a shaft on it, and they want to put it in the gearbox to hook it up to the drivetrain, but it lost the key.

“Well,” I said. Okay, what goes through my head immediately, is, Y’know, I’ve been a mentor for several years now, and a judge, and seen a lot of robots, and I know the process and I know what it takes to get it done, and these guys… they can’t not see the forest for the trees, they can’t see the tree for the bark. They’ve got their head smooshed right up against the bark. They are so far in over their heads that they don’t even know what they don’t know.

“Okay, don’t worry about the key right now. We’ll buy another one if we needed it. Stop- we need to talk about the design, we need to talk about what you’re going to do. How are we going to build a robot in the remaining time?”

I gather them all up, and say, “What is your design? What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know… build a robot?”

Okay, great. I had this moment of clarity. I realized that they’ve sort of taken on this quest, and they don’t know what they’re going to do, how they’re going to complete it, and they need somebody who’s going to tell them how to do that. And that has to be me. Which is kind of, y’know, you think about that, and whoa- that’s a lot of stuff.

In the movie version, I’d like the movie version of me to say something clever. Something that Yoda would say, or Obi-Wan, but no- I just kinda went, “Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do, so let’s get to it.”

So, six weeks. I can’t stress- six weeks goes by in a blink. You blink and suddenly build season ends tomorrow. 

I touched on being a judge before, and still every year I’m a judge. I’m a mentor, but I’m also a judge. I’m a mentor for my team, and the competitions are a three-day affair, where Thursday is always when you go in and get it inspected and test it out and practice. Then Friday and Saturday are the matches. Friday and Saturday I’m a judge, I run around and evaluate other robots. Of course, I can’t evaluate my own team, but that’s okay- there are other people to do that.

One of the things we talk about as judges, and why I bring it up: we really want to emphasize that the robots that succeed in other criteria, like control systems, or industrial design, we want to make sure the students are the ones driving that design. The adults are there to help. As a mentor, they’re there to make sure the kid doesn’t cut off his hand or poke himself in the eye. Make sure they stay safe and guide them, but the students need to be building the design. They need to be the ones that are making the robot.

As a judge, you go around and talk to them and say, “Tell me about your design,” and they say, “We kinda worked…” and then they sort of trailed off, and you realize the adults over here, they’re the ones that built the machine. That’s okay actually, that’s not wrong in the rules sense. It’s wrong in the spirit of the competition. There’s nothing in the rules that says the adults can’t build the robot, but it’s against the spirit of the competition. As judges, we don’t want to reward that.

There I am, at this school, thinking to myself, “I don’t want to be the one to tell these kids how to build a robot, but on the other hand, we’ve got a few weeks to do this.” So I compromised. I pulled up a YouTube that my Beattie team had been using for inspiration. “This is a simple design for a robot, and this is something we can do, and we can do it four weeks. And let’s do this. I want you guys to watch this video, figure out what they did, and let’s talk about it and design a robot.”

That was my compromise in how to show them what to do without actually telling them what to do. I think we were successful, because, spoiler: we did build the robot in the end. I realized, too, that in order to get this done, I’m going to have to be there every day. This is sort of a moment of clarity thing, and this is when I decided I didn’t want to sleep anymore. I immediately shifted my work schedule, started going in to be at my desk at 6:00 in the morning so I could be out of there by 3:00, so I could be over to the school by 3:30, because the build session was 3:30–5:30, 6:00 o’clock. 

So I’m getting up- did you know there’s a 5AM alarm setting on your alarm clock? I had no idea. It’s crazy.

One of the big challenges we have, aside from the fact that we’re 2.5 weeks in, was that the school didn’t have any shop facilities. And of course, the students didn’t have anything. So, how do we fabricate parts? We have a kit of parts, we have the chassis, we’ll eventually put the chassis together, but now we need the rest of the infrastructure to support. This year’s game was a box-lifting thing, we had to stack these totes- we had to make a thing that would lift these totes. We had an idea of how to do it, but how do you get there? How do you fabricate it?

The teacher I worked with had been an instructor at the Pittsburgh Aeronautics Institute, or the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, I forget which. She had a good relationship with them. And they agreed that, if we brought them material, that they would fabricate it. Drill holes, or weld pieces together, or cut pieces, whatever they needed.

Those problem- one, the kids didn’t know anything about technical drawing or technical communication because they’d never been trained or seen how to do it. And the second problem was that there was a 3-day turnaround. If we decided that we wanted to cut a piece of aluminum to this length- and usually the kid would say “this length”, he wouldn’t say, “48 inches”, he’d say “sort of this length”- and we’d have to give it to the teacher, she’d take it to other school, they would fabricate it, and that was a 3-day turnaround. That was 3 days to figure out that, “No, we actually wanted it this length.”

We’re running out of time. We’ve got a week left. Here’s what it took. We finally got it done. It’s February 14th, Valentine’s Day, it was a Friday. The Build Season ends on the 17th the Tuesday following. We have most of a chassis, we finally got all the components in, they had sort of been trickling in. A lot of the major metal had vanished in the mail, so they re-sent it, and then the other stuff showed up, so we had extra, which was fine.

We had all this stuff, but then we said, “How can we finish this?” It turns out that one of the students, his uncle owns a chrome metal shop in Evans City. Paul’s Chrome Plating, I looked it up to make sure I got the name right. I would describe it as, they do, “Handcrafted, free-range, organic artisanal chrome jobs.” It’s like a hipster chrome shop. Not quite- they’re in Evans City- but they do small batch. They’re not a mass producer. They do one-off kind of thing, you’re redoing a ’57 Chevy, and you need a part, they’ll do it for you. If you need any chrome, go to them, because they’re awesome.

We got there. Students, everyone arrived about 3:30–4:00. I got there about 4:00, they were there about 3:30. It’s me, the four students, a couple of the mothers, Paul and one of his buddies/employees- I’m not sure- and myself. One of the kids said, “We’ll be done by 7:00,” and I’m like, “You have no idea.” 

Midnight. I left at midnight. And that was really the point where were all just, “We can’t stay any longer, we’re all tired.” I mean, Paul owns the place, it’s his business. He can stay all night, he doesn’t care. He’s having a good time. The kids are tired. We have stuff going on the next morning, so we have to do something. It’s midnight, but we got it built. That’s the important part, right? We finally got it. The majority of the chassis, the majority of the structural elements mounted to the chassis, we got all of the major components fabricated. We had to do a little bit more assembly on Saturday and Sunday, but we got everything we needed to get built in an industrial environment built. 8 hours. I was there for 8 hours of sheer GO. But it was so awesome, because the kids who were there finally got the experience of actually over the course of a few hours taking a piece of just steel or aluminum and turning it into a thing, and actually seeing their design come to life, and actually seeing how we mocked up and talked about it and how it actually comes together. It was just so cool, they were so excited to see that actually work.

Actually giving them a drill, this is how you’re going to drill it and put a hole here and here and okay, what about here? The whole process, it was just so awesome. 

To top off this epic evening, as I was driving home, and of course it’s bitterly cold, really snowy, so I’m going ten miles an hour. I put on the radio, and discover that WESA carries Bullseye, which is a show I really like. Then they had a show of a style of music that I really like, and it was a perfect capper for this lovely evening. At this point, I knew we going to be successful, I knew we we built the robot, we were going to be able to enter it in the competition, and that it would meet the criteria of success, which is to bring the robot to the field.

I guess in general, to wrap it up, that’s kind of why I do FIRST. I’m normally a pretty cynical, sarcastic, world-weary sort of fellow. When I’m there, that frenzy of the build season that’s six weeks, then the pits as a judge talking to all the different students, and listening to these kids  tell me about the fantastic time they had figuring this really thorny PID issue that they had, and they had to tune the constants or whatever.

I can’t help but want to be better. It actually makes me better. It makes me less cynical, less sarcastic. I’m more open and more friendly, and that’s why I keep coming back. That’s why I do it. 

So, thanks.

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