On Your Feet Or On Your Knees

Posted: May 2, 2015 in Uncategorized

So. That Happened.

Yeah, I mentioned that my robotics team won a regional in Chicago, which I could not attend due to work loads.  So we got to go to the Big Show in St. Louis; and I wasn’t going to miss it, so between bus wi-fi and phone hotspot, I kept work alive (also with a contract colleague who kept some things going).  It was much fun and I have much to say, but first I want to back up a bit….


OK, Wife Sublime has been part of this team since it’s inception; I joined after two years.  This is the seventh year.  My first year, I knew nothing of robots, but I knew about tools and construction and project management and the design process.  Not to mention teaching taekwondo gave me a handle on working with kids and teens… so I became the lead mentor for design and construction.  The first year, we managed a robot with NO drive train issues – no broken chains, lost wheels, burnt motors.  A big step up.  The second year, we managed to have a competitive robot that placed 22nd in a field of 60.  The next year, we had a disruptive year, and WS and I were unable to be fully focused on the competition because her sister died and we went to the funeral during the Regional; we also had a disruptive mentor that made the rest of the competition dysfunctional, and we couldn’t help…


That year, we learned the importance of control of the schedule.  We had allowed development of a mechanism go on far too long with no real progress, and it kept the rest of the progress delayed.  So the following year, I developed a rough chart of progress, but more importantly a couple of triage dates where if something was not making progress, it would be addressed directly:  discarded, modified, or allowed to progress.


That’s Matt, our team Captain and driver.  He’ll pop up later in our story…

So anyway, in my first year, I became the Drive Coach, working with the drive team and helping to translate our team strategy not only into robot design, but informing the controls team and bringing that into the actual drive actions.  And in the subsequent year, all those things came together; while our facilities and budget do not allow for the highly sophisticated robots some team launch, ‘Whatnot’ as we named the robot, was competent and robust and reliable and looked fucking great.  And finally, our team was selected for the playoff rounds in Chicago.  It was a team high water mark, and the robot is still functional, to be used for demos and such.


This year, we went into the season with great enthusiasm and high expectations.  And strategy & design sessions went pretty well.  Do you feel the impending drama?  Do we have dramatic music playing yet?

Partway through the production process, I became concerned about the lack of progress on what we called the “chuck” – a mechanism to grasp the game pieces.  I suppose I should have been cued in to the discord when the mentor assigned to lead the design and construction of this refused to call it the chuck, but insisted on saying ‘claw’.

At the same time, one of the programming mentors kept questioning many of the overall design decisions on construction of the robot, particularly in the case where I was looking for more robust construction – the element which allows for the robot to be reliable and free from constant repairs.  Since turnaround times in the pits tend to be very tight, being free from repairs allows for focusing on actually improving the performance of the robot.  I may only be a silly, drunken, zombarchitect, but that has been part of our success in the past couple of years…


At this point, we had a team meeting to discuss progress, and I was very concerned about the chuck mechanism.  I pushed strongly-yes, aggressively and perhaps abrasively- for reconsideration of the concept, because we still didn’t have a real operative prototype or even design, and we were falling behind.  As mikey has said, I am a Zombie of Strong Opinions, and I aggressively made my case, but the newer mentors thought everything was Just Fine and All and All would be Okay in Time…. I made my case and when it didn’t go my way, I expressed my concern and left.  Yeah, it was a bad move, but I was the one that was in charge of the process and this was dangerous….

I confess that I was wrong; the team mostly managed to make a mostly workable chuck.  But I was also right; the chuck was not ready on schedule, and we had no time for program debug or drive practice before we had to seal the robot and stop working on it. Although I had helped get the team to finish this robot, I had created bad feelings among several mentors….


Yeah, I did.  In my defense, those mentors apparently have not yet figured out how to work with team members and work through differing personalities.  So in the next couple of weeks, we worked on several things (including creation of a new battery cart, which was assigned to one of the new mentors and frankly, what resulted was a piece of shit).

So we drifted on….

And the first regional hit.  And the robot was not so bad, but the biggest problem was that both guys on our drive team were also doing stage crew, and they were exhausted, fatigued, and pretty crappy at driving.  One of the other mentors angrily took me aside and all but told me I was the problem, but that we needed to create an opportunity for driving practice.  It seemed obvious to me that the subtext was that if we could get a new coach to work with the team, everything would be cool…

So I worked in the shop to build a practice test-bed robot that they could work with.  And did so, because I am damn good at getting things built, dammit.  And after a sleepless night, where I couldn’t figure out a good way to repair the burned bridges (as well as figure out how to get my actual real paying work accomplished). I went in and told the mentor who wants to take over the team that I would be unable to join them in Chicago and thus, really didn’t need to be part of the practice.

Listen:  After this brief discussion, his response was an enthusiastic “Cool!”


I worked my ass off that week, but kept up through social media, as we do.  And when the team was selected near the end of the process, joining the second-seeded team, I was sitting at the dining room table with my ZomBook and doing work, while watching a shitty feed that had the tendency to insert ads at the most inopportune times.  However, I got a text from Young Zombie well before the final match because the math indicated we were going to the Show.  And when the matches were over, I scared the dog by Zomdancing….

So.  In the subsequent discussions about the trip, it was revealed that after all that effort, I was not only to be not allowed in the pit, but that I would not be the drive coach either.

Ouch, fucking ouch.

Look, I know I am not the most Zig Ziglar type of guy.  I consider mikey a good friend, and I still antagonize and taunt him on a continual basis (of course, he does the same to me).  But I never hide shit.  If I disagree, I will tell you.  If I am upset, you will know.  If my arm has fallen off, I will beat you with it.  On the other stump, if I like you or think you are brilliant or really good at something, I will let you know in no uncertain terms.  As Saint George Carlin once said, “he was just a very honest guy”.  I recognize that as an architect that kind of makes me an outlier, but then, Mekons…

There’s a whole side-drama issue on this whole fucking thing between Wife Sublime and a Parent who conceals everything until they get their way.


We joined the team for an AMAZING sendoff at the school (who amazingly came through with some Ameros)


We took the bus and had some time to stop, so we stopped in Springfield at Lincoln’s home.  It was very cool to watch high school students, mostly African-America, overcome their boredom, be much interested in the history of Lincoln .  And the drive team decided they would buy the cheesy semi-top hats for themselves to wear on the field. Great to see them decide on their own mufti…

So we hit the stadium, and it was pretty awesome.  For my part, I was satisfied to allow the team to enjoy the whole Big Time and I had no need on my part to be shitty about all the previous drama.  We hit the Arch, and I folded myself into the funky little capsules for the second time in my life….

So here’s the thing.  I helped drive this team to this point.  And somehow, we have mentors who are able to ignore all of that; in looking at some of their photos of this trip, it is remarkable in the ability to not include my visage.  I imagine that they will use Photoshop to further erase my memory….

Wife Sublime and I have managed to create, format and develop a world-class FIRST team. We are being shoved out.  After getting back home early sunday morning, we talked over the whole shit show over several beers, and, yeah, the whole crappy drama thing is stupid.  We are going to allow the others to do what they want….


During the Champs, the drive team came up to sit next to me for some matches.  They said the pit was dysfunctional, mentors were yelling at each other, and they wanted me to join them on the field as Coach, partially in recognition that I have done so much but also partially that my involvement made for a better functioning team.  I guess sometimes you need a hardass.

However, I knew better-this was not something that the Other Mentors would accept.  So I ran it by the Teacher-Mentor and the look on his face while he scrambled to find reasons that it was unreasonable told me everything that I needed to know:  I was persona non grata.  I told him “Look, Chris, I would love to be able to let the Drive Team have their request, but fuck, if this is so difficult for you guys I have no desire to insert MORE drama into this shit show.”  These mentors make a big show of allowing the students to make the decisions, but when the students decide something they don’t like, it’s time to clamp down.

The Teacher mentor as much as told me that the mentors with which I have problems are the more important, as they are connected to funding. And are younger.  I guess I am Old and In The Way…

Don’t get me wrong.  This was Several Functions of Awesome.  My wife started this team, and I made it work; we taught many kids how to use tools and to use them well (OK, maybe well is a stretch). We developed the team and stretched it into new expansions and got it to a point where the teams that once mentored US now view us as peers.  Out of the 60 or so teams in Wisconsin, we were one of eleven teams to make it the Championships.

I went out for happy hour with Zelmo, and we talked about this.  One of the things we agreed about is that when you are on a team that is suddenly being successful, there are many people who want to elbow their way in.  Back when it as all struggle and strife, we were on our own.  OK.  One of the other things we agreed upon is that  I am an asshole in several interpersonal ways.  OK.

So I am content to move on, and let much less qualified mentors take over.  OK.

It strikes me that if I had focused my life on my professional life, or my martial arts work in lieu of this robotics crap, I would at least be a fourth degree black belt if not a fair bit more successful in my real life. It is likely that I really should pay more attention to those aspects…

and, considering that I recently received a Business Journal award for a project and am going to receive y fourth Mayor’s design Award for a project, I feel like the fact that my robotics team made it to the World Championships, with or without the acknowledgement of the newbies, makes me feel like this is a year of awards for me.

  1. Mikey Hemlok says:

    Yeah. You’re right. It’s a hard lesson, but eventually the universe kicks your ass enough times that you realize you don’t get to make all the decisions. Hell, you don’t get to make MOST of the decisions. So many things beyond our control, other people, events, timing, luck. And then we push back, but again we discover you don’t win every fight.

    Take the joy of the good along with the bitter lessons, put your eyes on the horizon, saddle up your shit and put one foot in front of the other.

    NOTE: This is why it is 1999 in mikeyworld as much as I can make it…

  2. Scott says:

    Well…Jesus, this was heartbreaking, infuriating and bizarrely inspiring all at once.

  3. Congrats to the team, and all your contributions to it. Deep down, they know, even if they don’t want to.

    But yeah, sorry for the shitshow. People, eh? Buncha assholes.

    Life’s too short and getting shorter — there’s lots of other fun and rewarding shit to do in the meantime without all that bullshit.

    • Exactly. I received official notification this morning that I was not welcome back. Here’s what I replied:

      “That’s fine. It’s not as if I planned on coming back anyway, I recognize how the other mentors feel about me, it was made very plain at Champs. I will leave the Facebook Group today. For my part, I will remember my time building the team with fondness.

      Thanks, but if I want to continue being involved in FIRST, I think I can find my own way.

      Good luck with the things you and the other mentors want to do with the team. ”

      Not what I wanted to say, but….

  4. it will be SO EASY for them to p-shoop me out of that photo….

Go ahead, tell me how I fucked up this time.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.