Team Culture and Catalyzing Change

This thread on CD was interesting to me, and I responded there what I thought, but I’m going to expand on what I said a little more about the two teams I’m involved with, how we define success, and how our leaders have established cultures that permeate that kind of success.

Team 20 is an “Original/Sustaining Team” in FRC, meaning that our team was around in some form since the first year of FRC. We have a few mentors who have been around since the beginning, but they are, for the most part, significantly less involved than they have been in the past. Additionally, for a period of a few years, Team 20 and 250 merged together, and then split apart. Since Team 20 was technically still around for that period of time (250 had taken on Team 20’s legacy status), we retained that legacy team status throughout that period. What I’m trying to illustrate is that Team 20 has not been the same group of mentors throughout it’s history. We have few original mentors remaining, and the leadership has changed quite a few times.

In 2010, one of the original mentors on Team 20 passed away, and we named the 2010 robot after him. Ellis was a successful robot as well on the field, winning a regional and making it to divisional semifinals.

In 2011, there was a major regime change, with some former leaders on Team 20 stepping down and different people taking charge. That, coupled with the decision to attempt to replicate our 2010 swerve drive caused that robot to be relatively unsuccessful. Additionally, between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, we had an experienced senior class graduate, and there were few student leaders left with significant robot experience for the 2012 season.

While this made the 2012 season relatively unsuccessful on the field, it also allowed for new leaders to take charge and a new culture to take hold.

The class that stepped up to take on a lot of leadership roles was our sophomore class, but our inexperience showed. We were not selected at our first regional in 2012 because we tried to do everything in the game.

Some motivated students tried to figure out our problems and ended up improving our robot quite a bit. We also pursued being a feeder robot and were the third robot on the winning alliance at the 2012 Connecticut Regional with Teams 195 and 181. This was a major moment for us, because we learned a lot from working with these teams. We attended the 2012 World Championship and were not selected for eliminations, and rightfully so. But the other emerging student leaders on 20 and I watched the incredible Archimedes finals matches and were inspired to be successful in the 2013 season. Some of us watched IRI from at home, and we got educated on different teams and their build practices.

In 2013, our mantra throughout build season was to “not suck”. We built a simple machine and focused on minimizing any places where the robot could fail. Everything was about minimizing suckage. We didn’t want to jam, we didn’t want to fry motors. We didn’t want to miss shots. We didn’t dare try the incredible engineering challenge of climbing the pyramid all the way to the top.

In 2013 we seeded 2nd at WPI and lost in the finals, and then went to the Connecticut Regional again, and instead found ourselves picking 195 from the #1 seed instead of being their third robot again. We went undefeated at this event.

Kids were inspired that day on 20 for future generations. We taught the younger generations how important scouting was, using numbers to show why 195 and 95 were the right picks at that event. We lost in the quarterfinals at the world championship to 254, and watched as the underdog Galileo alliance defeated the seemingly unstoppable Archimedes alliance. We wanted to be there.

In 2014, we accrued over 100 students for the first time. We applied ourselves and won both our regionals as part of the #1 alliance. We used our improved scouting system to make the right picks and help other teams have good data for the first time. We established new relationships with teams and reassured other ones.

This was all possible because of our leadership.

Rose Barra is the current head mentor of Team 20 and is one of my favorite people. She “gets” the spirit of FIRST, and encourages students who are passionate about it to get more involved. She lobbies the school for support and finds opportunities for outreach wherever she can.

Mike Kimball is a Team 20 alumni from the early 2000’s, and is our head CAD mentor. He’s phenomenal at getting students to understand design and is a master at getting things to package well on the robot when it seems like they shouldn’t.

Doug Wildes was Team 20’s lead engineer from 2013 on. He’s a physicist for GE, and is a very practical leader, forcing the team to make compromises and meet deadlines when necessary. He occasionally gets sidetracked by conflicting interests on the team and by balancing leadership between the students and mentors, but does a mostly phenomenal job keeping build season together.

Last, but certainly not least is Carl Springli. Carl was a senior in high school when I was a freshman, and graduated from RPI in 2015. He now has a job in Ohio and will be mentoring a rookie team called BONDS Robotics. He was, in many ways, the reason I got as interested in FRC as I did. In 2012 he got me involved with the redesign of our bridge manipulator, and he taught me so much over the years about FRC strategy and design. He was the Drive Team mentor for 2013 and 2014 and was a motivator in many ways for the drive team. He knew how to bring out the best in people, even when others wrote them off.

Team 5254 is an entirely different story. 5254 was started by Roy Westwater, a teacher at Ithaca College, and his son, Max Westwater. The initially small team got a boost from a then-student at Ithaca College, Stephen Fastow, who was a 1676 alumni. Roy coaches the team like a sports team, and demands smart decisions and success out of the students. In the fall of 2013, the team began research about drivetrains for the 2014 season, and Roy led the team’s first ever strategic analysis in the basement of his house about what drivetrain to use for the 2014 season. While this may not have been the most educated decision, given they didn’t know the game, I think it established a certain culture of making logical decisions based on analysis instead of something like a team vote.

The team built a simple robot in 2014 (another precedent set early on), and had a robot with just a powerful drivetrain and a fantastic intake. They were one of the best inbounders at Finger Lakes, and should have (in my opinion) won the Rookie All-Star Award.

In 2015, the team built another simple robot, using many of the same ideas. They made a smart analysis of the game and used a slide drive since traction wasn’t necessary. They focused on the basics- tote intake and an elevator at first. They came to the Tech Valley Regional and were selected by Team 20 for a few reasons I’ve discussed in previous posts.

At this point, I really met 5254. The teams bonded, and 20 shared a lot about how to strategize and scout with the team that they hadn’t yet established in their culture. At the Finger Lakes Regional, the team used what they learned at Tech Valley to seed first and go to the finals, losing due to dropped cans in a tragic Finals-3. The team learned that they could compete with the best, and was invited to championships with a Wild Card.

At championships, the team implemented changes to keep cans from dropping like they did in FLR finals. Team 20 helped the team picklist at championships for the first time, and when Team 20 made Einstein (for the first time in 20;s history), we gave some of our leftover seats to some 5254 members.

I joined 5254 in the 2015 off-season, and learned much of this about 5254, but what I can’t state enough is how welcome I felt on 5254. The team has an overwhelming desire to succeed and grow, and they understand what their strengths are. Roy runs a tight ship, but also knows what he lacks- mainly experience with the highest levels of FRC. He knows how to motivate people, but he doesn’t know how to strategize or picklist or analyze the game like an FRC veteran does. He respects expertise and encourages it. At the 2015 IRI, a number of college student mentors from 1676 and 2791 helped out the team, and he knows that these people can help to inspire the kids on 5254 to pursue greater heights.

5254 is motivated to win a World Championship in 2016 because of this established culture. Because from day 1, 5254 had been building smart, simple robots based on good analysis.

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