Most of the time, FIRST is a fun way for me to volunteer my time to help create the future generation of engineers and to better the lives of young high school students in my local community.
But then there are those special days when I actually learn more than the students did. And on Saturday, it was one of those days.
When mentoring, I tend to gravitate towards the students that are struggling the most. Maybe I see my own timid self in them, maybe I just find joy in helping them achieve something they thought was impossible to surmount. Whatever the case may be, this year that resulted in taking charge of the CAD design team and guiding the climber subsystem team through the prototyping and designing process. Our climber team is in sort of a bind at the moment. They know exactly what we're doing for our climber and the concept is one we've stolen from last year's climber, so not much prototyping is involved. And since our mechanism relies on the cube lifter team's mechanism to be complete before we can even begin to assemble it, they're feeling pretty unproductive at this point.
This is where I would normally be able to say I gave them some side project and hooray everyone felt better and everything was rainbows and unicorns. But that would be lying. I'm not even 3 years into my career and about as many years into mentoring a robotics team, so I have exactly zero experience with managing a team. I tried bringing the team to the local tool shop to get some inspiration on how exactly to execute the part of the climber that actually grabs the rung, looking at different hooks, carabineers, and latches. I tried getting them all to Google some ideas. We watched videos of past years with similar climbing field elements. But nothing I did would get them thinking. Needless to say, by the end of Saturday our entire subsystem team left feeling uninvolved, unenlightened, and perhaps even dejected.
I was beginning to feel pretty terrible. Another day gone in the build season and we had accomplished just about nothing in our subsystem team other than "Look! I found last year's climber over here!" and "Let's use Velcro to attach it to the shaft again." Even Juan couldn't get them motivated to up and do something. The only part of the day in which they looked engaged was when we went to the machine shop to actually help the intake team with prototyping because they needed more than four hands. Why was I having so much trouble getting them excited about their system? And how much longer could they flounder before they lose interest in the team completely?
The nice part about mentoring an FRC team like ours is that there is usually a wealth of knowledge to be gained from other mentors, be it others on your team or others across the globe. Luckily, I didn't have to look far. I decided to turn to Kevin, an ADI engineer with plenty of experience leading teams between managing a team of engineers here at ADI and his numerous years as a Boy Scout leader.
He explained to me that when you are working with a team, regardless of what skill the task at hand requires, they will typically fall into one of four quadrants, and each quadrant requires a different coaching style for them to be as successful as possible.
Confident Competence - When you can give someone a task and they can go run with it without you worrying about them making too many mistakes along the way, that person is probably in this quadrant. These are the people that dive in head first and can be autonomous enough (and knowledgeable enough) to return to you once they've solved the problem at hand. Through most of my time mentoring the team, I've dealt with team members like this. These are the kids that are typically still trying to solve robots problems at home when the meeting is over, or that one programmer that decides to write a program to test the program he wrote because he didn't feel like typing in a bunch of random possible inputs. Very few people actually start here right out of school or when they first join the team.
Confident Incompetence - They'll dive in alright! But they'll ask you for a map and a GPS. Maybe they need a textbook or some other resource to learn more before they can start, assuming they know where their knowledge is lacking. If they are blissfully unaware of their knowledge deficiencies, they might charge forward so fast that they just run straight off the cliff because they thought they didn't need a map. Simply put, these people will have the confidence to jump in but they won't know where to start or might start in the wrong place. They need a little coaching to bring their knowledge up to speed, but once they're there you can let them go.
Competent, Lack of Confidence - To be honest, this is where I started in my career. Sure there were things I didn't know, but for the most part I knew what I was doing. But at a certain point, I realized that my input to a discussion was just as valid as the engineer with 20 years of experience sitting next to me and that it was worth speaking up about. People in the Competent Lack of Confidence quadrant know exactly what needs to be done. But they are too afraid to jump in and do it. This is where I feel like most new engineers tend to start. And to get them going you'll need to help them recognize their strengths before they truly blossom.
Lack of Competence, Lack of Confidence - This is where most rookies fall, and in many areas new engineers as well. They don't know where or how to start and usually either don't know enough to know where to ask for help or are too afraid to ask for help. Much like the Competent Lack of Confidence quadrant, they're quiet, and rarely attempt to add any input in a group conversation even if the room is dead silent. They require the most guidance to get them to the point where they can be autonomous. These are not the people whom you can just give a task and they will go run with it. This is where half of the Climber subsystem team falls, as half of them are brand new to the team.
That was my issue. I was trying to get these students going like they were in a Confident Competence quadrant when really the majority of them lacked both confidence and knowledge to get the job done on their own. Of course anything Juan or I tried wasn't going to work! With that in mind going into tonight's meeting, I'll have to come up with something different to do with them to keep them engaged.
It's situations like this that are the reason why I encourage everyone I meet to try mentoring a team, whether they have technical skills or not. Technical skills can be learned outside of robotics. But these soft leadership skills can only truly be learned with experience. It's much safer to try and fail in leadership on a robotics team than on the job. I really can't say it enough times, sometimes I think I learn more than the kids do on the team.
This blog is part of a series covering the 2018 season of the FIRST Robotics Competition, FIRST POWER UP. Stay tuned for more updates, including coverage of the Championship Events in Houston and Detroit at the end of April! Get to know the ADI teams, learn more about our donation boards, and meet the employee mentors that make it all happen!