Volume 31 Number 13
[Don't Get Me Started]
What, Me Mentor?
By David Platt | December 2016
I’m in real trouble now. I signed up to mentor Annabelle’s high school robotics team. More than that, I agreed to take charge of the emerging software group. Our kickoff meeting is the day after tomorrow. I am so scrod (a Boston term, look it up).
We’re team 5459, the Ipswich Tigers (ipswich5459.com, new sponsors always welcome). We belong to the FIRST Robotics league (bit.ly/2dCyhoP), founded by Dean Kamen (bit.ly/2e3O1xq), inventor of the Segway scooter. Every January, the league announces new robotic tasks for the coming season. The teams then have six weeks to design and build a robot that accomplishes these tasks, with which they compete in live meets starting in March.
Annabelle joined the team in its first year, when she was in eighth grade. She was searching for her tribe, as eighth graders do. She found it in the camaraderie of the robotics lab, where brainpower and creativity are admired and respected, especially when coupled with hard work. The next year, as a high school freshman, she served as head of the mechanical division. This year she’ll repeat that role, while training an understudy. I can envision her as team captain her senior year.
Software somehow didn’t catch her fancy. (Where have I gone wrong?) She says that Christine, a mechanical engineer and the team’s founding mentor, is the smartest person she knows. “Present company excluded, of course?” I asked her. “Nope. Deal with it.” Oy. Acorns and trees, I guess.
The students bumbled through the first two years, mostly on their own, chopping and hacking without really thinking things through. As you’d expect, they didn’t place highly, but they sure did have fun. They learned what not to do by doing it wrong and falling on their faces. This year, they’re determined to learn from their previous mistakes. They approached their mentors at the end of the summer, asking us to help them raise their game. “We know we need your help, but we don’t know what help we need,” Annabelle said. So we’re stepping up, like the fools we are.
My role is to guide their software group: advising, cajoling, wheedling, occasionally threatening them into some semblance of a modern software organization. The timetable is so tight that we’ll have to use Agile techniques. I’ll start by insisting that students show up on time for meetings and turn off their damn smartphones, and we’ll go from there.
My mentee students all use the buzzword “coding” to describe their activity. In my first rant to them, I explained that coding is only one small part of software development. More important, I argued, is defining the computing problem, deciding what needs to be coded. Then you have to figure out which people are going to do which parts of it, how they will communicate with each other, how the pieces fit together, and how you’re going to verify it all. I have trouble getting this idea through the heads of college students and working developers. Maybe these younger kids will be more teachable.
Here’s what inspires me: These kids don’t give up. Ever. At last spring’s competition, they kept banging, banging, banging; modifying their robot on the fly (Figure 1); despite blood, sweat, tears and soldering iron burns; working their butts off to improve from 27th place overall to 25th place in the very last bout. And then celebrating it, as the accomplishment that it truly was. Lump in the throat time, my friends.
Figure 1 Team 5459, the Ipswich Tigers (center), competing in the FIRST Robotics league.
What a privilege and honor to help shape this team and its members. And what a responsibility, too—to all the kids, their families, my profession, my world; and yours, too, dear reader. It sits more heavily than I thought it would.
I wrote the team a theme song, which they deemed too old-farty to sing. (“Bots to Build,” to the tune of “Boats to Build,” with apologies to Guy Clark, see bit.ly/2enSss8.) The verses are, mercifully, forgotten. But I can’t help humming the chorus under my breath, with which I will leave you as Team 5459 sets sail for whatever comes:
We’re gonna build us a bot, with all our hands
5459’s got a plan
Let the wheels roll where they will
’ Cause we’ve got bots to build!
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.