Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Katie Widen - This Is How I Work

In this week’s How I Work, we’re delving into the life of a Katie Widen a former student of 1675 who is also the Co-founder and former mentor of 3928. Katie is currently working as a Software Engineer at VEX Robotics while mentoring 1296 and training to be an FTA. Katie tells interesting stories about her time on her team and the different things she has learned through her many years in robotics. Read more to know more about Katie and her experiences to become the amazing mentor she is now!

[Responses from September 28, 2016]

Name: Katie Widen
CD Username: Katie_UPS
Current Gig/Job: Software Engineer at VEX Robotics
Alma Mater/Degree: Iowa State University - BS in Computer Engineering
Current Team(s): 1296 - Full Metal Jackets
Former Team(s): 1675 - The Ultimate Protection Squad (student), 3928 - Team Neutrino (mentor and co-founder)
Location: Greenville, TX
Hobbies: Rock climbing, sewing, ukulele, painting, and playing with my dog

What inspired you to do what you do? Tell us a story.
Unlike many kids who join FRC, I had no intentions of becoming an engineer: I was going to be a journalist or a psychologist. I joined 1675 (UPS) because my siblings did it and I wanted to animate/write but quickly was whisked into welding and building. When I was 15 I went to Boston with my mom and visited the MIT Museum of Science. I got to interact with these very delicate and precise kinetic sculptures that combined engineering and art. There and then, I decided I wanted to be an engineer. Because of all my work building and designing with 1675, I figured I would be a mechanical engineer. It wasn’t until college when I took a programming class on a whim that I determined I wanted to be a computer engineer.
By my sophomore year of college, I got hired as a Teaching Assistant and ran hands-on programming labs where students applied what they learned in lecture to write functioning code. I had to answer questions, reteach concepts, and started running review sessions for additional help. I loved that job so much I almost switched to teaching, but instead decided I wanted my engineering work to apply to education (a large part of how I ended up at VEX).

What is your day job, and how’d you get there?
I write firmware for VEX Robotics, which is to say I write code that enables student’s programs to turn motors and read sensors.

I had a friend working here who encouraged me to apply for an internship. I received an offer but declined it because I wanted to try working at one of the big programming companies. While that was an interesting experience, I wasn’t really interested of the type of work I was doing and the company’s values didn’t resonate with me.

I applied again to VEX because I wanted to work somewhere that was making products with social impact and for the educational sphere. I interned the summer before my last semester at Iowa State and created an automated tool for testing firmware updates. During my time there, I got an offer for a full time position that I later accepted. I’ve been a full time employee since February of 2016.

What is your favorite story to tell about robotics?
When Neutrinos (3928) was a rookie team:
First: Our team name was almost “i.” Not “Team i” or even a capitol “I,” just lowercase “i.” The next day we came back to the shop and all agreed that we should pick a different name.

Second: This was 2012 when part of the game involved balancing on a bridge with other robots and we were looking for the easiest way to balance with other teams. The Q&A said the plastic ball deflectors under the bridge counted as bridge, so we set out to build a 7 in’ tall robot that could fit between the ramp and plastic and also shoot high goals. This was incredibly difficult, but we went at it anyways.

During Week 5, the Q&A deemed our strategy illegal. The shooting part of the robot didn’t work that well anyways so we decided to do a major rebuild. Our students bagged a belly pan, bumpers, and some wheels and then completed Build Season Round II: Withholding Allowance Edition, where we completely rebuilt our ball grabbing and shooting mechanisms to be under 30 pounds before our regional (where we seeded 5th).

What's your favorite robot that you didn't help build?
Simbotics (1114) 2008: This is probably one of the most popular answers to this question, but that robot was seriously incredible. I was a rookie that year and we played against Simbotics at our first regional. My team bit off more than we could chew and ended up with a drive base and a non-functioning telescoping elevator. In contrast, there was Simbot SS: a beautiful machine that played the game with ease at our week 1 regional. I was in awe of this dominating robot and saw the potential of what could be built. My team’s alliance somehow beat them in a qualification match but they went on to win the event and worlds that year.

I also have to give some love to Winnovation’s (1625) robots from 2008-2011. They liked to do a lot of crazy things (6-wheel swerve drive, anyone?) without a lot of technical mentors or excessive resources. My high school team was always fond of them: we loved that you could see holes in the wrong places (evidence of lots of student involvement) and how they proved you could succeed with the right attitude and hard work.

What apps/software/tools can't you live without? (Work/Robotics/Home)
My short-term memory is pretty terrible, so I live off of to-do lists for work and home, and I really like Trello for this. I use the app, the web version... I even have some email filters set up so I can email myself items to add to cards. In a similar vein I use a lot of sticky notes, both virtual on my desktop and physical on my desk.

I also use google calendar pretty heavily to keep track of my time and prevent over scheduling. I used to block out what I was doing every hour in college/high school to get my homework and projects done on time, but now it’s just to make sure robotics doesn’t overlap with vet appointments and to remember when Battlebots is on.

What's your workspace setup like? (Work/Robotics/Home)
My work desk is very messy, as a side effect of the type of work I do. Because my job involves programming various microprocessors, I currently have 6 different boards on my desk and associated wires to power/program/debug.  I use three monitors, typically one with code, one with my communication (email, slack), and another one with whatever reference material I need. On top of all that, I have a power supply, oscilloscope, headphones, and a cup of tea.

For home, I like to sit on my couch with my feet up. I don’t do much productive work at home, unless it’s sewing - where I use a basic Singer sewing machine on whatever surface I can find (typically my kitchen table).

For robotics, 1296 has a really neat build space inside an industrial building. The whole shop used to be just for us (and the owners who worked out of some offices) but it very recently has been turned into a Makerspace, which will be an interesting dynamic for the team. The best part of the makerspace -for me- is that it partially enabled/encouraged our team to acquire an in-house welding set up.

You’ll most often find me in the welding booth during build season. Other welders know that safety and prep are the most important parts of welding, so most of the set-up revolves around that. I keep lots of wire brushes (clean surfaces make better welds) and a grinding wheel for electrodes (they need to be sharpened like pencils), and everyone in the booth with me is wearing protective gear (jackets, gloves) and welding masks so no one goes blind. I run a tight ship when welding is involved because the risk for injury is so high, and I train team welders to do the same. I can never remember which welders I’ve used: as long as it’s TIG and functioning, I don’t really care.

What do you listen to while you work?
Lately I’ve been really into the soundtrack from Guardians of the Galaxy, but typically I like to listen to a lot of electronic music, namely house, to get my energy up and keep my focused. If I’m in a more mellow mood I listen to a lot of instrumental/orchestral music. However, I’ve been known to listen to one song on repeat for hours if I really need to zone in which can be anything from pop (“Chandelier” by Sia) to house (“Hey Hey Hey” by Thomas Jack) to acapella (anything by Pentatonix), or even video game music (“Rainbow Road” from Mario Kart 64).

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I’m pretty good at noticing when someone gets a haircut. Not amazing, but pretty good.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
“Always ask questions.” The first time I vividly remember receiving this advice was at a performance review in an internship, where despite asking lots of questions, they thought I wasn’t asking enough. Since then, I realized asking questions has led me to a lot of opportunities and knowledge that I would’ve had otherwise (and helps with grades, you learn more when you ask questions).

I think it’s important to ask how and why about everything... and not just in an academic sense. I think people worry that asking questions/asking for help makes them look dumb, but it doesn’t - and struggling for no reason other than not wanting to look dumb is way worse. Additionally, I’ve noticed most people genuinely tend to enjoy answering questions and sharing their knowledge. This ties nicely with one of my favorite mottos: “If you’re the smartest person in the room then you’re in the wrong room.”

What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
I love watching teen dramas on Netflix. I’m in the middle of Switched at Birth and just started Secret Life of the American Teenager. I hear Pretty Little Liars is good, so I might add that to the list.  

Fill in the blank. I'd love to see Renee Becker - The Executive Director of IndianaFIRST answer these same questions.

Anything else you want people to know about you?
I’m training to be an FTA - a process that has led me to a lot of different places and meeting a lot of different people. Big thanks so some folks in Indiana who helped start my journey and to Iowa FTC for giving me a place to grow and learn. The volunteer group in Texas has also been pretty awesome in welcoming me and providing opportunities, and my employer has been very supportive of this endeavor.

Outside of robotics (and everyone should have a life outside of robotics), I make a lot of quilts, climb indoor (and occasionally outdoor) rock walls, and tell a lot of dad jokes.

"I have not failed. I've just found 10000 ways that won't work." - Thomas A. Edison

Friday, October 7, 2016

Jonathan Bryant - This Is How I Work

In this week’s How I Work, we are going to look a little bit into the life of a familiar face from FIRST HQ. You might remember him as the guy who says “Bring out the dead!” in the FRC Stronghold Game reveal: Jonathan Bryant. When Jonathan joined FRC, he instantly became mesmerized by the regional atmosphere and years later became a FRC Kit of Parts Engineer. In this article, you can find out more about the amazing stories and advice Jonathan has to offer!

[Responses from September 21, 2016]

Name: Jonathan Bryant (JB)
CD Username: JB
Current Gig/Job: FRC Kit of Parts Engineer
Alma Mater/Degree: Drexel University BS in Mechanical Engineering
Current Team(s): 238 (2016-present)
Former Team(s): 1403 (2008-2014)
Location: Manchester, NH
Hobbies: Food, video games, sports, robotics, and spending time on the water. 

What inspired you to do what you do? Tell us a story.
FIRST® inspired me to do what I do. I know that sounds cheesy. My technology teacher, Mr. Leicht, convinced me to join the team during my junior year at high school. I will never forget the first time I walked into an official competition, it was the 2008 NJ regional and the game was Overdrive, it was like some kind of high. The buzz in the air, the scale of the competition, the elegance of the machines, I knew I was home. That was the defining moment when I said to myself, okay I want to keep doing this and I want to be an engineer. Without a mentor leading the way for me, I would not be an engineer, I would not be in my dream job working at FIRST, and I would not be trying to give the same experience to the students on the team I mentor.    

What is your day job, and how’d you get there?
I work for FIRST as the FIRST Robotics Competition Kit of Parts Engineer. Being the Kit of Parts engineer is a very interesting job and my roles and responsibilities are always changing, which I love. During the build season I work on team updates, q and a’s, and I also oversee the LRI and RI program here at FIRST. During the competition season I go out to events and FTA as well as LRI. During the off season I get to work on game design, manual development, and most importantly the kit of parts, which includes sourcing parts, logistics planning, testing items, and working with suppliers. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I get to hang out with amazing people while working. 

                                     (apparently I really like making that face)

What is your favorite story to tell about robotics?
I love to tell the story of the buttons that 238 brought to Asheville this year. The whole team is standing outside in the cold waiting for the doors to open for the first day of the competition. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not the most alert person in the wee hours of the morning. Eventually I notice that some of the students are giggling and looking at me. I start to think do I have something on my face? Am I wearing the wrong outfit? What does my hair look like? Eventually I notice a button that one of the students is wearing.

For those of you who don’t get the joke, I am the bring out your dead guy. The entire team was wearing them, mentors, students, parents. It was kind of perfect. The team gave these buttons out at the event so they were everywhere. I would walk around and see my face everywhere it was very funny.

                                              What's your favorite robot that you didn't help build?
Barrage (254-2014) – The detail that went into every aspect of that robot, along with the simplicity and effectiveness of it, was astounding. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and like all magnificent things, it was very simple. Plus, it was fun to bring some skeleton of it to HQ.

What apps/software/tools can't you live without? (Work/Robotics/Home)
My cell phone. Everything I do is on my Nexus. Recently my phone stopped working for a day while I was traveling and I felt completely lost. I also use google applications extensively for home and robotics. In the robotics lab there is a locked cabinet, that the students do not have access to, with a complete multi tool set and a complete drill set that comes in handy during very stressful times. I really like to walk to and from work while listening to music and my QC35’s allows me to really wind up or shut down. The other tool that we use extensively in the robotics shop is post its. I am a very big fan of tracking progress via post-its. I feel that it really allows people to take ownership of projects while ensuring everything gets done. 

What's your workspace setup like? (Work/Robotics/Home)
All my workspaces are basically the same, computer with two big monitors and ample desk space so that I can clutter it up. I am obsessed with my Logitech mx master and have at least one at every workspace.

What do you listen to while you work?
Usually nothing, but when I do it is alternative rock (Blink-182, etc.)

What’s your schedule like during build season?
Work from 0900 to 1800, then robotics with the team from 1800 to 2200ish, Monday to Friday. Saturdays are typically 0900 to 1600 with the team and Sundays are typical down time until about week 4, when the team will meet for a few hours.

What everyday thing are you better at than anyone else?
I do not think I am better than anyone else at some everyday thing. There are almost 7.5 billion people on this planet, it would be absurd to think I am better at something then every one of those 7.5 billion people. Although who knows, maybe I am the best at hitting snooze on my alarm clock.
With that being said I think I excel at handling pressure, dealing with problems, and coordinating chaos.

What's the best advice you've ever received?
The only truly finite resource that we have is time, so ask yourself at the end of every day, did I use my time wisely?

What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Cooking. The reason it is a guilty pleasure is because I spend way too much time and money on it. I will spend hours researching what I am going to cook, ensuring I have the best possible cooking apparatus, procuring the best possible ingredients, and prepping the meal, all for this short 30-minute experience. Basically every time I cook I try to make it the best meal I have ever had. 9 times out of 10 it is not the best but it is that 1 time that keeps me addicted.   

Fill in the blank. I'd love to see Adrienne Emerson 148  answer these same questions.

Anything else you want people to know about you?
I am always available to answer questions, provide feedback, or work through problems with people.

You can contact Jonathan at

“You may delay, but time will not.” - Benjamin Franklin

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Versaplanetary Bolts

As we prepare for the upcoming season we realized we needed more bolts for mounting versaplanetaries and motors. We found most of them from, they often have 15-30% off coupons making buying from them even cheaper. The chart below shows all the bolts we believe we might need when using VPs and 775pros.

Versaplanetary and Motor Mounting Bolts
10-321/2LowBlack Oxide100$10.48$0.10Mounting to < 1/4"
10-323/4LowBlack Oxide100$10.93$0.11Mounting to ~1/4"
10-321LowBlack Oxide50$8.21$0.16Mounting to ~1/2"
Versaplaentary Assembly Bolts
8-320.5SocketBlack Oxide100$8.56$0.09Motor Plate to VP
8-320.875SocketBlack Oxide100$10.23$0.101:1 VP - No Stages
8-321.25SocketBlack Oxide100$13.58$0.141 Stage VP
8-321.75SocketBlack Oxide100$21.37$0.212 Stage VP
8-322.25SocketBlack Oxide25$9.89$0.403 Stage VP
8-322.5SocketBlack Oxide25$4.82$0.193 Stage VP
8-322.75SocketBlack Oxide25$6.42$0.264 Stage VP
775 pro mounting bolts
M4x0.710mmSocketMetric Blue50$4.33$0.09775pro Screws
Versaplaentary Set Screw
10-323/16Set ScrewAlloy Steel50$4.76$0.10Set Screw

- Spectrum

“Reduction of content can make all the difference in the outcome of a design.” - Josef Muller-Brockmann

Spectrum October News

Upcoming Events
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Upcoming Events

  • 10/11 - NRG FIRST Football Showcase at NRG Stadium
  • 10/22 - The Remix - Off-season Event - The Woodlands, no hotel stay. Optional Setup Day on Friday we will drive up. Sign Up -
  • 10/29 - Mock Kickoff - Brainstorming Training and Engineering Design Process. -
  • 11/5 - Canstruction - Building a sculpture out of Canned food. 
  • 11/5 - Barnes and Noble Maker Faire Demonstration
  • 11/12 - 11/13 - Maker Faire Demo at George R. Brown Sign Up -
  • 11/15-11/17 - SpaceCon Convention Demonstration at George R. Brown
  • 11/19 - Space City VEX Volunteering - Clear Lake -
  • 12/3 - FLL Qualifier - Hosted at Strake Jesuit - Volunteer Sign Up Students and Parents -

FLL Qualifier - Dec 3rd

We need team members, parents, teachers, and everyone else to volunteer at our FIRST Lego League qualifier on Dec 3rd.

This event is for teams of 4th - 8th grade students to compete in a robotics challenge.

We host the event in the Strake Jesuit Dining Hall and we are in charge of all aspects of the competition.

We especially need judges for the event. You don't need to have any experience or knowledge about robots to help us judges. You should need to enjoy talking to students and helping to promote STEM education.

Please sign up here:

The Remix, October 22

This is our last off-season event of the 2015 season. It will take place in The Woodlands at College Park High School and is hosted by our friends Texas Torque and CRyptonite.

All students, parents, supporters, etc. are invited to attend this event. It's a fun event and a good introduction to FRC for our new students.

Sign Up:

Mock Kickoff, October 29th

We will be hosting the 2015 FRC Mock Kickoff on Oct. 31 in the Strake Dining Hall. It's a event designed to give students an introduction to the FRC season and engineering design process.

All spectrum team members should plan on attending this event. It will end before 4 P.M. so people can enjoy their Halloween evening.

Sign Up:

FRC Lone Star Central Regional hosted at Strake Jesuit

We are holding the Lone Star Central Regional during spring brake March 15th-18th. Please save the date we want everyone to be there to give our team a home field advantage of cheering fans.

Parents and Supporters
If you would like to help at the event please sign up to volunteer here and we'll pass your information on to the volunteer coordinator for the event.


Social Media

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FRC Season and Competitions

Here is a presentation about the FRC build and competition season. It may give you a bit more insite into what is going to happen during the spring semester.

FRC Season and Competitions
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