June 21, 2017
by Chris Curran
Everything I needed to know about tech scouting I learned by helping my kid build 100lb robots.
A year ago, I used a monthlong sabbatical to help my son’s FIRST Robotics team. What I witnessed was, as I called it then, “a learning environment unlike anything I’d ever seen before.”
After returning for a second year of mentoring these high schoolers, I realized that it was an incredible learning environment for me, too.
It’s a huge time commitment, but mentoring a high school robotics team is a great way to learn a new domain of technology and expand your horizons personally as well as professionally. I see it as yet another route to continually scout emerging technology, similar to my recent work with an IoT accelerator. Mentoring my son’s robotics team benefitted me concretely in several ways.
Year two takeaways
Here are five learnings from my experience that make me a better technologist:
1. Hardware matters again
First, I got a hands-on view of how rapidly hardware development has evolved in the past few years. Yes, it is true, as Marc Andreessen wrote several years ago, that “software is eating the world,” but hardware is taking bigger and bigger bites of that world. Once relegated to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), hardware manufacturing has become interesting to investors and to entrepreneurs again, thanks in large part to the leverage that software can provide. In other words, it’s possible to prototype new devices (like competition robots) using inexpensive parts that are widely available, and then rapidly change the behavior of those devices through software tweaks. This capability enables hardware makers to deploy the same kind of rapid-cycle, agile development that people have learned to use in the software world.
The high school students I worked with definitely understood this concept. They embraced agile development like nobody’s business. And, to my surprise, agile works at the high school level: You don’t need a team of computer science PhDs to pull it off.
Second, I learned that hardware is a whole new ball game. I’ve been working in technology for decades, but most of my work to date has been in software and services. While much of that knowledge is transferable, there is a wide array of new tools, new devices, and new styles of working to be learned when you dive into hardware.
2. Outside learning happens in unexpected ways
The experience reinforced something I already knew but don’t always practice: You can learn a lot about a new field of technology by going outside your organization. Just being exposed to the energy, enthusiasm, and ideas of the FIRST Robotics Competition was incredible. It also allowed me to meet other mentors, many of whom also work in technology and could be valuable contacts or resources for me. In addition, working with the robot components themselves—chassis, batteries and power systems, microcontrollers, motors, gearboxes, and much more—gave me a much better sense of what’s involved in the design, manufacturing, and support (yes, these robots break!) of industrial robots, personal robots, and autonomous vehicle systems.
3. STEM is for the enterprise, too
I also realized that the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) approach to education could be applied at the enterprise level. STEM educators focus on hands-on experience, getting students to build things themselves. In doing that, students learn more rapidly and more deeply than in a pure classroom situation. I’ve used that insight in my work—taking educational devices such as littleBits (programmable electronic building blocks that grew out of the MIT Media Lab) to trade shows and workshops—to explain how the internet of things (IoT) works. REV Robotics is another edtech startup that works closely with FIRST to bring robot kits and parts to kids globally, through the new FIRST Global program. It would be interesting to have an enterprise contest like this, too.
4. Open source rules
Much of what the FIRST Robotics teams do is possible only because of the widespread availability of open source tools as well as a vast set of guides, tutorials, and reference material—all freely available on the internet. Making your robot “see” objects during the competition so it can pick up a ball, for example, requires sophisticated integration of a camera, processors, and software to capture and analyze digital images. Thankfully, OpenCV is one of the popular open source computer-vision libraries that greatly simplify these tasks, and many FIRST teams use it. The open source culture is also evident in the code that teams make publically available on GitHub.
5. Tomorrow’s talent is here
Finally, the experience was beneficial to my company. High school students are not an immediate target for PwC recruiters, but chances are good that these students will remember PwC in four to six years when they’re looking for their first post-college jobs. Being involved in the robotics team helped reinforce PwC’s brand as a technology company. Given that PwC competes for tech talent with the Apples and Amazons of the world, as well as various enticing startups, that’s an advantage I welcome.
For companies, ensuring the availability of a well-educated workforce that is prepared for a high-tech future is essential. FIRST gave me a glimpse at the enthusiasm of high school students. The program is also a great way for companies to develop a strategic talent pipeline and build their brand with future recruits.
What are you waiting for?
Getting deeply involved in a robotics program like FIRST can give you a firsthand look at a major trend that will have significant impacts across a variety of industries: the integration of hardware and software. I learned more about this integration in six weeks of hands-on volunteer work than I could have in a year of more conventional research.
And as for our team? We made it to the finals in the FIRST Robotics Competition in Houston!