by Jonathan Spalten.
With a new generation of leadership coming in to take the helm, we here at the Alumni Newsletter wanted to take a look back at previous leaders and their journey through the RoboJackets leadership ladder. We specifically chose to hold short interviews with the previous two Presidents, Alex Field and Joe Spall, to get an idea of who they are as leaders and offer them a chance to share reflections on their role as President and the path they took to get there.
First, we’ll discuss Alex Field, the outgoing President during the 2020-2021 year. Alex started in Battlebots, and quickly began taking on leadership roles in the team, including Sumo bot lead, before the official formation of RoboWrestling this year. The year before he was elected President, Alex was the Project Manager of Battlebots. At first glance, Battlebots is similar to RoboJackets as a whole in that the team is composed of a larger set of smaller teams that operate under the same administrative umbrella. We asked Alex whether he thought that similarity helped prepare him for the role of President. Here’s what he said:
I actually think [RoboJackets President] is pretty different, mainly because all the teams on Battlebots, while they are different, they still share a unified culture … They fit within the Battlebots style. When you’re leading all of RoboJackets, all the teams of RoboJackets are very unique in how they interact with each other, how they interact with their teammates, and the culture that they bring out. You have to adjust to understanding all those cultures. The paperwork and admin side of things is fairly similar … you just have to adapt to the different teams.
Next, we asked Alex about his motivation for getting into leadership. Many people who know Alex will attest he has plenty of energy to spare and is always happy to use it to make a positive contribution, and his answer reflects that well:
I have a passion for helping as many people as I possibly can and doing as much as I can for the people around me. Becoming President was the way I could impact the most people in this organization. I always wanted to see, “how can I take a step up and have an impact on more people’s lives?” [The presidency] was the way I found I could do that. … This organization impacts all the students. By being part of this organization, the members are gaining a unique experience: growing as engineers, growing socially, growing their leadership skills … by helping this organization iron out the issues that happen or handle all the [proverbial] fires that come up, it can make it a smoother process for all the members … they can focus on learning and making things better for themselves.
Speaking of proverbial fires, the year of 2020 had one big one we’re still putting out now. We asked Alex to reflect on the COVID response he and his team executed to keep RoboJackets functioning.
Well, our response wasn’t perfect but we did about as well as we could. …I think the most important leadership trait is adaptability. I think we were quick to adjust our expectations for the year. … We needed to be focusing on making sure we function and getting us to the next year. … We were quick to get announcements out to the organization on what’s going on; we wanted to have as many meetings as possible to iron out all the details so we came into the fall with a plan. … When we got into the fall, people more or less had an idea of what the system was and how we were operating, and teams were able to get to work.
One of the big things that Alex mentioned as part of their planning and communication plan was a Q&A document that the team compiled by asking RoboJackets members for their questions and concerns and finding answers for their specific questions. They then published the resulting FAQ, and actively added information to it as the year went on.
Given this massive (proverbial) fire that Alex and his team had to dedicate significant amounts of time to, there were many ideas that had to be deprioritized. We also asked Alex for some examples of what he had planned to do, but regretted being unable to get to.
I really wanted to see how I could interact with people in SGA [and other student organizations, including SCC teams] and get closer and get to know them a lot more. Everyone was overwhelmed with the pandemic and everything being remote. It was a lot harder to have casual interactions. … I lost the opportunity to build up those [interpersonal] connections I really wanted to build up. …
I don’t want me or any part of this organization to be closed off from those external bodies, because those external bodies bring a unique perspective. … Maybe they have a cool leadership system that they use that we can implement here. We aren’t going to know unless we talk with them. I wanted to be at the forefront of discovering those details and bringing them back to help the organization grow.
He also wanted to spend significantly more time interacting face to face with regular members that may not be involved with RoboJackets leadership. He wanted to get more visibility on core officers and let regular members see them around. After all, “this organization is nothing without the people that make it up. The interpersonal relationships and how we all work together, how we grow from each other is what makes RoboJackets what it is. … I want to be able to strengthen those connections as much as possible.”
Finally, we wanted to ask what Alex did during his time as President that he was most proud of. His answer: “that we made it.”
I’ve been able to talk with new members who have loved their experience as part of this organization [despite all the challenges with COVID] and wanted to continue. Our membership is still large, our retention is still solid. We managed to hold this org together, as much as every external factor was trying to keep that from happening.
Joe Spall was the President of RoboJackets during the 2019-2020 year. Before he took the title of President, he was a member of RoboRacing and took on a few leadership positions, including RoboRacing electrical lead as a sophomore, the electrical training chair, and the electrical core chair. Electrical core is a biweekly meeting in which electrical members share progress updates and can ask questions to other electrical members in other teams. Joe views his journey through leadership at RoboJackets following the “stepping stone approach.” He continued:
Freshman year, my intention wasn’t necessarily to be a leader in an official position. I wanted to build robots. … Because of the [small] number of people at the time, I was just kinda made the electrical lead, because there were no other people. … I had done leadership opportunities before in high school (chief engineer in his FTC team), but that was the first time, at a more serious level, that I had the technical and the management aspect combining, which I think is important. The President doesn’t necessarily build any robots, but still needs to have the general sense that we build robots and [know] what needs to happen to facilitate that. …Electrical lead helped prepare me for general RoboJackets leadership. … Electrical training exposed me to all the other teams. Like it or not, there’s a bit of siloing that happens at the subteam level… electrical training lead allowed me to see past that. … There’s more to it than building my robot. There’s building the organization and building new members into being part of the organization. Electrical core offered a similar deal, but was a little more administrative.
Like Alex, we also asked him what his motivation was to delve deeper into leadership. He said:
I think there’s more to it than building the robots. This is a leadership organization as well. Having the opportunity to help the next generation, and, of course, current generation, build towards keeping the boat afloat and, hopefully, make it go a little bit faster.
We wanted to highlight two projects he worked on as President: the development of software training robots and the tabling demo hackathon. The first project, the software training robots, involves the design and fabrication of a fleet of simple robots that the software members in software training can use as test beds to help them learn basic coding practices. Here’s what he had to say about his role in their development:
That was actually started up before I was President. Once again, it was about getting to work with other people across all the teams in software. …It was more of a product design experience, which is sometimes more useful in understanding constraints and what people are capable of and committing too. Building a product doesn’t seem like a management thing, but it can be. … I was still working on it a lot as President. … Filling in those gaps is a major part of the President role.
His big takeaways from that role were these:
People are unpredictable. Users are unpredictable. You can see a lot of parallels between that and leadership and managing people. People take different approaches to things and use tools [in ways you may not have thought of] when you originally conceived them. … [also that] things won’t necessarily work out as you expect, but you can get it working enough that there’s still value to it and people can still get a learning experience from it, even if it’s not what you initially envisioned.
The tabling demo hackathon was a big proposal during Joe’s presidency. Joe wanted to do it because “we do a ton of great stuff, but how we communicate that to other people could use some work.” RoboJackets has a lot of opportunities to table at various events, but often lacks exciting demonstrations that could be deployed on a tabletop. To rectify this, each team picked a small project that would demonstrate what their team does. The teams then spent a couple days to rapidly make their selected demos. At the end, Joe thought the project was pretty successful:
It’s better [at tabling] to have something you can point to. …From the tabling events we had using the [demos] we made from it, you could see people making better connections with what we were doing. At the minimum, it looks cool, because it’s a robot and people like robots. It was a really cool opportunity for other teams to interact with each other. I think it’s still something we could do more. … Just being 5 individual teams that build robots is good and all, but I think there’s more to it. … It was another opportunity to show other people in the RoboJackets org [that you might not see every day that] you have similar goals.
We also asked Joe if there were any things he wanted to get done during the presidency that he didn’t get to. He cited sponsorship as something that he wanted to devote more attention to. “I worked a lot on the sponsorship stuff for the organization, like finding new sponsors and working with some old ones, and also to get new ones set up. Some worked out, some didn’t.” One sponsor he was excited to bring on was Aptiv, a rapidly growing self-driving car company. He continued: “There’s more sponsors I would have liked to have brought on because they’re cool places to work.” In particular, he wanted to find other companies that offered interdisciplinary work, like tech startups and other smaller companies that work on interesting, interdisciplinary projects. However, since many of these companies are small, it’s difficult for them to commit to a sponsorship.
Finally, we concluded by asking what parts of his presidency he was most proud of. His response:
With some of the leadership cores that I organized, I saw a new generation of leaders coming in and getting the confidence they needed to become future leaders. I’m seeing a lot of those members that participated in those conversations now running for President and Project Manager [roles]. … Keeping the message and the idea [of what we do] alive was my biggest contribution. … As some might say, [to] Promote, Educate, and Advance.