My high school, the California Academy of Math and Science, didn’t have a football team; we had robotics teams. In fact, a quarter of the student body was involved in robotics. When I heard about it, I was like, “I need to do this.” I was into tinkering and building things with my hands and interested in math, but I didn’t know what engineering was as a profession until I joined FIRST. My team mentors, who included engineers from local companies like Boeing and Northrop Grumman, really taught me what it meant to be an engineer.
My team, FIRST Robotics Competition Team 687 “The Nerd Herd,” was more focused on community outreach and engineering design excellence than winning; we ran summer camps and other activities to get lots of people involved in FIRST. I learned how to teach complex problem solving, leading younger students through complex and difficult subjects that don’t have obvious answers at the beginning. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of being on the team.
I also learned a lot about failure. Our mentors were not afraid to watch us lose, probably knowing the entire time what was going to happen. I learned to be ok with that, and to rely on myself and my team to get things done. This had a strong impact on my willingness to go into the startup world because failure is the outcome 90 percent of the time.
My favorite memory is from the year we really wanted to get the Engineering Inspiration Award and make it to the world championships. We were putting together this technical data package about the robot, and like typical high school students, we left it to the last minute. We pulled an all-nighter the night before the competition putting the entire thing together, but at the end we were so proud of this document. It was a remarkable experience of teamwork that I didn’t feel again until starting a company.
Max Friefeld co-founded Voodoo Manufacturing, a robotic 3-D printing factory, with FIRST Alum Jonathan Schwartz. Read more about their experience launching Voodoo on the FIRST Inspire blog.