We caught up with April Riddett, Product Manager for NI in the Austin, TX, region, to learn more about how FIRST® drew her to a job with NI and how volunteering with FIRST altered the trajectory of her career. Read on to learn more about April’s story!
With a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in robotics, April Riddett was always comfortable behind a computer screen. An introvert at heart, she envisioned herself designing power supplies and analog systems. But dipping her toes into the world of volunteering with FIRST taught April that she could use her strong technical skills and her problem-solving know-how in more ways than one.
In her senior year at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, April’s brother, a freshman in high school, joined a FIRST® Robotics Competition team. April was job hunting at the time and was drawn to the NI booth at a career fair where she learned they supported FIRST. “At the time, I thought it was as good a reason as any to pick a job!” she recalls. Her brother’s team qualified for FIRST Championship that year and April drove out to St. Louis for a closer look at what FIRST was all about. Awed and inspired by the event, she knew she had to learn more about this thing called FIRST.
After graduating from Rose-Hulman, April began her career at NI working in tech support. Two weeks into her new job, she reached out about how to get involved with FIRST. “We actually have a dedicated group of employees at NI who provide technical support during the build and competition season for FIRST Robotics Competition teams to reach out to. I got involved with that group and met some people who volunteer as Control System Advisors (CSA) at events. I volunteered at my first event and I was absolutely hooked.”
April volunteered as a Control System Advisor that year and then went on to expand into other roles, eventually becoming a FIRST Technical Advisor (FTA), the person responsible for keeping the FIRST Robotics Competition field running smoothly and in accordance with FIRST requirements. April loves working with teams at events because she gets to see them learn, grow, and develop over the course of a weekend. “Even if we have 30 or 40 teams at an event, you get to know the teams and the kids. You get to know which teams are struggling and which teams are really working to overcome challenges. If you have a team that shows up with a robot that doesn’t have wheels on it, and you manage to get them on the field for their first match with a robot that drives, they are the happiest students in the world. That’s the really cool thing to see, watching them triumph, even if it doesn’t look like a triumph. You have seen a team come together and overcome serious obstacles and that’s what keeps me coming back.”
"If you have a team that shows up with a robot that doesn’t have wheels on it, and you manage to get them on the field for their first match with a robot that drives, they are the happiest students in the world. That’s the really cool thing to see, watching them triumph, even if it doesn’t look like a triumph. You have seen a team come together and overcome serious obstacles and that’s what keeps me coming back.”
While April enjoyed her job in tech support, she began to realize that there were aspects about her volunteer work she wanted to use in her career. “I was feeling more fulfilled by the people interactions I was having in my volunteer work than I was feeling by the job I was getting paid to do, and I felt like that was a discrepancy,” she remembers. April credits her volunteer experience in FIRST for her decision to pivot to her new role as a Product Manager, and even decided to go back to school at the University of Texas for an MBA.
Her role as a volunteer FTA taught her skills in people management, how to work with different personalities, and how to take certain parameters and translate them into a concrete outcome. “The skills I learned as an FTA are very similar to my day-to-day job now in how I take general customer requirements and apply the constraints of time, budget, software, and people. Chasing that kind of people interaction and that higher-level thought planning inspired me to move from a true engineering role to a product engineering role. I’m absolutely still using my engineering skills and the critical thinking processes that I’ve acquired over the years to do my day-to-day job, but it was definitely a total career shift that I never would have expected to take. FIRST showed me you can do a lot of critical thinking in ways that are not traditional engineering.”
“The skills I learned as an FTA are very similar to my day-to-day job now in how I take general customer requirements and apply the constraints of time, budget, software, and people. Chasing that kind of people interaction and that higher-level thought planning inspired me to move from a true engineering role to a product engineering role."
Along the way, April took on the role of mentoring a FIRST Robotics Competition team, and has been a lead mentor for Team 5052, The RoboLobos, out of Cedar Park, TX, for the last two years. She is excited about the launch of the new FIRST Mentor Network and says she is already signed up. “I think it opens up this very cool avenue to bring new people into the mentoring space.” April says that potential mentors might hesitate to volunteer because of the perceived pressure of a daunting commitment of time. She hopes the new platform will encourage people who can contribute in a specific way, with business or marketing skills for example, to connect with teams in a meaningful and productive way. Through the FIRST Mentor Network, people can choose to mentor one time, on an as-needed basis, or for a whole season.
April says a hugely rewarding part of volunteering with FIRST is seeing students have an experience that sticks with them. “That’s the mentality I go into event volunteering with. We are here to make sure students have the best experience possible. And that experience is going to look different for every single team. Our role as volunteers is to make sure each team is getting their unique experience and what they need. And that’s what I love. You work with so many different students who have different skills and who come from different backgrounds. Being able to see them come together as a team to achieve something is awesome. Some of my favorite stories from volunteering have nothing to do with robots on the field.”
April says she’s seen students step away from their own team to help a struggling rookie team, and by helping to elevate the experience of that team, they had a much more impactful experience themselves.
“That’s the really cool thing you get in FIRST that you don’t see in a lot of other mentor-volunteer opportunities, this idea of Coopertition®,” April reflects. “It’s like a cultural identity of wanting everyone to come to a fair and equal playing field. That’s going to look different for everyone and what gets people there is going to look different for everyone. But that’s the ultimate goal. What I love about being able to volunteer with FIRST is that I get to have an active role in doing that.”