Verschlimmbesserung


2020 is a disaster. We entered into this new decade optimistic and excited, talking about the “Roaring Twenties” of yester-century — and now, after just eight months, we’re only one horseman short of the Apocalypse. (For those keeping score at home, so far we have Pestilence, Death, and Famine; I don’t even want to think about whether War will come along to round out this terrible game of world-bingo.)

This year is a living example of Verschlimmbesserung, in other words. If 2020 had a slogan, it would be “And then things got worse.” From the infuriating, stifling climate of political turmoil and racial injustice to the purely devastating accounts of storms, wildfires, and explosions, it’s like we’re caught in a game of global whack-a-mole with the entire Earth as its playing field.

I’m not here to talk about any of that, though. The issues plaguing the world in multitudes right now are important ones, to be sure, and I don’t mean to brush them off as if they’re not — but the endless stream of bad news that just keeps pouring in has become exhausting. Staying informed during times like these is certainly our best defense, but we need to allow ourselves time to come up for air, too, lest we get swept away by the undertow. Right now, I think we could all stand to take our minds off of *gestures broadly* for a little while.

And that’s what I am here to do, with a Verschlimmbesserung story of a different sort.


We’ve all had our share of group project horror stories. It’s a rite of passage; you haven’t truly lived until you’ve been forced to collaborate with a group of peers who you know nothing about, who you would never otherwise interact with, and who you wouldn’t trust to work together effectively enough to find their way out of a room.

I enjoy listening to these stories — it’s not only entertaining, but incredibly validating when you can relate to the misfortune of someone else who went through such a similar experience — but I haven’t heard one quite like mine before. So allow me to throw my hat into the ring.

The year was 2016. I was in the second semester of my junior year of college, and the curriculum was ramping up as we sped down the road toward becoming seniors, and graduating as Real Engineers™ after that.

In the latter half of the semester, all of the electrical and computer engineers (EEs and CoEs) received the final project assignment for our Junior Design class: working in teams of three or four, we were to design, assemble, and program a robot that detected up to four “mines” (large metal washers) in a small arena on the lab room floor, while avoiding the walls and obstacles within the arena. The goal was for the robot to find as many of the four mines as possible within three minutes.

We had a little over a month to complete the project. At the end of that month, three things would happen: we would demonstrate our robot in the arena, we would give a formal presentation on our design process, and we would submit a technical report that contained all the details of our design.

The groups were assigned for us. Because there were far fewer CoEs than EEs, many teams wound up with only one CoE apiece. I was matched up with three EEs who I’d never met, but I quickly learned from my CoE friends that one of these EEs had a reputation that had made its way around the department. We’ll call him J.

A quick distinction to make: electrical engineering focuses mainly on hardware (i.e. designing and building physical circuits) and computer science focuses mainly on software (i.e. designing programs and writing code). Computer engineering, my major, can be thought of like a middle ground between the two. It has its own unique features as well, of course, but the bulk of our CoE curriculum consisted of a mix of EE and CS courses.

It was assumed, therefore, that within the teams for this project, the EEs would tackle the pure-hardware tasks like making the metal detector, while the CoEs would be responsible for the more code-heavy aspects like programming the robot to move and avoid obstacles. The overlap between the two disciplines would help us work together to combine everything into a cohesive final product. The project was designed to allow a well-distributed workload; each team member would have the chance to play an important role.

Back to J. Shortly after the project was assigned, we set up a team group chat and introduced ourselves. Once J found out I was the only CoE on the team, he said to me, “I really hope you know your robot coding.” I laughed it off, thinking he didn’t mean anything serious by it, but I started to get a definite bad feeling about him when we tried to arrange a time for our first in-person meeting. In the group chat, one of the other EEs suggested meeting after our lecture for Junior Design, the class that had assigned this project, but J answered that he’d never been to the class and didn’t even know when it was. The other EEs “lol”ed.

It soon became apparent that J was one of those types who thought he was above it all. He was smart, and he was cocky about it; he didn’t need to go to class to get A’s, and he seemed to think he didn’t need a team to help him with this project, either. Maybe it was a pride thing, or maybe it was a deep, pathological distrust of work that wasn’t his own — but whatever the case, he made it no secret that he thought he was in charge, and he intended to tackle as much of the project as he could single-handedly.

He began posting updates in the group chat about the progress he was making on a design for the robot that he was convinced would give us an advantage over other teams. Aside from the fact that he’d started making major design decisions without consulting the rest of us, two things about this stuck out as concerning.

First, the design he was describing sounded far too ambitious for what we needed the robot to do. With only three minutes in the arena and a month to complete the whole project, most teams’ “algorithms” were some version of the following: have the robot move in one direction until it encountered a wall or obstacle, then turn in a different direction and repeat, while covering as much ground as possible in order to increase the robot’s chance of finding all the mines. J, however, had gotten it in his head that the best thing to do was have the robot create a “map” of the arena so that, in theory, it wouldn’t cover the same ground twice. There wasn’t anything wrong with this idea on paper, but it made the system quite a bit more technically complex than it needed to be — and the source of his idea was dubious at best. Before we’d even all met in person, J told us in the group chat that this was the way a friend of his was doing it, and that we could “get in on that”, as if they were frat brothers sharing answer keys.

Secondly, this meant he had leapt into working on the obstacle avoidance system on his own — which most teams were leaving to the CoEs.

To me, he left the other main CoE responsibility of making the robot move: forward, backward, and turning left and right, all at various speeds. Not the most technically impressive part of the project, but still a crucial aspect, so I didn’t complain. I didn’t want to introduce any unnecessary conflict with J, anyway. So I did my best to make the most of my role on the team. Though the movement code was comparatively simple and gave me little trouble, I found ways to keep myself busy during our lab sessions, even if this took the form of my teammates appointing me to go out and get us all lunch while they did the “real” work. Outside of lab hours, I joined up with a group of my CoE friends from other teams who were supporting each other; during these meetups, I made the effort to understand as much as I could about the technologies we were using, even if I had little say in how my team was using them.

By the time I had a working movement program that I was happy with, however, J had other plans. All of a sudden, he had managed to obtain a strange, convoluted new robot movement program from what sounded like the same friend who had graced us with the equally convoluted obstacle avoidance system. When I asked J about the program he had asked me to write, he insisted this new one would be much better, and all but outright refused to accept the only thing I had to show for my involvement with the team. Nothing of mine ever made it into the project.

I was pretty upset with J by this point, so I asked him what else there was for me to do. This project was supposed to be our chance to put our collective EE and CoE skills to the test, to show that we were ready to be senior engineering students; J had just unapologetically robbed me of this chance, and now my final grade was on the line. But he either didn’t realize what he’d done or simply didn’t care, and instead bestowed upon me the honor of making the slides for our final presentation — presumably a job no one else on the team wanted.

To add insult to injury, the criteria for the presentation clearly stated that each team member was required to speak about how they had contributed to the project. If you didn’t talk during the presentation, the professor would be left to assume you didn’t contribute anything, and you would fail not only the project, but the class.

This didn’t exactly leave me in a favorable position, but being in charge of the slides was my chance at redemption. If I had control over what went into the presentation, I could at least give myself room to talk about the code I had written, even if it didn’t make it into the final product. And so I obliged, filling in the slides with as much information as I could and leaving blank space for the EE parts that I knew less about. I even made sure to include a slide in the beginning that listed each team member’s contributions to the project, including my own. I uploaded the slides to a shared drive so that the EEs could fill in the missing information and we could all become familiar with our parts before the presentation date.

Our demonstration and presentation ended up being on the same day. It left me with a very tightly packed schedule: the demonstration was in the morning, then I had a shift at my on-campus job immediately afterward, then another class immediately after that, and the presentation immediately after that. With little room for error, all I could really do was trust that everything would go smoothly.

The day arrived, and the demonstration came first. J and the other EEs had been working on the robot on their own time to get it finished, so it had been a while since I’d seen it in person — and when J brought it into the lab, I hardly recognized it at all. Most teams’ robots were simple and lightweight, with perhaps three obstacle avoidance sensors plus the metal detector, all connected to a single microcontroller (the programmable circuit board that acted as the robot’s “brain”), but ours was an unsightly monster. With a total of six sensors mounted at two different heights and two microcontrollers, all swaddled in a tower of cardboard and duct tape, it was twice the size of any other team’s robot, looking like it had come directly from the lab of Dr. Frankenstein.

I was embarrassed to be seen with it as we put it in the arena, but if this design was really as great as J was convinced it was, then the results would speak for themselves. This was the first time I would see the robot actually run, after all, so I decided to reserve my judgement until I’d given it a fair chance to prove me wrong about J’s plan.

In the end, the convoluted design got the better of us. All teams were allowed multiple trials in the arena, with time in between to make small adjustments; even with this handicap, our robot only found two of the four mines. And although the professor had watched every trial, J proceeded to argue with him about how well the robot had actually performed, haggling his way to a halfway decent score.

(One of my CoE friends, meanwhile, whose robot looked much more like everyone else’s, perfectly scored all four mines — with no arguing necessary.)

Thankfully, I couldn’t stay long before I rushed off to my on-campus job. It was a slow-paced work-study position that allowed me to do classwork during my downtime, so during my shift I was able to take a last look at the presentation slides. We had divided the presentation into an EE portion and a CoE portion; the CoE slides were complete and I felt ready to present them, so I reminded the EEs to fill in the last of the missing information in their part. Trusting that they would, I left it at that and went off to my next class.

The presentation room was in a building a short bus ride from campus, and I caught the first bus there after my class ended. All the EEs were already there when I arrived, as were the professor and the assistant professor, who would be evaluating the presentation together. J was at the computer hooked up to the projector, setting up the presentation.

As a last-minute sanity check, I asked the EEs how we were dividing up the slides between the four of us, since we hadn’t had a chance to rehearse together. They told me what I already knew: that there would be an EE part and a CoE part.

When I tried to confirm that I would be doing the CoE part, though, J said without looking up from the computer, “No, I’m doing the CoE part.”

The response took me by such surprise that I didn’t have the chance to ask what I was supposed to present before we got started. I obviously couldn’t speak about the EE part of the presentation, and I at least trusted J to know that — so I simply assumed that I would jump in when the CoE slides I’d written came up.

But after a month of commandeering as much of the final project as he possibly could, twisting everything to conform to his grand master plan, J had one more surprise in store. The presentation started, and I stared in dismay at what showed up on the projector.

These weren’t my slides at all. J had rewritten the entire presentation.

While J and the other EEs spoke, I had no choice but to stay silent. Of course, J had made the entire CoE portion all about the work that he had done, leaving me nothing that I even knew how to talk about — and conveniently, J had also deleted the slide in the beginning that listed each team member’s contributions to the project. It was like he was actively working against me. When we got to the CoE slides, J took over. There was a short pause once between slides when he glanced over at me as if expecting me to jump in, but I wasn’t prepared and he knew it — so he steamrolled on, effectively erasing me from the project right in front of the rest of the team and the professors.

I did my best to grit my teeth and smile while the presentation went on, but I was crushingly aware that the professors knew I hadn’t said a word. Even after the presentation was over, I still didn’t break my silence. As soon as we were dismissed, I stormed out of the room without so much as a parting word to anyone.

It remains, to this day, the only time in my life that I’ve been so angry I couldn’t speak.

I caught the next bus back to campus and sat fuming for the entire ride, managing only to send a text to my boyfriend, A — a fellow CoE who had been the first person to warn me about J, and who had been there to watch the full disaster unfold around me — telling him to meet me outside the lab when I got back. Once I made it, I broke down, all the anger and frustration that had built up over the past month finally spilling out. Seeing that I needed to get out somewhere — anywhere — else, A accompanied me on a long, cathartic walk around the campus; I was still dressed in my nice presentation clothes while we ranted about J together and talked about what would happen now. A encouraged me to contact the professor, and that evening, after I’d calmed down enough to approach the situation civilly, I did. I sent the professor a long email explaining the events leading up to the presentation, hoping it would be enough to spare me from the threat of the failing grade.

But J wasn’t out of my life yet. We still had the final report to write.

As with the presentation, there was little I could contribute to the report. J had never shared any of his work with me, so I simply wasn’t familiar enough with our project to write about it in the level of technical detail that the report required. I offered to proofread the report once everyone else had completed their parts, hoping no one would be able to take that away from me — but that wasn’t good enough for J.

The day before the report was due, he dropped the bomb in the group chat: I had to write the detailed technical descriptions of the parts he had made, while he wrote about the software that should have been my responsibility. “Have them done by tonight,” he wrote at a quarter to 3 in the afternoon.

After looking over the requirements for the report, I responded that I was willing to help, but I didn’t know enough details to write the technical descriptions by myself. He wrote back, “Wait, I have a good resource for that” and sent me a link on a website called “Let Me Google That For You”, with the tagline “For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than search for it themselves.” The link simply redirected me to a Google search for the components he wanted me to write about.

Put another way, it was as if I had watched him drive a Honda Civic that he had built almost entirely without me, and then he told me to write a technical report on the details of the engine. After explaining that I didn’t know how the Civic’s engine worked because I hadn’t been involved in building the car, he told me in the snarkiest possible way to run a generic Google search on internal combustion engines.

I was done biting my tongue with him by now, so I called him out on his attitude and explained why he should be the one to take responsibility for this part of the report. This seemed to take him down a peg, because he finally apologized and admitted, for the first time, that he was “spread too thin”. “Just do your best,” he said. “You just have to do it and I’ll do my part and we’ll get the grade we get.” In other words, the consequences of trying to tackle the entire project by himself were catching up to him. Had I been watching from the outside, I would have enjoyed hearing him finally realize and admit it — but with my final grade still hanging in the balance, I sucked it up one more time and managed to scrape together enough details to produce the technical descriptions that he had asked for.

The next day, J handed the finished report off to me for proofreading, finally letting something go according to plan. Afterward, he trusted me with the honor of submitting the report to the professor. It was like he had made me watch him eat an entire ice cream sundae while I sat hungry, and at the end — once he was too full to continue — he decided to give me the cherry.

About a week later, the professor responded to my email. The good news: I wouldn’t fail the class. The bad news: because the professor didn’t have any way to grade me on the project, I would have to redo it the next semester; until then, my grade for Junior Design would be marked as incomplete.

But at least I was finally done with J. No matter what happened with the project do-over, it couldn’t be any worse than what I’d already been through.

Right?

Read Part 2 here!

3 thoughts on “Verschlimmbesserung

  1. Pingback: Kladderadatsch – Verbomania

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