This post is the second post in a two-part epic where I recount an absolute Kladderadatsch of a group project story. I try to avoid posting two words from the same language in a row, but as with Verschlimmbesserung before it, I simply couldn’t resist this unfortunately perfect 2020 word.
You can read the first part of the story here, but to recap:
In my junior year of college as a computer engineer (CoE), I was placed on a team with three electrical engineers (EEs) for our final project, where we had one month to design and assemble a robot that detected large metal washers called “mines” and navigated a small arena with walls and obstacles. One EE, called J, commandeered all the parts of the project that I was supposed to work on, and either disregarded or flat-out refused to accept any contribution I made until I had nothing to show for my involvement. In addition to being generally unpleasant to work with and actually making the project worse with his “brilliant ideas”, he earned me an incomplete grade for the class, which — despite it not being my fault — was nonetheless my responsibility to fix by redoing the project with a new team the following semester.
After going through all of that, I was convinced that whatever happened with the project do-over, it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the experience with J. I had no idea what was in store.
Senior year was a big deal for the engineering students at my university. This was the year devoted to what was known as our “Capstone Project”, a year-long endeavor working with a fully interdisciplinary team spread across all the engineering departments. Teams ranged in size from three to eight students, plus a faculty advisor; each team had a unique project and the whole year to see it through from beginning to end, with very little in the way of guidelines to direct us. It was up to us to decide when and where to meet, plan out a timeline, figure out how to divide up the work, and make sure it got done on schedule.
With regular team meetings, weekly meetings with the faculty advisor, a major presentation in front of the whole department at the end of each semester and smaller presentations in front of industry professionals every couple of weeks, an exhaustive final report, and thorough documentation required for every single step of the process, the Capstone Project was the main focus of the entire year, intended to occupy most of our academic time and energy.
And I got to do all of that while redoing my junior project at the same time.
As with the junior project, the teams for the Capstone Project were assigned for us, though this time we had slightly more say in what — and who — we got assigned. At the beginning of the fall semester, all the senior engineering students were presented with a list of projects and asked to pick five top choices; we were then assigned to projects based on which types of engineers were needed for each one, matched up with our choices where possible, depending on where the professors thought we would best fit. Luckily, I ended up on a project I wanted, with two responsible and good-natured teammates and one who was not quite so dedicated, but ended up pulling his weight in the end — but that’s another story.
A month into the semester, I received my new team assignment for the junior project as well. I was put in a group with three new EEs who were seniors like me, but who were “in a similar situation” with their junior projects, to borrow the professor’s words. Just like before, we had a little over one month to repeat the same “minesweeper robot” project, complete with a demo, presentation, and report at the end. The project would be overseen by the Junior Design professor, Professor S, and assistant professor, Professor N.
I didn’t want to leave room for anyone to question my accountability this time, so I quickly took initiative with this group. We received the group assignment on a Friday; that Sunday, I sent an email to the EEs, in which I suggested that we meet up that coming week and asked when everyone was free.
By the end of the day on Tuesday, only one EE — who we’ll call D — had responded, so I sent another group email in which I proposed a meeting time that Friday. I told the EEs to let me know if this time didn’t work for them; otherwise, we would go ahead and meet then. My initiative was now on the record and the ball was in their collective court.
This time, I didn’t hear anything from anyone. I gave the EEs the benefit of the doubt and assumed this meant no one had any conflicts, and everyone would be there on Friday.
Only one EE showed up.
This EE was not D, but H. We had a very short meeting that consisted mostly of waiting to see if the other two EEs would come. They didn’t, of course, and it wasn’t until the following week that I heard from any of the EEs again. It took the form of a very apologetic email from D, who explained that he had missed my second message where I specified the meeting time; that same day, H set up a group chat, where we finally got everyone to agree on a time for our first full-team meeting.
We set the meeting again for Friday, one week after the initial meeting I had tried to set up. And finally, two weeks into the month-long project, I got to meet my teammates in person.
D, who had been the first one to contact me in any capacity, immediately gave the impression of being the most proactive. H, who I’d met the previous Friday, was decidedly well-intentioned, but passive; he didn’t say much and seemed content to let D and I take the lead. That didn’t strike me as a cause for concern by itself, though. Unlike with J the previous semester, it wasn’t D’s or H’s personalities that worried me — but I knew they had to be in this “similar situation” for a reason. I suspected that what this meant was, like me, they hadn’t contributed much to their previous teams for this project, though whether this was due to a lack of participation or a lack of competence remained to be seen.
What did make me nervous was that neither of them seemed very comfortable with English. They both spoke with heavy accents, and their writing was peppered with grammatical constructions that were indicative of second-language learners doing their best to navigate our unwieldy lingua franca (really, a Kladderadatsch in its own right). They were proficient enough that they weren’t difficult to understand, but in a project that required its team members to communicate in a significant level of technical detail, any form of language barrier didn’t fit into the ideal team dynamic.
The third EE, P, spoke English natively — but we were nearly halfway through the allotted time for the project by now, and this was the first time I had seen or heard from him. On top of that, although we had agreed to meet in the lab where the seniors worked on their Capstone Projects, it turned out that P — despite being a senior who should have been spending time there already — didn’t know where the room was. He didn’t set himself up for a stellar first impression.
Despite our slow start, though, it seemed that everyone was willing to do their part and take the project seriously. We came to an agreement that day: we would meet as a full team multiple times per week, on Mondays and Wednesdays, to work on the project from that point forward.
The next week played out as follows:
When Monday rolled around, P claimed to have an exam and D forgot we had a meeting. On Wednesday, P said he was going out of town, there was radio silence from H, and D said “probably another day”. I sent a message on Friday asking if we could meet then, but H wasn’t free and P wasn’t “around campus anymore”. D then suggested a meeting time on Saturday morning, which at that point I gladly accepted. I got to the lab bright and early, only to discover that P couldn’t meet on weekends, H couldn’t make it, and D, despite suggesting this time himself, simply never showed up.
Another full week of the project gone. Time was already running out, and we had barely gotten started.
To the EEs’ credit, it wasn’t entirely their fault. Even though our initial meetings had been in the senior lab, the project required us to meet in the junior lab because it had all of the equipment we needed. When we had been assigned this project as juniors, we had had plenty of hours per week to spend in the lab, many of which were during our scheduled class time, when the lab was open specifically for us. But now, as seniors, the problem was twofold. First, we could only use the lab during “open lab hours”, the few hours of the week when the lab was open for general use and not reserved for a class; outside of these hours, the lab was locked and required key-card access to enter, a privilege usually reserved for professors and TAs. Second, when the four of us shared our schedules with each other, we discovered that — due to the time we were all spending on our Capstone Projects, I hoped — there were only three hours per week when we were all available at the same time, and none of them were during the open lab hours.
The EEs’ unwillingness to work together on scheduling meetings, though, was not so easy to excuse. Still determined not to let this reflect negatively on me, I emailed Professor S and Professor N immediately after the lab closed that Saturday morning. I explained that, in three weeks, we’d only met as a full team once, and that all attempts to set up meetings in the past week had been forgotten or ignored by the EEs. I also mentioned the conflicts between our schedules and the open lab hours, hoping that the professors would recognize just how many factors were stacked against us.
By sheer coincidence, Professor N was also my Capstone team’s faculty advisor. Contrary to the junior project, the Capstone Project — for which I was also my team’s only CoE — had been going quite well, and our weekly meetings with Professor N gave me the chance to present myself as professional, hard-working, and capable. I like to think that this, plus seeing how I performed on a team under more ideal circumstances, led him to trust me. On Saturday evening, the whole junior project team received a warning email from Professor N. He hinted that it had come to their attention that we hadn’t made much progress “in spite of a fast approaching deadline.” “If there is a lack of participation by any team member(s),” he wrote, “we will have no choice but to re-scale the scope of the project to fit the number of students who are actively working on it. We can turn it into a project for any number of participants (from 1 to 4).” He continued that if anyone was left out and didn’t complete the project, they would receive an automatic failing grade.
Later that weekend, I sent a message to the group chat suggesting that we meet on Monday morning. All three EEs responded within one minute.
In addition to Professor N’s email, Professor S also emailed me privately. He thanked me for reaching out and told me that the two of them had determined I was the most responsible member of the group — so they had decided to grant me key-card access to the lab.
This solved the issue of the open lab hours, but the teammates were still wild cards. Although he had good attendance for almost a week, P soon went right back to not showing up to any of our meetings, each time with a different excuse. Exam. Forgot his materials. Sick. Trouble with his landlord. Lost his phone. Out of town. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw him at all before our demonstration day.
Meanwhile, though they started out seemingly on good terms, animosity began to grow between D and H. I can’t claim to know what happened between them, but all I saw was that they frequently argued both in person and in the group chat. Maybe it was incompatible personalities, a difference in work ethics, or simply conflicting ideas about how to complete the project; I’ve resigned myself to never knowing for sure. But I also know that they often communicated privately in their shared native language, so it’s possible that whatever problems they had ran beneath the surface as well.
Despite these roadblocks, D and H remained civil and things actually went fairly smoothly for about a week and a half. At least everyone was good about communicating when they were running late or couldn’t make it, and we kept actively in touch about what we were all working on. The silver lining of all this was that if I was in this situation because my previous team hadn’t given me enough to do, my new team gave me more than enough work to make up for it. With one EE effectively out of the project and the other two with their hands full working on the metal detector, I finally got to take charge of the CoE aspects of the project in peace. I even had chances to exercise my own EE knowledge when D and H ran into hardware problems.
It wasn’t until the demo and presentation were less than a week away that things began to fall apart. Naturally.
At the end of the last week before our demo, we still hadn’t gotten our robot’s metal detector working — a consequence of the time we lost to our slow start. I had discovered the problem while trying to assemble the EE and CoE components of the project together for the first time, since up until now the EEs and I had been working mostly independently. To be specific, the problem wasn’t with the metal detector itself: the problem occurred when I tried to connect the metal detector to the microcontroller, the robot’s “brain”. The project required that the robot have some way of visually displaying how many mines it had found, and we were doing this via four small LEDs, also controlled by the microcontroller. Both the metal detector and the LED circuit worked separately, but when I tried to connect them together, some unknown factor caused interference with the LED circuit, and suddenly the system no longer worked.
This was a major problem for so late in the game, and fixing it required all hands on deck. But as hard as I tried to stress this in the group chat, getting the full team together still amounted to an exercise in herding cats.
Our exact demo date hadn’t been specified yet, so as a last-ditch effort, I contacted Professor S and asked him when the demo would be — while also mentioning how slow our progress had been, hoping that he would be sympathetic and schedule the demo in the later part of the week so that we would have a few extra days to work. In a stroke of generosity, Professor S set the demo date a full extra week later, two weeks from the day I emailed him. I had a feeling we would need every minute of it.
After I spent a couple of days trying without success to diagnose what was wrong with the metal detector/LED system, I ran into trouble trying to explain the problem to D. Throughout the project, he had been the most diligent about making it to meetings and communicating about the work he was doing, and I was very grateful for him — but now the language barrier started to rear its head. In the group chat, I tried to explain as clearly as I could how I had set up the metal detector, the microcontroller, and the LED circuit, exactly which part of the system wasn’t working, and what I had tried so far to solve the problem. But D only tried to suggest that I solve the problem by doing what I had already said I was doing, even though problems involving the metal detector were very much the EEs’ job to fix. After a while of us going back and forth, it turned out that D didn’t even understand the project’s requirements when he asked me if the LED counting system — the only way of visibly confirming that the metal detector worked once the robot was fully assembled — was for “bonus points”.
We ended up spending almost the entirety of our extra week trying to solve this problem. It wasn’t until D met up with me in person and I showed him my setup that he finally understood what I had been trying to explain to him. He took the robot home with him and shortly determined that the issue was coming from the microcontroller itself, which was the CoE’s responsibility.
So D passed the robot back to me. I brought it to my apartment on campus, back at square one. And then, one evening mere days before the deadline, I was running some tests in an effort to figure out what was wrong when the robot suddenly stopped working entirely. The microcontroller had died.
Sitting alone on the floor of my dimly-lit apartment bedroom, I panicked. The microcontroller was responsible for making the entire project work: the robot movement, the obstacle avoidance, the metal detector, the LED counters. Without it, we had no project to speak of.
I frantically reached out to a couple of friends, and we quickly devised a plan. There was a small electronics store a short drive away from campus where many engineering students got parts for various projects, and we knew they stocked the exact model of microcontroller we were using. The store was about to close for the night, but with a little assistance from a friend who had a car and was willing to miss part of a class, I made a flying stop just in time and bought a new controller.
Once I had the new controller back in my apartment, I swapped it out for the dead one, hoping that maybe the metal detector hadn’t been working because the old controller was at the end of its life — but with the new controller in place, the robot came back to life, and the metal detector system still didn’t work.
So, with the problem still unresolved, the EEs and I agreed to one last meeting in the lab to work on the robot together — the day before our demo.
As if we weren’t already cutting it close enough, the only time we were all available to meet was in the evening, after all of our classes had let out for the day. Our team was not in good shape. P showed his face for perhaps the fifth time since the project began, having nothing to offer. D still didn’t understand that the LED counting system was required. And the tension between D and H was so palpable you could almost see sparks. (It was around this time that in a private message to me, H said of D, “I hate that guy.”) As we all sat stressed in the lab that evening, the two of them bickered in something between English and their native language. I tried to interject, but my input fell on deaf ears, as if H and D didn’t trust me because my LED system wasn’t working with their circuit. The deadline was on the horizon, and we were going nowhere fast.
I had been hoping for this do-over to be my chance to prove to the professors that I was actually capable of taking on this project, but I don’t know what would have happened had we not had a knight in shining armor come to our rescue.
My boyfriend, A — a fellow CoE who had witnessed the full Shakespearean drama over these two combined semesters — happened to have tagged along with me to the lab that evening. Juggling his own Capstone Project and classes while also working a job for 20 hours a week, he was already low on patience, and his tolerance for the team’s complete lack of cooperation was even lower. He saw H and D butting heads and ended up at their lab bench to see what they were trying to do.
The problem we were having, fundamentally, was that the microcontroller couldn’t make sense of the electrical signals it was receiving from the metal detector, which it was meant to use to turn on the appropriate number of LEDs. That was about all that we collectively understood, though. H and D were trying to search on the computer for a circuit that could solve the problem, but to no avail.
Observing us in our state of total dysfunction, A picked up on something crucial. Since we were all working on the same project, we all assumed we were speaking the same language — and for my part, I had put a lot of effort toward being as clear as possible in all my communications with the rest of the team. But what A saw told a different story. He saw a CoE who understood her CoE system, two EEs who understood their EE system, and three people who all thought they understood everything. There was a glaring disconnect that both sides were unfortunately blind to, and that we were unwittingly trying to remedy by simply throwing a hodgepodge of technical terms at each other.
A, however, had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective — plus an exceptional engineer’s mind, able to soak up technical information like a sponge and apply it to any problem that he came across. So he took it upon himself to mediate between us, deciding that if H and D wouldn’t listen to me, maybe they would listen to him. With the three of us on the brink of self-destruction, A stepped in and gave each side a chance to explain the problem from their perspective, and after hearing everyone out he finally broke through to what the problem was.
The microcontroller couldn’t understand the signals from the metal detector because the voltage being output by the metal detector was too high, producing a signal that the controller wasn’t able to process. What we needed was an additional circuit to regulate the voltage coming from the metal detector and convert the signal into one the controller could understand.
Without A having specific EE knowledge of how to construct such a circuit, though, just knowing what the problem was couldn’t get us very far. But A had a lifeline: a mutual EE friend of ours, a fellow senior who had completed the same minesweeper robot project in our junior year.
A texted our friend, summarizing the problem and asking if it was possible to make a circuit to solve it. Within minutes, he had an answer: the circuit existed, and it had a name. All it took was a mention of that name to the other EEs, and it was as if a switch flipped. The arguing stopped. The air in the room cleared. H and D put together the circuit, and for the first time, just over 12 hours before our demo, the robot worked.
(The help from A left a big impression on all of us, but most of all on H. In the clear after the storm clouds had passed, the normally quiet H repeatedly expressed his admiration for A, even going so far as to say that he admired A’s work, despite never having talked to him before that night.)
In the end, though our biggest problem was solved, we all went home that night with the robot still partially incomplete. Our demo was early the next morning, so we had to count on being able to make the final adjustments we needed in the few minutes we had before facing the professors.
We met up the next morning an hour before the demo to put all the last pieces into place. As juniors, we had been allowed to use the arena well before the demos so that we could test-run our robots while they were still in progress, but this time, the arena was only set up on the day of the demonstration — so our robot’s performance was still somewhat up to fate. At least the professors still granted us multiple trials as they had the previous semester, with time in between to make minor adjustments. The whole demo had a remarkably similar feeling to having stayed up cramming for an exam until the very last minute and retaining just enough information to scrape by with a passing grade. In the end, the robot found two of the mines and traversed a good amount of distance in the arena — a comparable performance to J’s Frankenstein creation, done in about half the time with about half the complexity, and without any need to argue with the professor.
Our presentation was immediately afterward. We had all worked on the slides together and consulted each other about how the presentation would be structured, so there were no unpleasant surprises this time. I took the lead and talked through the entire CoE portion, leaving the EE portion to the EEs, as it should have been. Everyone had a fair chance to speak — even P, who by his own lack of effort had contributed little to nothing to the project. And this time, I made sure that a slide listing everyone’s unique contributions was prominently displayed right at the beginning of the presentation, and I even made the effort to word P’s entry in the least incriminating way possible.
Everyone contributed to the final report without issue as well, except for a brief spat when D urged the other EEs to do their fair share and H shot back, accusing D of not having contributed much himself. The disagreement either died down quickly or continued privately between the two of them, but all the parts of the report got done one way or another, and that was all that mattered.
My job as proofreader was much bigger this time around; in addition to writing the entire CoE portion of the report myself, I ended up rewriting most of the EE portion, too. I wouldn’t say that D and H’s written English was “broken”, but it was perhaps held together with duct tape in a few places, especially when describing how parts worked in technical detail. After polishing the report as much as I could, I submitted it to the professors, and that was that.
We received a satisfactory passing grade, or at least I did. Truthfully, I don’t know what ended up happening to any of the EEs — but I will say that when I returned to the university to attend a friend’s graduation two years later, I was surprised to see P was among the graduating class, despite him supposedly having been the same year as me.
The EEs from the first run of the project are still out there, too. J not only got off scot-free, but ended up the president of our university’s chapter of a prestigious engineering honor society. (Though A and I were both invited to join this society as seniors, we also both seriously considered rejecting the invitations so we wouldn’t have to associate with J — but we ultimately decided to swallow our pride and join because of the achievement it represented. J was a highly sub-par leader, might I add, who never scheduled any of the events that were supposedly required as part of our membership and didn’t even bother getting the special cords that we were supposed to wear at our graduation ceremony. He also didn’t sign the certificates that we received some weeks later.) I accepted a LinkedIn invitation from him a couple of years ago as an attempt to make my peace with what happened, but since then his account has mysteriously vanished.
As for me, though I do still think about the project sometimes, nowadays I mostly consider it an entertaining, if long-winded, story to tell. I would be lying if I said I didn’t still hold any bitterness toward J, but his short chapter in my life’s story is over and I’m content to let it be so. The only instance of the project coming back to haunt me was in the form of a dream I had well after graduating, in which it turned out that due to a complication resulting from my incomplete grade at the end of junior year, my final college GPA wasn’t able to be calculated, and in order to set the record straight I had to be sent all the way back to sixth grade and repeat eleven years of schooling. I was upset about it at first, in the early waking moments before realizing it didn’t actually happen, but I laugh about it when I remember it now.
I’m trying to think of 2020 in the same way. Yes, it’s a disaster in almost every way imaginable, a Verschlimmbesserung, a Kladderadatsch, but just imagine the stories we’ll tell about it once it’s finally in the past. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that, just be glad that you haven’t had to spend your quarantine with someone like J.