Hello VEX & FIRST Communities,
Over the weekend, I was made aware of a series of posts on the Chief Delphi robotics forum in relation to my former employer, Innovation First International. Given my own personal time with the company and ties to the community at large, I feel that it is important that I share my accounts of my time in Greenville, TX.
Most importantly, I would like to first explicitly stress that the accounts shared below are not a reflection of the vast majority of the fine human beings I worked with at IFI. I am one of many former members of staff who are choosing to speak out at this time given recent events. There are still many great people working in Greenville who feel stuck in the environment and will not speak out at this time for fear of retribution to themselves or their family members.
Please read with an understanding that this statement is of my own experiences, accounts, and opinions of my time at the companies, and is a critical reflection of the leadership team I was beholden to during my tenure.
For some context, I started with competitive robotics in 2004, and was introduced to VEX in 2005; I was a “Radio Shack kid”. I used the “olde’’ IFI control system when I competed in FIRST, and later named my first VEX College Challenge Team in a ‘punny’ way to pay homage to a company idolized. My grandfather rubbed elbows with the ‘godfather’ of competition robotics, Woodie Flowers. And more importantly, after transferring high schools, I found a robotics mentor who would help build me up to become the person I am today.
Similar to the many people I have met through my time in FIRST and IFI / VEX, it is these very organizations that have “made” so many of us who we are today and are some of the deepest identities we hold. We “drank the kool-aid” and believed the message in front of us.
To me, IFI / VEX was so transformative in my personal development that I saw it as the pinnacle level of job aspirations. Imagine how excited I was for my first internship with HEXBUG in the summer of 2012. Now, looking back, I wonder how I missed so many red flags.
Early on, I admit I was blind to the toxic behaviors, being a college student who still actively was coaching and competing within the VEX community. My first summer was filled with fraternity-like socialization among my intern class and a few young engineers in our generation. This did not seem like an inappropriate work culture when you come from collegiate greek life experience yourself, it seems “normal”. The systemic cultural issues within IFI became more obvious the longer I was exposed to them.
The intern program really “blew up” with my class, the largest at the time (2012); a successful summer of productivity led to the new standard company practice: hiring the brightest young minds from the robotics community; not a difficult task to do when many, like me, idolized IFI / VEX. (they had those cool little robot bugs, after all!) Now, hiring the best young minds is commonplace in product development. What is unique, however, is that IFI has a direct talent stream of young impressionable students at their fingertips via the FIRST Robotics Competitions, VEX Robotics Competitions, and now through the RECF: a litany of other platforms. There is never a shortage of resumes coming in; I myself was one of those resumes. Later, I would personally interview many who would join HEXBUG or VEX themselves.
I had the honor of working with bright engineering minds like Jay Trazkos, people who truly cared about the personal development of others. The accounts that he has shared are just a preview of the types of interactions you might expect to experience on any given workday. I myself was a witness to events like this, as well as a victim of abuse too. After a while, I suspect many employees were struggling to survive; like an airplane in free fall, everyone was trying to secure their own oxygen mask before helping others. Only now, after years away, are we comfortable unmasking and sharing our experiences; to protect the vulnerable members of the community that we served and are a part of.
Some examples from my time at HEXBUG I will share: (2012-2015)
Along with the credible accusations of misogyny on Glassdoor and other posts, the executive level operated on fear-structured management tactics - all stemming from one source: Tony Norman, primary IFI shareholder. I will say that this behavior only became worse over the years, likely due to the growth of the company, larger workforce diversity, and greater day-to-day involvement from Mr. Norman.
The leadership team of Mr. Norman included individuals who would outright harass the young women interns/professionals in the office daily. Sometimes, an inappropriate comment about appearance, others, a tacit invitation for after-work socialization. It was a ‘common secret’ amongst staff that one of the worst offenders, in terms of inappropriate interaction with female employees, was in charge of reviewing employee complaints; meaning any reports of his own misconduct would only end up on his own desk for “review”. From my understanding, he is no longer with the company for unrelated reasons.
During my time as an intern, and eventually full-time engineer, it was made abundantly clear by many executives that attending parties hosted by Mr. Norman were mandatory attendance if you wanted your career to grow within the company. These parties often put employees in extremely compromised positions. At ‘best’ these parties could amount to the dangerous handling of fireworks or guns, at worst have you drinking & fraternizing with his high school-aged children & classmates. All of this while in the watchful eye of paid, off-duty county sheriffs who made sure nothing ‘got out of hand’. It was made clear to us that these officers were there for Tony’s protection/benefit.
Tony made it an important stop on every house tour given to show off his gun room to new employees and interns. It was common for jokes about productivity to be made in this room. Gun safety in general was rather cavalier. As a ‘new’ engineer, I personally had an executive aim their .45 at my back while working at the office alone during the weekend; it was assumed I had broken into the building due to an ajar door sensor from my entry disarming the building. I do not know what would have happened that day had I not heard this executive announce their presence.
Further abuses I witnessed included derogatory comments towards coworkers relating to things such as personal appearance, intelligence, or productivity. If you were doing simple research at your desk that didn’t “look” productive, you would be subject to verbal berating from Mr. Norman. This behavior became nearly cultural. As a result, it was not rare to leave a meeting after some amount of screaming from the management team; especially design reviews.
I chose to leave the HEXBUG team in the summer of 2015 to pursue furthering my education while taking over as director of the VEX Robotics program I helped build during college. My decision to leave was mainly centered around the management team style of taking credit for all work of interns/engineers. No accolades or credit were given to individuals like Jay, others, and myself who were responsible for development and design, but rather claimed by our management. On top of all of this, one of my closest friends had his job terminated and his life threatened by Mr. Norman over a non-workplace issue.
For unrelated personal reasons, I rejoined IFI as a VEX engineer in mid-2016. It was after my sabbatical from IFI in 2015/2016 that abuses at IFI would become more abundantly obvious and pervasive. I became a more integral part of the engineering production team and was trusted to go on regular rotation for production trips to China. These production trips became a point of contention internally when the VEX engineering team planned to send a woman engineer over from our staff. This staff member was deliberately held back from these travel trips at the request of Mr. Norman. Of course, this makes sense when the company hotel of choice has a distinguished history like the OYC Crown Prince in Dongguan.
I watched internally the growth, development, and hypocrisy of the “Girl-Powered” initiatives, knowing full well that it was nothing more than mere PR lip service, contradicted by the horrific treatment of the talented women on the team. The branding amounted to nothing more than false virtue signaling for product sales. We put the GP logo on everything from team swag to expensive muscle cars for “advertising”. Executives would boast about the initiative whilst practicing far different behavior inside the office space. I still to this day feel sick to my stomach thinking back to the types of comments and general mistreatment that women faced at IFI; especially the young HS and college staff.
Quarterly ‘guaranteed’ bonuses were primarily used as a form of retaliation from Tony, as every bonus must be approved and signed off by him. Generally, this would result in extended delays and inevitable stories about “how the money isn’t there” from your manager, only to have Tony roll up to show off the new “company” supercar. If you were lucky enough, like me, you would be pulled into a private glass bubble (where all teammates can see) by Tony only to be berated and stripped of your quarterly bonus over decisions (or lack thereof) made above your pay grade.
I grew into a prominent role within the VEX GDC, as one of the top two rule-enforcement officials. This position exposed me to some of the deep seeded ethnocentric positions that are ‘hidden’ beneath the surface of the culture of IFI. It felt more like a position of witch-hunting teams from particular nations at the request of management rather than enforcing our rulebook evenly to all.
As a chief referee and GDC member, I would have more interactions with the RECF employees. It became more obvious to me that the exact same cultural issues that were being experienced by myself and other younger employees at IFI were becoming pervasive within the RECF as well. I can personally attest that similar witch-hunting behavior was/is commonplace among several high-ranking individuals within the organization. Some of these individuals are ex-educators taking out personal frustrations on children, including my own former students. I would not be surprised if reports from their former staff reflect the accounts I have seen shared by other IFI alumni.
The tipping point for me was after a consequential 2018 / 2019 production trip season.
My life and a fellow executive’s life were threatened over a phone call to Mr. Norman regarding an issue that we found during a production ramp-up trip. The executive who I was traveling with confided at the time that this was the worst outburst he had ever seen from Mr. Norman. We would later that day have an emergency company all-call with most engineering staff across the three IFI companies to attempt to find a remedy solution.
“What [r-slur] designed this?” - TN
And, for the record, I was the [r-slur], on the phone with all the other execs and engineers when Tony dropped that line. Mr. Norman knew exactly who did the design work and who approved it, yet chose to chastise and single me out in front of all of my peers. This type of language is another small example of the non-inclusive environment Mr. Norman fosters for his employees.
As a result of the repeated mental abuses faced, over time my daily commute would become a daily battle of “do I drive into the median or to the office”. It was only then I realized that I needed to remove myself from the IFI environment as a matter of self-preservation. I would leave IFI immediately following the conclusion of the 2019 VEX World Championship event.
These examples are just a glimpse into many of the interactions and events that transpired over the years.
Unfortunately, like many others who have left, deep scars from our time still haunt us; even as we continue to seek closure. I personally met my lowest point after leaving IFI, as I struggled with emotions compounded over my time there. The scars many of my fellow former IFI co-workers carry with them to this day have truly stunted our development as people.
I know I do not speak for all, but rather many when I state that I am frustrated and ashamed with the institutions that we helped build in good faith. A program that has the power to be as transformative as it was for me in my youth MUST NOT be allowed to operate in such a fashion. I will no longer stand idle in fear of retribution for speaking out against the atrocities that I personally endured.
Mr. Norman and Mr. Mimlitch,
I am asking both of you, at this time, to take serious introspection about the state of IFI and the robotics community at large. This program has done good for many and still has the ability to do so, however not under the current ownership. With respect to the many fine human beings that put their blood, sweat, and tears into our work, the only gracious, and professional outcome of this entire ordeal would amount to the full liquidation of Mr. Norman’s interest in IFI; along with his indefinite removal from the community at large. We as a community will no longer accept the predatory behaviors and toxic leadership that has grown under his tenure.
I am asking you to also take time for serious introspection about the operating relationship between RECF and IFI. I do not have the same level of day-to-day exposure to your particular IFI sub-company, however, I suspect from our interactions and conversations over the years that you were not blind to these activities taking place. Now is the time for RECF to truly draw the line in the sand of what is acceptable, and decouple from IFI.
2011 VEX Mentor of the Year & former IFI employee.