In this week’s Knights Do That episode, we speak with UCF computer programming whiz Daniel West, a third-year computer science student in the Burnett Honors College who is a current member of the UCF programming team along with teammates Sharon Barak and Seba Villalobos.
In this episode, we talk about how West originally got into programming, what it means to have the upcoming North America Championship of the 2021 International Collegiate Programming Contest hosted at UCF and what makes a good team able to compete at this national stage.
Produced by UCF Marketing, the podcast highlights students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni who do incredible things on campus, in the community and around the globe.
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Daniel West: UCF’s been big on the programming scene for 30 plus years. We’ve always been one of the best in our region and recently one of the best in the world. I mean, I don’t mean to pit us against everyone, but that rules out MIT, Georgia Tech — there’s some big names and we beat that year. Yeah.
Alex Cumming: The UCF programming team is well known around the world for consistently placing in the North America Championships and world finals. This August, UCF will be hosting the North America Championship of the 2021 International Collegiate Programming Contest, the oldest and most prestigious collegiate programming competition.
Our guest today is third year UCF computer science student in the Burnett Honors College, Daniel West, who was also a member of the UCF programming team, along with his teammates, Sharon Barak and Seba Villalobos. We talk about how he originally got into programming, what it means to have the ICPC 2021 North American Championship hosted at UCF and what makes a good team able to compete at this national stage.
So for you on the UCF programming team, doing that programming back in your grade school days, did that inspire what you wanted to do going into college as your major?
Daniel West: I think so. Yeah, definitely. I know there was a point where I was planning to be like a math guy. And once I found that computer science realm, it was easy to make the switch and found that I had a passion for that. And the competitive programming only developed that. So yeah, big influence on my major choice.
Alex Cumming: What’s that like when you’re in the situation where you have to do programming, which is something that I believe you think you could do very well and to put like a competitive twist on that. Does it make it more enjoyable or is it like I have all this information and I’m going to use it for almost like a sport per se?
Daniel West: Yeah. I think it makes it more enjoyable. I much prefer the competitive programming style to this software development or like the more practical uses of programming. For me, the competitive is more fun and I find that I could spend hours doing competitive programming, working, learning, practicing.
Alex Cumming: How do you train for something like that? Like you said, practice, how do you practice for that?
Daniel West: So I actually like the kind of strategy we take the practice because we’ll take time to learn new stuff. So any new techniques we need to learn or algorithms we’ll focus in on those, spend time working on those. And then the majority of our practice is simulating what a real contest situation is going to be like.
So for all the contests we do usually they’re five hours. They’re in person. To best simulate that and kind of get us ready for that, we’ll do the exact same thing and, work on a, a different problem set and work at it for five hours in a competitive environment.
Alex Cumming: It sounds like a marathon as opposed to a sprint for it all.
Daniel West: Right. Yeah.
Alex Cumming: Would that be where a lot of people falter is that they’re just, you know, going, going, going, going, going, and then they slip up on a detail and then it’s like, oh my gosh, they might have to go back and adjust it. Or that’s just like, you just shot yourself in the foot with that.
Daniel West: Yeah, I think it’s not too much of a setback to make a mistake in a five-hour contest. I mean, you have a lot of time to correct what you need to correct. I think the biggest challenge of working for five hours is just the endurance. You know, you’re, you’re giving it all for five hours and that can be pretty exhausting.
Alex Cumming: Give you coffee breaks at least.
Daniel West: Yeah. Yeah. Well, every minute counts, so, so you can take as many breaks as you want, but yeah, some sometimes I find it best to take a little, you know, 10-minute break, bathroom break, water break.
Alex Cumming: Right, right.
Daniel West: Kind of get myself a refresh.
Alex Cumming: Keep yourself in fighting form. So in the spring you with your teammates, Sharon Barak and Seba Villalobos, you guys advanced to the North America Championship of the 2021 International Collegiate Programming Contest.
More than 1,000 teams from the United States and Canada have entered the international competition and to advance to this point, your team has won its regional and divisional titles. So now you’re one of the final 32 teams set to compete for the North American Championship.
What’s it like to compete on the stage and what are you excited for him? What are you anxious about going into it?
Daniel West: There’s a lot to be anxious about it. I mean, I think what we’ve noticed is that UCF is so dominant in the nation that for an individual team, it can be harder to compete against our own UCF teams than it is to compete against some of the other teams in the nations.
We don’t have as much trouble advancing past national NAC but I think our team has set some goals for how we want to perform. And so we’re working on those individual goals. And with that comes the excitement of well, it would be really awesome to, perform well. There’s a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of excitement, all going into it.
Alex Cumming: What are you excited for going into it?
Daniel West: This year we haven’t had any in-person contests. They’ve all been online, which is unusual. I mean, usually Southeast Regionals is held in person in, I believe, Georgia. But this season, this will be our first in-person contest. And so working alongside Seba and Sharon in person is going to be, it’s going to be really fun in a competitive environment.
Alex Cumming: When you’re on the stage with your teammates who you’ve trained with do you feel that the pressure of people watching you, can that get in your head?
Daniel West: I’ve had a few competitions. I mean, I don’t have a lot of competition experience — not as much as Sharon. So sometimes you kind of feel the pressure creeping up, but the ideal situation is that you’re so, so focused on the competition and, the problems you’re working on that you’re able to block out some of that pressure.
Alex Cumming: How did you initially get into programming and what brought you to joining this team?
Daniel West: Initially I believe in middle school, I had my first kind of exposure to computer science and how fun it could be. So it was always like a something that I would never be able to wrap my head around. We actually did a code.org in middle school — very popular kind of beginner programming site. And I, I fell in love with it and I was able to get a connection from my middle school teacher and she said, “Oh, if you’re going to get into computer science, you need to talk with Kyle Dencker ’08 ’16MA, who is the Timber Creek computer science teacher.” I mean, he’s won Teacher of the Year, my junior year. Amazing guy. Can’t speak more highly of him. So, I found myself at Timber Creek. I mean, I was already zoned for it and it just seemed like the best option. And I was able to grow in that environment.
Timber Creek is a big computer science school especially with Mr. Dencker. So, I ended up getting connected with him and I took some classes. I loved him. I took some more challenging classes and yeah, he, he really kind of was the gateway for getting into the computer science realm.
I should also mention that he has connections with a Arup Guha, who is computer science professor at UCF. And he also organizes a program called Junior Knights, which is specifically for high schoolers and it’s for just learning computer science. I think we ended up doing Python and maybe a little Java at that event. And it was really just kind of a cater to the high schoolers. So you would show up and they would come to you wherever you were at.
Alex Cumming: It’s almost like recruiting.
Daniel West: Yeah. Yeah. It was almost like recruiting now that I’m thinking about it. Yeah.
Alex Cumming: That’s pretty cool to show that what’s available here at UCF. Did you have any experience like that from other schools in Florida that said, oh, look what we have. But with Timber Creek being right around the corner from UCF —
Daniel West: Yeah, there wasn’t a draw from other schools. Some universities put on their own programming competitions. And so, that was a good recruiting tool for those universities. But maybe I’m a little biased, it was the UCF one that was the most prestigious, you know? That was our competition we looked forward to was the UCF high school program and tournament in high school. Yes, Stetson put on a programming competition. FIU put on a programming competition and there might’ve been another university, UF used to do one.
Alex Cumming: UCF just stood head and shoulders above them.
Daniel West: Exactly. Exactly.
Alex Cumming: So when you have one of these competitions that you know is coming up, how do you prepare for it?
Daniel West: So there’s kind of two aspects to it. One is making sure you have — well, it may be three aspects.
One is making sure you have the right knowledge. So If you go into a competition and you see a problem and it’s like, well, I’m not sure I have the right background knowledge to even solve this problem. So we try and focus on specific topics to make sure that we’re prepared for what we might expect to see. And you never know what you’re going to see in a competition as far as what topics. So you kind of have to train the ones that you think are our most approachable, maybe most beneficial.
And then the other aspect is experience. Making sure your team has the right chemistry, kind of seeing what works for your team — how that dynamic is going to play during the contest, who is gonna work on what, how we’re going to approach certain situations.
And then the third I would say is being in the right mindset. It’s a competition environment. You can get pretty distracted or maybe lose your focus due to the pressure. So it can be helpful to kind of take, I think what our team likes to do is take a week off of the grind of learning and, and developing before a competition to make sure that we have our minds clear and that’s how we prepare.
Alex Cumming: Did you choose the team? Did the team exist and then you came into it or did the three of you find each other?
Daniel West: So we did not. Well, I should say for me, I didn’t have any input. I don’t think Seba or Sharon did either as far as how the teams were constructed. The coaches handle that. They do an excellent job.
Our coach, Coach Glenn pretty much handpicked our team. They all have experience with us. We were all members of the team in some way or another last year. Seba and I were on the junior varsity developmental team. And Sharon was on a varsity team last year. I think they handpick how they kind of want to see the team chemistry. It’s hard to predict how a team’s gonna get a perform just based on how you pick them. But I think there was something special with our dynamic.
Alex Cumming: With this, how many hours do you put into it, along with the schoolwork that you have to do, which I imagine is also very mentally taxing because there’s probably a lot of crossover in the two realms though.
Daniel West: Yeah, indeed. I’d say a rule of thumb is 20 hours a week of competitive programming. Some weeks you don’t reach that goal. It is challenging to balance schoolwork and then also, make the most out of your time spent programming. So sometimes you’ll have big projects coming up and it’s all right if you don’t get in all this time spent programming, but it does pay off.
Alex Cumming: Does having a team that you can trust and rely on, how much does that matter to these competitions? Somebody that if you’re feeling down or you’re not feeling at your most competitive that day, that you can speak with them, they can give you a push, a boost.
Daniel West: I think it means everything. Having people around you, you can trust means so much in these kinds of competitions and even just for individual performance.
A lot of the times, we’ll be in situations where maybe somebody’s struggling to work on a problem and they can trust their teammates to reach out and say, “Hey, I need some help with this. Can you take a look at this for me” or something. Getting to know who’s good at what, who’s proficient in, what and who should I go for this? There’s a lot of team chemistry, and there’s also a lot of individual work that we do in a competition. So if a problem comes up and you read it, you say, okay, I can do this.
Let me work on this. It should take me 20 minutes. A lot of times you just have to trust that your teammates are going to deliver. And they do
Alex Cumming: Right. You spoke about how important your teachers in high school were at Timber Creek and how important it was to get to see the possibilities later UCF. Does that speak to the importance of having great teachers?
Daniel West: Yeah. Yeah, it does. Having that encouragement, I mean, I don’t think competitive programming is something I would have pursued on my own without the support from teachers. It really does speak to having good teachers that kind of have your best interest in mind. They see opportunities that they want you to do at least consider. Yeah. Agreed.
Alex Cumming: This August, it will be the first time that the North America Championship is held on UCF’s campus. What does that mean to you and your team, to be competing here on your home turf against some of the most talented teams in the nation?
Daniel West: Yeah, it’s a first. I mean, this will be my first NAC, having it at UCF feels pretty special. It’s familiar to me. It’s crazy to think that top teams are going to come to UCF to compete in one of the most well, the most, the top championship in North America. So there was a little bit of what’s the word? I don’t know. It would have been exciting to go somewhere new and experience the competition that way. But at the same time we’re kind of the home team.
Alex Cumming: Where you’re competing, you could look around and say, oh, this is where I have my 8:30. This is, I got no stress in here. No stress in here.
Daniel West: Right, exactly.
Alex Cumming: But they’re coming to us, which is so important that, UCF is seen as this place that holds these international competitions, that UCF is a place of such importance that you can come here to decide the North America Championship.
Daniel West: And UCF’s been, I mean, they’ve been big on the programming scene for 30-plus years. We’ve always been one of the best in our region, and recently one of the best in the world. I believe it was 2018. I probably shouldn’t don’t quote me on this, but recently we, we placed like top 10 at the world finals competition, one of our teams. UCF means business.
Alex Cumming: UCF has been supportive of these teams — the prominence, the promise and the potential that they show that UCF wants to fan that flame so that they can be presenting the best teams possible to represent the university.
Daniel West: Right. Yeah. First in North America, I should mention that.
Alex Cumming: First in North America? Wow.
Daniel West: I mean, I don’t mean to pit us against everyone, but that rules out MIT, Georgia Tech. There’s some big names that —
Alex Cumming: Ivy leagues as well?
Daniel West: that we beat that that year. Yeah.
Alex Cumming: Wow. It’s an, it’s a testament to the university that to pit ourselves, as you say, against the rest of the nation, which there are schools that are entirely based around information and technology, that UCF can just train and brew such talented, young potential from local areas. They have somebody competing at the national level from right around the corner in yourself. That’s very special to see, considering that a lot of these major universities, they do draw in from nationwide, worldwide people, but for these individuals to be homegrown, I think that’s something that you can’t ignore.
Daniel West: And I think it speaks to the university because you know, it’s not just, oh, we had one really good team that performed really well. It’s like every year we seem to perform really well. So I don’t want to take credit for, for that world finals placement, because those guys really, really were special. And they put in the work to achieve that.
Alex Cumming: You have the teammates and the coaching staff and from the sound of it, it sounds as though you and your teammates have a good bond, you enjoy each other’s company and I’m certain that doesn’t hurt when it comes to competition time.
Daniel West: Oh, for sure.
Alex Cumming: It sounds like you and your coach also have a great connection, which as I spoke about before, when you feel as though you’re not performing at your, you’re not feeling it in a certain day, that your coach can be there to be the wind beneath your wings to keep you going and on the right direction.
Daniel West: He’s almost as excited as we are, if not more.
Alex Cumming: I believe it.
Daniel West: He has been so supportive. I can’t speak highly enough of Coach Glenn. He’s the person you would reach out to if you need a little motivation or you need some support or if you need some lunch. He’s a good mentor and a coach.
Alex Cumming: With this team that you have, this competition, what else do you still want to accomplish with them? I’m certain winning these competitions and getting the recognition and the respect means a lot to the team and definitely to the university and the community. But what else do you want to do with this?
Daniel West: Good question. We definitely have our performance goals. So we’d like to see good results at the competitions. But I think there’s more than that. There’s a lot to be gained from these competitions and even just growing as a team and facing these hardships, putting yourself in a position like that gives you a lot of room to grow as an individual, as a team. I think there’s more to take away than just the prestige of, placing well at these competitions.
Alex Cumming: How has being a part of this team how do you feel that you’ve grown as a person with it?
Daniel West: I think it’s taught me a lot about how to work at certain goals and at the same time, why I have certain goals as an individual. You know, there’s more than, than just programming to it. There’s a lot of growth.
Alex Cumming: Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
Daniel West: Yeah, I wouldn’t put that label on me, I think.
Alex Cumming: But when game time comes —
Daniel West: Yeah, I like to do my best. And so when we go into a competition that’s what I’m thinking about. Sharon is, a great leader and his philosophy is we’re going to do our best and, let things fall where they fall. But all we can expect from ourselves is to do our best. If we start setting goals like, oh, we need to beat this team or this, well, then then we kind of lose sight of those expectations. With practice, we just hope to make our best even better.
Alex Cumming: That’s a good mindset to have — to not be pitting yourself against other people, to compare them; instead comparing yourself to what you were, what you did, how can you best that?
Daniel West: Yeah, it’s a great mindset. And that’s one that, I can definitely take away and apply it elsewhere.
Alex Cumming: I believe it. And Sharon, as the leader, you said?
Daniel West: He’s our leader of the team, yeah. Not the coach, but he’s our designated leader. In competition situations, rarely does it come up, but if there’s some kind of team conflict or even if we need a morale boost, Sharon’s the guy.
Alex Cumming: The one that keeps everybody straight.
Daniel West: Yeah.
Alex Cumming: On the straight narrow path.
Daniel West: Yeah.
Alex Cumming: Do you have personalities bubbling up at these competitions?
Daniel West: We all have our own personalities that come out in these competitions. And Sharon keeps a really cool head in these competitions, which makes him that much better of a leader. And Seba can really hyper-focus and work with what they know to perform. It’s pretty incredible to watch us all work.
Alex Cumming: When you get this recognition from the university of all that you’ve accomplished, how does that feel for you?
Daniel West: Well, it makes me a little nervous. I don’t know. It feels like we kind of have to represent the whole team, like there’s so much more that goes on then than just the three team members that people recognize. The recognition is great, but I think it should also be said that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. And, and we shouldn’t forget about those people.
Alex Cumming: Right. Daniel, what are your teammates strengths and what are yours and how do you all complement each other?
Daniel West: Speaking on the team’s behalf, we all bring our own individual strengths. I would say Sharon shows great leadership. He’s supportive of us all. He keeps calm and he’s in the competition to do his best and make sure that we’re all performing at our best. He’s been extremely supportive.
For Seba, I think they are incredible at working together, working with teammates and, also showing support. And they’re great at getting down to the deep analysis in terms of the competition. They also show a lot of passion and care.
And in terms of my strengths, I think I work well with people. I’m not always the person to come up with the best ideas in the programming contest. I might not solve the most problems. But I think, helping others towards that and filling in the gaps is where I come in.
That plays out really well in our competition because the first part of the competition usually goes like, we all kind of work on the problems and try and read through the set and kind of pin down and analyze, oh, here’s what this guy should be working on. Here’s what we should be working on. This is what I should be working on. And once we get through that phase, we kind of take a step back and say, okay, here’s how we’re gonna approach the remainder of this contest. We pumped out a few problems that we were able to do just on our own. And now we’re kind of in that phase where it’s like, well, we need to start working together and putting our minds together to solve these problems.
Seba is really good at the analytical problems and the really advanced complicated problems. And Sharon is incredible at problems that require a lot of thinking. So those kind of almost a puzzley kind of problems, where you really have to put your mind to it.
And I come alongside and help them along and get to where they need to be. That’s kind of how it plays out in our team dynamic.
Alex Cumming: What do you think it takes to make a successful team?
Daniel West: There has to be chemistry. You can’t have a team that is all really good individuals. Because a team that can work really well together can achieve — well, they’ll have an easier time tackling some of those, harder challenges than the team that, that works solely, as three individual parts. I think that’s what ends up spelling success a lot of time. And of course, you need those strong you know, a lot of the background knowledge comes in.
Alex Cumming: That great amount of group think where you all pick up each other and you can see where each other may be faltering in a moment and can catch that before it becomes a fatal mistake. I think that applies, I believe that applies not just here in the programming, but in team building in general, team building overall to be able to know each other so well that you can almost catch each other before the mistake happens.
What lessons have you learned from your time programming and competing on this team that you feel can apply to your life day to day?
Daniel West: Some of the biggest lessons come from working on a team. Kind of what I was talking about earlier, but it can really show you how much more a team can achieve then than an individual.
It’s important to work with those around you and respect them, and then hear out their ideas. It’s also taught me a good amount about how you can work towards goals, and how you kind of plan for how you’re going to work towards them, kind of planning for the future. I don’t know. Coming to UCF was a big eye opener for me that I really need to start planning stuff out if I was going to achieve what I wanted to achieve. That’s definitely showed up in our team.
Alex Cumming: True, UCF is a place where when you, can do practically anything. And if you put yourself out there that the great opportunities can come to you if you apply yourself. I think that is certainly evident in your situation coming to UCF and everything that led up to you being here.
Daniel West: Yeah. Agreed.
Alex Cumming: So, Daniel, what do you see as the future of computer programming? How will it continue to impact society? We’ve seen how fast it grows and how fast it moves. Where’s it going?
Daniel West: Good question. I think it’s becoming a lot more commonplace from what I’ve seen, where it’s almost expected that people have at least a little bit of, technology experience. And you hear this from people in technology all the time that it’s like, well, in any position that you are looking to get, you know, whether it’s career or starting your own business or something, having a little bit of technology background can make a world of difference.
So in terms of where it’s going I’d have a hard time speaking about that. I think it’s pretty unpredictable, but it seems that things are getting faster and, just when it seems like we can’t do any better somehow technology improves. And so I think it’ll, continue that trend.
Alex Cumming: Programming and development, things that seemed to be done by only the top in the field, you know, some 20, 25 years ago, that stuff is now taught in high schools. That stuff is taught in college. You can, I mean, you could focus your entire four years just based around that as is in your situation. And it’s wild that so many young people have the knowledge and the skill base to easily develop an app.
To know Java, know Python. And it’s gotten to the point where it’s done for fun, for, for enjoyment stuff that was seen as a, we need, you know, we need this stuff — that’s exciting that as it becomes such, just a commonplace knowledge base,
Who knows what we’re going to develop with it to make a better world.
Daniel West: Right. It’s becoming so increasingly accessible. I see advertisements all the time for, you know, there’s this free Python course where we’re going to walk you through how to develop an app or how to work on a web server or something. It’s not only becoming more widespread, but It’s also reaching younger age groups like you were mentioning. So I know high schoolers that are developing their own app. I think Apple hosts a competition. I don’t know enough about the competition to really speak too much on it, but yeah, it’s specifically geared for high schoolers and they come up with some incredible stuff. It’s reaching more people and a younger audience, which is cool to see.
Alex Cumming: As we can see that college-age students are changing the game, it’s incredible. It’s beautiful to see.
What do you still want to do? With all this great amassed knowledge. Do you want inspire the next generation of competitive programmers? Do you want to start your own company, your corporation, use your knowledge for the betterment of the community and society?
Daniel West: Yeah. That’s, that’s a little hard to figure out, but I think I have some, short-term plans. I’d like to be a software developer. And so, I see the competitive programming taking me in that place, but I think competitive programming for me at UCF has been such an opportunity to expand my connections and my experience. And for that reason, I think it’s important that this does get passed on. I think I would like to be a part of that.
There are some team members that will stick around after their competitive years to help team members in their, goals, their pursuits. The first one that comes to mind is Coach Travis. He was on a really competitive team, I want to say 2014. It wasn’t too long ago. And so he came back to UCF and worked as a professor and is now a coach for the team. I’m not sure I would do exactly that. But that is one way that I could help out is coming back kind of mentoring future UCF programming team members.
Alex Cumming: Look, do you want to talk about networking, you’re putting yourself and your teammates on the highest stage possible. I can’t imagine that companies aren’t looking and they’re saying, you know, we want some of the best of the best young people. Where at where are they competing? And they’re looking and they’re finding UCF students on the same prestige of students from Ivy League universities.
Daniel West: Exactly. It’s a good thing to put on the resume.
Alex Cumming: I believe it, I don’t doubt that. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to compete in competitive programming like yourself?
Daniel West: What advice would I give? I think the best advice I could give is when you’re first starting out, and honestly, at any stage, a lot of the times it can feel like you look at certain things and you’re like, oh, I’ll never be able to do that. That’s beyond my scope. And so you focus on the things that are approachable to you. I would say that that is not always true.
In my high school years, I was like looking at certain things that people were achieving. And I was like, oh, I’ll never be able to do anything like that. But putting in the work and effort, you can get there. For upcoming programming team members, I would say keep your head high. You can achieve what you think you won’t be able to.
Alex Cumming: In your experience, it sounds as though mentoring has been such an important part, having great teachers, as we said. And when you’re here, mentoring and tutoring and coaching younger students, do you see the potential in them? And you say, I want to make sure that you keep on this path because I see a lot within you.
Daniel West: It’s been challenging this year to connect with some of the younger and upcoming students without meeting a person. It’s a little harder to kind of develop that connection. But I have no doubt that a lot of the new people on the team are going to achieve great things. I should show them more encouragement I think because having a mentor means, well, it meant the difference for me. And I’m sure I would, for others.
Alex Cumming: What you’re accomplishing here at UCF is inspiring the next group of competitive programmers to come to UCF as they’ll say, look what they did in 2021. I’d love to be a part of that team. I’d love to be a part of that group. I’d love to work with these people. Look what they’ve gone on to accomplish — that you’re laying foundations and continuing to build the amazing UCF, as you said, internationally recognized for what you’re accomplishing now.
Daniel West: Yeah, it’s a good feeling and it’s good motivation as well.
Like you said, oh, the 2021 team, like what kind of legacy are we going to leave behind? But at the same time that’s just one of many. UCF’s done great and we’ll continue to do great, but there’s a whole lot of people that will have that recognition as well.
Alex Cumming: Daniel I want to say thank you so much for coming here and speaking with me today. I definitely learned a lot about programming and the developmental world that I was unaware of, so I want to say thank you again.
Daniel West: I appreciate you having me over Alex.
Alex Cumming: And of course.
Thanks again for listening. Be sure to stream and download on whatever platform you use to listen to podcasts. I hope you’re enjoying learning how Knights are making a positive impact in our community, our nation and the world. And hey, if you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere, you took UCF that we should know about send us an email at email@example.com, and maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future. Go Knights and Charge On!