Meet the Faculty - Jack Kolb

Tell us about your journey to the University of Minnesota.

I grew up in the Twin Cities and went to the University of Minnesota for undergrad. I majored in computer science and then went to the University of California, Berkeley to get my Ph.D. in computer science. I really wanted to come back to the U of M because I had such a great experience and my family is here. So after grad school, I came back as a lecturer for the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. 

It’s been fun to come back to get to see my old professors who are now my colleagues. That is a bit of a switch. I got to know a lot of professors pretty well doing my time in undergrad through research and student groups. They are part of the reason I wanted to come back and work here more long term. They made such a great experience for me and that is something I want to pass on to other people. 

During undergrad, I started out during research with the GroupLens Lab. So I worked with John Riedl, Joe Konstan, and Loren Terveen. I knew nothing about research going into that and it was a fun and supportive environment. I got to learn a lot about the academic side of computer science - reading and writing papers, doing experiments and things like that. I got to meet a lot of really smart people. 

Later on in my junior and senior year, I worked in the Systems Group with Abhishek Chandra and Jon Weissman. Actually some of Jon’s classes were the reason I took an interest in systems and now focus on that area in my teaching. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching? What are your teaching interests?

I enjoy getting to see the students grow and improve. I love getting to be there for their “ah-ha” moment when they finally understand something that didn’t previously make sense to them. When I get to have students over multiple semesters, seeing them progress is really fun. I really like the challenge of distilling and conveying complex ideas in a clear way. It’s a lot harder than you might think. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you can pass it onto someone else. So learning new teaching techniques and getting better at that is really something I enjoy.

I mostly teach systems and architecture topics like the 2021 Software Architecture course. Right now I am teaching 4061, which is a junior and senior level operating systems course. I really enjoy this area and have fun teaching some of the lowest levels of how things actually work. So many things that we take for granted and seem almost magical before the class gets spelled out and really clear after the class. 

What courses are you teaching this spring? What can students expect to get out of that class?

This spring I am teaching 4061, which is our Introduction to Operating Systems course. Students get to learn about what operating systems can give you as a programmer. It highlights what kind of features and building blocks you can take and use as a coder. We use C code so you understand what it’s like to be a systems programmer. You also get to know techniques and tools that you have to use in almost any programming language. 

As a former U of M undergrad yourself, what advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Being patient and persistent is often what is most rewarded. I was not always the first person to understand something in my classes when learning it for the first time. A lot of times, the key to writing code or fixing bugs is sticking to it and staying positive as challenges come up. You don’t have to understand things right away or be the smartest person in the room to be a good computer scientist. Don’t be afraid to try new things and potentially fail. If something is interesting to you, go ahead and explore it. It might be hard at first and you might not end up liking it, but that is still something that you can learn from. 

What do you do outside of the classroom for fun?

I like being outside. Mainly I enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing and running. I also like reading a good book if I need to be inside. If you can find something you like doing outside in the Minnesota winter, it becomes a lot more tolerable.

Do you have a favorite spot in the city?

I like the Mississippi River trails. I enjoy running there and it is my go-to spot.