Michael Kölling interview: Selected quotes

Michael Kölling

On a separate page: Overview page for this interview

Liter of Milk Leads to Love of Math

I had a very inspirational maths teacher so that’s when I started to like maths. And that was only because of that teacher. He was a very nice man to start with, personally, I really liked him. But he also had a really great way of teaching. We had, I remember one year talking about volumes of various shapes. He had a cube. It was a ten centimeter edge length cube. It was a metal cube that had one open side and he told us that the volume of that was exactly one liter. We all knew liter because in Germany drinks come packaged in liters. So you would get a liter of milk and we knew what that looks like. It seemed to not fit, it seemed too small. So people, said no I don’t believe that, it will never fit in there so he just in the middle of the lesson sent one of the pupils out to run over to the store and buy a liter of milk and come back and poured it in there. So things like this really stuck in my mind. It was great. He was great. Herr Geiersbach was his name. It really made me see maths as a positive thing because his lessons were so much fun.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 149-162
  • Audio clip [1 minute 26 seconds] located at 12:07 in full audio of interview

The insight that the tutor learns as much as the kids

And the one thing I have done from very early on is to do extra teaching for younger kids. So I did maths tutoring — it was mostly maths, sometimes physics — tutoring, typically for pupils who were a year or two below me, for money. So there was always some kind of ads in the paper where they looked for someone to help out, you know, do some extra maths tutoring for children. That was one of my regular afternoon jobs, to earn some money. And then, of course — I realized it only much later — that I probably learned at least as much as the kids I was teaching, probably more, I would say. It’s a great reinforcement.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 196-202
  • Audio clip [54 seconds] located at 16:23 in full audio of interview

Starting to program on a KIM

I had started programming out of school just before that, another half-year before that. I had a friend who was a couple of years older and he was given a computer that didn’t work. It was broken. It was called a KIM. It was essentially just a memory board, without a case. It was just the motherboard and it had a keyboard on there like a calculator; just a number pad with hexadecimal numbers and a six-digit display. And it didn’t work. But he knew something about electronics, so he somehow made it work and then we spent our afternoons trying to program this and we could just type in 6502 assembly code. And we both didn’t know anything about the assembly code but we read, started reading, books and doing little things.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 214-221
  • Audio clip [45 seconds] located at 18:13 in full audio of interview

A hunger for learning

I was a conscientious objector {of compulsory military service}. And you do some civil service instead. So you can choose this, you can apply anyway and there’s a process. You actually have a trial set up where you have to justify this. It’s a hurdle that, so you can do some social service instead, which I did. {Question: What did you do?} I worked in a kindergarten for disabled children for eighteen months. {Question: How did that affect you?} It was great at first. I really enjoyed it because that’s the first time I really had responsibility for other people and I felt like I was doing really useful work. I learned a lot about that kind of work, interacting with people, and I enjoyed it. But at the end also I was really looking forward to go back to university, to go back to learning, and to actually learn something. I was … I think it was good for me because I was …… at the end of the time I was really keen to go back to learning something. I think had I gone on straight from school I wouldn’t have had this sort of hunger for learning that I had.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 289-306
  • Audio clip [1 minute 10 seconds] located at 23:00 in full audio of interview

Painting or computer science?

[A]ctually, I really wanted to paint. And I did a lot of painting at the time, when I was in school. And then I was debating for years whether I should study art or computer science, those were the two things that most interested me. And … I really wanted to do both. Then I thought, “OK, I can probably do that better when I study computer science.” Because I thought I could paint in my spare time as an amateur. You know, you can do that even though you don’t have a formal education. Whereas, computer science without a proper education, I thought, “It’s hard, you don’t get anywhere teaching that to yourself, doing that on your own is much harder.” So I thought — I was determined to do both — and I thought, “OK, then I’ll learn computer science properly and I can still paint” — which at the end I stopped doing. […] I still do all the graphics for our project now. I still like playing with Photoshop. And there’s a tiny remnant of my artistic streak flowing, but it has pretty much disappeared. But at the time it was a big question for me.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 326-338
  • Audio clip [1 minute 23 seconds] located at 25:48 in full audio of interview

The best professors had a broader view of things

I had some teachers that were, some professors that were very influential. The ones I liked most were the ones that talked a bit sort of beyond the edges of computer science. There was one that talked a lot about art and computer science. He taught us programming but he made all these connections to other fields. That’s what fascinated me most, those people that had a broader view were my favorite teachers.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 384-388
  • Audio clip [30 seconds] located at 30:58 in full audio of interview

OK, I’ll make my own

And at the time there was a big discussion in the department about the first programming language, you know, what they …. We were teaching Pascal at the time and everyone felt that that became outdated, that wasn’t … they had to change. It was getting too old. And most people also thought it should be something object-oriented. And then that’s where the agreement stopped. No one could agree on which language it should be. And there was a big discussion. There was a working group established to look at different options and different programming languages. And I looked into that. My opinion was that I didn’t really like any of them and that was in the time when I was thinking about a Ph.D. project. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll make my own.”

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 476-483
  • Audio clip [43 seconds] located at 39:16 in full audio of interview

The joy that programming can bring

[B]ack [when I first started teaching], I would have said I wanted to teach the underlying principles in a way that people can really understand the principles and apply them, become competent in whatever they are doing. Away from the rote learning to really a proper understanding of the concepts. Now I would consider that secondary. I want to inspire and create joy and motivation. I think once they’re hooked, once they actually … once they like what they are doing, then you can teach them anything. So I think the most important thing at the moment I would see is a role model, to show the joy that programming can bring and show the fun side of it. I think that’s the most important part for me now. And everything technical is secondary.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 505-512
  • Audio clip [1 minute 1 second] located at 41:43 in full audio of interview

Teaching needs lead to Ph.D. topic

So, in my Ph.D., as I said — I think I said that over the end of the previous part of this interview — was about developing Blue as a language and environment for education. And that was very much influenced by my experience in teaching. I had been an instructor at the university from my student days on and I was always a bit unhappy with the toolsets that were there. So when I was then searching for a Ph.D. topic that is what came to mind. So that was … it came very much out of this personal need, because I wanted to have the tools. And so that led to the development of Blue, which was my Ph.D. topic.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 547-553
  • Audio clip [47 seconds] located at 44:50 in full audio of interview

What do you consider a real user?

A real user is someone who uses it because they really want to use your software and not just to play around or to evaluate it but someone who actually has an interest in using it. To achieve something for themselves. Students are most definitely in my mind real users; they are using it because they want to learn something or sometimes because they are told to use it because their teacher thinks. I mean people who don’t use it just for to evaluate it or because you have asked them to, someone who is unconnected and uses it because they want it. That has driven me ever since. That has from the very beginning once we had the software; I get a real kick out of having real users. Not build something that three other researchers look at which often happens in university projects. Lots of people do really fascinating, great interesting work but it is then a handful of other researchers who actually hear about it. And I got real satisfaction out of having people use my software, real satisfying, it is good fun. If you put a lot of effort into building something and you know it actually has an impact, that someone actually, it matters to someone, that it makes a difference to someone.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 632-644
  • Audio clip [1 minute 35 seconds] located at 52:13 in full audio of interview

Challenges: That’s just normal

In terms of challenges … well, I don’t know. There’s the sort of small-scale, day-to-day things that everyone has, where I think I always don’t get quite enough time to do all those things that I would like to do. I have Ph.D. students now who come up with pretty interesting ideas. And I’ve got more ideas than time to work with them. But that’s just normal. Everyone has that.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 807-811
  • Audio clip [29 seconds] located at 69:50 in full audio of interview

Why create? There’s an app for that

Computing is reaching everyone in every part of their life. They have a phone or an iPad. The problem is I think that the modern presence of computing in peoples’ life reduces them to becoming consumers. I think the hurdle of being a consumer of computers, you know being able to watch YouTube on your iPad to actually become a producer, a developer, being creative, I think it is getting harder and harder because it has become so polished, it has become a big hurdle that is very hard to cross. When I got my first computer all you could do with it was program it. You couldn’t do anything fun without being creative. I think the creative side of modern gadgets is so well hidden away that kids now feel that whatever you want to do there is an app for that. There’s … getting them to even understand that you can be creative beyond just using software but by developing software, I think it gets harder and harder to get people to see that.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 851-861
  • Audio clip [1 minute 21 seconds] located at 73:33 in full audio of interview

Hard to experience the bug for programming

The bug that we all had in young years, when you discovered programming and you feel really powerful and suddenly you can do all those things, it’s getting quite hard to get people to see that.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 861-863
  • Audio clip [19 seconds] located at 74:55 in full audio of interview

The paradox: polished software discourages even trying

[I]n a paradoxical sense, our computing systems becoming so prevalent and ubiquitous and polished and are becoming so good — that computing is everywhere now and so good — is working against us in the sense that it’s much harder and harder, I think, to get people interested in becoming truly creative, and that means making their own software with computers. I think that will be a challenge. So somehow … because the computing systems are so good, so far away from what you can achieve on your first day, it just seems frustrating to just even try.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 863-868
  • Audio clip [42 seconds] located at 75:14 in full audio of interview

You have to get yourself to do it once

The advice I really think is just to go and give it a try. I think … that’s really the main thing. There is … I think there is a huge amount of personal satisfaction you get out of when you have developed something yourself that you just cannot explain. You cannot tell someone really. You have to experience it. The one thing you have to overcome is you have to first … you have to get yourself to do it once. And once you do it, then you know what we mean.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 875-880
  • Audio clip [35 seconds] located at 76:19 in full audio of interview

Future hope: To be a positive influence

I genuinely want to make peoples’ lives better. Sometimes you ask yourself, you know, “Why am I doing all this? What am I here for? Why am I working so hard? What do I want to be left when I am gone?” Or “How do you want to spend your time on earth?” I think what you can do is … you want to be a positive influence. And in my mind a positive influence is to give people more choices, increase opportunities or choices for people. And so I hope that with my work I am creating something that allows some people to do something that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. So … what I would like people to remember is that I really somehow tried to make a difference.

Quote from interview with Michael Kölling
  • Transcript lines: 887-894
  • Audio clip [54 seconds] located at 77:42 in full audio of interview