Carl Follstad draws from nearly four decades of experience in IT as the new faculty co-director of the U’s Information Technology Infrastructure program

The year was 1985: the Coca Cola Company introduced New Coke, Michael Jordan was named NBA’s “Rookie of the Year,” Doc Brown was about to roll out a time machine built into a DeLorean in the box office smash “Back to the Future,” and Carl Follstad graduated from college intent on programming computers.

“Microcomputers were relatively new—so new that there were no professional programmers,” recounts Follstad, whose degrees from Minnesota State University, Mankato included computer science and technical writing. “In fact, starting in high school, I was writing programs for businesses around town. I did an accounts payable system and a payroll system on microcomputers, because all the professionals were working on mainframes. That helped pay my way through college.”

Since there were few professional programmers at the time, Follstad figured that’s how he would put his education to work. “I started out as the guy that just wanted to sit in a room all day programming computers and have pizza shoved under the door.”

Over the years, Follstad’s jobs evolved from programming to managing computer systems. He took on increasing levels of responsibility—leadership roles, recruiting, managing small teams—and, in the late 1990s, got interested in the sales aspect of the computing business.

“I was really learning a lot from some of the sales teams who were bringing in the new technology,” he says.

Carl Follstad stands inside the Washington Avenue walking bridge on the U of M East Bank Campus

“The good sales teams were the ones who listened and understood our needs. They brought an engineer with, as well as a salesperson. And they took care to sell something that would be of value.

“One of those teams belonged to a company called EMC,” which developed and sold data storage and data management hardware and software, and was acquired by Dell in 2016. “As a customer, I was endlessly impressed with their product: their customer service, the competency of their sales force, and their engineering. So I went into sales for EMC as an engineer.”

With the exception of a brief foray overseeing the data management team in the University of Minnesota Office of Information Technology, Follstad has been with EMC/Dell for nearly three decades, both as a customer and an employee, using or selling high-end data storage protection products and other items that go into data centers. About fourteen years ago he was approached by a colleague from the U, asking whether he’d be interested in teaching a course on storage network architecture and storage system design (INET 4032). “He knew it was kind of my thing because he had worked in my group,” Follstad recounts. “I had wanted to be a teacher back in college, but chose to go into IT instead. This was my chance to get back into education.”

Since then he has added Foundations of Operating Systems (INET 4001) to his instructing roster. And, in 2022, Follstad became the faculty codirector, with Mark Langanki, of the Information Technology Infrastructure program. Here, Follstad shares his thoughts about teaching, his vision for the program, and his advice for anyone entering the IT profession.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next couple of years?

One important task I was given is to develop a more diverse pool of faculty to draw from. A major priority of the college is to create more equitable, diverse, and inclusive experiences and environments for everyone. I’m in a good position to do that because my day job with Dell has me hooked into so many different companies and I can readily recruit clients and colleagues who want to share their expertise in the classroom.

Another big thing I’ve been charged with is to work with other faculty to assess the curriculum and the materials, evaluating them in relation to the current needs of the marketplace. Technology evolves quickly and, more recently, so has how we work and collaborate, so we are continually asking whether our graduates will meet the needs of today’s workplaces. That may involve refreshing some material or completely revamping some courses.

How have your three-plus decades of experience working in the IT industry prepared you for this new role as faculty codirector of ITI?

A valuable component of working in the industry rather than just teaching from a textbook is that I have learned what makes sense from a technology-adoption perspective versus what the vendor community wants to sell. There are fads and fiction in the IT industry, just like other industries, and I’ve navigated through all of them. Examples of fads over the years are:

  • 1980s: “the death of the mainframe” – never happened
  • 1990s: “the paperless office” – only happened recently, when huge monitors, better workspaces, and working from home made it possible
  • 2000s: “all our jobs are going overseas (outsourcing)” – nope, we’ve got more IT jobs now than ever
  • 2010s: “it’s all about the cloud!” … well, I see customers abandoning cloud computing for their most critical IT functions
  • And now we have people working from anywhere in the world enabled by, of all things, a pandemic!

Having all that experience to draw from allows me and the other faculty members, with guidance from our advisory board—all working IT professionals—to ensure our curriculum stays current and relevant and to quickly pivot the course material. It’s definitely a team effort.

Carl Follstad leaning with elbow on black metal railing with U of M East Bank campus in background

Do you have a teaching philosophy?

I’m not going to teach you anything that doesn’t bring you value in the workplace. I will teach you theory if it can be directly applied to a problem you may run into in the workplace, but I’m not going to tell you how a watch is made if all you need to know is the time.

Another thing I try to do is to help shortcut the learning process on some of these painful life lessons. So, even though one of the courses I teach is about storage, I also spend half a day going over the art of presentation because, no matter what you do in life, you always need to be able to sell an idea. You’re going to come to your client with something in mind, you're going to try to anticipate the conversation, and you’re going to anticipate objections. And right now in our culture, that’s done via presentation, whether via Zoom or face-to-face. I tell the students, “It took me twenty-five years to get good at presenting my ideas and I’d like for you to not have to spend that much time.”

What’s one piece of advice you want students to take to heart?

Network. Network. Network. Today’s IT is about solving business problems. And the way to do that is to get close to the business and its people. I understand it’s not easy for someone coming out of school at twenty-two years old, maybe without a lot of confidence. But it’s important to meet people and build friendships outside of your immediate work environment. You’ve got nothing to prove to your peers; you’ve got everything to prove to the other people in the organization, who may end up being your internal customer one day.

How do you define success as an instructor?

In the final class session of the semester, I tell my students to find me on LinkedIn and to stay in touch with me and let me know how I can help them professionally. Most students do that and I enjoy an ongoing connection with them. I still meet my former students over lunch or happy hour and it brings me incredible pride to know I had a small part in helping a young life develop skills which will help move them forward and to get a good job, which they may use some day to support a family and retire comfortably. It’s a long vision, to be sure, but some of my college instructors at Mankato and even in high school before that made it a point to share a larger part of their experiences and values with me and I have always felt compelled to pay that forward. Sure, I paid tuition for my classes. But with some instructors, I got so much more. I want to do that for my students as well. And as a faculty codirector, I can now do that for even more students.

Visit the ITI website for more information about the program.