what’s most important about software experience

Back in the mid 1990s, when I found myself jobless and was temping, my agency sent me to fill in for an executive administrative assistant that was going on vacation for two weeks. I read over the job description, and it said I needed to know Microsoft Powerpoint. I looked at the recruiter and said, “Oh, I haven’t used this much. I’ve used Aldus Persuasion for slide show presentations.” She shook her head and said, “Same thing. You know that, you’ll do fine with PowerPoint.” I went to the job terrified they’d boot me as soon as they figured out that I didn’t know Powerpoint. But the recruiter was right: it was most important that I knew how to lay out a slide show presentation properly; I figured out PowerPoint in just a few minutes, and put together slide show presentations for two weeks per the company’s specifications.

I’ve taken one software class in my life: it was for a new version of Aldus Pagemaker (oh, how I loved Aldus products back in the 1990s!). The class was all about how you did things differently in this version versus the last version – but it didn’t teach me anything about design. And during that hour-long class, I realized I could have figured everything out about the upgrade on my own – a book about the upgrade would have been cheaper, and always there, ready for reference.

I bring this up because of a discussion on an online community where someone said they were from a nonprofit that didn’t have the money to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office, a very old version of which they used to train their clients regarding how to prepare résumés, write formal correspondence, create simple business documents, etc. I responded that a great alternative for this nonprofit was OpenOffice or LibreOffice, both of which are free, both of which provide very powerful word processing, slide show/presentation, spreadsheet and database software, both of which are frequently updated, etc. I use OpenOffice myself.

Other people thought that the advice was outrageous, that if this nonprofit were to use anything but Microsoft, it would handicap their clients. But I stand by my advice: what’s important is not to teach someone how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft anything. What’s important is for people to understand all that office software can do, such as in a document:

  • using fonts appropriately
  • setting tabs and margins
  • creating and editing tables
  • adding headers and footers
  • recording and showing, or hiding or accepting, edits by other people
  • creating mail merges
  • etc.

What’s MOST important is that you understand the capabilities of word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, web page creation software, etc. – having that understanding means you will be able to learn to use future versions of the software or most any software produced by a different company that is designed to do what you want done, whether it’s to create a document or a web page or a database, whatever.

I bring this up not only because of that online community debate, but also because I see so many job postings asking just for advanced experience with Excel – rather than asking for experience with creating calculations on spreadsheets or producing a variety of graphs using statistical data. Or someone asking for experience with such-and-such database instead of asking for experience creating fields or customized reports in a database.

Another software skill that is just as important: ability to learn new functions on upgraded software or ability to learn new software quickly or ability to figure out new software/upgrades, because software changes. And changes and changes. It gets upgraded. The IT manager decides to use something different. The price gets too high and some board member can get a special deal on something different.

Give me a nimble learner over someone with 10 years of experience with ANY one software package! Give me a person who understands the basics of document design who has used a typesetter and hot wax for the past 20 years over someone who knows how to use Microsoft PowerPoint to create really ugly slide show presentations!

Also see:

Embrace FOSS and Open Source

7 thoughts on “what’s most important about software experience

  1. Kate Bladow

    Jayne, I think that you are absolutely right. Teachers should teach and students should ask to be taught the theory behind the tasks they are completing. For example, it’s much more important to understand the process of washing clothes rather than understanding how to wash clothes in a specific washing machine. And most people have little trouble switching between different types of washing machines.But it isn’t the same with computers. People struggle when switching between software versions. I’m not sure of the reason, but I watch it time and time again. (Perhaps it’s because they haven’t learned the theory and instead have learned the steps to accomplish a specific task? Perhaps it’s fear? Perhaps it’s not making it a priority?) So in this case, perhaps a workforce training program should be concerned about using what clients would most likely be expected to use on the job. Clients that get the theory and can transition more easily between software packages will still be able to do so.

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  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for commenting, Kate! Like it or not, people have to switch software regularly – software gets upgraded, the IT manager decides the organization is going to use something else, etc. It happens regularly. There is no getting around it. And as I’m a consultant, I have to regularly switch back and forth between Windows and Mac, as well as different versions of Windows. IMO, it’s all about attitude. Again, I’d prefer a nimble learner to someone who has used only one kind of software, one version, for years and years. Indeed, many people aren’t nimble learners – but I think it’s because of their attitude, not their abilities. Nonprofits, government agencies and others under extreme budget constraints are really selling themselves short by insisting on purchasing the most expensive software out there, as well as limiting employee candidates to only those that have used that exact software.

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  3. Rodney Foxworth

    Jayne/Kate, this is a very interesting conversation. I’m a former workforce development professional (training and public policy side) and I have a great deal of affection for the profession. Not all workforce training programs serve the same purpose or target population. I was most concerned with low-skill, low-income workers and job seekers.Unfortunately, this population was least exposed to ANY software or word processing tools. Email is even a challenge. Because of the lack of resources in the field, familiarizing the population with any variation of a software package puts them ahead. It certainly isn’t the desired outcome, but the workforce field is generally too slow to respond to the changes in the job market anyway. How many workforce agencies, for example, are proficient (or even familiar) with Prezi or any number of social media tools that would be beneficial for their clients to grasp? Jayne, you bring up attitude. The clients I’ve worked with had such fear or unfamiliarity of technology that it adversely affected their attitude. For that reason, I think whatever an agency can do to expose their clients to these tools, the better.

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  4. Mike

    Jayne-I get it…."teach the to fish". It’s a fair point. However, you have to recognize the audience. In this case, the audience is a non-profit with limited resources to to provide gold standard software. I would recommend they look at Techsoup.org. As for the philosophical question you raise, it is a bit more complicated. First, we know very little about this non-profit. Specifically, their mission. We do know they provide a service that supports their clients in preparing resumes and basic word processing. I assume it is basic computers skills are a barrier to clients ability to retain or maintain a job. In that case, it is probably one piece of a portfolio of skills being strengthened in preparing the client to retain a job. And likely not a job in software development or as an opensource user. The point of teaching them on the Microsoft Suite is to remove the computer skills barrier and allow them to put on their resume that they are functional in Microsoft Suite of Software (a gold standard that employers look for). Assuming that they do learn Microsoft, they can then do as you suggest and adapt to other software packages. Sometimes the question asked actually does represent the problem. In this case, how can they get the resources or access to the gold standard for their clients because the gold standard itself will get their clients closer to a job. Hiring managers taking a chance on someone are going to be less enthusiastic about their resume saying "basic computer proficiency" vs "proficient in the Microsoft Suite of Programs".

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  5. Anonymous

    Replying to the two comments above (thanks for commenting!)"a gold standard that employers look for" And I am saying that believing Microsoft is the "gold standard" is wrong, that employers need to change this as their "gold standard." That is one of the primary purposes of the blog! Next you are going to say that learning on a Mac rather than an IBM clone will handicap you for life employment wise (eye roll). The whole point of the blog is that we have got to encourage more nimble learning and we’ve got to get away from *only* looking for "Proficient in MIcrosoft Office" or "Proficient in this-one-and-only-volunteer-management-software" among employees and volunteers – if you do, you are missing out on fantastic candidates. I’ve used NeoOffice/OpenOffice for more than five years now. WHen I am subjected to a Microsoft work environment, I transition into it no problem. Because I understand what word processing software is supposed to do. THAT’S the point of the blog – people who stay nimble and ready to learn whatever comes their way are better than someone who only knows how to use one version Microsoft Office (or whatever) and panics over an upgrade or change. "proficient in the Microsoft Suite of Programs" – so limiting! What would be so much better: "proficient in a variety of Office Suite programs (word processing, spread sheet, slide shows, database, etc.). THAT’S powerful! THAT gets you hired!"The clients I’ve worked with had such fear or unfamiliarity of technology that it adversely affected their attitude. "I deal with people who are just as fearful, and who work very hard to keep themselves unfamiliar with technology. They are convinced that, because of their age, gender and background, they are incapable of learning to use technology – that’s what young people tell them, that’s what commercials tell them. As I’m often of the same age, gender and background as them, and steer clear of tech terms, it makes them comfortable – and in my trainings, I spend so much more time talking about attitude than specific "how tos" – it’s amazing how much people learn in an hour when they realize that, no, really, you aren’t going to break the Internet.

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  6. Kate Bladow

    Jayne, just last night I was telling someone that old dogs can definitely learn new tricks. It may just take more time and effort on part of the trainer and the dog. I believe the same is true of people who are trying to master a technology, whether it is word processing or coding. Just because cliches say you can’t doesn’t make them right.

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