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
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!