If you’re trying to land a job, get a promotion, or start your own business, there’s probably some type of software you’ll need to learn to take that next step. You need the ability to learn new software applications quickly to remain competitive. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to learn many computer programs. This lesson will discuss ways you can learn new software skills quickly on your path to better work and income.
Should I Buy a Book?
I’ve bought several software books over the last decade, yet they’ve only played a small part in the software applications I’ve learned to use. Software books are effective in one sense because they start out with basics like the program interface, terminology, and steps to get started. Some of these books are fairly in-depth and show you every bit of functionality for a program.
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It’s been my experience that I only use about 25-50% of a software program’s functionality on a regular basis. If I try to learn a new software program from A-Z, as most books approach it, I end up spending (wasting) a lot of time learning and trying to remember things I will never actually use.
I recommend learning software programs on an “as-needed” or “just-in-time” basis. Now, I only use the software books I buy as references, never reading from cover to cover. If I need to learn how to set up a new payee in some accounting software, for example, I’ll go to the index of the software manual and find the pages that detail how to get it done. Of course, that’s only when I can’t find an online tutorial first. We’ll look at that option later in this lesson.
You’ll find that you remember information and master software skills much better by taking this approach. Trying to learn everything about a program and then attempting to recall it when you need it is difficult and inefficient.
Install Trial/Free Versions of Software
Many software companies offer free, 30-day trial installations of their software applications. If you set a goal to learn an application, just an hour or two a day in the trial software may be enough to develop your skills sufficiently.
An important point to remember is to only install one application per month. You can exhaust the opportunity to learn that one piece of software before the trial installation expires. The software will stop working after 30 days unless you buy the full license. If you ambitiously install the trial versions for several of these applications, then you only have 30 days to use and learn all of them. Pace yourself by taking on one at a time.
Below is a short list of software programs with free trial versions. Many of these are multimedia design applications, but others are also very useful in the business world. If there is any other software you would like to learn, go to the manufacturer’s website and see if you can download and use it for a free trial period. Some examples of software with free trial versions include:
- Microsoft Office Applications (Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint)
- Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere
- Techsmith Camtasia and SnagIt
- Sony Vegas & Soundforge
To find the links to download this free trial software, type in the name of the software application you want to learn into a search engine. Find the manufacturer’s website, and locate the link to the “free trial” or “downloads” page. Installation instructions or automated wizards will help you install the software application on your computer. Salesforce and Freshbooks do not require any installation on your computer; they’re web-based applications.
Download one of the free trial versions of software listed above (Photoshop is a fun one) and learn the basic functionality of it before the free trial period ends.
Learn Free/Open-Source Software
You can download many types of free software programs from the Internet to help sharpen your career skills and increase productivity. These software programs are entirely free, not simply for a free trial period like those we just discussed. I’m not talking about games, screensavers, and other time-wasters. I mean professional-level applications that are used by businesses and organizations. You can either download and install these programs from the Internet, or use some of them as “web-based” programs (no need to install anything). Here is a short list of some free software programs I am familiar with:
- OpenOffice Suite (www.openoffice.org): Free suite of programs similar to Microsoft Office
- MySQL (www.mysql.com): A database application
- SDK – Android (http://developer.android.com/sdk): Program used to develop most mobile (Android) apps
- GIMP (www.gimp.org): A photo editing program like Photoshop
- Linux (www.linux.com/learn): A PC and server operating system (an alternative to Windows)
- Inkscape (http://inkscape.org): For vector images (similar to Illustrator)
- WordPress (http://wordpress.com): A blogging program/website
- Joomla (www.joomla.org): A content management system (You can practice on the test website.)
- GnuCash (www.gnucash.org): An accounting application
- Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net): An audio editing application
- Blender 3D (www.blender.org): A 3D illustration application
Use the Help Menus
Just about every software application has a help menu accessible by pressing the F1 key at the top of your keyboard, or by selecting Help from the menu bar. These Help menus have search tools where you can type in words about what you’re trying to do with the program. Performing a search will give you links to those topics in the Help database. Some of them even link to web-based demonstrations of how to accomplish what you’re trying to do. Help menus are like having your own on-call learning coach.
Press F1 to see what happens. Chances are, you will open the Help menu for the current application you are using. Try it in another program that you use frequently. Try to find any computer program that does not have a Help menu at the top, or one that does not have a Help menu appear when you press F1.
Use Search Engines to Learn Software
Here’s another great reason to apply effective search engine skills: you can learn many types of software by searching for tutorials online. I don’t believe a work week has passed in the last few years when I haven’t used a search engine to find out how to do something in a software program. What’s more, I’ve often found what I’ve needed to know this way. Here are some examples of searches I’ve used recently:
- remove CSS tool tips
- create reflection in photoshop
- create named anchor html
Create effective searches for software tasks by including what you’re trying to do and the name of the program you’re using. For example:
- format table Microsoft word
- create blog post wordpress
- remove red eye photoshop
- create pivot table Microsoft excel
- create new table mysql
- insert movie html 5
Think of a software program you use or one you’d like to learn. Next, use a search engine to locate a tutorial for a task you would like to perform. Remember to include words that describe the task, then the name of the software application.
Proficient software users can often demonstrate a skill more efficiently than a book or an online tutorial. You’ll also get real-time feedback. If you have friends or coworkers who know a program well, just be sensitive to their time and responsibilities before you ask them to tutor you. Do all you can on your own, using some of the tools I’ve already mentioned. I learned Adobe InDesign on my own over a few months. My wife was able to learn it quicker than I did because she simply asked me how to do things in the program without having to look them up in a book or online.
Take a Paid Course
Most of the options discussed so far for learning software skills are free or inexpensive. Depending on what software you are trying to learn, or depending on your learning preferences, you may want to take a course. These usually cost money.
One advantage of taking formal software courses is that you can receive certification, or at least a certificate of completion. Some employers or clients may require official certification for certain programs in order to hire or do business with you. Most colleges have computer courses you can take. You don’t necessarily have to be enrolled in a degree program to register. Some examples of other paid online courses for learning software include:
- Microsoft Certifications: www.microsoft.com/learning
- Lynda.com Training: www.lynda.com
- Kaplan Learning: www.kaplan.edu
- CompTIA: http://certification.comptia.org
- Adobe Certifications: www.adobe.com/support/certification
- CISCO Training & Certifications: http://www.cisco.com/web/learning
View Source: A Web Development Learning Hack
- Internet Explorer(9): Press F12, then press CTRL+SHIFT+G (on PCs)
- FireFox: Press CTRL+U (on PCs)
- Google Chrome: Press CTRL+U (on PCs)
- Safari: Command+Option+V (on Macs) CTRL+ALT+U (on PCs)
Create Your Portfolio
In the work I’ve done creating computer-based learning programs and training materials for large organizations, I’ve had to learn a dozen software programs proficiently. As I applied to other jobs and now, as I market my own business, I realize it’s not enough to just say that I know how to use a certain software program. Companies want actual proof of what you can do.
As you learn new software programs, it’s helpful to collect a portfolio of work that you’ve done. This will give job hunters or promotion seekers an advantage over others who don’t have visible proof of their skills. Having a portfolio of your work or products is essential for anyone who owns their own business. Potential clients want to see a track record of your capabilities.
In my own experience, employers and clients have never asked where or how I actually learned my skills. They simply want assurances that I know what I’m doing. I have a large, online portfolio of work that I share to convince them I do high-quality work.
- Most jobs and industries require knowledge of software programs to get their work done. You need to learn new programs quickly to remain competitive.
- There are many fast (and free) ways to learn software programs. These include installing free trial versions, using open source software, using the programs’ Help menus, and by performing task-based searches on the Internet.
- You may need to take formal classes or training to get certified on a software program. You can find many courses online, or, local colleges may have the classes you want.