Help me become a computer whiz!
January 22, 2009 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Here's the deal, MeFi: I know absolutely nothing about computers, other than how to access the internet and use MS Word. However, I'm starting to think seriously about careers in media and communications, and I know being a decent writer isn't nearly good enough, especially in this economy. So, what programs should I start with? I'm thinking excel spreadsheets (sad I know), Outlook, Photoshop, maybe basic html coding? Bonus points if you can point me to any useful websites or books with introductory tutorials. Thanks!
posted by themaskedwonder to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking as someone who is currently job hunting in the "whatever I can get" field: Excel, Word, Outlook, and Powerpoint are the main four. If you've got a handle on Word, you actually can sort of punt on Powerpoint -- I never got trained in Powerpoint in my life, but played around with it a bit based on what I knew about Word and did okay.

Any of the "...for dummies" books would be good enough for the basics -- and in my experience that's all you'd need for a start.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 PM on January 22, 2009

I am a web developer, and I basically taught myself everything I know. I'm not a freelancer but actually work full time for a big company. I have always been pretty good with computers though. However, I can tell you that if you have a really solid foundation in the following web languages, plus some experience, you'd at least get an interview in my company.

HTML 4.01
Javascript (don't confuse this with Java)
PHP (or any other server side language)

In that order. I bet that if you learn the four of those and get some experience working with them, it will help you to gain generic computer knowledge and be a good preparation for other computer skills.

Here are some good sites that will get you started:




I also HIGHLY recommend reading through all of the articles here:
posted by brenton at 4:17 PM on January 22, 2009 [21 favorites]

When I started PR I had never ever used Microsoft Outlook or Excel and they hired me. You pick it up pretty fast.

Any work with databases (at least take a look at Vocus and Cision) will be helpful, as will knowing how to do mailmerges with outlook/word/excel.

Outlook will be vital.

And yes, I'm definitely in the "whatever I can get" market too. Hooray!
posted by OrangeDrink at 5:46 PM on January 22, 2009

I'd only go the photoshop/indesign/quark/pagemaker route if you're looking for a graphics or design type job. It's a lot to take on. Same for HTML/CSS/Java/etc. Those kinds of software are for people who are dedicated and trained in that line of work. Judging from your experience, it sounds like you'll be in over your head in no time. Basic HTML isn't really used anymore. The web is much more complicated than that. Most developers use some sort of software to design their pages, rather than coding everything by hand.

Get to know the whole Microsoft Office suite before you do anything else. Virtually all companies use some variant of that package, so it's really a must. You may also want to try MS Publisher, as it's a basic publication design program. Knowing Lotus Notes is a good one too. Not as common, but handy. MS Access is one of the tougher ones in the microsoft line, but it's a gateway to databases. Get a handle on it, and you can learn SQL and Crystal Reports.

Once you use all of these a little bit, you can try to narrow down what you really enjoy and want to pursue, then go specifically down that track.
posted by JuiceBoxHero at 6:18 PM on January 22, 2009

You'll never finish learning those programs if you sit down to dry tutorials. Find yourself a project that uses each of the tools you want to learn.

Want to learn Excel? Create a spreadsheet that tracks your finances or weight, then add a few fancy macros and charts.

Want to learn HTML? Make yourself a portfolio page.

You'll be motivated to finish and have something to show at the end of the process.
posted by chrisamiller at 6:51 PM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go against some of the advice already offered above where people are recommending applications and specifically proprietary Microsoft ones.

What you need to do is simply create and produce stuff. It's like developing a portfolio. You don't say to someone - I know how to use brand X paintbrushes and brand Y oil paints. You show people what you have produced using various tools - and then it's obvious that you can use them.

So don't fixate on separate applications - think of some things that are equivalent to what you would like or expect to do in a job and go and create them. The web is your display space for the portfolio you create - whether that is a website with gallery and sample work, a blog, a commercial site or whatever.

And now to address the actual applications that you or others have mentioned:

Spreadsheets (you mention Excel) - I can't see why you would need this in PR and communications.

Mail programs (you mention Outlook) - these are mostly self-explanatory and are designed so anyone can use them. Most people start at a job and if they've never used it before are comfortable using it by the end of the first day.

Image manipulation programs (you mention Photoshop) - here I can see a need and also the need to do some training in the application as they are complex beasts and take time to master.

Presentation software (you mention Powerpoint) - unfortunately used more than it should be but still a useful tool. Pretty easy to work out but would be a good idea putting a few together to gain familiarity.

Database programs (you mention Access) - Again, I can't see why you would need this in PR and communications.

It strikes me that you may have been looking at job ads where they list these (Microsoft) applications. It is mostly clueless recruiting stuff. In your area most people would not be setting up databases (non-trivial) or using spreadsheets and if they are, probably badly. You already know how to use a word processor, you will easily figure out how to use a mail program, presentation software you will quickly master after practising a bit leaving only image manipulation programs as a tool that will require some learning time.

Then there is non- application stuff such as coding html and CSS. You should definitely learn how to do that. To a level where you are producing professional work. Even if you don't directly use it, it will give you a much deeper understanding of how today's essential medium - the web - works.

Finally, when you did mention applications you and others have only mentioned proprietary, mostly Microsoft, applications. This is severely limiting your development over the next 20+ years (I am assuming you are young) to think in such a way. Just focus on learning a class of applications as the skills are transferable between independent implementations. There are non-proprietary implementations of all the applications you mention (Word -> AbiWord, Excel -> Gnumeric, Photoshop - GIMP) that will give you the same skills at no cost to purchase and no vendor lock-in.

To sum up, if you focus on 'the main four' as someone has put it above, you will be not differentiating yourself in any way from the feckless thousands. If you can show real work you have produced and the ability to use the right tool for the job without getting tool obsessed you will stand out from the crowd.

Good luck.
posted by Sitegeist at 7:05 PM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't get too hung up on techie skills, themaskedwonder. However, contrary to the above contrary-advice, it sounds like you need basic computer skills, and Microsoft is really the industry standard for office suite software (that is: word processing, spreadsheets, and slide presentations). I do a bit of side work helping adults get acquainted with these kinds of basic computer skills so they can go on and do far more technical, specialised things in their university program. If you are really as inexperienced with computers as you make yourself out to be then focus on getting a grip on the microsoft office suite and some decent internet navigation/search skills. MS Word 2007 is quickly becoming standard, and if you haven't already upgraded then this is a good place to start. Many universities will have basic computer courses that can get you where you need to go. Otherwise, (much as I personally dislike even using let alone promoting microsoft!), ms online help website is actually quite helpful and has a lot of tutorials.

I would say that once you have got your sea-legs with office software, then and only then should you consider delving into more techy stuffs. Being a fabulous writer is a skill in itself, and while you may need some computer skills, you do not need to become a graphic artist/web programmer/etc (very, very different line of work!). Learning basic (x)html and some css will do wonders for your understanding of the internet, but javascript, php, and beyond are likely not necessary at all for you. If it turns out that you have a secret side that has been hibernating, waiting for you to get your geek on, then by all means continue with the tech stuffs! But for now, kick that can down the road - and consider that if you're good/keen on improving your tech skills, then maybe your future employer should pay for that prof dev ;)

and good luck!
posted by tamarack at 11:11 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with tamarack. You don't need a lot of tech stuff for media/comms jobs unless you want to go into actual development.

I'm not sure from your question what precisely it is you want to do (PR? Marketing? TV? News?), but good writing is actually very sought after - most media organisations have websites and/or intranets that require decent, useful copy. If you are interested in using your writing skills then I'm n-thing getting to an intermediate level with office, and just being generally comfortable with using a computer. Then create yourself a portfolio of good, clear copy. Find a company with a crappy set of information on their site and offer to re-write it for them, for free, to build up some experience.

Also I agree with learning (x)html: basic mark-up *is* still used - often in content management systems, which a lot of companies use to enable non-tech people to upload and manage their web content. If you also have good writing skills and an editorial eye, that will give you an opening into this kind of role. Google around for some web tutorials, and put yourself a simple page together.

Photoshop is a great string to your bow (and fun!), but not essential so unless you really want to get into it now I'd leave that til a bit further down the line.

If you want general info about how computers it might be worth browsing the Open Learn site. Lots of free short courses about IT and computing, try the introductory stuff.
posted by freya_lamb at 2:43 AM on January 23, 2009

I'm guessing you are reading some of these answers and finding them daunting. Don't.
To get a corporate job all you really need to know is how to type a letter in Word.
This can be a struggle if you aren't used to the language, the way of thinking, that computers use.
Do you know when you save a letter (document) it holds a copy on disk, and how to find it again if you want to see it again? This is a really common stumbling block, as sometimes if you select 'open' from the menu the files the computer displays are not in the same place where you saved your letter originally.
Do you have a friend or relative who can spend 30mins just showing you how to find your letter again (it isn't too hard, there is a structure like a tree, with branches and such, but once someone shows you how, it is dead simple).
The thing I see with people less confident with computers is that nobody has sat down with them and showed them where stuff is on *this* computer, and where stuff is varies sometimes from employer to employer, but once someone explains it, it will be simple.
A dumb computer question at a new job is "how do I save this?" a normal question is "where did this get saved?" There is almost always someone nearby who can help with the little things so you can be productive.
Really, by posting here you have displayed at least as much computer literacy as many of my co-workers, and most of them have no writing skills in their arsenal to fall back on.
posted by bystander at 4:00 AM on January 23, 2009

I agree with a lot of the above--most media jobs will not require you to know Photoshop or other graphic design software, and in fact almost every job you get will have you working pretty heavily in some software system exclusive to that company.

Also, there's no guarantee (especially in media) that you'll be working on PCs or with Microsoft products.

That said, the basics of Word (formatting, track changes and how to get rid of it, some template work), Excel (sorting, filtering, formatting for print, freeze panes, formulas), basic understanding of HTML and how the Internet actually works (no tubes!), Outlook (calendar, recalling sent messages, autoresponder) and what Adobe PDFs can and cannot do and have done to them would be a good start. Also, learn how to set up a digital filing system and naming conventions, and what happens if you just hit ctrl+s and then close a document that you downloaded from the internet (hey, where'd it go?!).

I took three useless classes in college to teach me this software. I didn't learn anything until I started USING the programs. Set up Outlook to be your email client for your personal email address. Create a budget or something else to track using Excel. Be honest in interviews that you are familiar with the programs when you are, but don't claim proficiency until you could do something impressive with any given program during the interview with no notice.

Also, forget PowerPoint. Once you know Word, you know PowerPoint.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:45 AM on January 23, 2009

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