How Can I Learn This Real Fast? - The Naked PC Newsletter (#3.17)

by T.J. Lee

As you might imagine I get to talk to a lot of people about software and its uses. Magazine editors, book editors, clients, potential clients, new computer users, old computer users, and people who have gotten old by using computers. One common question is, "How can I learn xyz real fast?" where xyz is some software package. It might be a software program I know really well, it might not, but the person asking thinks I have some magic formula that will get them up to speed in a hurry. Perhaps a book title I can refer them to or a Web site I can send them to... something that will make it all quick and easy.

I haven't got an answer for them. Oh, I can refer an inquiring mind to a book. If they want help on a Microsoft Office application or about something on the Web I can refer them to a book I've co-authored. But there's a catch. They'll have to read it. Actually pick up the book, crack the spine, and bend the pages. Then they'll have to sit down at the computer, fire it up, and start pounding on the keys. Work with the software program and make mistakes.

But not many folks seem to want to do this. I think the Internet has increased the perceived "immediacy" of problem solving. Throw a computer at a problem and it should instantly be resolved. Maybe it's me, but I don't think it works that way, as much as we'd all like that to be the case. I got into a serious discussion with one of my editors who was trying to explain the problem with my last book project, a problem he was going to resolve. I'm paraphrasing here, he said, "Your book was all wrong. A person had to read page 1 before they read page 2. It's too linear and no one reads books that way anymore. You have to write it so every page stands on its own, so you could keep it in the bathroom and every time you come out you'd know something new." The guy was serious and I don't write for that publisher anymore.

The scary part was that maybe he was right, maybe the classic way of teaching someone to do something doesn't work in a world of quick-cut TV editing and double mocha java supremes. But I've taught and lectured tens of thousands of computer users around the world and I haven't found a workable replacement for the linear approach.

Here's a linear idea, and one that you've heard me espouse before in TNPC: if want to be more productive, learn to type faster. If you work with a word processor, generate content, or build Web pages, anything that results in words in a row, you should become a red-hot touch typist. But, you have to make an effort to get a result. Just hunt-and-pecking day after day will not turn you into a typist. Get a training program and work with it.

If you're trying to learn a software program, know the difference between what a program does and what it lets you do. Huh? Take Word and Excel for example. Word is a word processor and Excel is a spreadsheet (number processor). I can't tell you how many times I've sat down with the "powers that be" within some company that was rolling out these two applications to figure out a training schedule. Always the same amount of time (the bare minimum if not less) was to be devoted to each application. And usually less time to Excel than to Word, which was just silly.

Word "does something." Word generates documents. Excel doesn't "do something," it does many very different things limited only by the knowledge and expertise of the user. Word is an application; Excel is a development platform. Word generates documents but Excel doesn't have this common output, no "document" that you ultimately create (because a spreadsheet is really a mathematical model, not a document with static content in the traditional definition). Teaching these two very different software programs takes two very different approaches to be effective and it was very difficult to get those honchos to allocate the training resources to do the training right. Because to do it right takes more effort.

The other day someone asked me how to learn Excel in a hurry. I told them to build something. Doesn't matter what, just roll up your sleeves and start building something. A laundry list, balance your checkbook, do something. Same for Word. Start a journal, start writing letters, recipes, write something. Want to learn how to build tables in Word? Start building them. Want to use conditional statements in Excel formulas? Start building them. Doesn't matter what application you're trying to learn, stop looking for a quick fix and start using the program.

Sure you should get a book, heck, get one of ours, but get one and don't just slide it under your pillow and figure the knowledge will magically seep into your head whilst you sleep. Read it. Linearly, from one page to the next.

Maybe one day computers will be true appliances like a television set. You don't have to know anything about a TV to use it other than how to turn it on. But until them be prepared to invest time and effort into learning your computer and the programs that run on it.