In the late 1990s I taught Computer Literacy classes at the University of Memphis. Recently I ran into a former student who asked a great question – “What would you recommend I learn to make me computer literate, and more marketable for employment, in 2012?” Here’s a list.
HTML – This is the markup language behind web pages, including the one you’re looking at right now. I would rate basic knowledge of HTML as the #1 must-have skill as far as computer literacy goes. You don’t have to become an expert, but you should learn how text is presented as bold, italic, or underline, and how to create tables and alter the spacing between cells at the minimum. There are many good HTML tutorials out there. Just do a Google search for “HTML tutorial” or “learn HTML” and look through the top results.
ZIP files – If you don’t know how to download software in a ZIP package, unzip it, and install it, learn. ZIP is a standard compression format designed to package files while taking as little room as possible. The ZIP standard was developed back in the 1980s when storage space and bandwidth to transfer files were much more expensive than they are today.
FTP – If you don’t know how to use FTP (File Transfer Protocol) to transfer files between your local computer (that’s the one in front of you right now) and a remote server at another location, it’s worth learning. For FTP software, I like 7-Zip for Windows and Cyberduck for the Mac. There are public servers out there you can use to practice getting files (and the files will often be in ZIP format, so you can practice that too).
Microsoft Excel – Most people know the basics of how to get around Microsoft’s powerful spreadsheet. Therefore, I recommend you go a step beyond and actually buy a book that will make you an Excel power user. Work through all the exercises. You can look through Amazon to find a book. Look for something that has lots of reviews and preferably 4 1/2 stars ranking or higher. Avoid introductory books unless you have no familiarity with Excel at all.
SQL – This is the language of databases. When you know SQL you will be able to select data from one or more tables, as well as insert, update, and delete data. As with HTML, you don’t have to become an expert, but you should at least know how to select data from two tables that are joined by a common field. There are plenty of good SQL tutorials on the web, and there are also plenty of books you can buy. There are a lot of variations of SQL out there. For example, the SQL used by Microsoft SQL Server is slightly different from that used by the MySQL language, which is slightly different from the SQL used in Microsoft Access. I’d look for a book or tutorial that teaches general SQL principles, rather than one that focuses on a particular platform. Of all the skills on this list, SQL is probably the hardest to learn (although it’s not that hard) and the one that will get the most attention on a resume.
Content management systems – A content management system (CMS) allows users to update website and/or blog content without knowing HTML. By far the most popular and easiest to use CMS is WordPress, which is estimated to be running on 16% of the world’s websites (including the one you’re looking at right now). Easiest way to learn is to create your own site for free at WordPress.com. Learn how to add new posts and pages, publish them, and update them. Learn the difference between a post and a page – posts have timestamped content and are often (but not always) associated with blogs, while pages have content that stands alone and the time they were created is not relevant. Learn how to change the theme (look and feel) of your website – an important concept is that the presentation is completely separate from the content. Learn how to put widgets in the sidebar of your website.
(Disclaimer: I’m partial to WordPress because they sponsor my Memphis in May BBQ team. But being objective as I can, WordPress has moved so far past competitors like Drupal and Joomla in the past two years that I can’t imagine building a site with anything else.)
Image/photo editing software – I’m talking about something powerful and sophisticated, not the free junk that came with your computer. If you have Photoshop, that’s ideal. If not, there’s a free open source program called The GIMP that is every bit as good. (In fact, I have both The GIMP and Photoshop installed on my work computer. 95% of the time, I use The GIMP.) Although there are plenty of web tutorials, I recommend buying a book and working through the exercises to learn either program the right way. When searching for a book, look for something that has good reviews (at least 4 stars, and 4 1/2 would be better). Also look for a recent publication date, so that it addresses the current version of your software, not an old version.
Very important: If you learn The GIMP, put on your resume that you know The GIMP (similar to Photoshop). You want that keyword “Photoshop” on your resume. Hiring managers will understand that if you know The GIMP, you have skills that are transferable to Photoshop.
Social media – You don’t have to have accounts on all of these, but you should be able to describe the purpose of each in two or three sentences: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Foursquare, Google+, Tumblr, Flickr, Wikipedia, Yelp, GetGlue, Instagram.
How to recognize malware, Trojan horses, viruses, and phishing attempts – This isn’t really something you’d put on a resume, but necessary to have anyway. If you land a new job and experience a malware attack your first week there, you probably won’t be too popular with your boss or your network admin. However, it occasionally happens to all of us – I’ve been hit with malware twice in 3 1/2 years at my current job.
iOS and Android – iOS is the operating system that powers iPod Touches, iPhones, and iPads. Android is the operating system that powers a variety of phones and tablets. I’d really like to put basic knowledge of both on the “required” list above, but there’s really no way to get that knowledge without purchasing the devices, which can be expensive. Note: Owning a Kindle Fire doesn’t really count as having knowledge of Android, even though Android powers it, because Amazon stuck an additional layer on top of Android.
Hardware: Building and repairing computers – If this is something that interests you, by all means, learn it. That said, I don’t think it will be a huge resume boost for most positions. Warning: Learning this will earn you a reputation as “that guy/gal who knows how to fix computers,” leading to desperate phone calls from family and friends all hours of the day and night.
Linux – This is a computer operating system, equivalent to Windows on PCs and Mac OS on Macs. Linux is open-source, meaning anyone can examine and alter the code behind Linux, and many Linux installations are free. Although Linux can be used as a home computer’s operating system, it’s often found on web servers. Linux is based on an earlier operating system called UNIX which is still quite popular (in fact, a flavor of UNIX runs underneath the hood on Mac OS computers). For non-technical jobs, knowledge of Linux probably won’t be a huge boost to most resumes – but it will provide you a deep knowledge of how computers work that may be beneficial in ways you wouldn’t expect.
That’s my list. If you think I left anything important out, or if you know how people can get iOS and Android experience without having to buy devices, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.