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Cheap ways to learn expensive tools

Some practical suggestions on ways to learn how to use expensive tools, if you feel you need to know them to make yourself more marketable and you can’t afford a training course:

  1. If you’re in an area that has agencies providing technical writers to the computing industry, see if any of them have self-training machines available. If they want to place more Framemaker users, for example, they may well have a machine in their office with Framemaker on it, that you can come in and use to learn the program (or Robohelp, or whatever). Many agencies do. Of course, they may want to act as your exclusive agent, or some unacceptable arrangement, but it’s worth checking.
  2. You can get full working “30-day demo” copies of many tools. Check the relevant websites. Here in Australia, many of them come on CDs attached to the monthly computer magazine, but I’m not sure if that’s true in other countries. Some tools may have non-working or limited features, but many I’ve seen recently are fully working copies that simply stop working after 30 days. You probably won’t have a user guide, but a lot of software doesn’t provide one anyway.
  3. Check with the local STC chapter. Someone might be able to help you out, by suggesting an appropriate agency, or allowing you to use their copy of a program, or something. I’m not suggesting pirating the program (that’s illegal as well as unethical), but using it to learn. If you get work that requires you to have a personal copy of the program, then you’ll need to buy it.
  4. Do you know any college students? They can often get software at student prices, sometimes significantly cheaper than the normal price. College staff can often do that too.

    (May 2002 note: Since I wrote this suggestion in 1999, many software licenses have been rewritten. These days, selling a student or educational version of software to a non-student is probably not allowed by most licenses. So if you want to follow this suggestion, be sure to check the license first. You should also be aware that much “educational” software these days cannot be upgraded to a later full-license version unless you pay the full (not upgrade) price for the later version.)

  5. Look around for some distributor (such as a mail order house) selling off the just-out-of-date version of software at a bargain price. That’s useful for two reasons you can learn most of what you need to know without having the latest version, and you can often upgrade the version you buy at a price that makes the total you spend on the latest a lot less than if you bought the latest retail.
  6. Many programs come with an on-line tutorial. Sometimes this tutorial is even available from the free trial versions (e.g., with many Adobe products). You probably won’t be an expert at the end, but it will get you started and is especially useful for learning your way around the user interface.
  7. If you live in a major city, there are many free seminars you can attend as a professional. For example, when you register Adobe products, you will get on the mailing list for free 1/2 day and full-day seminars. Obviously, these seminars are geared towards selling the latest or upcoming versions of their products, but you can learn “neat tricks” and new shortcuts in the latest versions of the product.
  8. Exhibit-only passes are often free (to professionals) for trade shows, or you may be sent free passes from exhibitors (e.g., a company whose product you registered). Exhibitors of expensive packages often have 1/2 hour tutorials at their “booths” demonstrating the latest version, or other “hot” ways to use their tools. Again, much evangelizing, but you can learn some neat tricks, especially if you check the schedules to find the most relevant sessions. If you have specific questions, or a specific feature you want to try, there are usually demo stations and sometimes someone who can answer your question.
  9. At both the trade shows and free product seminars, there are usually demos handed out, sometimes with free templates and/or samples. For example, Adobe is currently running a “road show” on marketing design (web and print) using their products… all attendees get a CD with tryouts, templates, and samples.

Last updated 29 May 2003