Career Opportunities

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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Question and Answer

October 3, 2003

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Every high-tech worker can and should work on improving their “people” skills. These are the skills that allow you to communicate clearly and effectively with your customers. This means more work, more revenue and a better high-tech career. While there are many ways to work on your people skills, I have found one that combines this with the excitement of thinking on your feet, all while helping computer users get the most out of their systems.

Let’s talk

Several years ago, I started holding free classes on the Internet at my local library. My goal was to help library patrons make the best use of the Internet services that were starting to be provided. In many cases, this was the first time these people had even touched a computer, let alone accessed the World Wide Web. What is sometimes forgotten, though, is that often, the teacher learns as much, if not more, than the students.

Each class was a tightrope walk of computer education. I would start out with a short demonstration on how to visit your first web site and then move on to some basic searching strategies. Along the way I would throw in information on hyperlinks, the structure of the Web, how the Internet was not just the Web, etc. Then the fun began. After this presentation, I would open up the floor for questions.

We would discuss anything related to computers and technology…and I mean everything. Web, email, virus, anti-virus, playing sound files, the security of cookies and secure web pages and on and on. These questions sometimes forced me to examine my own beliefs and understanding of a particular technology. It made me pay attention to issues I hadn’t really thought about.

Much, much more

What I learned over time is that while the students were getting answers to their technology questions, I was learning how to communicate more clearly about technology. Trying to explain the Web to someone who has never touched a computer requires the development of unique analogies to the real world. You may have to come up with several different ways of explaining a concept before you hit upon one that makes sense to the person. Each class meeting turned out to be an exercise in creative thinking that I was then able to use with all my other clients. I found that when I was working with them, I was getting better and better at communicating even complex ideas.I find that most volunteer situations work this way. By extending yourself and offering your expertise, you can actually gain deeper insight into the workings of both technology and the people that use it. Volunteering, if done right, is not a one-way street. It is a way to do some good for others and yourself.

Getting started

You have to be somewhat secure in your own skills to let people fire any technology questions at you in front of other people, but anyone can do it. The most important skill you need is the ability to say, “I don’t know.” Admitting that you don’t know something is far superior to faking an answer. It helps to build rapport with your audience as they begin to understand that even the supposed experts don’t know everything. Often we would work through the problem together, coming up with a series of possibilities that they could try.

Don’t be afraid to think out loud. Some of us (namely, me) do much of our best thinking when we do it out loud, in the form of a discussion. In this case, the “class” becomes much more like a discussion group, with everyone adding their knowledge to the conversation. If I found that the issue was too complex or too technical to give it a full airing, I would offer to talk with the person after the class and move on to a new topic with the group.

I have found question and answer sessions to be the most effective way of helping computer users, as it directly answers the most pressing questions on their minds. When they leave the class, they have some answer, some technique or some fun thing that they can try on their computer when they get home. More importantly, whether they realize it or not, I have subtly introduced information on computer fundamentals while offering up answers to their questions. These include how to use menus, the mouse, the keyboard, the GUI interface and a host of other small, but important topics

I recently restarted my classes at our newly rebuilt library. While it is nice to now have a separate meeting, a video projector and wireless microphone, I have proven in the past that they are not required. Even the most cramped and noisy environment can still facilitate some great learning. If you want to expand your high-tech career, I highly recommend that you find a group that needs your skills and reach out to them. I can guarantee you that the rewards received will far outweigh the time you expend.

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