Buying software oneself in order to learn it?

Subject: Buying software oneself in order to learn it?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 18 Dec 2001 09:11:09 -0500

Ellen Vanrenen wonders: <<Is it customary for technical writers to buy
software themselves to load on their PCs in order to learn that particular
software? I have bought RoboHelp and FrameMaker, and I am thinking of buying

You haven't defined the context. If you're a freelancer, then yes, it's
commonplace to purchase your own tools and learn to use them; in most
jurisdictions, you can write off the cost against your current-year profits.
The ethics of charging clients to subsidize your learning curve is
questionable, and I'm of the opinion that you can't charge premium rates if
you can't do premium work, but if you're honest and open about where you are
on the learning curve, you can generally include a portion of the software
price in your contract fee; even if that's not an overt "line item", it
should still be part of your hourly rate, because your hourly rate must
cover all your work expenses and still earn you a profit to live on. If
you're an employee, my feeling is that your employer owes you at least a
minimum level of training on a particular tool, particularly if they're
going to expect you to work at home now and then on their behalf. That's not
by any means a universal right, but it's certainly common, and it's worth
working hard to persuade them that they owe you this.

<<Or, do most technical writers find more clever and less costly ways to
pick up skills? If so, what are these ways?>>

If you want to learn a tool that your employer won't teach you, or you're
freelancing and want to pick up additional skills in case someone wants them
in the future, the cheapest way to acquire basic competence would be to
obtain a demo version of the software and sign out a "[software] for
Dummies" book from the local library. You can get surprisingly far this way,
and won't have to shell out thousands of dollars on tools that you may never
need to use. Should a client come along and demand that you use a particular
tool, you can then purchase it, secure in the knowledge that you're
investing in something that will be repaid by the income it earns. If you're
working for an employer, ask their computer people about the licensing
agreements for the software in question; many companies buy (say) a 100-user
license for software, but only have 90 users. This leaves 10 additional
licenses unused, one of which could be profitably given to you for as long
as you're working for that company.

Once you've made the decision to purchase a tool, make sure you look around
the developer's Web site for evidence of competitive upgrades for owners of
other products; even would-be monopolists such as eHelp (makers of RoboHelp)
are unofficially willing to dicker on price if you point out to them that
you're considering (or already own) a competitor's product. You can often
save hundreds of dollars this way. Plus, it's amazing what some
manufacturers consider to be a competing product; sometimes Microsoft Works,
which comes free with many modern PCs and can sometimes be had at garage
sales for $10, counts as a competing product that earns you the $100
competitive upgrade price instead of the $500 retail price. Buy a cheap
copy, then do the competitive upgrade route, and you've just saved yourself
a few hundred dollars. If you can't find anything about lower prices on the
Web site, phone the company and talk to a human sales rep--talk to a couple
representatives if you've got the time--because good companies usually allow
their reps considerable leeway on pricing. I've gotten free shipping thrown
in a couple times, and once got US$200 trimmed off a product simply by
asking the second person I talked to why I shouldn't upgrade to a
competitor's product. Last but not least, check out the local university;
many students coming from another city, state/province, or country purchase
software for their courses and then get rid of it cheap (rather than flying
home with their computer) when they return home at the end of the term.
Sometimes you get a full licensed version, and sometimes you get a student
version. Although student licenses are often very restrictive (e.g., not
allowing you to upgrade), they may be a cheap way to learn a product, and
they may also qualify for inexpensive upgrades to the full retail version.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
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