How To Get Software Experience Without Buying Costly Programs


Last summer, I saw a job ad with a list of responsibilities that almost made me refresh the job board menu without a second thought.

It was a mid-career, bit-of-everything communications position that required some graphic design and desktop publishing skills – namely, experience with Adobe Creative Suite.

I met most of the requirements, but in this area I had nil. The app was due in two days.

It was a discouraging moment. I had the training, background and skills the employer was seeking but none of the software experience.

I felt like I had already heard I didn’t get the job since software experience is usually an either-or situation: either you have used Illustrator in the past, or you haven’t. It’s not like a soft skill you can make a case for even if you don’t consider it your forte.

My moment of despair came with an extra sting since it was turning into a pattern. I was learning that most of the positions I was interested in required familiarity with desktop publishing and graphic design. My training in English did not give me either.

To make matters worse, the software programs I most needed experience with – Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, InDesign and Acrobat – were well out of my price range. The full edition of Adobe Creative Suite for students and teachers costs over $300.

My one comfort was that I wasn’t alone. Scores of job ads list experience with expensive software programs as a must. However, students and recent grads are hard pressed to get new, hands-on experience with programs that cost in the hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, in the case of game designers.

Fortunately, there are several ways around this challenge, which make software experience less of an either-or, make-or-break situation. They also avoid the piracy route. Remember, not only do you need to gain experience with a program, you will also need to demonstrate it to your employer.

Ideally you can show how you’ve done this through lawful and professional means. This will make it easier to place on your resume and talk about during an interview.

Open source software versions

Many commercial software programs have free, open-source competitors. When I found out I had an interview for the communications job, I immediately started learning Scribus and GIMP, an open-source desktop publishing and graphics editor program, respectively.

After spending a week or so with tutorials, I was able to create a unique portfolio for my written work and an infographic resume in time to show my potential employer. While I’m still a novice with Adobe, I now have highly translatable skills in similar programs.

Online tutorials

Learning a new program on your own really means learning it through the guidance of developers, users and educators online – or anyone who will share their knowledge. For quick introductions, YouTube is a good place to start.

There are also many more tutorials available through sites dedicated to software training, such as and VTC. Both sites offer certificate programs so you can formally document your progress for resume material. Although, these two sites do require fees.

Even some of the most costly software have learning materials freely available. Unreal Engine – the video game engine made by Epic Games to create first-person shooters and licensed to professional game developers for roughly 400K – has a host of guide books and tutorial videos available online. They’ve also run an educational event called Unreal University and posted their seminar sessions onto a YouTube channel.

Trial and demo versions

Downloading a trial version with a half-life of 30 days may cramp your creative flow. Or, it may motivate you to work on a project you’ve thought about for some time. Before committing to a trial version, check to see the capabilities (or limitations) it comes with: Can you save the files your create? Print them? Work from multiple computers?

Again, even the most costly programs may be accessible this way. Unreal Engine offers an edition (UDK) freely available for non-commercial and educational uses. For the latest edition of Creative Suite, Adobe has started offering renewable trial versions and subscription-based software. Previously going for more than $2,000, new users can now obtain a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud for about $30.

If you’re still wondering, I didn’t get the job. According to my inside source it was a done deal after a couple candidates walked in after me with 5+ years experience in the same role.

Still, the interviewers praised my portfolio. Then admitted the position doesn’t involve much graphic design. C’est la vie.

Technology Week featuring student and entry level jobs from top employers like IBM and Reynolds & Reynolds

Photo credit: Dani P.L.

About the author

Daniel Moore is a climber, black coffee lover and PhD student in English at Queen’s University. He has taught writing classes at Mohawk College and served as Vice-President Graduate with the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (CFS Local 27). When not contemplating his thesis, he’s usually studying knot diagrams and spoiling two cats with fine cheeses. You can follow him on @mooredaniel1.