Short Version: from the list below, please pick the top 2-3 pieces of software I should learn (in order), and 1-2 programming languages (at most 1 major/hard one) I should learn (in order) to be more marketable in the IT field.

Long Version: Hello all. I am new to the forums, and hope I found the appropriate place to post. Seems like this site will become my new hangout for all things technical.

I'm seeking some very basic pre-career-change advice from those in the IT/software industry; specifically I need to know where to start in teaching myself a *small* handful of useful software suites and/or languages. I'm not seeking to become a marketable expert just yet, but I want to be a cut above the rest at entry level application time. First some quick background:

I'm currently a graduate student in the sciences. I design and carry out projects, lead a team of undergraduate research assistants, deal fairly extensively with data, and use computers all the time. I'd consider myself tech-competent but not savvy or up-to-date. I took a year+ of computer science (little C, C++) as an undergrad before changing majors -- most of it completely forgotten, but likely I'll have an easier learning curve than someone completely new.

Anyway, I decided to drop out of the PhD track and stop after getting my masters. Grad school is too low-paying for too long, and I'm getting niched into a career I wouldn't be happy with. IT is a more natural fit for me.

Anyway, to the point: I want to prep in my non-copious spare time to be able to maximize job opportunities post-masters, likely moving to a biggish city like Portland or Seattle. I will list below some of the programs I have legitimate access to (I'd rather not pirate if I can help it, and can't afford brand new major MS-type software). I need to know which should few be highest priority to install and learn, along with one or two languages that should be highest priority to learn. I have access to:

Visual Studio 2005 Professional
Visual Studio .NET 2005 Professional (or 2003 Pro)
Visual Studio 6 Pro
Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition
Access 2007 (or 2003)
InfoPath 2007 (or 2003)
OneNote 2003
Virtual PC 2004
Exchange Server 2003 Enterprise Edition
Project Professional 2007 (or 2003 or 2002)
Visio Professional 2003 (or 2002)
Project Server 2003
SQL Server 2000 Developer or Enterprise Edition
SQL Server 2005 Developer, Standard or Workgroup Edition
(and maybe some more, including Photoshop, Adobe Premier, etc.)

I have a *bit* of classroom experience with C and C++, but didn't feel at a comfortable level with it even before forgetting it all. I know Excel pretty well and am learning more (Pivot Table, etc.), and Word/Powerpoint of course. I know basic HTML, but not much else web-based.

I'd really appreciate advice on where to start. This will be a big project, done in my spare time, but I think it'll be worth getting a head start. Key for me is finding something that is useful, but also manageable for an intelligent self-learning beginner.

Also, if you want to include 1-2 books that are most crucial for the software/language you recommend highest, I have a bit of money I can throw at this, but as a grad student I'm not rich :)

Also, I run a Dell Laptop with a 1.73 Ghz Pentium M, 1GB RAM, 128MB vid, and am running Windows XP Media Center (v.2002,SP2). Will this be okay, and should I consider getting a semi-cheap desktop to practice on, and learn non-XP-based software? [I'd prefer not to dual-boot or anything complicated right off the bat, if I can help it]

Thanks so much for any help you can provide me! It means the world. I feel so bogged down in all the infinite possibilities of software and languages, and I don't have the free time to learn it all in a year or two, so I need somewhere manageable to start.

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Oh, I should add, my website also allows up to 5 mySQL databases (and 1GB space, 10GB transfer), so I can play around with mySQL on there, and probably Perl/PHP stuff if that is what people suggest.

I know it's hard to give advice when I don't know *exactly* what I plan to do. Thing is, I don't know exactly what jobs will be available, and ideally I'd like to be flexible. I can pick up new languages/software on the way as needed, and when starting a new job, but I want to get the basic skills down as well as one or two genuinely useful/sellable expertises on the road to development.

Short answer: learn them all.

Note: Forget about VC++ 6.0 -- its ancient and rarely used except for maintenance of old programs.

Visual Studio 2005 Professional
Visual Studio .NET 2005 Professional (or 2003 Pro)
Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition

These are all variations of the same compiler. also don't bother learning 2003.

>>I have a *bit* of classroom experience with C and C++, but didn't feel at a comfortable level with it even before forgetting it all
If you don't like either C or C++ and are unwilling to learn them then you can scratch off all the compilers (such as those quoted above) from your list.

Thanks for your feedback!

Yikes. "Learn them all" is a tall order, at the moment anyway. It'll take time, which will be hard to find until I finish my thesis in a year. But I've got enough time to get a real head start and learn a few big things. I guess I'm just hoping for prioritizing, or the best place to start. Certainly learning them *all* at the same time (including all the language) would drive a man nuts?

Oh, and it wasn't that I disliked C or C++. All I meant to imply was that I had not gained expertise -- but given time I think I could get quite a good handle on it! I guess I just didn't know if it'd be better to become good at C/C++ on Visual Studio 2005 Dev, or to become good at SQL-related stuff on SQL Server 2005 Pro, or to try an learn PHP/Perl/ASP and improve my HTML/CSS knowledge? Eventually it'd be nice to know all that stuff, and they'll likely end up overlapping, but at the beginning I need a place to start. And hopefully something that along with a college degree or three will give me a better chance of scoring a job in a year or two that'll get my foot in the door of the industry.

Anyway, thanks for your comments. Any further advice also appreciated.

Best bet:
Google for jobs

See what employers want, and go from there. Frankly its better to actually have a plan of what you want to do as its better to enjoy your work, but if you choose another way thats ok. See what people want, and go for that.

commented: Good suggestion. +19

I am currently studying PHP/MySQL/CSS in relation to building ecommerce sites. If you want to try it out then grab yourself a copy of XAMPP and a good book.

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