The Most Important Skill

I’m often asked what it takes to become a computer programmer.

I’m also often asked questions about computers in general — everything from broken hardware to lost Hotmail passwords.

The answer to the first, and the chances of getting an answer to the rest, have something exceptionally important in common.

Something that most people don’t even consider. And I’m willing to bet it’s not at all what you think.

I’ll give you one hint: today’s topic is off-topic, since it actually has nothing to do with computers or technology.

And yet, it kinda has everything to do with it.

It’s all about your ability to communicate

The number one reason an Ask Leo! question goes unanswered is that it doesn’t include enough information.

The number two reason?

I can’t understand the question.

Now, you might be tempted to say that this would be because I have a high percentage of non-English speaking readers — and yes, that does play a part, but not as large a part as you might think.

No, when it comes to writing unintelligible questions, it’s the so-called “native English speakers” that actually cause me the most difficulty … and the most frustration.

After all, the folks from non-English speaking countries have a bit of an excuse.

So-called native English speakers do not.

And yes, with over 10 years of experience reading question after question after question, I can usually tell the difference between a native English speaker, and someone for whom English is a second language.

The risks of writing about writing

Obviously, this is a topic that I’ve come to have fairly strong opinions on.

But I always hesitate when I write about writing.


It tends to bring out the nit-pickers; the people who like to point out the hypocrisy of writing about how important it is to write proper English and having grammatical or spelling errors when doing so.

In reality, it’s a good thing, when done respectfully.

I am today a much better writer than I was thirteen years ago when all this started, in part because of the people who pointed out my errors along the way. A few of those folks have become valued Ask Leo! regulars.

That’s not to say I’m now perfect, or that their job is done. I fully expect there to be errors in this essay as well.

And I fully expect someone will point them out.

Poor-literacy spans all demographics

I’m not speaking of illiteracy — the inability to read or write your native tongue, I’m talking about poor literacy skills. What I see too often is the inability to write (or occasionally speak) in a clear and understandable manner.

I’m also not speaking specifically about so-called “text speak”, or similar shorthands that have evolved for various reasons and at various times. While they do contribute seriously to the overall problem, they’re certainly not — in my opinion at least — the worst offenders.

The worst are those questions that come in that are written in English, but the English is so poorly written that it ranges anywhere from simply unclear to completely incomprehensible.

It happens much more often than you’d expect, and it comes from all demographics: young and old, male and female, and from just about any English-speaking locale.

Why it matters: Getting your computer fixed

It seems pretty obvious: if I can’t understand a question, I can’t help. If it’s really hopeless, I’ll simply skip the question and move on.

But I often do try, and that’s where it can actually get more frustrating.

I often do try to answer poorly written questions. I’ll perhaps guess or try to infer what the problem is from unclear or incomprehensible English.

And sometimes, I get it wrong. I answer a question, but it’s not the question being asked. Or I ask for clarification, and the clarification is just as bad as the original question.

I’ve just wasted my time and the time of whoever was trying to get their problem solved.

All for lack of being able to communicate clearly in English.

It’s not just me.

Computers and technology in general are notorious for requiring clear and accurate descriptions of problems in order to get to the correct resolution. Whether it’s some random person like me on the internet answering questions, a home-town technician, or a company’s support representative — if they can’t understand you, they can’t help you.

All for lack of being able to communicate clearly in English.

Why it matters: That high-paying job

It’d be easy to write off my little rant as that of a frustrated computer geek who’s gone over the edge after reading one too many questions.

If you did, you’d be missing my point.

The ability to write clear and proper English is about much, much more than just the ability to express a tech problem in language that can be clearly understood.

As an old commercial for a vocabulary improvement product used to claim, “people judge you by the words you use.”

It may or may not be fair, but it is absolutely true.

The same is true about your ability to write — anything — well.

Be it questions, letters to the editor, job applications, or anything else, something written that sounds like it came from a barely-literate teenager is likely to be treated as if that’s exactly who wrote it.

It doesn’t matter how smart you really are; it’s your written and spoken language skills that convey perhaps the most important impression of just who you are.

And even if the impression is wrong, it sticks and can be nearly impossible to overcome.

You’re not going to get that corner office if you speak and write like someone who never finished high school.

Why it matters: The computer programmer

I’m often asked what’s the most important language to learn when becoming a computer programmer.

My response is now: English.

That’s not what most people expect.

The fact is that even a job dealing primarily with computers still deals extensively with the people who use them. Be it the designers, the users, the repair people, the other programmers or managers on the team, it’s all communication, and it’s all an opportunity for you to present yourself as a literate professional.

Or as something else.

And that’s true for any job.

People judge you by the words you use. And how you use them.

It may not be fair, but it is real. You can object, you can insist that it shouldn’t matter, but it does.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d have taken more English classes.


The arguments above really apply to whatever the language of your native land might be.

Naturally, I believe people living in English-speaking countries should be well versed in English and hopefully that makes sense.

However, there’s another characteristic of our planet that is easy to overlook, might also be considered unfair, and yet remains very important.

The vast majority of the internet is in English.

Even if you live in a non-English speaking country, the ability to read (and yes, write) English will open doors to immense amounts of information and assistance that would otherwise remain inaccessible.

Fair or not, it is what it is, and most of it is in English.

ESL: English as a second language

I have a soft spot for non-native speakers who truly make the attempt to learn English and learn it well.

You see, English is my second language. Even though, we were living in Canada at the time, I spoke only Dutch until I was about four.

Now, I also understand that my experience doesn’t really compare to the difficulty of learning a second language as an adult. Especiallywhen that second language is English.

In helping overseas relatives and other friends and acquaintances with their English, it’s become very clear to me that English is an incredibly difficult language to learn. Just about the time you learn a “rule,” you find that there are exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions.

The worst question that an ESL instructor faces, I’m sure, must be “why?”

The only answer I can often come up with is “Because it’s English, and that’s just the way it is.”

Once again, it’s not fair and it’s not easy.

But if you’re living in an English speaking country, if you’re expecting the respect of others in an even semi-professional job in an English speaking country, or if you ever want to access the vast amounts of information available only in English, there is simply no substitute for speaking and writing English.

And I do mean speaking and writing it well. “Enough to get by” isn’t really enough. How people judge you by your use of English, unfair as that might be, requires a lot more skill than just “getting by.”

Yes, it’s that important.

This article originally appeared on Ask Leo!. For the latest, subscribe now to The Ask Leo! Newsletter and get a copy of The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition. This ebook will help you identify the most important steps you can take to keep your computer, and yourself, safe as you navigate today’s digital landscape.

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