Learning LaTeX will ruin your career in IT

This may be a rather shocking statement to make, and to be fair maybe a bit melodramatic. However, there is still some truth to it.

Let me get the assumptions out of the way: You are

  • Attending college with a scientific major, most likely Comp. Sci.
  • Expecting to get a job doing IT-work (e.g. not in academia).

In this case, save yourself the future agony, and stay away from LaTeX. It might seem like a good idea at the time. Hell, it might even seem like a great idea. But it isn’t!.

The sad truth is, that while you may get nicely formatted papers during your college years, and may have the chance to impress a nice-looking literature major, you will be utterly doomed once you enter the real world outside the walls of academia.

You see, the truth is that nobody at you new workplace will know, or even care, about LaTeX. Weekly status reports, system documentation, and even sales presentations, should not be beautifully formatted PDF documents. What they should be, are easy-to-edit Microsoft Word (insert proper trademark icons here…) documents, preferably interchanged by email and easy to edit for your manager.

For this reason, you should avoid learning Latex, because any exposure to a typesetting system will forever ruin your future relationship with Word. It is bad enough that, as a technical person, you will get used to work with plain text documents (source code), instructing the computer to carry out your will, but if you carry that mentality over into word processing, you will come to expect a system that let you be in control, and has a deterministic behavior. So while your career might not be ruined, your ability to enjoy your workday certainly will.

The curse of Word

And now we get to the real point. The previous section was just put there to draw in readers, although the warning is valid.

Because Word does not let you be in control. As far as putting text on a paper with some formatting goes, Word does an adequate job. You even get to pick and choose between every font on you system, and it will let you write letters using Comic Sans if that’s what you’d like. (Please don’t!). But the minute you try to do something structured, like having centralized configuration of paragraph styles, using header styles and auto-generating a table of contents, you are walking into shark-infested water. It gets worse when you start to use styles for things such as emphasis, because they never seem to just apply to the stuff you want. And when you put in illustrations or tables, expecting automatically numbered references and proper placement in relation to the text (try to put in a picture that scales perfectly to the width of the text), you might as well go buy a rope, because you are going to need it pretty soon.

It is not that Word doesn’t have automatically numbered references, oh no. They are available. They just aren’tautomatic! You have to manually force an update of references if you change anything. And it is not like you cannot tell Word the exact width of a particular table or picture, but you better not change anything around it, like insert text above, because then Word will probably decide to move your picture somewhere else, most likely to the bottom of the page, with only half of it being inside the bounds of the page.

An Utterly inadequate State of the Art product

What really baffles me, is that almost any regular (non-programmer) user of Word seems to accept the fact that they have almost no control over their own documents. Of course, most users of Word would probably not use paragraph styles, but rather just manually format their headings to be 18pt bold, or something like that, in which case they have full control. But even users who have to care about presenting a professional-looking product will happily use Word.

What I would really like, is an option to show the formatting markers. It could be hidden in a dialog found in a menu three levels down for all I care, but if I could just see and change the formatting applied, I could manually override those annoying choices that Word tend to make, and get rid of applied formatting that tend to linger around even when the text it was applied to has been deleted. And yes, I know that I can show special characters (paragraph ends, line breaks and their cousins), but that does only help a little bit. It does not in any way give the same control as being able to see the \section markers of LaTeX, or the <em> tags of HTML.

The real problem, I guess, is that Word is technically unable to show the structure of the document, given that there is no structure of word documents, at least not internally. To word, a document is simply a long list of words or letters with different formatting options applied. Some of those options may stem from styles, others might not, Word does not care. If you doubt me, try saving a word document as HTML and take a look at the output.


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