In some ways, troubleshooting is a complex concept, and the idea of teaching it is a daunting one. Someone working alone will need to make quick assessments and decisions to get a desired result without wasting time and resources. Troubleshooting with a team requires excellent communications skills or the task will take a significant amount of time–and the problem may or may not be resolved. The “trick” to learning troubleshooting is having a true drive and desire to learn.
To this end I’ve been thinking a lot about what the most effective “troubleshooters” have in common. I’m pretty good at it myself in certain areas of familiarity, so you can assume I’ve added some introspective elements below as well. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of exposure to ideas like the scientific method for a literal lifetime, as well as some surprisingly good teachers over the years. Specifically, for two years in high school, I took a Computer Technician class (level 1 and 2) taught by a particularly passionate technologist, Mr. McConnell. In retrospect, I wish I had taken his electronics class too. He hounded us to master “the basics” a theme I would see repeated across industries ever since. Heck, it’s even the same for strength, fitness, and martial arts. The basics. Master the basics. I was talking with a retired engineer a few weeks ago about ladder logic and MQTT and got the “master the basics” lecture. Which made me break into a giant grin. I’m sure I confused him or maybe not, but yeah, we’re on the same page. Lecture me about the basics, better yet, let’s review them together.
Is it plugged in? Is it getting power?
But way back in the day, Mr. McConnell taught us about troubleshooting specifically. If there had been a worksheet or checklist I really wish I still had it. Step 1: Is it plugged in? I can’t tell you how often I’ve referenced step one… or how often it’s solved the problem. You can take step one literally (which you should do first), and many times that’s enough. Years later I’d expand on step one to go from “is it plugged in” to then next ask “is it getting power?” This approach is getting buried online when you have people telling others that their “first step” for a minor cosmetic issue with 3d printing is to reflash the firmware… instead of checking easy fixes first (are you using the right settings for the printing filament of choice? Is the filament old and/or has it been improperly stored? Is the printer in an air draft?).
Is it plugged in, is it getting power? Is the script getting past X point? Can you add a breakpoint (physical or in the code) to zero in on the issue? Where does the problem… START?
Honing Communication SkillsCan you communicate the problem? Do you know the right questions to ask? Click To Tweet
Can you communicate the problem? Can you or your teammate communicate the problem to the right person? Do you know the right questions to ask? These are the important things. In “tech” right now we’re hearing the term “soft skills” thrown around a lot. In my opinion, this phrase lessens the tactical importance of effective communications. No, I don’t expect everyone to be eloquent and charismatic, but I find that the people I am able to help the quickest are able to communicate the following from the beginning of their inquiry.
All Together Now…
What is the problem? And no, not just “It’s broken”.
Do you mean physically broken, or is it not working like before, is it not responding in the way you had been expecting? Tell me enough so that I could at least theoretically duplicate the problem – even if just on paper or in my head. “On the such-and-such page, when I press the save button, nothing happens and then the system just hangs.” If we can start there, that’d be great. If not, I’m going to ask you so many questions that it will probably annoy you. Let’s work together and that means from the beginning. Even if you are troubleshooting alone, you can start documenting the process for your company and/or your team by communicating the problem well in a post mortem. Can you make a flow chart for the next person–or for when you inevitably face a similar situation?
Don’t just try random things.
C’mon. Is it plugged in? Is it getting power? Is something disconnected? Work down the list. Isolate variables (this applies to software, hardware, machines…) What diagnostics can you easily access? What are the least disruptive solutions you can try right away and in a logical sequence? What can you rule out? Is there a manual? Does it have a troubleshooting section? Is there a flow chart? Check it out.
Call in an Expert, and/or Reference your own Experiences
Review what you know about the problem. Define the problem as succinctly as possible – for yourself or especially if you’re about to engage your team and/or an expert. Does the issue remind you of something you’ve seen and solved before? How was that resolved? If that solution is relevant, is it something you could try with minimal effort or disruption?
When engaging an expert or your team, be sure to share how you’ve defined the problem and what you’ve already tried. Amusingly, I’ll even do this when I need to call tech support for our cable modem, and the tech on the other end of the line seems relieved and we get the issue solved in a fraction of the time compared to if they had to try and drag the details of the issue with tons of questions.
Practice, Practice… Every Day
Every day presents opportunities to hone the crafts of troubleshooting and communication. Use them to practice “the basics”. Don’t stop at just a few tries. Keep going, keep learning, keep ruling things out. Record the solutions and if there’s time think of how this could have been resolved quicker or better next time. Reflect on how you would advise someone else (who may not have your knowledge or expertise) to fix the issue. What would you do or communicate differently?
The biggest shared trait I’ve seen in people who can “fix anything” (or who are masters of troubleshooting in their field) is an unquenchable curiosity and a constant desire for knowledge. If you haven’t already, learn to love learning. This is really the “big secret”. Learn to love the basics, not the trendy “hacks” that pop up on social media. Learn WHY not just HOW. Don’t just cut and paste things together, learn why something works, how it can break, and how you can fix it. Do the work, if all possible find a mentor, and learn to listen and communicate deeply and clearly.