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You might typically think of troubleshooting skills as something specific to computer and technology support roles, but I can assure you that troubleshooting is an elemental skill of every successful careerist, regardless of the work you do.
I first learned my troubleshooting lessons at the knee of my master mechanic father, Harold, who can disassemble nearly anything, fix it and put it back together in even better working order. I watched him fix everything from home appliances to earthmovers the size of small houses and I think I organically absorbed his troubleshooting strategies long before I ever consciously recognized that the concept of troubleshooting even existed. I then took these skills and turned them into a very lucrative and success career in computers and other technology. I often say that I do the same work my father did, but my hands don’t get nearly as dirty.
If you want to be successful at troubleshooting anything, and also at your career, here are some guidelines to follow when solving problems for yourself and other.
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First, do no harm (Primum non nocere)
Never leave yourself, or a client, worse off than when you started your troubleshooting. Back up data. Note previous settings. Save configuration files. Do whatever is necessary to save the current, partially working, state of a device if it is functioning at all. This provides you something of a “fall back” position if a complete solution is not easily found. Sometimes you may also need this information to “start over” in your troubleshooting when you go down the wrong path.
Change 1 thing at a time, then test
If you change more than one variable at a time when you are troubleshooting, you might eventually solve the problem, but you will often have no idea which change actually solved the problem. You want and need to understand how you solved a problem because, the fact is, if you face a problem once, you will often face it again. Knowing how to go directly to the solution can save you a great amount of time in the future, but only if you know exactly how you solved the problem.
Changing multiple variables at once can also lead you astray into thinking you have solved a problem when in fact you haven’t. Often you can suppress one problem beneath another bigger problem. You haven’t really solved it, just created a larger problem that obscures the original one. Once you solve the bigger problem, the smaller one will, with frustrating regularity, reappear just when you think you are done.
Use the scientific method rigorously and religiously
- Develop a question
- Research the questions
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis with an experiment
- Analyze the results
I can assure you, the scientific method will set you free and allow you to solve even the most difficult problems. Even more, take “scientific” notes as you work through a problem. This both documents your process and gives you a way to develop new ideas if your current path of thinking doesn’t work. Note what didn’t work, so you can develop a path to what does work. I cannot overstate the importance of using the scientific methods to solves any problem. It is the foundation and heart of troubleshooting.
Error messages are your friend
Nothing is more difficult to solve than the problem that presents no errors. When something simply stops working, it can leave you without any hypothesis to test. You don’t even know where to begin. At these times, the only thing you can do is poke and prod the system, trying different features and options until some error message occurs. These errors then, at least, give you some place to look for the problem.
Regardless of the technology involved, errors might still be presented, if you know where to look. The flashing lights on your cable modem actually are showing you an error status, if you can find a reference guide. That blinking light on your electric toothbrush means something, too. A flashing red light on nearly any device can be a sign of a problem. Look for the error. Interpret the error. Follow the error. It is there you will find a path to a possible solution, often when you had no idea where to look.
Anyone can be an excellent troubleshooter if you start with these guidelines. Sure, troubleshooting can require some creative thinking, too, but you need to start on a firm foundation of process and preparation so you can think clearly about the problem and develop the data necessary to create your solution. Slow and steady wins the race in troubleshooting, but as you use these tools more and more, you will find yourself becoming better and better at solving the problems in your life, work and career.