Troubleshooting (Parts 1-5)
© Douglas E. Welch 1998
Whatever computer career we might eventually find ourselves in,
there is usually some time when we all have to pull duty as support
people. Whether this means supporting desktop applications or
the programs we ourselves have written, the ability to troubleshoot
problems is a basic necessity. Unfortunately, learning how to
troubleshoot effectively is not an easy task. Without anyone to
rely on for guidance we are forced to find our own way and develop
our own methods. Having learned these facts the hard way, this
month I will offer up my favorite troubleshooting tips, hints
Talk among yourselves
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Two steps back
The most important rule that I have ever learned about troubleshooting
is what I call, ?Two Steps Back.? It is true with computers, and
sometimes even life, that the best way to move forward is to take
two steps backwards. Often, we may be dealing with a problem that
is actually several problems interacting with one another. These
are often the most difficult problems to solve. Even though you
might solve one problem, you won?t know it because the other problems
will still cause the system to crash.
Two Steps Back means taking the system, whether it is a program,
a PC or a modem, back to the point where it was last stable. You
pull off extraneous software, start up in Safe Boot mode (Win
95), boot without extensions (Mac) or whatever else it takes to
get the system running at its most basic level. Once you have
confirmed that the system works well at this level, then you can
begin to add software or features back while watching carefully
for the re-occurrence of the original problems.
The TSB method will tell you very quickly if you are having problems
with the computer hardware. A system that isn?t stable, even running
the most basic software, probably has some hardware device that
is not functioning properly. On the other hand, if the system
runs correctly then you can be reasonably assured that your software
is the problem.
While this might seem like common sense to most people, when we
are involved in the hunt for a computer problem we can sometimes
complicate the search by running off down the wrong path before
we have established the true symptoms of the problem. So the next
time you are faced with a particularly intractable problem, take
a deep breath, two steps back and approach it again.
Next week I will talk about some ways in which we can go wrong
on our troubleshooting journey.
This month we are talking about the tips, traps and methods involved
in troubleshooting computer-related problems. I hope that by passing
on my experiences you will have an easier time when you are called
upon to fix what others may have messed up or when you own system
First, do no harm
The Hippocratic oath taken by doctors is often paraphrased, ?First,
do no harm.? This is a wise oath for all troubleshooters, as well.
You never want to leave yourself or one of your users in a worse
state than when you started to troubleshoot the problem. Take
the time at the beginning of the troubleshooting process to protect
data, programs and preference files (.INI files in Windows).
Ask the user questions about their system. Do they have any special
programs loaded? Do they have data stored in odd areas? What symptoms
have they seen; what error messages? You want to make sure you
have a clear picture before you do the computer equivalent of
Taking these steps insures that even if you have to perform some
drastic action, say, re-formatting a hard disk, you have preserved
as much of the user?s computer environment as possible. If the
original problem is related to one small area like printing you
do not want to leave a user with a completely inoperable system.
Even if they couldn?t print, they could still continue working
on other documents and programs while you research the problem
More than one tool
There is an old saying that, ?when the only tool you have is a
hammer, everything becomes a nail.? This is the way some people
approach troubleshooting their computer systems. Perhaps they
re-installed software or even reformatted their hard disk to solve
a particular problem in the past. Some people will continue to
apply that same procedure to every problem they experience. The
result can be lost data, damaged computers and even thousands
Any good troubleshooter will develop a suite of tools and procedures
over time so that they can apply whichever one is appropriate.
In order to do this effectively we all need to remember that we
don?t know everything. New situations require new approaches.
We all learn as we go. It is just important that in our learning
we do as little damage as possible.
Share and share alike
Seek out and share troubleshooting information with those around
you. Every company should have a shared database of information
so that all troubleshooters can benefit from each other. Develop
a method of recording solutions to all your troubleshooting, especially
the esoteric problems. This allows you to go back to those records
should you, or someone you know, experience the problem again.
This prevents each and every troubleshooter from having to re-discover
the solution again and again.
Next week: Knowing just enough to be dangerous
Troubleshooting is an important skill for any computer careerist
and this month I am delving into this sometimes black art. While
some of us are born troubleshooters, the rest have to learn ?on
the job.? This can often lead to some very ugly results, even
from the best. It is important to understand our limitations and
learn from them.
Knowing just enough to be dangerous
This is a phase that all computers users go through. The goal
is to progress through this phase, and help your users through
this phase, as quickly as possible. This is the time when the
most damage is done.
When anyone starts using a computer they can be learning so much,
so quickly that they forget that they don?t know everything. For
example, you learn to delete files and suddenly go searching for
files to delete. Unfortunately, this often means that necessary
information is deleted because we don?t know what it is. We?re
not being stupid, we are just stretching our boundaries. This
sometimes means we run up against the limits of our own computer
Tread lightly when you are troubleshooting and ask for advice
when you need it. Making drastic decisions with only a small piece
of the puzzle can lead to more trouble down the line. It is never
wrong to say ?I don?t know.? In fact, it is sometimes the best
thing to say.
You need to learn quickly what you can and cannot safely do to
a computer whether you are just using it or trying to make it
work better. Don?t fall victim to ?knowing just enough to be dangerous.?
I have run up against more than one computer support person who
assumes that every problem is a hardware problem. Perhaps a computer
isn?t printing. The first suggestion from people like this is
to replace the hard disk, or the memory, or the motherboard or
a hundred other expensive and usually, unrelated. What these troubleshooters
are inadvertently showing their own lack of experience with computers.
They only have a limited number of tools in their troubleshooting
toolbox and tend to apply them whether the situation is appropriate
There are others who will state, unequivocally, that a particular
piece of software is to blame without even looking at the problem.
While there are a few pieces of software that can cause chronic
problems, it is rare.
We can?t allow our particular preferences in hardware or software
to cloud our troubleshooting skills. We have to keep an open mind
about the wide variety of computer systems available today. When
we know about specific errors or problems we should communicate
them, but otherwise we need to keep an open mind or we risk having
our own prejudices lead us astray.
Next Week: Where to get a helping hand
Troubleshooting computer systems can be a lonely endeavor and
we are all in need of some help on occasion. Often, this assistance
comes from your co-workers but there are time when you have turn
to computer manufacturers and their technical support departments.
Who is on the other end of the line?
In my 15 years of computer support I have had opportunity to call
many technical support departments at a variety of companies.
As I am sure some of you know, the quality of technical support
can vary widely and wildly from one company to the next. Sometimes,
though, they are the only place to turn when you are at the end
of your rope.
There are many reasons for the discrepancy. Through some silly
twist of logic, technical support is seen as an entry level job.
Why you would put your most inexperienced staffers into technical
support positions is beyond me. They are one of the most critical
aspects of customer service but sometimes you reach people who
know less about the computer product than you do.
When you do connect with a particularly able technical support
person, try to get a direct number so that you can call them back,
should you have any further problems. Over time you will develop
a list of contacts at all the companies you regularly deal with.
Electronic mail addresses can also provide direct links to these
extra-special support people. They can often respond more quickly
to email requests than those by telephone.
I mention this as a warning to those of you who work in computer
support. Do not promote your most capable technical support people
to management. Develop ways of rewarding them while still making
use of their formidable skills and experience. In this way we
can help bring quality technical support back to all the troubleshooters
who need it.
Dialing up some assistance
The introduction of technical databases on the Internet have certainly
helped to improve the state of technical support. These searchable
databases provide a quick and clear method of finding out what
problems have been reported and how they were solved. These resources
are some of the first places I turn to for help.
There are other online resources available as well. Usenet newsgroups,
mailing lists and web sites provide a way to talk with other troubleshooters
throughout the world. Due to the large number of people participating
in these groups many problems may have already been figured out
by someone else.
You would do well to develop similar systems in-house. Your troubleshooters
can use the system to automatically record problems and solutions
so that others can look up a problem that might be stumping them.
One such system I used automatically archived trouble tickets
and their solutions. This built a database, automatically, that
grew more useful with each new entry.
Next Week: Troubleshooting Wrap-up
This month I have set out a menu of troubleshooting tricks, traps
and tips. If you would like to add your own tips, come join the
Career-Op Mailing list by visiting : <http://www.onelist.com/subscribe.cgi/career-op>. We talk about a variety of topics there including troubleshooting
your own computer career.
Looking back over the previous columns this month, a troubleshooting
checklist should emerge. When attacking any problem we would all
do well to review this list of hints to make sure we don?t need
up heading in the wrong direction.
1. Two Steps Back
Get a machine stable by removing all extraneous software or hardware.
If the machine works without the extras then there is some sort
of software problem. If not, you are likely facing a hardware
problem and should proceed accordingly.
2. Do No Harm
Make sure that the user is no worse off when you leave than when
arrived. Even if you can?t solve the particular problem, you should
at least allow them the functionality they had before. Too many
troubleshooters leave a dead machine while they go off to do more
research. Nothing will lower people?s opinion of you more than
a dead computer. Tread lightly.
3. Develop a collection of tools
You will constantly need to develop new information sources and
new procedures to help you troubleshoot. Don?t think everything
is a nail just because you have a hammer. Don?t arbitrarily apply
a tool or procedure unless it has some logical application to
the problem at hand.
4. Share and share alike
Cultivate opportunities and computer systems that allow you to
share your troubleshooting information. Seek out other people?s
information. develop systems within your company to share this
information, as well.
5. Knowing just enough to be dangerous
Do everything you can to move yourself and your users through
this stage as quickly as possible. Too often we have a little
knowledge that can be improperly applied to disastrous results.
Give everyone learning and you will save yourself many headaches
in the future.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org