non-industry-specific troubleshooting
September 12, 2017 12:12 PM   Subscribe

I used to do software support, and I really liked it. Now that I'm looking for a new job, I've got a bit of free time, which, in addition to job searching, I'm using to teach myself how to do random stuff. I'm finding that my troubleshooting background is coming in handy for a lot of things (e.g., cooking, figuring out why my kid is crying). I want to know if there's a general guide to troubleshooting that's not specific to a certain product or industry.

I've googled a bit, and to the extent that I can find something that's not specific to a certain product, it's general advice like "state the problem clearly, determine what would be considered a successful resolution, and figure out where the problem is". It's the third question I'm really getting at. How? I have a lot of rules of thumb from my professional experience (does the same error occur in a different environment? has this ever worked correctly? have you rebooted?), but they're not really organized in any way, and they're probably pretty incomplete, dealing primarily with enterprise software. Is there a central resource I could use to expand my bag of tricks? A book, a web resource, etc. Alternatively, do you just want to share some troubleshooting tricks you use, either professionally or personally? I'm all ears.
posted by kevinbelt to Education (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know that there's an organized body of knowledge around the general field of troubleshooting (which would be a form of troubleshooting how to teach troubleshooting?) but one additional rule of thumb I was taught is: whenever possible, divide the components of a system to progressively limit the scope of the system you're trying to troubleshoot. So - PC doesn't respond to keyboard. Does it work with another keyboard? If not, you've practically eliminated the keyboard as a likely cause. If the expected response was for the monitor to wake up, have you tried a different monitor? Having eliminated everything but the PC itself, have you tried reseating/replacing memory, power supply, etc.

Seems pretty basic, but a surprising lot of people don't seem to have any idea where to start, and narrowing down causes at least gets you into the right ballpark, with a side-benefit of tending to make you check things like - are peripherals that you're checking actually turned on, plugged in, etc.

Another principle is - check for yourself/duplicate the problem. If user tells you it's sunny outside, look out the window. I sold a printer in a factory ages ago. A forklift driver reported that it was printing gibberish every time he stopped to look at it. We watched the printer ourselves - it was only printing gibberish when his forklift was within a few feet of it. Solution: don't stop the forklift and watch the printer, or fix the forklift's excessive RF emissions, as it was only the one forklift that did it.

Duplicating the problem also forces you to talk to the user long enough to understand the problem. When I did PC network support, I had a user say "I don't have my email." I started trying to find out - is he missing his email archive, but getting new email? Does he have his email archive, but not getting new email? About the third time he said "I don't have my email, period," I had him show me on his screen. He didn't have the Outlook icon on his desktop anymore.

*unless your set of backup keyboards is a bunch of discarded ones that are also probably shot, as happened to me once...
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:32 PM on September 12

A book, a web resource, etc.

It's not fully industry-non-specific, but your question reminded me of this book:
posted by zeek321 at 1:34 PM on September 12

There is always this.
posted by w0mbat at 1:41 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows
How to Solve It, George Polya
posted by fritillary at 1:41 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

The Creative Problem Solver by Ian Atkinson

There is also the classic "5 Whys" technique of problem solving which can be applied to any discipline.

There are probably hundreds of philosophical tomes (on reductionism etc.,) which also deal with troubleshooting / problem solving.
posted by jacobean at 4:23 PM on September 12

In the "5 whys" vein (Toyota), there is the "Eight disciplines" problem solving (Ford). Both can in principle be applied fairly generally. Maybe a bit inane and business-speak, but some good principles too.
posted by SaltySalticid at 4:38 PM on September 12

Seconding the David Agans book. I liked it so much I did a presentation on it.
posted by Wild_Eep at 5:51 PM on September 12

Scott Peck in "The Road Less Travelled" (page 30 of my copy) says that most problems can be solved if you get completely comfortable and take your time (I would add that it's good to have a lot of light).

There is also the Sherlock Holmes quote "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." That was brought home to me the Winter morning my wife woke me to report that power to half the house was out, even though none of the circuit breakers were tripped. Our neighborhood has underground power cables and one of the 110 Volt lines failed.
posted by forthright at 6:03 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]

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