Solving Computer Problems
June 23, 2004 11:10 AM   Subscribe

In the teach a man to fish cat., what's the best way to solve computer problems?[mi]

I know about googling for file names and the like, but how do you go about solving more complex problems. Any suggested books, or websites?
posted by drezdn to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
That's a bit like asking your doctor for advice about "health problems". You're going to have to narrow that question down a bit to get any useful answers. What kind of "computer problems" are you concerned with? hardware? software? networking? programming?
posted by ook at 11:44 AM on June 23, 2004

The vast majority of problems in programming and networking can be solved in this fashion (at least in my experience):

1) Break the process down into a series of discrete steps.
2) Go through the steps one by one, starting with the first one, until you find one that is not working properly.
3) If the solution is not apparent, apply this process to the step in question, treating the step as an entire process and breaking it down into a series of steps.
posted by alphanerd at 11:54 AM on June 23, 2004

I solve computer problems for my dad and sister. My sister runs MacOS X which I do as well so I understand that OS. My dad runs Windows (and MacOS X) and I do not use Windows. So to help my dad the sequence goes like this:

Dad: John, my computer's not doing this, it gives an error message
Me: What's the error message?
Dad: Umm... something like "fubar error" or something, I can't remember.
Me. Umm... I can't help you, you should REALLY write down the messages. I'll talk to my sister.
Paula: One second, the message is "XXX".
Me: clickety-click into google with "XXX".
Me: Paula, try this: ...
So my first piece of advice, one that's never failed me is this: Write down the error message and search for it.
posted by substrate at 11:58 AM on June 23, 2004

alphanerd and substrate both have good advice above. let me add this:

one question i always ask when i'm trying to fix someone elses computer system is 'what day/time did the computer work properly?'

and then the obvious followup 'what has been changed/installed since then?'
posted by lescour at 12:12 PM on June 23, 2004

substrate and alphanerd are spot on. I'll add the following:

The best way to solve computer problems is to gain experience solving them.

That probably sounds dumb, but there's no substitute for it.

I do a bit of computer consulting for friends and family. This basically amounts to calls that go something like this: "Hey, J.D., my computer is doing XXX."

It used to be that I'd have to drive over to every caller's house and diagnose the problem by hand. Often I'd ask to take their computers home with me so that I could work on the problem without them hovering over my shoulder.

Now that I've been doing this for several years, I'm often to solve problems over the phone. It's all because of experience.

As you gain experience, remember: google is your friend. I've bought many books on fixing computers. I don't know if I've ever used any of them for anything other than betime reading. Google will almost always steer you in the right direction.

Also: take notes. Nothing's worse than encountering a problem you've seen before, but not remembering how you solved it the last time. Take notes. Keep them in a central location. (I keep a small, private web site with my frequently needed notes.)

From time-to-time, compile a CD of the most up-to-date anti-virus definitions, spyware removal tools, registry editors, and other tools. Carry this around with you. (I find that nowadays, 90% of all my computer work is removing spyware/viruses. Seriously.)

Of course, all of this info is geared toward PC work.

If you're dealing with Macs, there are fewer — and different — problems. And the problems are much more difficult to fix (IMHO) because there's less information available about them. Can't get your Mac to print to a shared PC printer on your home network? Good luck finding info on how to do it. (I gave up and just bought a second printer.) iTunes constantly crashing on your new g5? Good luck finding a fix. Many Mac users deny it can happen! :)

To summarize: the best way to learn to solve computer problems is to solve computer problems.
posted by jdroth at 12:16 PM on June 23, 2004

I thought this thread was going to be about cat fishing.
posted by Hankins at 12:24 PM on June 23, 2004

Somewhat off topic, but when helping out a neophyte with their computer issues, especially if you have to deal with them over the phone, one of the first things that you should do is get them to simply reboot their computer and try to redo whatever they were doing when they encountered the issue.

It's amazing how some people freak out when something doesn't work the way it should and it doesn't occur to them to just try it again.
posted by juv3nal at 12:43 PM on June 23, 2004

I can't believe no one's said this, but I also assume you've tried this:

The first thing you do is reboot. If you can't duplicate the problem, then it is very possibly a random error.
posted by o2b at 12:43 PM on June 23, 2004

posted by o2b at 12:43 PM on June 23, 2004

Ditto reboot; ditto heavy Google usage (and remember the specialist sites like experts-exchange which are usually indexed by Google but not necessarily every thread, so a search there can be worthwhile if Google returns nada).

Rest of this is a bit off-topic...

If you are *constantly* solving pointless problems for family and friends, then - if you have the time and the patience - sit down with them once you've fixed the problem and talk them through what you did and (if necessary - eg downloading odd stuff, opening attachments) what they did to cause it. They key thing is: (i) make them less afraid of their computer; and (ii) lessen their dependence on you. More than any other field I've ever dabbled in, being a geek makes you the first and most immediate port of call for anyone who has a problem. It's not like this for car mechanics or doctors or chefs - people will have a go at solving their problems themselves. But computers? Call the geek!

Almost every computer I go anywhere near these days gets Spybot and Hijack This installed on them immediately I get my hands on them - even if they are not needed at that point, it's likely they will be next time. And bookmark some online virus scanners, too - Trend Micro's Housecall is a personal fave, but BitDefender is also good.
posted by humuhumu at 2:04 PM on June 23, 2004

It's simple scientific method.

Identify all possible components that you know of/have control over that influence the system in question.

Begin to modify these items (add back stuff you deleted, move/rename stuff you've added, twiddle configs). Do so one at a time and re-test to see if you've fixed or changed anything. If you didn't fix the problem, undo your change before moving on the next test change.

Start with things you know or think are likely to have changed since the last time you knew things worked.

Observe what happens as you change these things for future reference.

If you still haven't found it:

Try to start again from a known good configuration.(reinstall an application, for example)

Look harder for variables you missed the first time. Check them all. Even the stupid ones that can't possibly be the cause of the problem because you know they're ok. Especially those.

If there aren't many variables, modify them in combination in an orderly manner.
posted by bradhill at 4:40 PM on June 23, 2004

The first thing you do is reboot.

Only if you're in Windows.
posted by bingo at 7:12 PM on June 23, 2004

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