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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Crisis Computing

June 14, 2002

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There is an old saying about the ability to "keep one's head when all about are losing theirs." While this saying was forged in war, it applies quite well to the success of a high-tech career. You will often face clients and co-workers who don't always keep their heads in a crisis. Worse still, they can spread their sense of panic to yourself and others, which is a sure fire way to keep from focusing on finding a solution to the problem.

Crisis computing

No one is free from disarray during a computer crisis. I will be the first to admit that I sometimes find myself under so much pressure that I am not thinking as clearly as possible. This can lead you to take action before you know the true nature of the problem.
Your first goal in a situation like this is to override your instincts and slow down. This can be difficult when people are constantly calling you for the solution you haven’t yet found or looking over your shoulder, literally as you type, but it is an essential first step. If you don't have a clear view of the problem you are in danger of doing more harm than good. You want to avoid "crisis computing" at all costs.
Take time to collect your thoughts. Go get a drink of water or a cup of coffee. Go to the bathroom. Go sit in your car for a minute and listen to your favorite radio station – alone. Do whatever it takes to give you some breathing room. Then you can come back and address the problem in a clear, calm manner. I can guarantee that your work will be 100% better. Everyone involved will have had a moment to get a handle on their own emotions. Then you can begin to solve the problem.

Of course, you may have to explain your actions to those around you. Some people may think you are abandoning the problem instead of trying to solve it. They might be inclined to take immediate action despite the issues described above. Calmly explain your actions while assuring them that you are working on the problem.

Look to the mundane

Another symptom of crisis computing is favoring dramatic actions over the mundane. I frequently get calls from clients that have completely disassembled and reassembled their networks when a call to their Internet provider would have confirmed the problem was simply a service outage. Worse still, the client often has changed some software setting or hardware connection that crippled the network once their Internet connection was restored. Similar cases involved users reformatting their computers or re-installing Windows, when a much simpler fix was available.

Too often, you can jump to extreme measures in an effort to appear to be solving the problem. I find, though, that it is always best to try the least invasive solutions first. It seems obvious, but when you are in the middle of a crisis your thinking can be clouded. Try and elicit as much information from your client or colleague as possible. Sometimes you may have to ask the same question several times, in different ways, to get to the heart of the matter. I once had a user whose keyboard started acting up badly, making it impossible for her to type anything. It took me several minutes of gentle questioning before I discovered she had spilled water into the keyboard a few days before. While the keyboard had worked for a while, the water eventually got deeper and deeper into the electronics until it failed completely. Had I not kept asking questions, I might have thought there were issues with the motherboard of the computer. Instead, the keyboard was easily replaced and all was well.

Don’t be led astray

Sometimes you may have a client who will call with what seems like a simple question. You might answer the question automatically, but then wonder exactly what the user was trying to do. In order to protect yourself and your clients, you have to delve deeper. Often you will have a better solution to the issue they are trying to address or you will discover that they are on the verge of doing something damaging to their computer. For example, a client called with a question about setting up a secondary Internet connection to their network. Unfortunately, all they asked at the time was where to connect the cable to the network hub. Their call raised questions in my mind so I called them back and explained that directly connecting the new Internet connection to their network would leave them open to attacks from the outside and possibly even bring down the entire network. Had I not delved a little deeper into their question, I would have received a crisis call later that day. Do yourself a favor and make sure you know exactly what question you are answering.

Keeping a clear head can be your best tool when confronted with a computer crisis. Take the time to clearly understand a problem before you attempt to solve it. As obvious as this sounds, we can all forget the best way to attack an issue in the heat of the moment. “Keeping your head, when all about you are losing theirs,” can help insure a long and prosperous high-tech career.


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