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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 and traps.

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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 has trouble.

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 performing surgery.
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 further.

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 of dollars.
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 knowledge.
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 or not.
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 : <>. We talk about a variety of topics there including troubleshooting your own computer career.

To review...
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:

He can reached via email at

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