Tech Talk with Elizabeth Ann West: Troubleshooting 101

Last week I noticed a number of comments that made me concerned about my pace. You see, I grew up with this crap. And when I say crap, I mean I was groomed to become an engineer. Many parents have ideas for their children, doctor, lawyer, etc. For me, a Daddy’s girl through and through, it was science. “Be an engineer, Elizabeth.” This is what I heard.

But I was never pressured. I liked learning about math and science. And my father, when he was in port, would spend time with me teaching anything I wanted to know. How can you tell your student’s parent is an electrician in the Navy? Because she brings in a school project “game show” with a simple multi-switch dial mounted on the back of plywood, pleased as punch that she soldered the wire connections herself!

However, there’s a very important part of my early scientific upbringing that I’m learning many missed out on: troubleshooting theory. Now, I could bore you with diagrams and argue with you late into the night which is how I learned, but I don’t think that would be helpful.

THIS is the kind of drawing I had to learn troubleshooting from. It's a diagram of a typical refrigerator circuit. See, aren't you glad we're not doing it this way?

Why should we learn troubleshooting theory? Well, the short answer is to minimize gray hair. Yep. If you learn to become an effective troubleshooter, then you will be far, far less stressed when technology misbehaves. Troubleshooting isn’t just about following a procedure, it takes creativity. Writers have that in great abundance, so please, keep an open mind with me, okay? 🙂

A System Is Just An Order of Steps

Anything can be a system. Publishing is a system, with clear inputs, steps, and outputs. Writing an email is a system. There are steps to take, and at each step a desired action. From the first word typed to clicking the Send button, it’s a ripe system for kinks in the event chain.

Let’s work with writing an email and pretend our author is trying to write an email but it won’t send. Nothing is worse than an error message when you need to get work done! But before we jump in and just start changing all of our computer’s settings, we need a plan of attack. Troubleshooting is step-by-step because if you go in there and muck with a bunch of parts, you won’t have a clue what fixed it (if it is indeed fixed) or what made it worse (which is when you get to troubleshoot the troubleshooting! Not fun!).

Always Start with the Obvious

This is the “is it plugged in?” question. Good troubleshooters start with the most obvious mistake because it’s a high probability that’s the problem. Our author can’t send an email. My first question is “Are you connected to the Internet?” The key component of effective troubleshooting is an analog question, one with an answer of only Yes or No. At this juncture, we could put in a very nifty flow chart. 🙂

After the obvious solution fails, a good troubleshooter analyzes what happened just before the problem arose. Was the author able to send an email a few minutes earlier? Earlier that day? Can the author receive email? Is the email address correct? Did the author sign into the email client on another computer and come back to this one? (That will usually kick the author back out to a log in screen, but it can get stuck).

The idea of troubleshooting is to start with the easiest explanation and move onto the more complex. I would probably check that the email address was correct for example before asking the author to check it another website will work for her. Start with the solutions that are the easiest to test and fix. Only you can decide at which step you need to bring in help. One of my biggest pet peeves is being asked for help when the person didn’t even try to fix the problem herself.

The Mystery of Troubleshooting

There are times when it makes ZERO sense why an action fixed the problem… You try something a million times, call in someone to help, she does the exact same action and voila! It works. And you curse under your breath, both for looking stupid and at the problem appliance or technology for the defection. Turning it off and back on, no matter what “it” is, also magically works on occasion. My personal favorite is percussive maintenance. Accept the mystery for what it is, gremlins, whatever. You can’t change it, best just to move on and tackle your next problem in life. 🙂

Troubleshooting Beyond Technology

Troubleshooting theory doesn’t just apply to electric items. Problem-solving, one test question at a time, is great for plot poking. Especially character motivation. In most technological applications, you want dead ends. For example, the troubleshooting question of:

Is the machine plugged in?

If No, plug it in.

If Yes, continue on to question 2.

Your main character shouldn’t get off this easy. This is the definition of dilemma, which many authors confuse for choice. No, a choice is “Chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream?” A dilemma is “Ex-date is having labor pains. Go to hospital or stay at work? If I go to hospital, my current girlfriend might ask questions and learn about the baby I’m having with another woman that I haven’t told her about yet. If I stay at work, I might be responsible for the death of my daughter, her mother, or both, as she wouldn’t text me unless it was an emergency.”

See? Experience in troubleshooting where you NEED a “yes or no” analog question will help you identify non-single answer questions for your characters and plots to address. Very effective way to judge your plot’s forks in the road are true decisions, because there is no option to just “stay here.”

A good plot MAKES the character choose a road and keep walking. She can't just sit here.

Troubleshooting 101

Troubleshooting is simple. Start with the easy answer. If that doesn’t work, regroup by thinking about what you just did. If you are not aware of what you did, or didn’t do, ask for help. 🙂

And before any of you say “But it’s logical. I’m just soooo not logical…” I say give yourself credit. YOU are smarter than any machine out there. Even Watson, the Jeopardy robot. No? To borrow from the movie The Fifth Element, if you are choking on a cherry pit, can Watson pat you on the back and save your life? No. It can’t.

The next time a piece of technology misbehaves, troubleshoot it. Whether you know it or not, you already do these type of critical thinking activities with your story lines. I’m only asking you to extend that way of thinking…..

A HUGE hug and smile for all of the readers who did their homework and tried to work with images. I LOVED the cranberries! I want to thank all of you for working with me and letting me come in on Thursday. I will talk with Mark and maybe we’ll move Tech Talks to Thursday permanently (it has better alliteration than Sunday). 🙂

Next week is right after Christmas, and I’m not sure any of us will be up for tackling technology topics. So for the New Year, we will make mine meat out of anything aggravating that beeps, and if there’s a topic you want me to explore, feel free to speak up! Merry Christmas and I can’t wait for 2012!

  1. Yet another great post Elizabeth!

    As a lover of engineers (my day is Health & Safety and Quality auditing, which means I LOVE engineers as they are soooo organised and methodical) and probably a closet-engineer wannabe myself, I loved this post!

    Thanks once again for sharing your IT-insight!


  2. PS. Make sure you all pop over to SM0D&L to follow the ’12 days of Christmas’ blog. We’ve had some AMAZING posts already, including one from Mr. Williams himself and Elizabeth will be rounding it all off on Christmas eve. (and no, there’s NO tech talk!) 😉


    • Ugh, that post was SO hard to write!!! I hope everyone enjoys it. It’s HARD to be the finale. 🙂

      But I AM so giddy for 2012. It’s going to be an even bigger bang than 2011! I have my Uncalendar (upgraded to the full-size after using the half size for the last few years) and I’m penciling it all in. Many of my schemes involve MWiDP and the Saffi/Mark team. 🙂

  3. *giggles* So glad you like the cranberries. :} It made the blog prettier too, so I might have to remember to use at least one image every time.

    Such a nice explanation on trouble shooting though. I’m fairly organized, but I’m not an engineer. Instead I married one, a Computer Engineer.

    Merry Holidays and Happy New Year to you all!

    :} Cathryn

    • My work here is done. I’ve helped at least one person “get it.” 🙂 So thrilled for you Cathryn! And this is how it starts. You master images. Next you’ll be looking for flash widgets, and gizmos and gadgets for your site. It gets addictive!

      I can get a little OCD with my to-do lists and flow charts of dominoes that must fall before the next and all that. But, I’m also flowery and love colors, and creative. In short, I’m a conundrum. I’m also married to a nuclear engineer, but he’s also a musician, so we’re both feet in two oceans kind of people. 🙂

      • It seems to go that way doesn’t it. My engineer is also a Musician.
        (And I happen to like making princess ball gowns… or at least girly haloween costumes for myself… when I’m not making what the kids want for theirs, or writing) *grin*

        Deing ‘double’ brained is awesome (you know we use both right and left)

    • Lee
    • December 22nd, 2011

    I’m so non-techie it is ridiculous…I don’t have that train of thought to trouble shoot or understand what I’m doing. This really helps. Great post.

    • You can do anything, Lee! Troubleshooting is just problem-solving one variable at a time. Usually, undoing what you just did fixes everything! I love my Ctrl-Z button combo.

  4. That is a superb post. You are so right!
    I’ve been an engineer forever, from 1950s ships wireless rooms to TV drama studios – I’ve fault-found them all.
    Now I write, paint, and try to grow a decent leek. Decent leeks still elude me – what to do about that? Try sheep muck . . .

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