Troubleshooting is a skill that perhaps a lot of us with careers in the technical world take for granted. It is the application of logic and experience to solving problems. We break complicated systems down into smaller functional parts, and the defective subsystem into yet smaller parts, until the fault is discovered and resolved.

And we do it every day as part of making our living. But have you ever stopped to think about how the process really works? How do you get from point A to B to Z, and ultimately resolve the issue?

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Troubleshooting is a learned skill. Though the word is often associated with technical or specialized professions, it does not matter what you do for a living, or if you lack a technical background entirely. Anyone can do it. It begins with using your senses and thinking of what you see, hear, smell, feel (and yes, sometimes taste!) as clues that can absolve or condemn the smaller subsystems of the larger mechanism.

The troubleshooter uses this information to logically eliminate parts of the system as suspect, test and observe again, repeating the same process until the fault is isolated. Troubleshooting could be considered little more than astute observation, and drawing conclusions based on those observations.

For example, most everyone has turned the key to start a car, expecting to drive away, but instead the car “won’t start”. Pay attention to what does, or does not happen when you turn the key. Do you see the lights on the dashboard light up? Do you hear the engine turning when you try to start it? Do you see the interior lights dim and hear a clicking sound? Clicking and dimming lights, or no lights at all, of course indicates a weak battery. A set of jumper cables and a helpful passerby and you’re on your way.

The engine cranking over as usual, but not starting means the battery is not the problem, and a jumpstart won’t help. The next step may be tests of the ignition and fuel systems. Is there fuel being pumped to the injectors or carburetor? Is there a healthy spark at the spark plugs?

An experienced mechanic will sprint through the process described above in just a few minutes. The rest of us can observe the behavior and think critically about what we see and hear, and determine what seems abnormal, even if we know nothing about what makes a car go. Experience is what makes you an efficient troubleshooter – one who can find a solution quickly.

But experience should not be confused with the ability to focus on a logical path to solving a problem. Forming theories based on your observations can get you from “won’t start” to “The engine turns, so the battery and starter are working. There is fuel in the tank, and I can hear the fuel pump running for a second or two when I turn on the key. I believe the ignition system is at fault.”

When your eyes begin to see the world around you in this way, tough problems become far less overwhelming, and you are able to think more clearly about the solution. And when a person begins to look at complex problems with the mindset of reducing it into more manageable components, he or she may begin to apply the same process to the problems of everyday life. Doing so can make a person less reliant on others and more confident.

It is my belief that troubleshooting is such a useful life-skill that we, the technical professionals, are socially obliged to share what we know and encourage others to learn. Be an advocate for another person’s independence and self-esteem! After all, finding the cause of that weird intermittent outage and solving the problem feels great!