Panayiotis Christodoulou Objectives • hat the job market demand is for user support W employees Common ways that organizations provide a user • support function Services that user support groups provide • Typical position descriptions for user support • staff members The knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to • qualify for an entry-level user support position Career paths for user support workers • Objectives The troubleshooting process and the thinking skills required for successful trouble shooting Communication skills for troubleshooting Information resources to help solve computer problems Which tools are used to troubleshoot computer problems Strategies for troubleshooters How to develop a personal problem-solving strategy Troubleshooting is the process of defining, diagnosing, and solving computer problems. Solving computer problems is not generally following a fixed set of steps. Troubleshooting may require following one sequence of steps for a while then looping back and performing another similar set of steps that go down a different path. Troubleshooting is both an organized, scientific process and a creative process. In computer problem solving, troubleshooters move from the problem state of equipment not working to the goal state of the equipment working. Problem solvers might analyze problems on the basis of analogies by comparing a current problem to a similar problem solved in the past. They may also look for contradictions such as a piece of equipment that does not work in one machine but works in another which indicates that the hardware is working. Critical thinking describes the cognitive skills a problem solver uses to analyze a situation, search for the underlying logic or rationale, and strive for alternate ways to explain an event or situation. Critical thinking skills include creativity, hypothesis testing and metacognition. Creativity is the ability to find novel or innovate solutions to a problem. Hypothesis testing is the ability to formulate a hypothesis about the cause of a problem and design a test that will prove or disprove the hypothesis. Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking or the ability to step back from a problem and analyze the thought processes being used to solve it. Decision-making is the ability to select one alternative from among a number of alternatives, based on some evaluation criteria. This is especially important when there are several diagnostic tests that can be used to detect a problem. Selecting the best test can expedite the solving of a problem. Troubleshooters routinely use skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making in their work regardless of their field. Most successful troubleshooters use tools that fall into one of five broad categories including communication skills, information resources, diagnostic and repair tools, problem-solving strategies and personal characteristics. Communication and interpersonal skills are very important for troubleshooters because most situations require some interaction with end users. First troubleshooters must use communication skills to work with the user to clearly identify the problem. After the problem has been solved, the troubleshooter must clearly communicate the solution to the user and will mostly likely have to write the solution up for the support database or incident report. There are five basic types of communication skills used to troubleshoot computer problems. These skills include basic listening skills, active listening, probes, critical questions, and explanation and verification skills. Basic listening skills include the ability to listen carefully to the words that the user chooses to describe the problem. Active listening is when the listener is as engaged in the communication process as the speaker, rather than being a passive receiver of information. One particularly useful active listening skill is paraphrasing or restating in your own words what you heard the user say. Another way of eliciting more information from a user is to use probes or effective follow-up questions designed to encourage the user to provide additional information. It is also helpful to have a list of critical questions that are designed to elicit important information from the user. Often users will reveal more information in response to the critical questions then they would have thought to tell the support representative initially. Five examples of critical questions are: I. Has the problem system, component, or feature ever worked? II. Have you ever had this problem before? When? III. Is the problem repeatable (can it be replicated)? IV. What were you doing on your computer just before you first noticed the problem? V. Have you made any recent hardware or software changes to your system? Explanation and verification are important skills at the end of a troubleshooting session. Explanation is a communication skill whereby a support specialist describes the solution to a problem so the user understands why the problem occurred and the steps required to resolve it. A word of explanation can provide a more satisfying experience than just suggestion. Communication at the end of the troubleshooting process can also help the support specialist and the end user verify their perceptions of the resolution are the same and that the user believes that the problem has been solved. Since it is impossible for support specialists to have prior experience with every situation and problem that can arise, it is important for support specialists to have access to information resources. The more knowledge and prior experience a support specialist can bring to a problem-solving event the more likely they will be to find a solution. There are a wide variety of resources available including personal experience, scripts, knowledge bases, professional contacts and coworkers, listservs, newsgroups, support vendors and contractors, and escalation and team problem solving. One of the first steps in any troubleshooting situation is to draw upon previous experiences. Looking up notes from past problems and reviewing similar situations can help provide clues to the current situation. A script can be another form of documentation that can help when troubleshooting. A script is a document that lists questions to ask and, depending on the user’s response to each question, follow-up probes. Scripts cover many of the possible or known paths that can be used to solve problems. A knowledge base is an organized collection of information, articles, procedures, tips, and previous problems with known solutions that can serve as a resource in problem-solving situations. Vendor manuals often contain chapters on troubleshooting and frequently asked questions. More information can be found in computer trade books written by third party authors. Most products, software and hardware, have additional online help available. Some software and hardware vendors have a CD-ROM database subscription service available, which provide more information and in depth technical information about the product. Also, many organizations have knowledge bases on the Web. Another option is a fax back service, which allows an end user to dial a number and have technical support documents faxed to them. Coworkers and other professional colleagues can be an invaluable source of information and assistance. Professional contacts can include coworkers, however, it can also include other industry professions and experts. A ListServ is an automated e-mail serviced that distributes e-mail messages to every member on the list. There are a number of discussion lists devoted to solving software and hardware problems where professionals in the field can share problems and solutions. Another method that is used for professionals to share information is a Newsgroup or Internet discussion group. The major difference between a listerv and a newsgroup is that listservs distribute the messages tosubscribers and newsgroups post a message that subscribes can access from a centralized server. Product vendors are often an extremely useful resource for information. Alternatives to vendor support can include an outsourcing company that provides fee-based technical support. Organizations may also contract with an outsourcing company if their internal help desk has a volume of support requests that is greater than their staff can effective handle. When initial support attempts are unsuccessful in solving a problem, the problem is generally escalated or referred to a higher level. Support specialists often use a variety of diagnostic tools to detect and repair hardware, software, and network problems. General-purpose diagnostic tools may include software utilities that aid in troubleshooting computer problems such as those that allow support specialists to remotely control a user’s machine. Hardware problem diagnostic tools include software utilities that help diagnose common hardware problems. Software problem diagnostics include software utilities that can identify the configurations of desktops, laptops, and servers, as well as identify and repair various kinds of software installation and configuration problems. Network problem diagnostics include tools such as network monitoring software and remote management tools. Troubleshooters often apply one or more common problem-solving strategies. The first strategy to try is to look for the obvious fix. An example of an obvious fix is a monitor that is not working. The next step is to try to replicate the problem. Replication is the process of trying to repeat a problem in a different situation or environment. First, the support specialist should try to replicate the problem on the user’s machine, if possible. Second, he or she should try to replicate the problem on another system. If the problem cannot be reproduced, it could be traced to something the user is doing wrong. Some problems with computer systems occur because of a particular combination of hardware, operating system, and applications software that do not work well together. The documentation for most hardware and software includes a description of the configuration requirements, which can include the amount of memory, type of processor, disk space needed, and video card requirements. Another problem-solving strategy is to view the system as a group of subsystems. By breaking down the system into subgroups, a support specialist can often find the problem in a “subgroup.” One strategy is to interpret a sequence of events at some point (often the midpoint is a good place to start), and see which side of the midpoint the problem occurs. You can also look at one subgroup at a time. Hardware technicians frequently use module replacement as a tool to diagnose hardware problems. Module replacement is a problem-solving strategy that replaces hardware or software component whose operational status is unknown with one that is known to be operational. For software, it might mean uninstalling and reinstalling a package to see if it works more consistently. Hypothesis testing is another way to approach problem solving. In hypothesis testing, the troubleshooter formulates a hypothesis about the cause of a problem and carries out an experiment to determine if the hypothesis is true or false. The hypothesis testing strategy works best when a support specialist can think of several alternate explanations for a situation. It could help to brainstorm alternatives with other support colleagues. If a problem cannot be traced to a configuration problem, another problem solving strategy is to “pare back the system” or remove hardware and/or software components that were added to the basic configuration. This strategy eliminates variables, or factors of a problem-solving situation that can change or be changed, that can make a problem too complex to solve easily. Personal characteristics play an important role in the troubleshooting process. Some personal characteristics can contribute directly to the success of a troubleshooter. Troubleshooters need to be patient and persistent. They must also be able to deal with frustration. Frustration can come from either a problem that is difficult to solve or an end user that is difficult to work with. One way to deal with frustration is to take a break from the problem and walk away from it for a while. Troubleshooters must enjoy the problem-solving process. Technology troubleshooting can be like a physician or a puzzle solver. If you do not enjoy the challenge of solving a problem and the excitement when a difficult problem is solved, you might wish to consider another type of work. Also, a support specialist must enjoy working with people and have the ability to work with all types of people. They must also be able to learn new skills and how to work with new products as the industry changes. The problem solving approach in this chapter treats troubleshooting computer problems as a process, but not a process that has a fixed sequence of steps that are guaranteed to work every time. Support specialist need to have a variety of “tools” available. Two alternate approaches to troubleshooting that differ from the approach in this chapter are treating troubleshooting as a sequence of fixed steps that one follows to solve the problem and a hit-ormiss approach to problem solving that consists of randomly trying various things in order to solve the problem. All support specialists are eventually confronted with problems that they cannot solve easily which need a personal approach to problem solving. A problem-solving philosophy includes an understanding of the strengths a support specialist brings to each problem. To develop a problem-solving philosophy, you should use your own experience, knowledge, skills, thought processes, access to information, and communication skills as the basis of your personal strategy. Also, improve your troubleshooting skills and learn to use the problem solving tools described in this chapter. Be sure to analyze your trouble shooting approach to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. All support specialists eventually decide what suggestions work best for them. A problemsolving philosophy is not necessarily something a support specialist formalizes in writing, however, a personal philosophy about problem solving is something a support specialist thinks about a great deal and works hard to improve.