I've been troubleshooting tech problems afflicting devices that range from things you can hold in the palm of your hand to devices that take up whole rooms for well over two decades. Over that time I've amassed a wealth of knowledge about how to best approach tech troubles.
What follows are my top 10 tech troubleshooting tips. Feel free to add your own in the comments section below, or send them my way on Twitter (@The_PC_Doc).
#1: Do the simplest thing first
If that means rebooting a device that's misbehaving, or checking to see if a device that won't turn on is actually plugged in, do that first.
#2: Don't trust the word/work of anyone who's tried to fix it before you
Remember, that guy or gal didn't manage to get it fixed, so you have to start from square one. Dismiss any and all "oh, so-and-so already tried this, that and the other." You need to check this, that, and the other for yourself.
#3: About 80 percent of problems are "user issues"
PEBKAC - Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair (in other words, it's the user's fault). This might be a harsh indictment of those using technology, but after two and a half decades of troubleshooting, I have overwhelming evidence to suggest that it's usually true.
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#4: Never ask users the question "what did you do?"
That question makes people defensive and results in useless answers like "nothing," or "I didn't break it." Even though there's a very good chance that the problem is down to the user, don't point fingers.
#5: Get the users to show you the problem
Get them to go through the steps of replicating the problem. Even if that doesn't replicate the problem, it gives you direction.
#6: Get good at assessing the "worst-case scenario"
More often than not this comes down to "X needs replacing, it'll cost Y dollars, and take Z hours to complete." Remember, this might not be the actual outcome, but it gives everyone concerned -- you included -- a framework for how to proceed. And this comes in useful for tip #7.
#7: Don't spend more money trying to fix something than it would cost to replace it
And remember, time is money too. And if a replacement would cost X, and you've spent a quarter of X on trying to repair something before deciding to replace it, the job's cost one and a quarter X. The costs quickly mount up. Which leads on to...
#8: Know when to call it a day
This one's a bit difficult to put down into words because circumstances can vary a great deal (for example, things are very different if you're doing a job for someone for free to help them out versus you're being paid cut-rate lawyer fees to keep a business moving), but you still have to be able to call it a day and someone ends up having to spend money.
#9: Work the problem, but sometimes you might have to make an educated guess
The idea with any problem is to come up with a logical, methodical, and evidence-based diagnosis, but just as with tip #1 (start with the easiest thing), sometimes you have to make a leap of faith. So, for example, you think the problem is with X, so maybe you try to eliminate X out of the equation, or swap out the suspected X with a known good.
This is never an ideal situation because you could be barking up the wrong tree, but the more expertise and experience you have, the better honed your intuition will be, and the less of a stab in the dark your "guess" will be.
#10: Never let your ego get caught up in something
I've sort of hinted at this before, but it's so important that it's worth saying explicitly. Know when you're beat. Know when to call in someone smarter than you. Know when to walk away (more emotionally rather than physically).
In work situations I tend to adopt the attitude of "I didn't build it, I didn't buy it, and I didn't break it" because that not only helps me distance myself from the matter, it makes it clear to others that I'm there to fix things, not take responsibility for the situation.