I know I mentioned that last time I would discuss the virtues of working for corporate vs retail, but this is much more important and could be helpful. Today I’m going to be talking about getting the feel for working with technology and troubleshooting in general.
Troubleshooting is a skill that can be learned but the best troubleshooters have an innate ability to fix things. Very frequently I’m asked “How did you know how to fix that?” to which I normally just shrug and say “Iunno…” Sometimes I’m not very confidence-inspring. The reality is that I really don’t KNOW how I knew how to fix that. It just comes to me. My brain sometimes works a little faster than my comprehension of a situation. I’ve frequently found that I fixed something without even knowing it. At work, I’m constantly tasked with sharing my knowledge with my fellow employees. I enjoy doing this, but it is a challenge because everyone thinks differently. I would love to explain how my brain gets from point A to point B when troubleshooting, but I don’t understand quantum mechanics enough to make any sense of how/why it works. I just assume *magic* and leave it as is. So for those that don’t have the magic quantum troubleshooting brain, let’s dive right in.
Seriously, Google it. I can’t emphasize this enough. Having a problem? There’s a 98% chance someone else is ALSO having this problem and that it’s been resolved and documented. Leverage that existing knowledge and use it! There’s no shame in following a documented procedure and fixing it. I do it all the time. Even things I’ve taken apart and put back together a billion times, I still keep the instructions nearby. It’s extremely important to do research and know what you’re doing before you do it. Confidence is built by doing the same thing over and over. Confidence is also built by taking chances though. Take a chance and try fixing things yourself. Sure, you might make it worse or break stuff, but you’ll learn from it!
Learn to Google the right way too. Google is a very powerful querying tool if used properly. Sometimes you can get away with properly worded questions like “How do I make a table of contents in Word 2013”. But there are other ways to do this that help the query engine make a better match. Google has a list of items called Search Operators and an Advanced Search feature that can help narrow your results. Here’s another way to search for the above question: add table of contents word 2013. The less text you have, the more information you’ll get. Read the Search Operators page and see how to use all these functions.
Troubleshooting without documentation is all about taking chances and visualizing the variables that could happen BEFORE you make the decision to execute it. If I do this, these are the expected results. There may be a few expected results, but think them out first. Execute your decision and prepare that the result may be UNEXPECTED. If it’s expected, plan and execute your next step. Continue on until you get to a finished result. Don’t be afraid to undo something you did or even start ALL OVER. Always leave room to go back if you can. Sometimes you can’t and you have to forge ahead, but don’t let it sideline you.
Software troubleshooting is probably one of the most difficult types of troubleshooting to accomplish for people because it relies on the understanding of how software talks with hardware and other software. Most software troubleshooting is simply a matter of reading the manual though. Many times it’s simply lack of understanding of the program and its functions. Read the manual (or the Help file)… seriously. You’ll learn something. I still find new things in Microsoft Office programs just by hitting F1 and punching in some text about what I want to do.
Another awesome tool included in Windows 7 and 8 is the Resource Monitor. This tool is INVALUABLE when trying to find out why your PC is constantly hanging. If you are prompted with a program saying Not Responding, open Resource Monitor and it should be RIGHT AT THE TOP in BRIGHT RED. Right click the red process and click Analyze Wait Chain. This is a new magic tool that will tell you WHY it’s hanging. Sometimes it’s not cut and dry and it won’t have any data in there. Sometimes it will show you a tree of applications that are causing the program not to execute. Frequently I find that SPLWOW64 or SPOOLER.EXE is a stuck application on WORD.EXE or EXCEL.EXE, causing Word and Excel to hang and run slowly. SPLWOW64 and SPOOLER.EXE is the windows printer application that tells the printer what to print (basically…). This can be caused by a bad driver or a bad installation of the printer. Normally what I do to fix these is close all the apps and the remove and re-add the printer. This fixes it about 90% of the time. Sometimes you need to fully uninstall the printer and its driver package. Another link to Resource Monitor related info.
Sometimes, things just don’t seem to be running right at ALL. Let’s assume you aren’t the best at browsing the internet and you installed some kind of malware unbeknownst to you. Step 1: scan your PC. I HIGHLY recommend MalwareBytes Anti-Malware. Start off with the free version and update and scan your PC. Even I get malware sometimes. Sometimes hackers slip in malicious code into legit sites and hide them in banner ads. It happens… MalwareBytes is great at fixing it. If you’re looking for realtime virus and malware protection, buy the Premium version for $25. It gives you a license for 3 PCs. It’s a great deal. I recommend Microsoft Security Essentials as well (it’s baked into Windows 8 as Windows Defender, so don’t bother with it if you have Windows 8, but do consider MalwareBytes).
Beyond those two things, software troubleshooting is all about making sure your applications are up to date and compatible. Software is a beast and can go wild. There’s not much the average user can do to force it to work. Even most technicians can’t force things to work unless you really mess with the registry (which I don’t recommend doing at all unless you have an understanding of how the registry works). If in doubt, uninstall the application and reinstall it. Try CCleaner (the first C stands for Crap… seriously) for complete uninstalls if the standard uninstall/reinstall doesn’t work for you. CCleaner can go one step further and remove the application and it’s assorted application data and registry settings that the standard uninstall might miss.
Ah, hardware… my favorite thing to work on. Hardware can be anything from your laptop/desktop to your phone, your car… whatever is actually physical. Can you grab it and manipulate it with your hands? Then it’s hardware. This is where getting a feel for thing comes in handy. LEGO is great for learning the feel. First, build a LEGO model. Now, take it apart in the exact reverse order you made it and put it back together again, but really get a feel for how much effort it takes to remove the pieces and see how you can’t remove some pieces because they’re locked in because of other pieces. Now that you’ve assembled it that second time, let’s take it apart the WRONG way. Just go at it. Try yanking a locked out piece out. See how much more effort it might take to pry it loose? The good thing about LEGO is that it’s REALLY hard to BREAK them. I’m talking like full-on snapping a LEGO in half. One thing you may also notice is that you can break a LEGO down in sections while doing this. Congratulations, this is how nearly every piece of hardware is constructed and how you break it down.
Let’s move on to something bigger: a computer. If you’re like me, you have 15 laptops and 4 or 5 desktops in your house… You’re not like me, are you? Ok… well, maybe you have an old laptop or know someone that does. Something that’s gathering dust or is just broken already. Go get it, I’ll wait.
Ok, so, you’ve got your dissection project? Good. Let’s assemble a workspace and tools required. If you have a regular laptop, you’ll generally need a few Phillips head screw drivers in size #00, #0 and #1. I recommend this driver kit from iFixit. The main reason is because it includes nearly every bit you’ll ever need to get into ANYTHING… including those godforsaken MacBooks with their Pentalobe and TriWing screws… I would recommend this tool kit from iFixit as well. It comes with that driver kit and a bunch of other things that come in handy. I have this on my person whenever you see me with a backpack. I would also suggest getting one of these magnetic work pads… but just be ready with something to put your loose screws in, preferably something that can separate screws of different sizes. Laptop screws are tiny and roll away and are impossible to find. If you are working on a desktop, you’re in luck: most are tool-less now and the ones that aren’t normally can be disassembled with a regular #1 Phillips head screw driver and MOST of the screws are the same size (nearly always a 6-32 screw for the case and most of the larger internals. Occasionally they’re an M3 screw with a finer pitch for small 2.5” drives and CD/DVD drives).
Ok, let’s dig in. Did you google it yet? No? Ok, what are you working on? Punch the manufacturer and model number of the computer into google and add the word manual or disassembly. If your computer has a really long model number (like a Toshiba or Sony) the model is generally the first part of it and then has a dash followed by a sub model. For example: The Toshiba Satelilite C50-AST3NX1, you would google Toshiba Satellite C50 Manual. If you have a Dell, you’re in luck. Dell provides really good service manuals. One of the most common laptops I would deal with was the Dell Latitude D630. Here’s the service manual for that. Read through it first. Look at all the pictures. When you’re ready, start in on it. Assuming you’re working on a trashed laptop, really tear into it. Don’t be afraid to break things but get a feel for everything. You should be able to feel when a component isn’t ready to come out. Perhaps there’s a screw you missed but sometimes it could be a tight plastic fitting. Plastic fittings are the worst… Lots of laptops are press assembled and then screwed together. There’s little spring clips that are molded into the computer chassis. If you snap them, they’re done. You’ll have a loose computer (normally along the palmrests and around the screen bezel). Feel how these feel when releasing them. A lot of time it feels like it’s going to break and doesn’t… sometimes it does, and that sucks. Sometimes you can glue or epoxy those fittings back in, but it’s rarely worth it.
So get comfortable with the feel of all the parts as they come apart. Get used to sorting your screws and taking note of their length, size and thread pitch. Feel how the cables pull out of their connectors and how much force you had to exert. Careful with the little ribbon cables on laptops, most have a little plastic lock on them that hold them in place. Once you’ve taken it apart and hopefully not broken much, put it all back together.
Now that you’ve disassembled a broken computer and put it back together, let’s discuss troubleshooting it. Let’s say your computer won’t turn on at all. You hit the power button and nothing happens. This could be the power supply, the motherboard OR it could just be unplugged. Check those cables first, then go from there. For a power supply, there’s generally a light on the power supply that lets you know that it’s getting power. If that’s on, there’s a light on the motherboard sometimes that lets you know it’s getting power. The one without the light is the broken bit most of the time.
Let’s say your PC turn on but just beeps at you or gives an error in ‘that black screen’. Beeps are normally caused by a failure in an internal card or memory. If you have an actual error, google it with the brand of your PC. If it’s beeping, google beep codes and the manufacturer. The beep codes generally are a short-long sequence that explain the problem.
I could go on and on about how to troubleshoot hardware, but the end result is that you gain confidence in your ability to work on your equipment and to be proficient with searching for answers and applying them to the best of your ability. And if you can’t get it done, give me a ring. Google hasn’t replaced me entirely yet.
Feel free to hit me up with questions and I’ll try to make a more concise and coherent post next time!