Problem Solving Skills: Troubleshooting for IT Professionals

problem solving skills

When I used to train I.T. people on various networking topics such as Cisco devices or Linux servers, I’d always include a section on problem-solving skills so they could troubleshoot issues that would occur in their networks. Troubleshooting is part of Principle #1, the Principle of Competence. The first problem-solving skill to learn is to start at the physical layer. In other words, start troubleshooting at the most basic layer. Is everything plugged in? Is everything connected properly? Are the necessary switches in the on position? Are all the circuit breakers in the on position? Those types of problems are usually the easiest to troubleshoot and, frankly, they’re often the source of the problem.

Problem-Solving Skills at Home

Janet my wife and I moved into our house about a year and a half ago. We hired an electrician to upgrade the electrical service before we moved in. We noticed that one of the circuits wasn’t working as expected. Since it ran to an out-building, we assumed it was broken underground somewhere. (It’s always dangerous to assume!) As you can imagine, it can be expensive to troubleshoot and solve problems like that, so we put it off for as long as possible. Finally, we hired a different electrician to troubleshoot and (hopefully) repair it. When he arrived, one of the first things he did was check out the breaker panel in our house where he found two loose wires. He tested them and, sure enough, they were the circuit to the outbuilding. He connected them to a breaker and now we have power to that outbuilding. He started his troubleshooting at the physical layer, the most obvious and easy-to-check place.

We recently had a heating and cooling technician check our furnace. After he left, the furnace no longer worked. It was time to put my problem-solving skills to the test. The only things that had been done were that he turned the furnace switch off, took the front panels off to inspect it, closed it back up, and turned it back on. After checking the circuit breaker, I went into our attic to continue troubleshooting. I started at the physical layer, considering the places he had touched. I checked the furnace switch. It was in the on position. I went to open the panels on the front of the furnace and noticed that the bottom one didn’t look fully seated in place. I removed both panels and inspected inside the furnace for any obvious problems such as loose wires. I noticed a switch protruding from the control mechanism toward the front panel. I tested it and realized that it was spring-loaded. It was a safety switch, designed to prevent the furnace from starting if the door panel was removed. I replaced the door panels on the furnace, ensuring they were both seated properly and the furnace came on. It’s now functioning properly. The problem was simply that the lower furnace panel wasn’t seated properly and the safety switch wasn’t fully depressed. It wasn’t obvious without close inspection, but it was simple to fix. Again, it was a physical layer problem.

In each of these problem-solving scenarios, I used my analytical skills as I encountered unexpected situations. I didn’t need job-specific technical skills to find an effective solution, just a little patience and time to consider the potential solutions.

Problem-Solving Skills at Work

Whether you’re a veteran network manager or a front-line tech support specialist, there will be times when you need problem-solving skills to troubleshoot some issue. Network outages, software failures, and even end-user errors put your problem-solving skills to the test, and while there are times when creative thinking solves the problem it’s most important to remember you have the skills to solve most challenges by applying your critical thinking skills. In this post, you’ll learn a valuable framework for troubleshooting nearly any problem, IT or otherwise.

Stay calm, even in the face of a major outage. Admittedly, that is often easier said than done. It’s also critically important. You need to think logically, methodically, and rationally to solve the problem quickly and avoid unnecessary steps that could delay problem resolution or mistakes that could cause bigger problems. Take a deep breath before you start.

Step #1: Identify the problem.

Pinpoint exactly what the problem is. Gather customer feedback, but also use your own powers of observation. A user or colleague may believe the problem is one thing when, in fact, it’s something else. Think of times when a user was convinced that they had a virus when, in fact, it was a simple configuration issue.

Step #2: Check the physical layer.

Troubleshooting always starts at the physical layer. Is it plugged in and turned on? Is the breaker thrown? Is there a crimp or break in a cable? Is everything properly seated?

Step #3: Identify any changes.

What’s different from when it was working? Have there been any updates or patches? Has something new been connected or disconnected? Was something opened and closed, but maybe not fully closed?

Step #4: Establish Theories

If the problem still exists, establish a theory (or theories) of probable cause(s). Prioritize your theories from most likely to least likely, then methodically work down your list, testing each theory until you find the problem.

I have mixed feelings about troubleshooting. I don’t particularly enjoy it. Frankly, like nearly everyone, I’d prefer things to work the way they’re supposed to. Troubleshooting often requires communicating ineffective solutions on the path to finding an innovative solution that will get things moving in the right direction.

Breakdowns never occur at convenient times and troubleshooting often requires us to poke around inside wiring closets, crawl spaces, or attics. Still, I always feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I’m able to solve problems, especially when the solution eludes others. (Okay, I admit to being a little competitive.)

Skilled problem-solvers need to be willing to offer alternative solutions to challenging problems. There are many kinds of situations when you will need to rely on strong soft skills, evaluation skills, and problem-solving skills at the same time as you use your technical skills.

Do you have particular problem-solving skills you like to use when troubleshooting? Leave a comment below.

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