You Coach Not Teach Troubleshooting

A colleague and I have been debating over a few months the topic of troubleshooting. My initial stance on the topic was that you CAN teach troubleshooting. However, as time has passed working with particular individuals I have came to a realization that you CANNOT teach troubleshooting. My belief now is that some people simply have a mind that thinks in logical sequences to rule out options and others don’t. While I’m sure this post may cause some heat towards myself the point isn’t to say anything bad about anyone. My point is that some individuals have a very effective troubleshooting skill set, while others simply have a set rubric of tests that if exhausted, results in a complete halt in process. I’ve come up with four items that impact an individuals ability to troubleshoot effectively even after the initial checklist has been exhausted.

Experience:
What can be said other than experience is a key element in effective troubleshooting. There is little to debate that if you’ve ran into similar issues in a given scenario, you are quicker to rule out options that aren’t worth pursuing, resulting in less decorating of the ol’ rabbit hole. Experience is also a factor that helps you learn when a given path isn’t going in the direction it should. Experience cannot be taught however, it can only be…well…experienced. You CAN coach someone through a scenario so they learn through their own experience, but simply explaining a scenario and the actions you would take is no different than giving the person a checklist.

Knowledge:
This can go hand in hand with experience. As time goes by you naturally gain knowledge through different situations you encounter. However, at it’s root, knowledge of how things work and are supposed to work is a huge aid in troubleshooting when it’s a new scenario that your previous experiences haven’t related to. If one knows how an electric motor is supposed to work, they are at better odds when troubleshooting one that doesn’t work, even if it’s an issue new to them. Knowledge can be taught, but you must be careful to not create an individual who simply recites facts they have learned without knowing why they learned them or what it means. To me, knowledge is an understanding, not a memory. From my experience, some people have a desire to understand and gain knowledge, others just want to know the facts that make their day go by. Knowledge is closely associated with learning and again, learning is not something that can be taught. Knowledge is something that has be learned by means of a teacher. However, to gain this knowledge one must have the desire to learn which is either part of your nature to it’s not.

Methodology:
I remember during my High School years the system wide syllabus had a large focus on every teacher spending at least some time on critical thinking. Their definition of critical thinking wasn’t as much attempting to teach how to think critically, but what critical thinking was, which resulted down to a combination of the above experience and knowledge, with that of a structured methodology. In troubleshooting there are many popular methodologies that are useful in their own way. A famous one often used in the heat of an issue is the good old “Guess and Check”. That one is pretty self explanatory in and of itself. Divide and conquer is another common way of putting out a fire. In this scenario people often start in the middle and see is one direction moves towards resolution, or if they should start moving back in the other direction. Also common is starting in a sequential or logical top to bottom (or visa versa) workflow. This one may rely heavily upon the above knowledge and experience skill sets to put together. The question becomes this: when do I use method A versus method B? When do I combine methods? This again, to be repetitive, cannot be taught. It is nearly impossible to teach which method is best in which scenario. An individual can coach what steps they would take through their experience, knowledge, and methodologies for any given situation but their is no teachable correct answer.

Mindset:
As the posts title implies, I’ll continue to beat the dead horse on this section. Often times troubleshooting is in a circumstance of putting out a fire. The mind set of the individual during this heated time (yes pun was intended) boasts a lot about their skill set, their experience, their knowledge, and their confidence in their troubleshooting skills. Human nature makes it hard to teach someone how to keep a calm head during times of stress. This is why we have terms such as life coach, health coach, etc. Aside from keeping your mind clear and calm during a fire this also is important to how you apply different tools and in what order. Another important mindset you can only coach is when to put your pride aside and ask for help or escalate to support.

The combination of these 4 elements of troubleshooting are all things that you can coach an individual through. Most of them are not teachable in the sense that you can simply say, this is what you do and that’s the end of this scenario. Some people have a natural nack and ability to think outside of the box, see a result and shift gears, others do not. In some instances I’ve even run into individuals who won’t even try if they don’t know where to start. We live in a fast past field here in I.T. and it’s difficult to continue moving forward if you don’t have this soft skill.

Matt Ouellette is a certified information technology professional residing in Southwest Michigan. His technology findings and advice can be found on his PacketPilot blog. Mr. Ouellette spent 4 years as an I.T. Technician before stepping into a Network Engineer role at Bronson Health Group. Since completing his Associates Degree in Network Administration Matt has taken a head on approach to career enrichment through obtaining credentials such as CCNP, CCNA Voice, MCSA: Server 2008, and VCP5. This passion for continued learning allows him to deliver up to date quality technical solutions.

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