The Loser

Furtively looking around, he dropped the coins in the phone. This was a call he didn't want anyone from Pacific Stereo hearing. It's bad enough if your employer knows you're looking, but for an electronic technician to apply for a janitor job --- that's a sure sign of a loser.

In fact, this was just the latest in a long, continuous slide down the ladder of success. After an unremarkable college stint culminating in a BSEE, he'd taken a job as a corrosion engineer. Overworked, underpaid and vastly under-respected, he'd taken a salary cut to become an electronic technician at a nationally recognized university. That's when the real trouble began.

His job was to repair electronic equipment, and he couldn't do his job. He could draw a high or low frequency model of a transistor, design you an amplifier or flip-flop, or use Boolean algebra to reduce a complex problem to a few gates. But he couldn't fix electronic equipment. Word got out. Some coworkers took pity, some issued warnings, and some were cruel. In response to a question concerning how to best fix a reel to reel tape recorder, a professor told him, with several others looking on, to pry up the front panel and drop a lot of oil in the machine. The loser had believed it, eliciting chuckles from the professor and several bystanders. It wasn't much different than teasing the cripple or the retarded person.

After six long months of non-performance, the loser was fired. He drifted between menial jobs for a couple months, and then was hired as an audio technician by Pacific Stereo. Every month Pacific came out with the Technician Production Report, a list of all technicians and their production. Since there were about 40 technicians, in a very real sense it was a “top 40”. His first three months he was two or three from the bottom, thereafter moving up one or two places. Because Pacific paid on commission, his paycheck was half that of the engineers he'd graduated with. A total failure, he applied for a janitor job. At least maybe he could be successful at that...

9 Months Later

He got ten congratulatory phone calls his first hour at work. Word was out all over Pacific Stereo. His co-workers shook his hand and marveled at his accomplishment. The female cashiers all gave him the eye and wondered why they hadn't noticed him before. The December Technician Production Report listed him as #2. His $7411 production and the top technician's $8700 both broke the former production record. His commission for the month substantially exceeded the paychecks of his engineer friends. He smiled as he contemplated how good life had been the last few months.

His potential janitor job had fallen through in March, so he stayed at Pacific. Soon after, he discovered a method of repairing stereo equipment. He kept splitting the stereo in half, continually boxing the problem into a smaller area. His cousin said that made a lot of sense, because in computer programming the quickest search is a binary search.

Using his new stereo repair method, he made the upper half of the Technician Production Report in April. He was #15 in May, #8 in June, #6 in July, and #4 in August, and #2 in December. As one coworker succinctly put it, “word is out that you can fix hi-fi”.

As if things weren't intriguing enough, he had made an interesting discovery while fixing his television. He had never received a minute of training on the repair or operation of televisions, yet he fixed the television. He used his stereo repair technique to repeatedly cut the remaining problem area in half, using a block diagram of a Sams Photofact book to decide how to divide. It dawned on him that given his stereo repair technique and a block diagram of a given machine, he could troubleshoot anything. Realizing that the technique and the block diagram were tools, he named the technique “Divide and Conquer”, and the diagram “The Mental Model”.

4 Years Later

He'd found the defective chip in the minicomputer, after a parade of programmers and hardware people failed. He was a junior programmer, but his Troubleshooting ability made him a top member of the team. They sent him when everyone else failed, and he always got his bug. By now he had Divide and Conquer and the Mental Model down to a science, and could fix anything. As time went on, his Troubleshooting ability opened ever more important doors. In 1990 he wrote a book called “Troubleshooting: Tools, Tips and Techniques”, in 1995 he documented the “Universal Troubleshooting Process”, in 1996 he became the webmaster of Troubleshooters.Com, and in 2005 he wrote this book.

So if you tell me Troubleshooting can't be learned or taught, you're telling the wrong guy. I've been the worst, and I've been the best, and the sole factor in my transformation was what I learned about the process of troubleshooting.