Make it Run Now, Fix It Later — The Dying Art of Troubleshooting

In this age of politics, I always get asked how I manage to keep from losing my mind over the everyday {IMPACT!] headlines. After all, news coverage is something that is so in the face of everyone out there. Nine Hells, even my iPhone has a section dedicated to the news, which I would remove, if Apple would let me. Admittedly, wall-to-wall news is, in my not-so-humble estimation, annoying at its best. I tend to view the avoidance of the stuff as a matter of putting the media in its place, and spending time doing other things – like reading a book or watching a movie.

Interestingly enough, news avoidance lead me to a movie that is currently playing on F/X these days – “The Martian” starring Matt Damon. I have heard the book is even more intriguing and involving than the movie, which is a good thing – I could use the distraction. The storyline; however, has a particular point I wanted to focus on. At the end of the movie, Damon’s character – astronaut Mark Watney – is standing in the middle of a classroom of students in an introductory program for future astronauts. He makes the point that things will go sideways in their careers in space, and that they will need to be ready to accept those challenges in order to survive.

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. –Mark Watney

This one quote really sticks with me from the film – though there are others that I love just as much, such as “… in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” However, this one quote from the end of the movie highlights something I have noticed over time is becoming a lost art – troubleshooting.

Troubleshooting is More Than a Mundane Thing

I will admit, most of my training in the art of troubleshooting came from my time in the United States military – specifically from a time where I was attached to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unit. Pure NATO units, which I was in, are those that have multi-national components to it. Funding and equipment for these units is usually the very last part of what any country puts forth in their budgets. The equipment utilized is typically old, and held together with spit, gum and bailing wire – and that’s if the unit is lucky in what they have been provisioned. Learning what equipment is capable of, not designed for, is paramount to being able to get the mission completed. You have to understand how something works, what it can potentially be capable of, and be willing to try any solution – no matter how crazy it sounds. The same can hold true for your Pagan or magickal life.

Think back just a bit in time. Look to where a ritual didn’t seem to work because only five people showed up, instead of the twelve you were expecting. You make do by having people double up in roles. The individual responsible for calling the elements in the East also does so for the South. Whoever has the West, also takes the North. Whoever is leading the ritual handles the calling of the element of Spirit, as well as the God and Goddess. And that’s if you have those elements in your ritual. But you get the picture, you double-up on tasks to get the job done. Its not ideal, but if the participants can take the concept of multi-role situations seriously…you can make it work.

What about spellwork? Can’t find that piece of weapons-grade plutonium for that curse you are going to work against the President and his allies? Well, you find something else to make it work. Maybe a simple lava lamp can stand in for that plutonium. Right? It might not have the same physical qualities, but you can make it work with the glowing aspect. And just think, you won’t need the heavy shielding and clothing to avoid those nasty burns. Improvisation can always be helpful. But to get there, you have to do some troubleshooting. You have to find something that will be able to mimic what you are trying to do. The lava lamp was fairly inexpensive at a little more than fifteen dollars at Wal-mart (after taxes). Plus, you didn’t have to run around bribing Libyan terrorists with Michael J. Fox.

The Art of Sciencing That Shit

So, let’s bring things back from me pumping in bad puns and terrible imagery into the mix. Troubleshooting is exactly what my second quote stated – its sciencing the shit out of the issue to try and find a solution that may seemingly not provide the most efficient results. Remember, you are looking for results. I have taken a coffee pot apart in order to utilize a circuit board contained within it to keep a piece of cryptographic equipment running. Granted, the machine transmitted at an error rate above seventy percent because of the insufficient voltage that the circuit board could handle, but the solution allowed a critical transmission to go out. Never really thought I could make Mr. Coffee become Mr. Secure-Transmission-Device, but it was the fact that circuit boards were nearly identical in usage – just not in voltage – that allowed for the Frankenstein method to be used. The same can hold true for your spell-work, for your rituals, for your group work…its not about falling apart when stuff doesn’t go your way. Its about finding solutions…even at the last minute. And when that solution is found, be aware that more issues may arise because of what you did to manage that solution. A domino effect of issues….just solve each problem as they arise.

Stay Calm…After the Meltdown

Trust me, when the shit hits the fan, you will wring your hands and scream at the skies. You will curse the Gods for giving you miserable luck. You will try and put your hand through the wall. You might even succeed. Go ahead and have that meltdown. And when you’re done, pull it all together and see the problem as it is. Work THAT problem. Don’t anticipate and try to work the next problem. One thing at a time. Solve the problem. Analyze and work the next problem. Keep doing it. Remember, sometimes the things you need to solve the problem may not be readily at hand. Be prepared to figure out what needs to be done, what materials can be utilized as a stand-in – and TRY.

The old P-40 can opener. I cannot tell you how many things I have used this for that did not involve opening a can.

Troubleshooting is an art-form. In the business environment, you have to comprehend processes that you don’t know or even understand. Some processes, you may not even have a right to know about. Those you have to trust that the problem isn’t there and try to solve around those. If you eliminate everything on either side – those processes you are locked out of will need to be investigated – probably by someone other than you. Its not about making things perfect. Its about finding the problem, working the problem, and developing a temporary solution, so that others can figure out a more permanent solution. Its not about being the “fix-it” person. Troubleshooting is about getting things back to running order so that everything moves forward.

Troubleshooting in a Throw-Away World

Around 2006, one of the trends in Information Technology was not to repair equipment in place, but to replace it. This perspective makes sense, particularly in a business environment where every second of down-time causes a loss of unimaginable proportion of dollars. Its just easier to buy the same equipment, configure it, and put it in place of the damaged stuff. Then the damage stuff is jettisoned like yesterday’s coffee grounds, while a new replacement is purchased to await the next time the equipment goes into failure. This is the type of society that we have become accustomed to. Our smart phones get older? We trade them in for newer models with better capabilities – and those capabilities will be obsolete and old in a matter of weeks after we acquire this new phone. Troubleshooting has been set back to a position of “make due” until new technology can be obtained. Sad, but very true. I am not sure where this leaves the value of a troubleshooter in today’s overly technologized, easily-replaceable society.

But, I am proud of what I have done in my career as a troubleshooter. Keeping computer systems running with re-wiring solutions for network capabilities that are a nightmare straight from the kitchens of Spaghetti Warehouse, putting cryptography equipment back online using Techniques that seem impossible (Mr. Coffee) or are blatantly illegal (You want it running Commander? Well, its running – just don’t ask how). The job of a troubleshooter is to find the problem, find the temporary solution, implement that temporary solution, and report the break up the chain of command. I’ll get it running right now…I’ll fix it correctly, later.

The Lost Art of Troubleshooting

Me - USAF - July 1992
Me – USAF – July 1992

Today is the fourth of July — recognized here in the United States as “Independence Day”. This is another of those “holidays” that make me cringe internally. There’s the obligatory flag-waving  and over-the-top displays of the United States flag, the parades with people praising military veterans with far too much gusto, and the incessant American need to blow things up. Yes, I am not fond of this time of the year.

I have a denim jacket that has a ton of patches on it – mostly my old squadron patches, and a few of the patches from my time in the Boy Scouts. On the jacket is an American Flag – put there because I did serve in the United States Air Force for eight years. Looking back, I served because there were no other options available to me. I failed my way out of college. I had trouble holding any kind of job. I bristled at any attempt to place me under authority. In short, I was a “bad-tempered, irresponsible little shit” — in the words of my late father. Eight years in the United States Air Force smashed all that out of me. I learned that authority was not necessarily a bad thing, and when applied appropriately – it could literally help place someone on the correct track in life. Please, don’t get me wrong – this did not happen overnight. The first two years of my career were littered with Letters of Counseling and Letters of Reprimand. But my work ethic was next to none. When I had a job placed in front of me, I did my best to complete the task as accurately as I could – and would only ask for further instruction when any other available option and resource available to me had been tried. I didn’t see it in that manner – I merely wanted to get the job finished, and show my superiors that I could be left alone to my own devices. I was still bristling at any type of Command Authority being placed upon me.

In my second year, I was working the late-night shift at the telephone switchboard. I spent a large portion of my nights reading and writing. In between, I answered calls from people around the base wanting to be connected to an off-base number. I rarely paid attention to the numbers – I just plugged the corresponding connection cord into the patch panel, dialed their numbers and released. I wound up in front of my section Chief one morning for placing “976” numbers over the course of a week. My Section Chief expected me to deny what happened. Instead, I walked in, quoted the section regulation that I was responsible for what happened during my shift and stated I was ready to take my punishment. That was the moment that I started to grow up. That was also the moment that my Section Chief believed in me enough to move me over to the Data Center. In six weeks time, I knew the operations of the UniSys mainframe nearly as well as the very experienced civilian UniSys maintenance crew that were there to keep the system running. Soon, I was made a shift leader, and giving more responsibilities, such as learning how to operate the newly installed digital backup power system that was installed in my second year there.

I still got in trouble from time-to-time. I had other issues with Command Authority, and did my level best to keep the starched career-military people away from my troops. I was deemed as “unconventional” and “odd” by folks like this — and honestly, promotions boards tend to view people with my attitude as “unreliable” because I did not follow rules. That is still true to this day. I do not worry about the rules, I stress over the results. As I told the individuals on my shift several times — “Let’s not worry about the way we are supposed to get it done, let’s make sure it works. We can work around whatever we do later, so that it ‘fits’ what Command Authority wants. Let’s make sure it works first.”

I left the Air Force in 1994. We did not part on great terms. There are a lot of people that I still view as being assholes because they could not see beyond the regulations to notice that the responsibility should come first. Or as mentioned in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies on more than one occasion: “…they are not really rules, merely guidelines.”

Since leaving the military, I have made a semi-decent career of being an out-of-the-box trouble-shooter for computer systems. But people who think outside of the rules and regulations in order to obtain results are looked down upon even more so in corporate America. Its not really about solving problems, its more about following the rules. And yes, that meant that I got in more trouble as a result. At one job, I mentioned several times that the current computer systems that were in place would not handle an added VOIP service because of their age – I was told that I was not knowledgeable enough to know the difference. And when the VOIP service did not work out-of-the-box, I was cussed out by the company’s President in front of all the individuals working there, and told that I was the reason that the company was circling the drain. I had only been there eighty-eight days at that point. I quit ten seconds after the company President shut his mouth. I was their only Information Technology worker at that time.

When I hear people thank me for the time I spent in the service, I bristle inwardly. They may thank me for wearing the uniform, but that’s all they are thanking me for. It did not take a ton of resolve to stand there at the MEPS station, raise my right hand and recite my oath:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Its not a really tough oath to take.  I removed the last part of “So help me God” because I did not say that part. It doesn’t nullify the oath for me. If you think it does for you – then you say it. However, less than ten percent of the United States population will ever raise their right hand and take this oath. When I hear people thank me for my service – what I actually hear is a different statement:

Thank you for serving (so I or my kid or my spouse or my family members didn’t have to).

Statistically speaking, most members of the military come from very poor origins. They go here so that they can accrue monies to go to college — and thus be able to compete within the marketplace for a job. And to be completely honest, an individual with a military background gets a far greater consideration from me when applying for a job. Not because they served, but because I know what serving did to change them into the individual that they are today.

Yes, today – we here in the United States celebrate the birth of this nation. Its an interesting experiment in Democracy. Lately, we seem to disagree far more vehemently than we ever have before. My oath of enlistment states that I will obey the orders of the President…I don’t get to add to that. When I hear people say that the current President is not “their” President – and thus they do not have to respect him, I only hope they never put on a uniform and go to a front-line combat area, where they may pick and choose which fellow soldier they would protect and work with based on that individual’s politics.

In a a manner of speaking, I am digressing a bit…rambling if you will. Of course, those of you that read me are aware that I do that. So let me drag this back to where I was headed…

We spend a ton of time with “country-oriented” holidays here in the United States. And yes, I like the freedoms that I enjoy here as a citizen. There are other aspects that I do not care one bit for — the political and social divide that exists throughout the United States; the knee-jerk social reactions that gets far too much amplification from “social” media; the way we marginalize people based on what they believe, the pigmentation of their skin or who they choose to love. What I hate more is the manner in which none of this will be solved in regulatory passage, Supreme Court rulings, or in loud, over-the-top protestations. Its only going to change when we start to treat one another as equals – regardless of our differences.

I looked beyond the rules and regulations to find solutions that kept information flowing into my command structure. Troubleshooting is not about following the rules….perhaps we need more troubleshooters….