Anatomy of a Successful Troubleshooter

I recently found myself coaching a teammate with troubleshooting advice, but it seemed like no matter what I offered they were unable to improve their situation or correct bad habits. It seemed like it just wasn’t in their DNA. So, I started to wonder if they had the right stuff to become successful in this career. This made me curious if there were core traits or qualities that make someone a good or poor candidate for an IT career?

I have worked with many different IT organizations and over my career, I have seen IT staff start out and move up quickly and onto better careers in networking or programming or management in a short number of years. And I have seen IT staff become stagnate and seem to never advance.

I view troubleshooting like being a detective solving a whodunit mystery. It is a process of uncovering digital clues and attempting to connect the dots and find links to a plausible root cause. Tracking down and following up on these leads helps us arrive at an eventual resolution – cracking the case. I believe this is both an art and science.

What is the Right Stuff?

First of all, you have to be able to think logically and analytically. If someone doesn’t have this basic foundation to approaching and solving problems, it can become very difficult.

Over the years, I have observed two common qualities of successful IT professionals that are easy to spot: curiosity and passion (or at least strong interest).

If you don’t have passion for technology and what you are doing, it is much harder to stay interested or advance and earn more money. Have you ever noticed non-IT people that struggle with computers lack patience and therefore have low curiosity? They get frustrated easily and demand it just work (pounding fist on the keyboard).

Problem solvers are curious people and usually enjoy a challenging task. They are often found tinkering or experimenting to gain a better understanding. They want to know how it works and why it works. The secret to being a successful in IT is being able to figure things out – which seems directly driven by the quality of being curious and passionate.

Being Able to Figure Things Out

A study was performed about 30 years ago with beginner and expert Unix admins. It was performed again more recently and interestingly produced the exact same results.

A written test was given to both beginner admins and expert admins and the scores found that there was very little difference in the results between the two groups. This lead to the question (humorously), why do we pay so much more for expert admins when objectively they didn’t test any better than a beginner admin?

For the second test, they put the two groups in front of a computer and asked them to solve problems given to them. The results showed a dramatic difference. The experts were able to accomplish amazing things that beginners struggled with. This lead to the conclusion, that experts were clearly better at figuring things out.

I heard a real life recent story where a company fired all their top paid programmers and retained only all the junior programmers. Someone thought this was a brilliant financial decision to cut costs. It’s no wonder this company soon went out of business.

In my opinion, this classic experiment demonstrates that memorizing things (or passing a test) isn’t a good measure of skill. It has more to do with knowing where to look and skillfully connecting the dots and using good judgement in your execution. Skill only comes with wisdom and experience. But, once you develop these skills in one area, they do carry over and build upon new technologies you learn.

Every single job I have been hired at, I have been asked to learn and master new things that weren’t part of original job description and never screened for during the interview. It’s just the nature of the job in IT, we are continually asked to learn new technologies and troubleshoot things we have never done before. And, it’s no surprise, when we do we acquire new skills in the process. I think this key quality – ability to figure thing out – should be better identified during the interview process and given more weight. Instead hiring managers create  check off boxes of specific technologies or skills you already have against the job description (I could fill another whole article on the topic of better IT hiring practices).

Can I Make Things Better?

Another quality successful troubleshooters have is a desire to improve the systems with which they work. When you are troubleshooting are you looking for a quick fix to make the problem go away or do you look for an opportunity to learn?

Sure, sometimes we have to fix the problems quickly and don’t have time to look back. However, have you ever implemented a fix and didn’t really understand why it fixed it or understand if it was even the appropriate fix or if it may create new unforeseen problems?

It requires extra investment on our part to research an issue more deeply, but the extra time spent will pay dividends in the long run. This is where we discover more deeply about how systems work, why it is the correct fix and prevent it from reoccurring. And sometimes we discover a better way to do things or make our systems just work better. This is where we build our tool kit of best practices.

Sometimes an improvement can become a new project which needs to be presented to management. This creates more work – but that’s a good thing, right? If you don’t want to improve systems for your company and enhance your skills, then you are probably not reading this article either.

Benefits of making things better?

  • Create measurable improvement or efficiency of a process or routine
  • Learn something you didn’t know before (blog and share what you learn)
  • Expand your knowledgebase and skillset making you more valuable
  • Make recommendations and implement changes that save time and money
  • Become a more valuable asset to your company

Coincidently, these are also long-term benefits that help advance your own career.


What qualities do you think make IT professional more successful?
What qualities have been helpful in your career?

This entry was posted in IT Career. Bookmark the permalink.