Lesson One in Tech Support: Make Sure It’s Plugged In

Back when I did tech support, I realized that we often overlook simple fixes while looking for complicated ones.

In my part of the world, there has been a minor uproar over prostate care at a local VA hospital. Lots of patients receiving radiation therapy did not get the proper amount of radiation “seeds” implanted in them. Some got too many; most got too few.

Reports blamed a “computer interface problem.”

There was a problem all right. The computer that would have been used to verify proper insertion of the “seeds” had been unplugged. Read the story here. A nugget:

    For a year, starting in November 2006, the computer workstation with the software used to calculate the post-implant dosages was unplugged from the hospital’s network.

    All that time, no one took steps to plug it back in, work around it, or tell patient-safety officials, investigators found.

This illustrates two things. One:

  • If it ain’t plugged in, it won’t work. Sure, these days it’s not likely to be a hardware problem, but the reliability of contemporary computer hardware can mislead us into to wasting hours of time trying to shoot software trouble, when hardware is indeed the culprit. Computers are machines. Machines wear out and break. It can take hours to trouble-shoot an errant policy in a Windows Domain Active Directory structure; it takes 15 seconds to swap out a network cable with a known-good replacement. Two minutes is you include the time to get the known-good cable out of a drawer and run it through a cable tester.
  • And, much more importantly, two:

  • Fancy language is often used to obscure the truth. Calling something a “computer interface problem” makes it sound of so obscure and technical, requiring dozens of persons and hundreds of hours to fix, and blurs responsibility. “We unplugged it and didn’t plug it back in,” well, clear cause, clear effect, clear responsibility.
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