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Friday, January 15, 2010

Troubleshooting Part I

I am somewhat of a crank about usability and user problem solving. And because I deal with technology day in and day out, I pride myself on being able to deal with technical problems of one sort or another.

Here's a story about one of my trouble-shooting adventures. None of this is classified any longer, btw. It's 35 years later, and the technology long obsolete. My job doesn't even exist anymore.

When I was in the military and worked in telecommunications, we had a tape relay centre -- the communications centre of the very large base in Germany -- that used banks of typing reperforators to punch Murray code onto either chad or chadless tape. (Anyone else out there know Murray code? I can still read most of it.) I worked shifts 24/7 but our techs had cushier jobs and only worked one of 2 8-hour shifts -- either 8 to 4 or 4 to midnight, with no weekends.

The midnighters and weekenders were on their own as far as trying to deal with any technical issues. Usually we just swapped out the offending gear, left a tag on it with a description of the problem, and put it on the techs' bench for dealing with next day.

This particular time, I was on a cycle of a lot of midnights. We had a good crew, and even though we were often busy, there were times of the night when it was quiet enough that we could play cards and just chew the fat. So it was a pretty good time, all things considered. They gave me no sympathy though in this particular struggle with some machinery.

About halfway through the shift on a Friday night, so around 4 a.m., this one particular reperforator started to act up intermittently. It was skipping spots when punching the tape so we'd get garbled messages. I hauled it out of the cabinet, swapped in a spare, and left a detailed description of the problem on the ticket, along with a sample of the garbled tape.

Monday night, I went on duty to find a note from the tech that said he couldn't find anything wrong with the machine, so he swapped it back in. By virtue of working 12-hour mids and weekend shifts, we got 3 days off so the next time I went in to work it was Friday midnight again. Sure enough, half way through the shift, the same machine started to act up again. They're numbered so it was easy to tell. Again, I swapped it out, politely asked the techs to look at it again, and carried on.

Monday night shift, same thing. Big NFF (No Fault Found) on the tag, machine swapped back in, get a clue lady. You know, the old "women aren't technical" accusation. I complained to my team, who advised me to shrug it off -- always good advice. Drat if the next Friday night didn't the same thing happen! This time I got my entire team to look at the machine and verify it was garbling messages. It's always good to have witnesses. The senior NCO signed off on the ticket and we swapped out the machine as usual.

Monday night, a curt message from the tech Sr. NCO: "What are you people on???? Quit wasting our techs' time with machines that are perfectly fine. Next time, I'll charge you." (meaning a disciplinary charge) True, there had always been a bit of a rivalry between operators and technicians, and my team in particular was notorious for playing jokes on people. (This is how one's reputation as a jokester can work against you. Who, ME??? Nah...) But they were tired of having to keep looking at this stupid machine.

Fourth Friday night in a row -- same machine broke down. We debated, should we report it or fix it ourselves permanently with a hammer? I voted for the hammer but was overruled. So we decided to call out the duty tech to come NOW and see the machine for himself. He rolled in about an hour later, not in a good mood, but unable to disobey an order from a superior. :-) He tested the machine, and sure enough, got garbled tape. HAH!! Okay, I see it, I know it's bad, I'll fix it Monday.

Monday night, there was no word at all. We sort of forgot about it, until we came in the NEXT Monday night and found a note -- "Machine permanently FUBAR (F***ed up beyond all repair). Overheats when online too long. Works perfectly after cooldown." After working all week, the thing would get overheated by 4 a.m.-ish on Saturday, start breaking up the code, and causing problems. After sitting for 2 days waiting for the tech to look at it, it had cooled down sufficiently to be back in good working order. Sheesh.

I was vindicated, but never did receive an apology from the techs who disbelieved me. None of us had seen such behaviour from a machine before, but it wasn't to be the last. "Overheating" as a cause was tucked away in my mental inventory in case I ever ran into such a problem again.

It's a really good feeling, though, to be able to solve technical mysteries.

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