Developer

Tales from the Desktop: The hardest problems usually have an obvious solution

Have you ever tried finding a solution to a user's problem only to discover that it had been under your nose the entire time? Jeff Dray relates an experience he once had involving a simple solution to a seemingly impossible problem.


Can’t see the forest for the trees? Usually when you are completely stuck trying to find the answer to a problem, you probably missed something really obvious earlier in the process.

The COM port problem
I know IT professionals usually stick to a fault-finding procedure, but it is all too easy to overlook something obvious in the search for a solution. I recently experienced this myself. We received a call from a user who was attaching a mobile phone to his Windows 98 laptop to dial out for his e-mail, but was having problems dialing out.

We tested everything, and all the clues were there. The phone contained a GSM modem, and was being connected by RS232 cable to COM1. The modem driver was installed properly and pointed to the correct port. The port was not disabled either. Despite all of this, the user still couldn’t dial out. I simply couldn’t see what was wrong. I advised the caller to check with his phone dealer for a possible fault in the phone and logged out to take my lunch break.

Lunch can make you think
We’ve all seen the old Hollywood movies where Joan Crawford lies there thinking about what was said to her by the jealous women whose husbands she was stealing—the same accusation echoing in her head, time after time. Well, as I was chewing my cheese and tomato sandwich and drinking my Dr. Pepper, a chance and seemingly off-hand remark came back to me in the same way.

The caller had mentioned that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his COM port as his Palm Pilot synced perfectly just by plugging it in. I had missed an obvious clue. The Hot Sync manager was running on his PC, and I had not made the basic check of whether or not there could be anything else assigned to this COM port.

After wiping the crumbs from my beard, I called the guy back. He’d sounded pretty hacked off before, so I was a little nervous of calling him again. I explained what had happened, the IT equivalent of a divine revelation over lunch, and he listened carefully. We removed Hot Sync Manager from the startup folder, re-booted his machine, and dialed out with no problem the first time we tried.

A revelation helps turn an adversary into a friend
My simple solution turned an annoyed customer into a friend for life. He has called several times since, always asks for me, and for some strange reason best known to him, always calls just before lunch.

He appreciated that we are not technical machines but living breathing human beings. It’s a shame that more people don’t think that way. We don’t always get the chance to have a second shot, so check the obvious first and then if you’re not sure, check the obvious again.
Have you ever taken a step back from a problem you were having a hard time solving, then figured out what vital point you were overlooking? We want to know. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail.

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