11 ways to be better at troubleshooting (and possibly life)   Recently updated


A few years ago a former colleague and friend of mine asked me how to be better at the technical side of ad operations.

I didn’t want to give him specific technical advice, as with the pace of online it wouldn’t be helpful for too long.

Instead I focused on troubleshooting – investigating and fixing the infinite variety of problems that come your way in online advertising.

Getting something to work is a valuable skill, but discovering why something doesn’t work when everyone says it should (and fixing it) can be priceless.

A troubleshooter

My colleague has since been named man of the year at his new multi-national technology company, and has been promoted repeatedly above his peers. He recently told me he had printed out this list and kept it pinned up over his desk for years, and said he would often notice his workmates peeking around his cubicle wall at it.

I don’t in any way claim his success as my own, but a friend who is great at his job found it useful. To me, that is high enough praise to assume this is worth sharing.

Here’s the list:

#1 Always triple check that you’re not an idiot.

When something goes wrong, don’t just assume something is broken – always check for human error first. Most of the time when something isn’t working, someone has simply done something wrong along the way.

This is the first thing to check in all situations. And always, ALWAYS, triple check that it wasn’t you who made a mistake before even implying it was anyone else.

Top Tip: If you ask the tech person at the clients end about an issue, and then the issue suddenly goes away without them saying they fixed it, they’re probably hiding the fact that they screwed up. You don’t need to be rude about it to the client when this happens as that helps no-one. Do make sure your boss knows the sequence of events however (and write it down so you know how to deal with the client in future).

#2 Respect smarts. Respect the heck out of them.

Know who to ask questions on any subject. There’s always going to be someone who knows a lot more than you about basically anything, so make sure you know who they are so that you can ask for help when you need it.

This could be someone within your organisation, or even just the helpdesk for a product. If you meet someone who knows what they are doing and is helpful, make a note (at least mentally).

Don’t just accept their answer if they help you either – make sure you understand it (and ask questions if you don’t). Having this level of help on tap of course means making sure the helpful person likes you (at least a little), so make sure you don’t annoy them with too many questions. And don’t ask them to do your job for you! Lending knowledge is one thing, lending work hours is quite another.

#3 Own your responsibilities, and let others own theirs.

Know whose responsibility everything is. This is really part of #2, but just knowing who should be fixing something means you don’t feel like everything is down to you alone! That person is also likely to be the expert on the subject, or at least might know one to ask when things go awry!

#4 Experimenting isn’t just for hippies and scientists.

Try out EVERYTHING. I literally mean that you should try and understand and test every variation of what you are doing. Play with every setting in any platform you are using. Tick every box you’ve never ticked, fill out every field, read every helpful article, run every type of report.

This will mean setting up a test version of whatever you are doing to play around with. If you are the one responsible for using a platform, you need to know exactly what it can do.

More importantly, you need to know what different settings do when you use them in conjunction with other settings ahead of time, or you may find yourself in hot water. And again don’t just use them, work out how they work so you can understand what to do when they go wrong.

#5 Your brain is smarter than you think if you give it a minute to relax.

Use your imagination. Don’t be afraid to take some time and just sit and think about a problem. It feels like slacking when you first do it, but sitting back and just trying to visualize what is happening can really help.

For example, going from the first ad call in a rich media server to the final measured ad impression on a user’s computer, and thinking about all the processes on the way can help you realise which bit of a campaign is different than usual, and warrants extra exploration.

Troubleshooting Definition

#6 You’re probably never alone, don’t act like it.

Bounce ideas off the person sitting next to you. Two heads are always better than one! Even if they aren’t doing the same job as you, their responses and questions might just help you to realise where you are going wrong, or what to try next.

#7 Wondering is for losers. Knowing is for winners.

Satisfy your curiosity. If you are wondering if there is a correlation between odd behaviour and a specific site, run a report and check it out! The more you understand, the better you are at your job.

#8 Sometimes things are really too good to be true.

Never let anything go. If something performs inexplicably great, don’t just accept it as a gift from the gods – work out why.

Everyone will raise the alarm if something performs badly or is broken, but if something performs ‘too’ well, it might go unnoticed. That doesn’t mean it’s not broken though, and still able to cause you problems later on.

#9 Be a nerd about work stuff.

Read the newsletters. Almost every platform that you have a login for will send you some sort of newsletter with the latest updates. It’s almost always boring stuff, but reading them will keep you focused on a product’s capabilities, as well as help you stay on top of your game.

It really doesn’t take that long either, and is a comparatively nice and slow way to start your day. And remember, you’re doing this to get paid, so doing it better usually means being paid more.

#10 Go back to the very start.

Reread the manual! If there is a tutorial, training manual, or just your notes from when you were taught how to use something, make sure you reread them after 6 months or so.

There is always something that you will have forgotten or not used, and rereading this simple material once you actually understand the product is almost always helpful.

#11 Dream a little dream … of your job.

Daydream about your industry. This is a terrible tip that I always hated myself for doing, but sometimes when I wasn’t working I’d just think about how advertising could be better, not in general, but in specific ways.

I didn’t come up with a totally new way of doing things, but I did come to understand why everything is how it is, and how the pieces fit together. This made me much better at appreciating everyone/thing around me, and able to utilise the various skills, platforms and products available to a much higher level.

Doing this gets your subconscious involved too, which means solutions may start to come to you at odd times without trying (I actually once dreamt the solution to an excel problem I didn’t even realise I was having!).

Work Thoughts

Work thoughts

Most of all

…and most obviously – stay calm, find a version of what you are doing that works, and try to understand why it works.

Good luck with whatever you are fixing, and don’t let your troubleshooting get you down.

Author: Justin Driskill

Justin is the founder of The Online Advertising Guide and a freelance Digital Projects Manager.