Troubleshooting Professional

Back IssuesVol 1, Issue 11, November 1997Back to Troubleshooters.Com
Copyright (C) 1997 by Steve Litt


Editors Desk
Gavin Gray
Letters to the Editor
How to Submit an Article
URLs Mentioned in this Issue

Editors Desk

By Steve Litt

I thought it might be fun to write a fictional "Troubleshooting Short Story", and that's what you'll see in this issue of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. So, without further adieu, here's "Gavin Gray". Kick back, relax, and read this issue. And remember, if you're a Troubleshooter, this is your magazine. Enjoy!.

Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

Gavin Gray

By Steve Litt

February, 1997

"Yes sir, may I help you." Realizing who is looking at me across the service counter, my heart thuds and temples throb. It's Gavin Gray. Old friends are great, but not when your business failed five years ago, you've been fired from three jobs since, and your present boss has put you on notice that if you don't double your repair rate in the next two months you'll lose this job too. Kathy's working full time now, but we still don't have enough money to put our younger son through college, and if I lose this job the bank will foreclose on our house. I've certainly slid down the ladder of success in the twenty years since I last saw Gavin. Across the service bench, Gavin looks prosperous and self assured. Maybe, just maybe, he won't recognize me.

"Yes. I need this VCR repaired", he says.

"No problem", I say, filling out a service order. "This will be $78 plus parts". We exchange glances as I hand him the service order.

"Joe?", Gavin asks. Then "Joe. Joe Jarvis! It must have been twenty years. Joe, don't you remember me, I'm Gavin Gray. We've known each other since grade school."

I allow a smile to slowly spread, and hope it doesn't look staged. "Gavin, of course I remember you. It's wonderful to see you." Suppressing every emotional defense mechanism, I ask the question whose answer I dread. "How've you been, Gavin?".

The whole neighborhood knows the Gavin Gray story. Graduating college in 1969 he got a sales job with a little computer company, then worked his way up. In 1977 he started his own company, and expanded it to a million dollars a year by 1980. He took it public during the go-go late eightys. Gavin's worth more than twenty million dollars. And I'm getting twelve dollars an hour fixing old audio equipment, and the boss tells me I'm not worth the money. Yes, I really don't want to hear how Gavin's been.

"I've been fine, Joe, just fine. The business is doing great, Marcy's doing fine, and Jennifer is a financial analyst. And how about you, Joe? Is this your shop?"

"Naw, Gavin, I'm just an employee here. After having my own business for twenty something years, I cashed out. Now I leave the headaches and decisions to someone else and just collect a paycheck. It gives me the time and freedom to do some of the things I've always wanted to do".

How's that for putting a good spin on a bad situation? Buried deep inside me, a small remaining speck of humor whispers "better roll up your pants legs, it's getting deep in here". I find myself actually suppressing a smile. Looking at Gavin, I realize he's taking that suppressed smile as smug satisfaction, toned down so as not to brag.

Gavin glances at his watch. "Joe, I have a lunch appointment". So much for my self satisfied act. Then he says something unexpected: "When do you get off Joe? Let's get together right after work."

Now picture that. A multimillionaire and a guy a paycheck from foreclosure getting together to swap a few stories and down a couple brews. I'll never know why I said yes. We agree to meet here at 3:00, and Gavin strides out of the shop. Somehow he looks happier now. I put his VCR on a shelf, start working on a no-sound receiver, and begin to think about old times.

Gavin wasn't a close friend. I can count the number of times we've gotten together on my hands. But each of those times, well, I changed. First there was the walk through a snowy marsh in fourth grade. There was water in our boots, we were soaking wet, frozen, and loving life as we talked and splashed as only kids can do. The conversation turned to school. I suggested since school was so boring, maybe we shouldn't have to go. Gavin pointed out that we needed the education, or we'd end up ditch diggers. I didn't know what a ditch digger was, so Gavin explained it. It was my first realistic look forward to adulthood.

About that time my Dad bought me my first radio, a crystal set shaped like a rocket ship. Dad was a disabled veteran. In Italy, 1943, he took a large caliber bullet in the leg and got sent home. Before the war he was a construction worker, but he never was able to work another day in his life. He married Mom shortly after, and I was born in 1947. Mom worked as a teacher, so there was never enough money. But there was love, and that was enough.

Anyway, I can still see him limping into my room, grinning ear to ear, with this little space-ship looking thing. He had Mom hook the antenna wire to a curtain rod and showed me how to tune it, and presto -- WJJD. Push the rod down a little and chango -- WCFL. I was hooked.

I got my first "real" radio in sixth grade. Aunt Carla's old brown Zenith stopped playing, and she threw it out. Dad snatched it from the trash and brought it home for me. A trip to the drugstore tube tester located the bad tube, and it took over half my $8.21 life savings from my piggy bank to buy the replacement tube. By nightfall Aunt Carla's old radio was playing Elvis, Rick Nelson and the Everly Brothers, and boy did it sound sweet. I still have that radio today.

Fixing the radio was so much fun, I made it a hobby. Every dumpster and trash pile had a broken radio, and I got them all. Canabalize the tubes from one, chassis and case from another, speaker from a third, and you could build a nice radio free. It was Gavin who first suggested I make it a business.

"Joe, I'll tell you a secret", confided Gavin. "You have a hundred dollars you don't even know about."

We were taking a break from tossing a football in the school playground. The smell of spring was everywhere, and we were floating paper boats down the street gutters in the runoff from the remaining snow. It felt like spring is made exclusively for twelve year olds. I continued the conversation.

"What do you mean I have a hundred dollars, Gavin?"

"You told me you have over twenty working radios in your room. If you sell half at ten dollars apiece, that's a hundred dollars. All you have to do is clean them up with furniture polish til they shine like new. They'll sell like hotcakes."

Two weeks later I was $235 richer -- Gavin had underestimated the number and price of the radios. Like a shark who's tasted blood, I kept going, making more each year. Beatles records flooded the airwaves my junior year of high school, and every girl in the school wanted a radio. By senior year I had sold over 500 radios, and had more than three thousand dollars in the bank, even though I had been paying my family's rent for the last year. In those days, rent was less than a hundred a month and you could buy a brand new family sedan for $2500. Things got even better when I met Kathy.

She was in my third period study hall, sitting on her legs in the way only a petite young girl could. She wore a fuzzy pink sweater. As she smiled at me I saw those pretty blue eyes, and I was gone. That little kitten of a girl stole my heart. Three weeks later we were going steady.

Hitchhiking home from Kathy's one night these two guys with torn clothes and hair down to their shoulders offered me a ride. The driver was a guy in my English class. I opened the door to get in and did a doubletake. There in the back seat was Gavin Gray. I didn't figure him hanging around guys like the driver. I jumped in next to Gavin. The guys in the front seat were preaching revolution, calling the United States an imperialist pig power. I told them they were idiots, and just too cowardly to fight for their country. I told them to let me out of the car.

"Wait a minute", said Gavin. "Joe, tell us your viewpoint".

I told them about Communism, and how under Communism we'd all be equally poor. I explained how Kruschev had promised to "bury" Capitalism, and how they were doing it by taking one country at a time. If we didn't stop them in Vietnam, the whole far east would fall, and it was just a matter of time before the Communists would be on the Mexican and Canadian borders.

"You capitalist pig", yelled the front seat passenger. "You're just toadying up to the tools of the military industrial complex".

"He's just scared he won't be able to exploit the people selling his silly radios", exclaimed the driver. "He doesn't care who gets killed, as long as the money rolls in. Power to the people! Jarvis, you really are a pig! You don't care who"

"I've known this guy for a long time", interrupted Gavin. "Yeah, he's a capitalist, but he's no pig. And Phil, many of "the people" would have no radio at all if it weren't for Joe. He offers a good product for a fair price."

It was interesting how these two belligerent guys would not attack Gavin Gray. They sort of mumbled 1965 hippie party line rhetoric. How had Gavin commanded this much respect from these guys? I pressed my advantage.

I said, "You guys are afraid to fight for your country. You're cowards, that's OK. My Dad almost lost a leg in Italy defending this country so you clowns can run it down." I'll follow in my Dad's footsteps.

Gavin spoke softly, almost soothingly. "Joe, do you really think this is the same situation? This is a civil war, Joe. In the long run, it will be won by those who believe in their cause. In the long run, the world will be ruled by those who believe in their cause. You know what it's like to have a father who can hardly walk. Who can't play football with you. Who can't wrestle with you. If you go to war, for your future childrens' sake, it had better be worth it".

I squared my shoulders. "It's worth it". But Gavin had planted a seed of doubt. When South Vietnam fell in '75, the seed became a sapling. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall crumbled, and 1990 when an electrician led the Polish People to their first free elections since before World War 2, it became a mighty oak.

I never went to Vietnam. I graduated high school in June of 1965 and opened a radio store. I distributed fliers to the dorms in Loyola, Mundelein and Northwestern, and within a year it seemed like every college kid had one of my radios. With the advent of the "hi-fi", I included input jacks for a turntable and a tape recorder, and sold them for $40. Perfect size for a dorm room. Then I started selling turntables and tape recorders. Kathy graduated in June of 1966 and we married a week later. Joe Junior was born in 1967. I got out of the draft as the sole support of a family. By 1969, and I was making enough that if I had wanted to, I could have bought a house every year. Mark was born in 1974.

Gavin and I met once last time, in 1976. It was at McDonalds. He was with his wife Marcy, and his daughter Jennifer. I was with Kathy, Joey and Mark. He was thinking of quitting his job and going into business, but was uncertain about giving up the steady income. It was a windy summer day, so the two families finished their meals and walked down to the park. As we watched the ducks I explained everything I knew about business, and how yes, it was tough, but if you could make a good product and sell it, you'd make great money. I didn't tell him my two stores were making over a hundred grand a year -- I don't like to brag. But as things turned sour during the Reagan era, I often wondered if I gave him the right advice. That is, until I read about him in the paper.

The article told how Gavin had built a kind computer company, called a VAR, and how he'd taken it public. Gavin became fourteen million dollars richer that day, and he still held thirty percent interest in the company. The article told of his eighty hour days and his risking it all in the beginning, and of the sweet payoff. My life wasn't so wonderful.

The 1982 recession hurt my business just as it hurt everyone else, but it was the technology explosion and boom times afterward that threw the knockout punch. Nobody wanted used, doctored up radios anymore. College students were buying thousand dollar systems. I offered repair on these systems, but they were too complex to fix quickly and profitably. I could do only two repairs a day on those new stereo systems. Techs I hired did no better, unless they cut corners on repair quality. The customer figured, why pay big bucks to fix your system, when you can go out and buy the latest technology.

There had to be a more profitable business. In 1988 I began repairing computers. I hired a tech who said he knew all about them. Within a year it was obvious computer repair was a mistake. We lost money every day. My personal savings went into propping up the business, as well as paying the last 2 years of Joe Jr.'s college. There were half repaired, obsoleting computers taking up space all over the shop. Our stereo and TV repair dried up because the computers were sucking up all our time. We damaged some customer-owned computers. There were several complaints to the Better Business Bureau. I had to sell one of my stores to get the money to pay customers whose computers I'd ruined, and I went out of the computer business. But my reputation was wrecked, and in 1992 my business went bankrupt. I drifted from repair shop to repair shop, almost begging for technician jobs. Other techs could fix more than two units a day, so I've been fired several times.

We've mortgaged our home to pay our bills. Mark is studying computers in a local junior college -- the only thing we can still afford. It breaks my heart that he'll never have the opportunities that his older brother has. To make ends meet, Kathy started working as a legal secretary in a high stress law firm. The money helps, but I can tell it's taking its toll on her. I hate what my failure has done to my family.

"Ready Joe?"

Gavin's at the counter. I've spent the last 3 hours woolgathering while I fixed a fried receiver.

"Want to go have a drink?" Gavin asks.

I know I can't afford any place he'd want to go. "Let's just take a walk", I suggest.

"I hoped you'd say that" he answers.

There's slushy snow on the ground, and like a couple fourth graders the tycoon and the pauper trudge through the muck. The walk goes on for miles, the talk for hours. We talk of raising kids, and social justice. Of global warming, and bowling alley stories. Of the harshness of life in the 90's. Slowly the secrets come out. He's sick of the responsibilities of his work, I'm sick of the financial hardships of mine. We find a schoolyard and sit on the teeter-taughter, toes turning to icicles. The sun is down and the wind is harsh.

"What troubleshooting process do you use?" Gavin asks.

"What do you mean?" is my answer.

"Well, don't you go through a process every time you fix a TV or VCR?"

"Well sure, but the process is different every time", I reply.

Gavin's face takes on a puzzled look. "That's funny. According to an article I read, modern technicians have a specific process they use on every repair. I even saw a website devoted to one such process."

"I don't get it", I say. "How can you use the same process on a radio as on a computer? You don't use a process, you just fix it. I'm not on the Internet, so I've never seen that website, but it sounds weird."

"Come to my house and I'll show you the website", he offers. "You can stay for dinner".

I call Kathy to let her know. Kathy's not at all pleased, and lets me know in no uncertain terms. As I said, this job is turning my little kitten into a grizzly bear. It's then that I realize for the last 2 hours I've been happy. Unfortunately, these days that's unusual.

Gavin lives in a mansion. We drive there in his Lincoln Town Car. Marcy has fond memories of the one time we met, and she's very nice. Jennifer has married and moved out. Dinner is served. Not a fancy dinner, but a good one. Afterward, Gavin and I go to his study and pull up the website.

It has a ten step process:

  1. Get the Attitude
  2. Get the symptom description
  3. Make damage control plan
  4. Reproduce the symptom
  5. Do general maintenance
  6. Narrow it down to the root cause
  7. Repair or replace the defective component
  8. Test
  9. Take pride in your solution
  10. Prevent future occurrence

I couldn't keep the disappointment off my face. "Well this is just common sense, Gavin. Everybody knows this. I do this every day."

"Are you conscious of it?", he asks.

"Of course not, I do it every day."

"Another part of the website says the key to the whole thing is being conscious of it", he replies.

"I think this website guy is just out to make money", I say. The conversation moves on to other things, he drives me back to work where I parked my car, and we bid a pleasant adieu. I drive home, and the minute I get in the house and close the door, Kathy and I argue. We're doing entirely too much of that these days, but there's so much pressure. I drift off to sleep with a nagging question. How could a guy, perceptive enough to tell me how to start my radio business and figure out Vietnam years before Johnson and Nixon, be taken in by that website. Well, nobody's perfect.

The next day my first assignment is a stereo tapedeck. The repair order says simply "one channel out". As I test to see whether it's out on record, playback, or both, and whether it's intermittent or constant, I remember the website's second step: "Get the symptom description". Did the tech who filled out this repair order get a complete and accurate symptom description? Not by a long shot. Ten minutes of testing show that it consistently fails to record or play back in the right channel. Hey, isn't that Step 4: "Reproduce the symptom"? On tapedecks sometimes I get lucky using tuner spray on the record-play switch, cleaning the heads and rollers, and checking the wires to the head. This time, no luck. The symptom's still there. I chuckle that the website would call the cleaning and checking I just did "Step 5: General Maintenance". I just do it to catch a lucky break, because Step 6: "Narrow it down", is so tough. It hits me like a ton of bricks that I'm starting to think like the website.

Now I'm in the murderous part of an electronic repair. I haven't caught a lucky break. Now I'll need to find that one defective part in a thousand. I think "OK website smart guy, what do you do now? Or are you just a college professor". Of course, the website guy would tell me this whole train of though is counterproductive -- step 1 is "Get the Attitude", right. Easy for him to say. And he'd say "don't try to fix it, just try to narrow it down". OK wiseguy, the problem could be before, inside, or after the record/play switch. I scope the signal coming into and going out of the record/play switch, and it's there. Fine, the problem is after the record/play switch. I scope the hot lead of the head and there's no signal. OK, it's between the head and the record/play switch. Looking at the schematic, I see the only thing between them is a ten ohm resistor. I scope on each lead -- signal's on one but not the other. Ohmmeter reading of the resistor is thousands of ohms. The resistor is bad. I replace the resistor and test. The unit records and plays back perfectly. I test everything else and put it back together. Elapsed time, thirty minutes.

Under my breath, I shout YES!, as I raise a fist in triumph. I revel in the bold, clean steps I took to nail the problem. Then I chuckle as I realize the website's author would call this "Step 9: Take pride".

I begin another unit. I can't help comparing the way I troubleshoot to the website. I start asking why I take the measurements I do. During a break I watch our best technician work. He averages six units a day, triple my productivity. Every once in a while I ask him what he's thinking, why he measures what he does. He looks at me like I'm nuts. The next weekend I go to the library and study the whole website. At home at night I go over the course of some of my repairs, what I did wrong, what I did right. Work becomes a kind of game, and at the same time a serious study. The next weekend brings another visit to the library, long walks and lots of thinking. The next Friday the boss comes by with my paycheck and says "Jarvis, what did you do? You've averaged four units a day this week!"

June, 2012

As our grandchildren somersault on the soft grass, Kathy and I exchange smiles. The yellow summer sun bathes the back yard where we sit in lawn chairs under the big tree. The drone of a distant lawn mower is barely audible beneath the conversation of our friends. It's my sixty fifth birthday. Joe Junior walks up with his wife Monica. They're so happy. Joey's an art professor at the state university, loving every day. Monica's a third grade teacher. I asked them once why they didn't have children -- didn't they want to pass on their knowledge and love? Laughing, they said "We teach. We pass it on every day. We've got thousands of children.".

Joey and Monica walk to the refreshment table, and I see Mark. Mark, who I couldn't send to college. Mark, who when I finally had the money refused it, saying the example I set was more than enough of a gift for any son. Mark, who took that same troubleshooting process I learned and turned it into a successful business. Mark, with his lovely wife Maria and their four children. I walk over to talk to Mark and his family. After a few moments of conversation, I wrestle with the kids. Mark and Maria beg the kids not to be rough with me. I don't know why, I go to the gym every day. I'm in better shape than I've ever been.

Kathy grabs me and winks. She became a kitten again when she quit that crummy law firm job in '98. She has an arts and crafts store now, although heaven knows, we don't need the money. Within six months of my 1997 meeting with Gavin my productivity doubled again -- a shop-high eight units per day. The boss made me service manager, and I taught all the techs the Troubleshooting Process. I set up the shop to maximize their use of the process. Profit doubled, and we put our main competitor out of business. Armed with a process that works for repairing any equipment, we began repairing computers. A gutsy move considering what happened the last time I tried computer repair. The Process made all the difference. This time we made big bucks. I quit and started my own computer repair store right by Loyola University.

I needed a technician, but I had no money to hire an experienced computer tech. Meanwhile, nobody would pay my younger son Mark' decent money because he had only a couple years junior college computer classes. I hired him and taught him the Troubleshooting Process. It was easy because he had no pre-conceived ideas about troubleshooting. Once he learned the process, his productivity was astounding. I doubled his salary, and still made a ton of money off his work.

I distributed fliers to the dorms in Loyola, Mundelein and Northwestern, and within a year it seemed like every college kid was having us do their upgrades. I hired more techs, taught them the Troubleshooting Process, and opened more stores. I ran the business, Mark managed the stores. Good times were back. Then Mark dropped a bomb on me.

"Dad, I've got to quit", said Mark.

"Why Mark? Is it the money? I'll give you more. Is it the working conditions? I'll make them better. Whatever you want Mark, it's yours. I need you, son".

"Dad, I've loved working for you, but there's an opportunity I can't pass up. My friend Jason sells large systems to Fortune 500 accounts, so he and I are teaming up to set up and troubleshoot large corporate systems. And Dad, you don't need me anymore. You've proven the Troubleshooting Process works, and that you can teach to your people. You proved it at your last job, and in your business. Now you've got the money to hire a top-notch person to replace me, and then train him the way you trained me.

Mark was right. The replacement I hired worked out perfectly, and within three years I had six shops all making a marvelous profit. And Mark? He and his partner used the Troubleshooting Process to walk into corporations and fix their toughest information problems. 2001 was their first million dollar year. Then they took advantage of the post-y2k programmer glut and hired great talent cheap, teaching each one the Troubleshooting Process. By 2010 their company was debt-free, and making a 200 million annual profit. Mark attended night school, and got his Bachelors degree last year. We talked after his graduation ceremony.

"Son, I'm so proud of you. I only wish I had been able to provide you with an education myself."

"You did, Dad. Don't you understand that? You were a great role model. Through good times and bad, you were there for us. You kept going when most men would have given up. You can't learn that in college. And you taught me Troubleshooting Process, which I built into a successful business. Dad, there's no way I'd trade all of that for a paid college education."

"Are you OK, hon?" I hear Kathy's voice say. How long had I been daydreaming? My birthday party's winding down, the sun still high but now to the west. I wipe a tear from my eye, amazed at what life has brought me. I let Kathy know everything's OK -- it's a tear of joy. People start to leave, and soon Kathy and I are alone. We go in the house. I start getting romantic with Kathy, and then the doorbell rings.

Kathy gently pulls away from me and says, "Joe, I didn't tell you, but I invited someone else to the party, and I think he's arrived a little late. Why don't you spend some time with him? You and I can pick up where we left off tomorrow. After all, tomorrow's Saturday. Go answer the door. "

I open the door and there stands Gavin Gray, looking prosperous and self assured.

"Happy birthday Joe! Sorry I couldn't get here sooner, but we were interviewing a possible successor today".

I've read it all in the Wall Street Journal. The President wants to give Gavin a cabinet post, but his corporation can't find a suitable successor for him, so he stays. Gavin comes in and we all chat. After a few minutes Gavin asks, "Joe, want to take a walk?"

It's a pleasant summer day with a gentle breeze. There's a path a block from our house, with flowers and trees and birds and last year's brown leaves still covering the ground. A couple miles down the path is a school yard, with a swingset, jungle jim and teeter-taughter, all on a bed of cedar chips.

"I hoped you'd say that", I tell my old friend.

Steve Litt is president of American Troublebusters and Troubleshooters.Com, and editor of Troubleshooting Professional Magazine. He's also an application developer and technical writer. He can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

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Steve Litt can be reached at Steve Litt's email address.

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URLs Mentioned in this Issue Author Steve Litt's website, which bears a coincidental resemblance to the website described in the short story.