The art of simplifying the problem

One of the most important skills in resolving technical problems is not problem solving, but problem definition. Stripping a problem down to its essence often makes the solution obvious. I think this is generally true, but especially true in my experience with software tech support and tracking down software bugs.

The first stage in problem simplification is to document a set of steps that consistently reproduces the problem. These steps must be detailed enough so that someone else can use them to reproduce the problem, including a description of exactly what the problem is. Often this is the most difficult step, either because the problem doesn’t happen consistently, or because the problem description lacks detail.

The second stage is to try eliminating unnecessary steps with the goal of determining the bare minimum steps needed to reproduce the problem. If the problem is drawing-specific, this stage includes stripping everything out of the drawing except the bare minimum needed. This is often very time consuming, but almost always a worthwhile investment because it can eliminate a lot of potential dead ends in tracking down the ultimate cause. Often, this stage requires some trial and error.

The third stage is determining the exact cause and source of the problem. In my experience, even problems that at first appear very complicated can almost always be boiled down to just a few steps with a minimal amount of data.

Finally, in stage four the problem has to be solved, of course!

In future posts, I’ll share some tips and techniques that I use to simplify software problems.

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