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Troubleshooting techniques: Divide and Conquer | Tech, No Babel

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On today’s Tech, No Babel: Troubleshooting techniques: Divide and Conquer

When you’re troubleshooting, sometimes the problem may be in one of several identical cables, or plugins, etc. You could remove them one at a time, but instead, try this technique.

My father told me a story about a blacksmith that would always offer this clients a deal. He’d charge them one penny for the first nail and double the cost for each additional nail. It doesn’t sound like much, but if there are 6 nails per shoe and 4 shoes per horse, it quickly adds up to a bill of $167,772.16. That’s the power of doubling.

In reverse, you can do a lot by halving. Imagine that you have 40 cables and you know that one of them is causing a problem, but you’re not sure which. You could unplug one, test it, and continue on, but all things being equal, it’s not likely to be one of the first ones.

Instead, you can test them all by unplugging half. Did the problem go away? If so, it’s one of the first 20. If not, it’s the other 20. Now, take half of the ones that have the problem cable in the group. That narrows it down to 10. Now do half again. That’s 5. Now do 3. Now do 2 and 1. In 6 steps, you’ve narrowed down 40 possible problems to 1. That’s efficient.

The larger the numbers, the better this technique works. Are there 400 possible problems? Test 200, 100, 50, 25, 13, 7, 4, 2, 1. So, in 9 steps you’ve found the problem.

I’ve used this technique in software, too. If the problem is a group of plugins, I test half and then half and so on until I find the solution.

If you have two problems, this won’t work, but if there’s one, it will solve the problem quickly, every time.

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