Saturday, October 11, 2014

Problem Solving Skills - case study and reflection

The recovery of economy makes the talent market very competitive. Most people applied to the openings on my R & D teams have no related industrial experience at all. How can we find able and competent engineers to meet our needs?

In the resume screening process we focus on relevant knowledge foundation (e.g. majors, courses, degree levels), and relevant experiences (e.g. designs, testing, invention, and analysis). Once these basic requirements are met, the focus is shifted to problem solving skills and interpersonal skills including communication.

To evaluate candidates' problem solving skills, we typically ask them to solve problems that most likely they never see before, and may not be in the area of their expertise. The outcome is telling - those who can not work independently on their own freeze on this type of questions!

Today I was subjected to such a test at home.

Before lunch I decided to go up to attic to check if there was any damage with roof, chimney and wind turbine from the storms at midnight. As I opened the door to the attic, the entrance was partially blocked by a huge bundle of cables. I thought that the cables were for the discarded direct TV installation and were moved by a Verizon technician who installed FiOS. So I moved the cable away from the entrance to attic, in the process disconnected a couple of connections.

After attic inspection, I found out that I lost FiOS internet. I went back to the attic trying to reconnect the connections, there were so many loose ends and connections in the bundle, I did not remember which cables were disconnected by me. Looking at all the cables I determined the cables most likely related to the internet router,  I tried to reconnect a couple connections and was not successful.

I called Verizon helpline and verified that the router was not connected to FiOS. During the call I also found out that WAN cox and LAN cox indicators telling if the router and FiOS is connected. Since Verizon will charge $91 for first half hour and $46 for each additional half hour for a technician visit; and a technician is  not available until Tuesday. I made an appointment with Verizon for Tuesday but decided to fix it on my own.

I asked Lily to come to attic to help me. First she confirmed the identifications of the cables to the router. Then we identified a few cables not related to the router or incoming signal. Now only two connections and two cables remained relevant - we tried one pair of connections - neither WAN cox or LAX cox indicator lit. We tried the second option - LAN cox indicator lit up, and internet was back on! To prevent this from happening again, we marked the  each pair of hookups with tapes.

In reflection, I identified some problems with myself in this process: 1) I disconnected the cable based on erroneous assumption and I did not mark the connections I disconnected.  2) once challenged by the problem, I hoped for easy fix and did not think thoroughly at first; 3) once easy fix did not work, I wanted other who could fix it easily to work on it; 4) Only when challenged by economics (too expensive for the fix), non availability of internet for three days, I went back to think more carefully on what I should do to fix the problem.

Lessons learned? 1) think before act every time; 2) some pressure is good to make things happen

Even though this is a very simple (out of expertise area) problem, the problem solving skill required is the same as that for a more complex problem:

1) Try to understand a problem first without assumptions and know the end goal
2) Learn as much as possible about the situation
3) Observe, analyze and try
4) Divide a complex problem into a few simple ones
5) Solve the simple problems and the complex problem is not that hard to solve

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