Systematic Approach to Problem-Solving Every Engineer Needs to Know

Systematic Approach to Problem-Solving Every Engineer Needs to Know

Ever felt like you’re stuck in an endless loop of debugging and problem-solving?

You’re not alone.

Many engineers find themselves going in circles, trying random fixes, and hoping for the best. This not only wastes time but also leads to frustration and burnout.

Inefficient problem-solving methods can lead to prolonged debugging and wasted development time. But what if there was a way to streamline this process and make it more efficient?

Adopt systematic problem-solving approaches to break down problems and find root causes quickly.

Here are two techniques you can start using today:

Rubber Duck Debugging

It sounds silly, but it works. Here’s how:

  1. Explain the problem out loud: Imagine you’re explaining the issue to a rubber duck (or any inanimate object). This forces you to articulate your thought process clearly.
  2. Detail every step: As you explain, detail every step you’ve taken so far. This often highlights assumptions and overlooked details.
  3. Discover the solution: Many times, simply hearing yourself explain the problem can lead to a breakthrough.

For example:

Problem: An image on your web page is not displaying.

  • Explain to the duck: “I’ve added an image tag to the HTML, but the image isn’t showing up on the page.”
  • Detail every step: “First, I checked the src attribute to ensure it points to the correct image file. Then, I inspected the network tab in the browser’s developer tools and saw a 403 error.”
  • Discover the solution: While explaining, you realize the image file permissions are set incorrectly on the server. You update the permissions to allow public access, and the image displays correctly.

This method helps you slow down and think logically, making it easier to spot where things might be going wrong.

The 5 Whys Technique

This technique is all about digging deep to find the root cause of a problem. Here’s how it works:

  • Identify the problem: Start with a clear statement of the problem.
  • Ask why: Ask why the problem occurred. Write down the answer.
  • Repeat: For each answer, ask why again. Do this five times or until you reach the root cause.

For example:

Problem: The mobile version of the website has navigation issues.

  • Why? Because the navigation menu does not expand on tap.
  • Why? Because the JavaScript handling the tap event is not firing.
  • Why? Because there is a JavaScript error that stops execution.
  • Why? Because a third-party library was updated and introduced a breaking change.
  • Why? Because dependency updates were not tested on the mobile layout before deployment.

By the fifth why, you’ve typically identified the root cause and can address it directly.

Why It Works?

These techniques work because they force you to slow down and think critically. Instead of jumping to conclusions or trying random fixes, you’re methodically working through the problem. This not only saves time but also leads to more effective and lasting solutions.

Putting It into Practice

Next time you’re stuck with a bug or a complex problem, give these techniques a try. It might feel a bit strange at first, but you’ll soon see the benefits. And as with any skill, the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Final Thoughts

Efficient problem-solving is a game-changer for software engineers. By adopting systematic approaches like Rubber Duck Debugging and the 5 Whys, you can reduce debugging time, find root causes faster, and ultimately, become a more effective engineer.

Give it a shot, and let me know how it works for you.