Lesson 1: Becoming an A Technician

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By virtue of choosing and completing this course, you are demonstrating a commitment to the computer industry. You have chosen to be a part of one of the most dynamic industries ever. This lesson is about how you, as a computer technician, can stay current with a profession in flux.

After this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Keep up-to-date in your chosen profession.
  • Provide effective customer service.
Estimated lesson time: 20 minutes

Staying on Top

There is more to being a computer professional than simply servicing computers. The simple act of studying to become A+ Certified indicates that you are committed to becoming a qualified computer technician. The truth is that the very minute you pass your A+ Certification, new technology will arrive on the scene, or someone will discover a new bug in existing technology. You have entered a dynamic, fast-growing, and rapidly changing industry. To stay at the top, a computer professional must never stop learning.

Repairing computers is as much an art as a science. Acquiring technical knowledge is just the beginning. The ability to apply that knowledge in a useful manner is every bit as important as possessing the knowledge. A successful computer professional must be both invisible and indispensable.

Don't Stop Learning

Continuing education is vital in the computer-repair business. Attending seminars, reading books and magazines, and listening are essential parts of the job. The formal training that you are undertaking should be the beginning of your technical education, not the end. Remember, you will never know everything, and it will often seem that as soon as you've mastered a new technology, it is revised. Knowing how to "get the answer" is often more important than guessing or thinking you know it all.


When we want to increase our computers' data capabilities, we network them. Remember that you are not the only one interested in fixing computers. Take advantage of every opportunity to make connections with your colleagues in the computer business and in the classroom.

Join a local computer users' group—one can easily be found by asking around local computer stores. These groups are great places to meet and share common interests with others.

Make yourself available to other technicians. The person you help to solve a problem (from your base of knowledge and experience) today, will be there to help you tomorrow. The best time to learn about problems, and their solutions, is before they happen to you.

The range of hardware, operating systems, and software available today makes it impossible for any single person to master every aspect of the personal computer environment. Your experience base, as you encounter problems, will be different from that of your colleagues. Build a network of technicians with different areas of specialization. Share your specialized expertise with your colleagues, and learn from them when the opportunity and need arises.

Get Connected!

Today's computer professional needs to be linked electronically to the Internet. You need Internet access for e-mail, Usenet newsgroups, and the World Wide Web (WWW). After all, your goal is to make computers work for others, so put yours to work for you.


E-mail is a useful way to communicate with technical support people and colleagues. E-mail is asynchronous communication that transcends time zones; a question can be posed at any time of the day, and answered anytime, without fear of inconveniencing the other party. It is also a good method for providing customer service.


Usenet newsgroups are good places to acquire detailed information about computers. In a newsgroup, you can get information from other users. You are more likely to get a frank opinion than to hear "the company line." There are thousands of Usenet groups, and hundreds are dedicated to computers. Be sure to look for FAQs lists (Frequently Asked Questions). They are great for answering basic questions and giving guidance on how to use a particular newsgroup.

Newsgroups are also invaluable when you come across a situation that stumps you. Write up the problem and post it to an appropriate newsgroup (or more than one, but don't cross-post!). You will often be amazed at the responses you'll get from helpful colleagues—everything from "try this" suggestions, to the actual solution to your problem from someone who has encountered it before.

The World Wide Web

The Web is quickly becoming the best place to get computer information. Most suppliers have a presence on the Web. Suppliers often provide upgrades, patches, and work-arounds for most problems users encounter with their products. Many maintain technical databases full of information about both their legacy products and the most current ones. This information is usually free, but the fact that it exists is not always advertised. It is not uncommon today for a supplier to post a fix or upgrade on its Web site without notifying registered users.

Finding the correct Web site can often be challenging. A good starting place is a portal site that caters to technicians who frequently upgrade computers. These sites help you search for a source for buying parts and have links to the major computer industry manufacturers.

If you don't have luck with portals, use search engines. You might feel overwhelmed at first with your search results, because responses can literally number in the thousands. Learn how to use "advanced" search techniques and try suppliername.com to find the correct domain (it works more often than not).

A good example, and an excellent resource, is www.microsoft.com. Go to the support page and access the Knowledge Base. You will find a wealth of information regarding Microsoft products. After you find a good source, don't forget to use the Web browser's Favorites, Bookmarks, or similar feature to organize folders with links to the most useful resources you've found online. For example, you could create folders for tech support by company or product.

Commercial Networks

There are a number of major commercial networks such as The Microsoft Network (MSN) available. Many of the smaller Internet service providers host forums for computer users, similar to the newsgroups previously discussed. The difference is that they are private, available only to the users of the service. They work similarly to a bulletin board service (BBS) where you can post questions and answer other questions.


Knowledge that does not get used gets lost. Practicing is the only way to keep your skills sharp. However, use caution when trying things out for the first time or when experimenting (especially on someone else's computer). Having to explain that you crashed because you were "playing" with a new technique or piece of hardware can be a painful experience for all involved.

However, it doesn't hurt to keep some equipment on hand for the sole purpose of playing. For many technicians, extra equipment at work is rare and their personal machines become their test machines, constantly being ripped apart and experimented upon. If a system or two can be kept around for experimentation and education, you can greatly magnify the value of any other training you receive and reduce costs overall.

Read, Read, and Read Some More!

Keep up with the computer-industry press. There are many good computer books available, but remember that the lead time required to publish a book almost guarantees that computer books are out-of-date the moment they come off the press. At the very least, computer books have a relatively short "shelf life" in an industry that is the most rapidly changing industry in the world. Computer magazines are a great source for keeping up with new developments. There are many good computer magazines, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Much magazine coverage overlaps; pick two or three magazines to read every month and make the time to read them.

Don't forget that most print magazines have online editions, and some excellent ones exist only online. These E-zines offer in-depth reviews and industry advice long before it appears in hardcopy publications.

Subscribing to a computer magazine usually means that your name will appear on a number of mailing lists that are sold to computer companies. If you can overcome sensitivity to privacy issues and tolerate junk mail, the ads that will begin to fill your mailbox offer another way to keep track of new products as they become available.

Technical Support

You might ask yourself why you need to get technical support if you are yourself an A+ Technician. The answer is simple: you can never know everything. The ability to use technical support wisely is part of your technical growth and part of staying on top. The unlimited technical support by phone that we once took for granted is rapidly disappearing. It is being replaced by limited technical support transmitted through e-mail and the Web. This means that increasingly we are expected to get the job done without direct support from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Technical support is out there, but it must be used wisely to be cost-effective.

Telephone Support

Many telephone-line support systems are geared toward novice and home users, not to knowledgeable, well-trained technicians, and many try to walk all callers through basic installation procedures. Patience is the rule when talking to someone at this level (who most probably had to complete a basic troubleshooting procedure required by their employers); that person must follow the rules and procedures of their company. Also, don't be blinded by how much you think you know. The individual providing phone support just might cover something that you missed or lead you in another, more fruitful, direction. If the problem remains unresolved, you'll usually have to convince support personnel to send you to the next level of support.

After you get to that next level, always ask the "level 2 technician" to give you the phone number for the direct technical-support line. Some technicians are reluctant to give out that number unless the caller promises not to distribute it and not to call about trivial matters. Every computer technician should build up a collection of technical-support phone numbers, including as many direct numbers that bypass the usual voicemail routing system as possible. The major drawback to technical-support lines is the amount of time callers spend on hold. Hold times of up to several hours are not uncommon. If you are going to rely on telephone support, invest in a speakerphone. You will need it.

It is a good idea to have the problem computer in front of you when you call. Often, you will be asked to follow some basic instructions while you are on the line with the technician. It is more believable to the technician to hear you describe the failure in real time, rather than simply telling the technician that you have already tried the recommended solution to no avail.

Online Support

Online technical support is becoming a better option. Most phone support today is free only to registered owners, and only for a limited time. If you want serious support, you will have to subscribe to a service or use a pay-as-you-go phone line. Checking the vendors' websites or online forums on commercial networks such as MSN often provides a solution without the need to contact the company. Many forums have libraries of technical support questions that have been posed about particular products. By searching these libraries, you can often get immediate answers to your questions. Some sites also have troubleshooting "wizards" that walk you through a diagnosis and solution to your problem. If not, post questions and hope for an answer, either from the OEM or from another user.

Remember, if support is essential to you and your OEM does not provide the level of service you need, you can always change OEMs (if you work in a large company, inform your supervisor of the problem). Before taking that step, tell the OEM you are considering another OEM and why. You could also point out that if the way you've been treated is typical of their service and support, you'll post it as a cautionary tale in a newsgroup or two.

Your Own Technical Support

As an A+ Technician, you will find technical support to be a two-way street. You will often find yourself giving technical support as well as receiving it. In these cases, the best advice is to remember what it is like to be on the other side and—most importantly—listen to your customer.

The Bottom Line

Often computer owners get so caught up in the excitement over new technology that they forget the reason they bought their computer in the first place. Whether it was to increase productivity in the office, provide an educational resource for the kids, play games, or access the Internet—if it is meeting their expectations, the rule should be "if it isn't broken, don't fix it!" Finding ways to get better performance from a computer is fine. But any time changes are made to a system that is already working properly, there is the chance it will not work at all (at least for some period of time).

While there is no reason to discourage customers from upgrading and enhancing the capabilities of their computers, keep in mind what they want their computers to do for them. If they use the family computer only for word processing, then perhaps the 386 will suffice until they have greater need for more complex applications. If the computer or software is too complex for the user, then it might as well be broken; it is not working properly—for that user.

Learning to interact with the people using computers is often underemphasized. Listen carefully to the end user—it's the most important part of the troubleshooting process. Remember, it is end users who determine your success or failure. They must feel that the computer is working for them, not that they are working for the computer.

These rules apply to both workplace and individual computer users. A good computer professional matches the computer with the job and the operator. It might be nice to drive a Ferrari, but does someone whose transportation needs are limited to a 35-mph speed zone, carpooling three kids, or hauling camping gear really need a Ferrari?

Tools of the Trade

Nothing is more important than having the right tools for the job. To be an effective computer professional requires owning four sets of tools:

  • Hardware Toolkit: Use this to take things apart and put them back together; also to build up a collection of screws, jumpers, cables, splitters, and other goodies that can save a trip to a supply store.
  • Software Toolkit: Use this to troubleshoot and correct operating systems, hardware, drivers, and application problems. These days, your software toolkit should also include good, routinely updated virus checkers. And include a bootable disk with key diagnostic and system files for each operating system you work with.
  • Technical Library: Use this to help you keep track of the ever-growing base of information and provide answers to "I never saw that before" problems.
  • Spare Parts: Keep these computer-system components—such as power supply and expansion card that can be easily replaced when you're on location—at hand.

Keeping track of technical information is always a problem. There is always too much to remember. It can be helpful to keep track of technical information and problem resolution by using a free-form note-taking and database system with searching and indexing capabilities. There are many software packages commercially available for this purpose; however, with a little creativity, you can create your own custom database.

Hardware and Software Toolkits

A good hardware and software toolkit is an important part of a technician's life. Lesson 1: Computer Disassembly and Reassembly of Chapter 14 covers the details of creating a basic toolkit. Only over time will you be able to perfect the contents of your toolkit. Your customer base (and the type of computers and software they use) will eventually determine the contents you need to carry. When creating your toolkit, remember two things:

  • The more tools you have, the more you will have to carry.
  • There is nothing more embarrassing than arriving on a job site without the tools to do the job.

Somehow—but only with experience—you will be able to overcome the contradiction inherent in these statements.

Technical Library

Keeping up with new developments in the ever-growing computer industry is a necessity. However, a good, old-fashioned technical library is also necessary—to keep up with the past. It is not uncommon to encounter an older machine that is still performing its assigned task but that has developed an ailment. It might not be cost-effective to replace the machine at this time, and you'll have to dust off the old books just to remind yourself what you used to do.

A technical library also helps keep up with the present. There are so many software and hardware packages in use that it is impossible to keep track of all the details. Further, many manufacturers no longer provide documentation. A good after-market reference manual can help. Check with your local computer/software stores and bookstores.

Not all the information in your library needs to be purchased. Keep a record of problems and their resolutions. Any time you need to download technical information from the Internet or assemble product documentation, file it for future reference. You never know when you might need it again.

If you do a lot of on-site troubleshooting, you should consider a notebook computer with a CD-ROM or DVD drive. You can take it with you to gain access to your searching/indexing software. There is even a version of a Web search engine that you can use to search for files on your own hard disk.

Spare Parts

As mentioned, it doesn't hurt to keep a few spare parts for testing purposes. When in doubt, exchanging a problematic part with a known-to-be working part will help you troubleshoot. Be careful to collect only parts that you're sure work. Exchanging a bad part with another bad part won't help the troubleshooting process and can even make matters worse.

Some suggested parts to keep on hand include the following:

  • Keyboard
  • Power supply
  • I/O card
  • Floppy drive
  • RAM
  • Network card
  • Variety of cables and connectors
  • Mouse
  • Video card


Troubleshooting is perhaps the most difficult task of a computer professional. After a problem has been diagnosed, there are usually several resources, or given procedures, available to correct the problem. Frequently, the problems as reported are really just symptoms, not the cause. To make matters worse, computers never fail at a convenient time. They fail in the middle of a job or when there is a deadline and the user must have the problem fixed now.

Troubleshooting is more of an art form than an exact science. However, to be an efficient and effective troubleshooter, you must approach the problem in an organized and methodical manner. Remember, you are looking for the cause, not the symptom. As a troubleshooter, you must be able to quickly and confidently eliminate as many alternatives as possible so that you can focus on the things that might be the cause of the problem. In order to do this, you must be organized.

Understanding the following five phases of troubleshooting will help you focus on the cause of the problem and lead you to a permanent fix.

Phase I: Define the Problem

The first phase is the most critical and, often, the most ignored. Without a complete understanding of the entire problem, you can spend a great deal of time working on the symptoms instead of the cause. The only tools required for this phase are a pad of paper, a pen (or pencil), and good listening skills.

Listening to the client or coworker (the computer user) is your best source of information. Don't assume that just because you are the expert, the operator doesn't know what caused the problem. Remember, you might know how the computer works and be able to find the technical cause of the failure, but the users were there before and after the problem started and are likely to recall the events that led up to the failure.

Ask a few specific questions to help identify the problem and list the events that led up to the failure. You might want to create a form that contains the standard questions that follow (and other questions specific to the situation) for taking notes.

  • When did you first notice the problem or error?
  • Has the computer been moved recently?
  • Have you made any changes to software or hardware?
  • Has anything happened to the computer? Was it dropped or was something dropped on it? Was coffee or soda spilled on the keyboard?
  • When exactly does the problem or error occur? During the startup process? After lunch? Only on Monday mornings? After using e-mail?
  • Can you reproduce the problem or error?
  • If so, how do you reproduce the problem?
  • What does the problem or error look like?
  • Describe any changes in the computer coinciding with the problem (such as noise, screen changes, lights, and so forth).

Phase II: Zero In on the Cause

The next step involves the process of isolating the problem. There is no particular correct approach to follow, and there is no substitute for experience. The best you can do is to eliminate any obvious problems and work from the simplest problems to the more complex. The purpose is to narrow your search down to one or two general categories. The following table provides 14 possible categories you can use to narrow your search.

Category Subcategory Symptom
Electrical Power Electric utility
Fuse box
Power supply
Power connectors
Dead computer.
Intermittent errors on POST.
Intermittent lockups.
Device not working/not found.
Connectivity External cables
Internal cables
Properly seated cards (chip/boards)
SCSI chain
Front panel wires (lights and buttons)
Device not working.
Device not found.
Intermittent errors on a device.
Boot Boot ROM
CMOS (chip and settings)
CMOS battery
Flash ROM
Dead computer.
Consistent errors on POST.
Beep errors.
CMOS text errors.
RAM, hard disk drive, floppy disk drive, video errors.
Memory DRAM—proper type and setup
DRAM CMOS settings
SRAM—proper type and setup
SRAM CMOS settings
Motherboard jumpers
Dead computer.
Parity errors.
GPF with consistent addresses.
HIMEM.SYS errors.
Mass storage Hard disk drives, floppy disk drives, CD-ROM drives, Zip drives, tape drives
File structure
Directory structure
Filenames and attributes
Error messages:
"Missing operating system"
"File not found"
"No boot device"
"Abort, Retry, Fail"
Input/output IRQ settings
I/O addresss
DMA settings
Serial port settings
Parallel port settings
SCSI settings
Card jumper settings
System locks up.
Device not responding.
Bizarre behavior from a device.
Operating system BUFFERS
FCBs (File Control Blocks)
Set statements
Paths and prompts
External MS-DOS commands
Multiboot CONFIG.SYS
Error messages:
"Missing operating system"
"Bad or missing command interpreter"
"Insert disk with COMMAND.COM"
"Stack overflow"
"Insufficient File Handles"
Applications Proper installation
Proper configuration
Knowledge of capabilities
Knowledge of bugs, incompatibilities, work-arounds
Application doesn't work properly.
Application-specific errors.
Application-specific GPFs.
Lock-up only in specific application.
Device drivers All devices in CONFIG.SYS, SYSTEM.INI, or Registry
Proper versions
Proper configuration
Device lockups on access.
Intermittent lockups.
Computer runs in safe mode only.
Memory management HIMEM.SYS settings
EMM386.EXE settings
MSDOS.SYS options (Win95)
Virtual memory
Windows resource usage
UMB management
"Not enough memory" error.
Missing XMS, EMS memory.
Device lockups.
GPFs at KRNL386.EXE.
Configuration/setup Files used for initialization
Basic layout of initialized files
Programs refuse to do something they should.
Missing options in program.
Missing program or device.
Viruses Virus-management procedures
Knowledge of virus symptoms
Virus-removal procedures
Computer runs slow.
Intermittent lockups.
Storage problems.
Operating-system problems.
Mysterious symptoms.
Operator Interface Lack of training/understanding
Fear of the computer
Poor attitude
"I didn't touch it!"
"It always does that!"
Multiple users.
Network Logon errors
Communication errors
User forgets password.
Expired password.
Cable or NIC card problems.
Be sure to observe the failure yourself. If possible, have someone demonstrate the failure to you. If it is an operator-induced problem, it is important to observe how it is created, as well as the results.

Intermittent problems are the most difficult ones to isolate. They never seem to occur when you are present. The only way to resolve them is to be able to re-create the set of circumstances that causes the failure. Sometimes, moving step-by-step to eliminate the possible causes is all you can do. This takes time and patience. The user will have to keep a detailed record of what is being done before and when the failure occurs. In such cases, tell the user to not do anything with the computer when the problem recurs, except to call you. That way, the "evidence" will not be disturbed.

For a totally random, intermittent problem, always suspect the power supply.

Phase III: Conduct the Repair

After you have zeroed in on a few categories, the process of elimination begins.

Make a Plan

Create a planned approach to isolating the problem based on your knowledge at this point. Your plan should start with the most obvious or easiest solution to eliminate and move forward. Put the plan in writing!

The first step of any plan should be to document and back up.

If possible, make no assumptions. If you must make any assumptions, write them down. You might need to refer back to them later.

Follow the Plan from Beginning to End

Once a plan is created, it is important to follow it through. Jumping around and randomly trying things can often lead to more serious problems.

Document every action you take and its results.

If the first plan is not successful (they won't always be), create a new plan based on what you discovered with the previous plan. Be sure to refer to any assumptions you might have made.

Repair or Replace

After locating the problem, either repair or replace the defect. If the problem is software-oriented, be sure to record the "before" and "after" changes.

Phase IV: Confirm the Results

No repair is complete without confirmation that the job is done. Confirmation involves two steps:

  • Make sure that the problem no longer exists. Ask the user to test the solution and confirm client satisfaction.
  • Make sure that the fix did not create other problems. You have not done a professional job if the repair has been completed at the expense of something else.

Phase V: Document the Results

Finally, document the problem and the repair. There is no substitute for experience in troubleshooting. Every new problem presents you with an opportunity to expand that experience. Keeping a copy of the repair procedure in your technical library will come in handy in a year or two when the problem (or one like it) occurs again. This is one way to build, maintain, and share experience.

Lesson Summary

The following points summarize the main elements of this lesson:

  • Learning doesn't stop with certification. To stay at the top of your profession, you must keep learning.
  • Staying connected with your peers is an important part of learning.
  • Maintain a proper set of the tools of the trade.
  • Know where and how to get technical support.
  • Good troubleshooting requires a plan. To be successful, you must stick to your plan.

Microsoft Corporation - A+ Certification Training Kit
Microsoft Corporation - A+ Certification Training Kit
Year: 2000
Pages: 127

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