When I bought my first car I didn’t have much money to spend so as a lot of teenagers do, I bought a “beater” car for less money than I’ve spent on one tire on my newest car. It did what I wanted it to do at the time; get me from point A to point B on my own schedule and without having to rely on my older brothers to take me places. I had freedom, but that freedom came with a price. The car was constantly breaking down.
The Old Man
My Dad (furthermore referred to as Homer, which has been my name for him since the first episode of The Simpsons) has always been a car guy. From the time I was a small child until I was in my mid-teens he owned a couple of gas station / repair shops in nearby towns. In his free time and on weekends he would often repair cars at the house and he also had a gift for paint and body work. To this day the small of “putty” (an automotive repair agent often used to patch small imperfections such as dings and small dents) still sends me straight back to our oversized cinderblock-lined garage where I would watch him make fenders, doors, and quarter panels perfectly straight.
As a young child there is a sense of pride in having the Dad in town that is known as the guy to go to if you needed a diagnosis of your car troubles. Between repairing cars and repainting / restoring them, my childhood was filled with memories of some really cool classic muscle cars lining our driveway.
People would stop by the house and say “I have this weird sound” and Homer would go to work. He would ask them what it sounded like, when it would happen, what made it happen and what made it go away. He would talk to them for a good five minutes before he even looked at the car or had them start it up. After he gathered the information he would walk them through a series of tests and more times than not he would identify the problem within the first couple of minutes of testing.
I had a long string of troublesome cars to be honest. When I first started driving I wanted to be just like Homer. The problem was, I didn’t know the first thing about how he did it. The first time I ran into a problem he came out and ran the routine by me, asking me questions about when it made the sound, what I was doing, etc. But this time he turned it around on me. He started asking me how to diagnose it. He had the knowledge and history to know that I had a loose lifter in the engine, but he didn’t give me the answer right away. He walked me through it until I came up with the answer on my own, a good 30 to 40 minutes later. During that time I had some other theories of what could be wrong, but instead of telling me I was right or wrong, he said “ok, let’s look at that and see if that’s the problem.” When that wasn’t the problem he would explain to me why it didn’t make sense that my theory wasn’t correct.
Homer had gained all of his knowledge from doing everything himself or with a group of friends. He didn’t have someone available to him to simply walk up and tell him the answer and fix it for him. He also knew that I wouldn’t learn anything if I didn’t learn to figure things out on my own either. The first time I was faced with a large project (replacing a transmission), I went in the house to ask for help. He was sitting in the living room watching TV. I asked him if he would help me and he said “You can figure it out.” I’m sure he was exhausted after a long day of working on cars and just wanted a few minutes to relax, but I was mad because I thought he didn’t want to help. He told me to get the car ready and get it secured. Then get under the car, look around, and figure out step by step what needs to happen for the transmission to come out of the car. When I needed help or hit a roadblock I was to come get him. I only went to him with a couple of questions and I got the transmission out by myself.
More beaters followed and I soon found that I could troubleshoot to a certain point and then go ask him for help. I was helping some of my friends with problems they had with their cars. I would troubleshoot up to a point and then get stuck and go ask him for help. More times than not I would tell him the situation, he would ask questions and I would answer them because I had already performed that test and he would narrow down the problem within a couple of minutes and tell us what the issue was with almost 100% accuracy. ‘
I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of those lessons that he taught me about cars helped me become a pretty good desktop support guy. I could quickly diagnose problems and find the right people to fix the problem. As I learned more and more about computers, networks, and servers I soon found I was now fixing a lot of the problems as well.
I remember sitting in a troubleshooting workshop and going through the exercises with other staff members. Every point that was made took me back to the lessons that Homer taught me about cars. I realized that I was good at it because he taught me a skill that I can apply to anything. The basic skills of troubleshooting are universal. I still use these skills every day at work, on our house as I do a remodel / expansion, or my “fun” car in the garage.
Thanks Homer, for teaching me “how” to think and not just “what” to think. And he’s still at it to this day…