Ruthlessly Helpful

Stephen Ritchie's offerings of ruthlessly helpful software engineering practices.

We are the Pakleds; You *are* smart!

As one of the weary consultants on a multi-year software development project for a major lending institution I observed what became known as the “Pakled-Customer Syndrome”. The Pakleds are a race of dimwitted aliens from Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), which are first seen in the “Samaritan Snare” episode (summary here). They co-opt the technology of other spaceships through manipulation, brainless praise and hostage taking. Responding in good faith to the Pakled distress call the Enterprise is ensnared by the Pakled’s intractable problems and pig-headed attitude.

In the TNG episode, the Pakled are characterized by the repeating of a few simple phrases. When the crew attempts to engage them in a dialog about their distress (e.g. Is your ship damaged?) the response is always; “Uh-hunh.” Diagnostic inquiry and problem-solving are met with; “It is broken…. Can you make our ship go?”, “Make our ship go”, “Will our ship go now?” Any perceived progress is met with oddly enthusiastic and sycophantic praise; “He is smart”, “You are brilliant”; but this turns out to be unproductive support and belies their hidden agendas.

On many projects the customer can be entrenched in their own Pakled-mindset and the project is soon mired in the resulting quicksand. As organizational behavioral dysfunctions, here is what characterizes the “Pakled-Customer Syndrome”:

  • Snare one: The customer takes no responsibility for understanding the problems they face: “it is broken”. Ultimately, project scope cannot be managed when there is no meeting of the minds on what are the larger tasks at hand.
  • Snare two: The customer cannot participate in their own treatment. Due to many surreal disconnects too many project resources are spent teaching the customer their own business; too few project objectives are being accomplished.
  • Snare three: The customer provides fake praise and misleading recognition. The project believes it is accomplishing worthy goals and that customer value is being created; it is not.
  • Snare four: The customer manipulates and ties up valuable resources. The more the project starts to unravel the more the Pakled-customer latches on to your team, drawing them deeper into their dysfunction.

At the heart of the “Pakled-Customer Syndrome” are the classic differences in expectations, especially around roles and responsiblities, that lead to conflict. In addition, there are implicit and hidden agendas which must be explicated before meaningful project progress can be made.


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