In the never-ending drive for quality and productivity, leading software companies, including SAP, Microsoft, HPE, Amazon, and Salesforce.com, have discovered a new source of overqualified and underemployed workers: people whose brains are wired differently than the average person. Everyone’s brain operates differently, and these companies hope to leverage the strengths in those differences to improve the software development process.
The best examples of neurodiversity advantage are currently in the field of autism employment. According to the CDC, one in every 68 births this year will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. The condition itself is very diverse, with varying degrees of impact, but we are beginning to understand it, not just as a disability, but for the special abilities it can enable.
Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre (and cousin of comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen), is a leading expert on autism. He believes we are all on a spectrum between systematic thinking (male dominated) and empathizing (female dominated). He argues that autism is an “outlier” toward systematic thinking, or an “extreme male brain,” a theory that is supported by the 4:1 ratio of incidence in men over women. He also believes that outliers may be more prevalent when both parents are engineers.
The lack of a “normal” amount of empathy explains why autism can lead to poor social instincts. Autistic people can be awkward and nervous in social situations, such as job interviews. While there is strong evidence that interviews do not accurately assess job success, most companies still use interviews (a social test) to assess job skills, even for software developers. These practices often lead to autistic job candidates being weeded out as “not a cultural fit.” As a result, unemployment is common among autistic college graduates.
But software companies, always looking to “turn a bug into a feature,” are discovering that adults with ASD can be a valuable part of the workforce, bringing unique skills and perspective to their organizations.
Some workers on the autism spectrum are able to focus longer on details and patterns and can outperform neurotypical people on repetitive tasks, like software QA, image analysis, or cybersecurity. HPE has developed a team of autistic security analysts who scan x-ray images for hazardous items (similar to TSA security screeners) on 30 minutes shifts, a 50 percent uplift from neurotypical employees, who only last about 20 minutes. While many neurotypical workers find this work exhausting, some workers with ASD like the consistency and clarity of these jobs. This skill is also valuable in identifying defects in software, websites, and graphic projects. Many companies, including HPE, ULTRA Testing, and Aspiritech, have demonstrated improved quality and productivity in software QA with an ASD workforce.
As you can imagine, systematic thinkers can see patterns and connections more easily, and this may explain why some individuals with ASD show improved performance in pattern recognition and data analysis. These skills are critical to “big data” and cybersecurity. HPE and Auticon in Germany have active programs using autistic workers in these areas. Interestingly, 30 percent of HPE’s cybersecurity team are women.
While some neurodiversity programs look for ASD workers with the patience for repetitive tasks, there are many examples of other jobs with more varied responsibilities. For example, SAP has successful neurodiverse employees in product management, human resources, and customer service.
As software companies integrate autistic employees into their workforce, they’re do so using well-established frameworks, including learnings from Specialisterne, a Danish non-profit foundation that’s developed assessment, training, and management methodologies for neurodiversity employment. The process often involves educating neurotypical employees about autism, helping them understand what to expect from their new colleagues, and coaching from neurotypical employees to help neurodiverse employees navigate their new work environment.
Companies are finding that having neurodiverse employees delivers other less obvious benefits too. Most of these companies report that these are extremely dedicated, loyal employees who bring positive effects on the morale and culture to their companies. HPE has seen a 98 percent retention rate among its ASD workers, much higher than baseline retention rates. Organizations report that when neurotypical employees are educated about autism, and work with neurodiverse employees, it inspires greater appreciation and dedication from everyone in the company. In the fiercely competitive market for talent, these workers love their jobs and help motivate their co-workers.
Why is the software industry at the forefront of neurodiversity hiring? First and foremost, most software executives know there are already scores of people on the autism spectrum in their companies. The industry is already accustomed to nerdy, awkward developers who code all night long or seem to have a “gift” for solving certain types of problems. Secondly, software companies appreciate that intellectual innovation and diversity are inherently linked. Ultimately, the best software products will come from gender diversity, racial diversity, and neurodiversity. It’s just easier to think outside the box if you already live there.
The neurodiversity programs in the software industry are a big step in the right direction, helping to deploy the significant skills of an often overlooked segment of the population and giving companies a real competitive edge. The programs pioneered by these companies have overcome numerous challenges, including identifying individuals with unique skills, integrating them into a neurotypical workplace, and accommodating their unique needs. Most of them understand they will learn faster if they “open source” their experiences and share their success stories. Last week, SAP hosted the second Autism at Work Summit, where executives from around the world compared notes and cross-pollinated their discoveries. We are just beginning to see the potential of benefits of neurodiversity, and the software industry is leading the way.
Brian Jacobs is Founder and General Partner at Emergence Capital.
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