Harvesting Brain Power – The Gift of Neurodiversity in Tech

JUNE 9, 2016 // By Ramona Maxwell

As an employee of a company who is conscientious about designing software solutions that are accessible to a wide range of users, I was pleased to attend a Microsoft hosted event May 7th at their Technology Center in Mountain View, California, titled ‘Neurodiversity in the High Tech Workforce.’ Per their description, ‘Neurodiversity is a worldwide movement that maintains learning differences such as dyslexia, autism to be a variation of human brain wiring. Neurodiversity emphasizes this spectrum of brain function in all humans and suggests that to better understand the perspectives of those around us, we should not only try to see the world though their eyes, but understand it through their brains.’

Tech employers, in Silicon Valley and nationwide, were both the target audience and key presenters. Heavy emphasis was placed on the difficulty such employers have obtaining, and then retaining top engineering talent. A Silicon Valley native since childhood, Jan Johnston-Tyler whose consulting company EvoLibri provides employment and life skills services to neurodiverse teens and adults, noted mental diversity was common among the early innovators that created many of the technical companies that have grown into today’s large corporations. Her observation was that a sharp change ensued at those companies following the dotcom crash of the late 90’s, as hiring managers became much less tolerant of unique personality traits accompanying creative genius.

The keynote presenter, José Velasco, who is the head of the Autism at Work Program, U.S. at SAP and also their VP Product Management, highlighted the success SAP has had with a global initiative specifically targeting the inclusion of a neurodiverse population into the overall SAP workforce. This program began with an initial target of 1% of all employees, which translates to at least 650 employees worldwide.

The program claims some dramatic successes, beginning with a 95% retention rate of participants with most of the small remainder who left SAP doing so for ‘better jobs’, rather than an inability to adapt to the work culture. From the interview process through onboarding, key steps were taken to assure the success of individuals hired. Common challenges to neurodiverse people when seeking employment through traditional channels is that some methods of evaluating candidates have nothing to do with technical acumen, for instance smiling and making good eye contact with an interviewer. The SAP process circumvents common stumbling blocks by focusing first on the attributes that qualify an individual to perform their job function, and then providing support to assure they will be successful at SAP.

New hires within the program have a current SAP employee as a mentor, and their mentorship extends beyond job function to include pleasant association outside of work hours. This type of hands-on assistance can discover functional issues – such as a person who can write computer code for 12 hours straight but forget to eat! During a structured support period of approximately six weeks the new employee’s comfort zone is first established for their individual role, then within the context of their team and lastly within the company as a whole. There can be stress when the new employee transitions out of this initial safety net, but by that time they have also learned to place a focus on meeting objectives and are allowed to do so in a way that fits their thinking style.

Numerous examples were provided; one individual who had been unemployed for three years prior to joining the program was invited to speak at the UN a year and half after joining SAP. Another found and corrected a gap in SAP’s online documentation, their post garnered 1.3 million hits on the SAP support site. A third, underemployed for 13 years, won a Silicon Valley hackathon within a year of joining SAP. Most impressive was a follow-up experience provided directly by a SAP employee who said he would ‘start with the happy ending’ that he is now ‘doing a job I’m very good at.’ He had been the person who ‘did all the tech heavy lifting’ in a successful business, along with caregiver for his parents and other older relatives. After the trauma of losing not only his parents, but also the business partner who was the ‘people person’ that brought in work, siblings and close friends within a three-year period, he succumbed to depression leading to hospitalization and homelessness. Someone from an autism support group carried his resume for a year and ‘never forgot’ him, leading to his eventual connection with the program at SAP.

Sarah Herrlinger, Senior Manager, Special Markets at Apple Inc., presented on how Apple products are ‘designed for the margins, not the masses.’ She opened with a video that absolutely required tissues to watch, showing a young gentleman eloquently expressing himself via text to speech on an iPad as to how for many years his parents and others had expressed love and support to him, and until now he had no means to communicate that he felt the same. He went on to articulate more about how he experiences the world, revealing a deep intellectual capacity which would likely have remained undiscovered without the mining tools provided by adaptive technology.

While Apple has not caught up with SAP in their hiring practices, they consider accessibility to be part of their ‘company DNA.’ When Ms. Herrlinger is asked how large the team designing adaptive technologies is at Apple her stock answer is ‘about 125,000’, i.e. all of Apple’s employees. Apple’s approach is multi-modal thus visual, kinesthetic and auditory processing challenges are all considered. However, it also extends beyond sensory disabilities to include learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and even vestibular (motion) handicaps. She asked ‘how will you design a touch screen for someone who cannot touch?’ when outlining some of the engineering challenges Apple faces. Thought has been given to everything from assuring the iPad layout follows a predictable grid to preventing accidental deletion of apps and audible screen input fields. The iPad has been a game changer in the particular area of removing the stigma of adaptive technology that is clunky and obviously a medical device. Instead, it’s the same device everyone uses, adapted to the individual’s needs.

Another presenter, Michael Bernick, counsel at Sedgwick LLP (who is author of The AUTISM Job Club along with Richard Holden) spent some years with California’s Employment Development Department working in the field of disability employment. He cited a discouraging fact that overall disability employment figures are worse than before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. He estimates that only 30-40% of people in the autism spectrum [AS] are currently employed despite ‘an acknowledged competitive advantage for AS candidates in tech.’ Nonetheless, he notes that many autistic people do not have tech skills. For those job seekers, many of the same strategies that are successful for IT candidates can be applied. Those include finding a job coach or mentor, taking a creative approach to networking rather than relying solely on online job portals, to use the Workforce Investment Act 503 incentives when appropriate and most of all - to persist in the face of setbacks.

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Categories // General
Tags // Neurodiversity, SAP

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