Uncharted Waters

Aug 15 2016   11:45AM GMT

Neurodiversity in Tech – A Report from CAST2016

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

"diversity in tech"
"diversity in technology"
social inclusion

I got back from the annual Conference for the Association for Software Testing (CAST) last Thursday morning after catching a red eye flight from Vancouver, BC to Nashville. I am one of the tortured souls that are unable to sleep on overnight flights. I get glimpses of sleep here and there, but nothing long enough for it to feel like a real night. Recovering from the flight, and the energy spent at the conference gave me some time to reflect on the day 2 keynote on neurodiversity in technology from Sallyann Freudenberg.

Sallyann’s talk was powerful, bringing many audience members to tears during her presentation and then again during the Q&A segment at the end. It seemed that people in the audience were discovering things about people around, and themselves at the same time. There were two big messages in the talk — foster varied perspectives on your technology teams, and also nurture the variation you already have.

People that work in technology are usually a little bit, or a lot, different. Some of them tend toward the more introverted side of the human spectrum, some are sensitive to environmental stimulus like noise and light (ever seen a development room where it is normal for the lights to be off and the blinds closed?), and others live somewhere in the autism spectrum. We are rarely the life of the party, though. Working in technology desensitizes us to the amount of neurodiversity in tech.

Introversion and Autism

I am introverted most of the time. You won’t find me mingling at a party, or volunteering to do anything around a crowd of noisy people. Working in an open space office for example. Being more quiet than my team members was a barrier to advancement early in my career.Eventually I found that working from home is an ideal environment for me. I have quiet when I want it to think and work, and can reach out to people to talk when I need that. People that work in offices in offices do not have this choice.

In most office environments, the people that get noticed by leadership are the ones that not only do the work, but do it in a very visible way. People that would move to public spaces and have loud conversations about work were generally seen as more productive. This was even more true for the few people that were willing to do presentations to large groups about some aspect of a project. Extroverts were visible to leadership, but they weren’t necessarily the ones moving projects forward. Western societies seem to treat extroversion as a virtue. We prefer to hire these people, we give them raises faster, and they advance through the organization faster.

People on the autism spectrum have other challenges. According to Sallyann Freudenberg, autism is more common in STEM fields. Studies report that autism occurs more often in families where one or both parents have technical occupations, there are significantly autistic children in regions saturated with IT jobs like Palo Alto or Austin, autistic students are more likely to choose a field of study in STEM.

Wise organizations recognize and foster differences in neurodiversity as a tool for building stronger products and technology teams.  To say that open space offices are a distraction to introverts would be an understatement. The volume level, and general activity is a drain on productivity and energy. Offer these people a quiet place to retreat to when they need, or a permanent office, and I suspect you will see a productivity increase. For introverts, collaboration happens in the conversation gaps.

Bringing different personalities and perspectives into technology organizations will always be beneficial. This creates meaningful differences that help technical contributors create novel solutions and find important problems that might be hidden if everyone were to look at the product in the same way.

1  Comment on this Post

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  • PeteDeLeon122
    I am not sure, though I will digress, to say is this: Software has to be meeting many demands, with many introductions that come across the web.
    Believe me I am not technical advanced, at all, then what I see is more amazing than a set of instructional paths. I see a wave into the future, more than a Hologram. Life Itself!
    55 pointsBadges:

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