Tech, Neurodiversity and a Lot of Odd Angles…

Presented by Matthew Parker & David Atkinson at IT Matters Conference ONLINE

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These transcripts were generated by a machine and checked-over by a human for accuracy. Still, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

Hello, everyone,we've had just a few challenges trying to get all two presenters as well as Beron on at the same time. Unfortunately, we're unable to do so. So, Beron is now just an attendee, it looks like we've got Joanna as host, Are you there Joanna?Okay, so in the absence of anybody else, I think we're ready to get started. Excellent.

So I'm Matt and alongside David, my business partner, we will be taking a look at neurodiversity. This is a tech based angle, but the ideas and thought should be relatively transferable. So, David is going to start by taking you through a little bit of his journey, his, he'll give you a bit of a retrospective overview of his life and journey. And it'll also give you a perspective on your adversity as an actually autistic person. Then I'll pick up and we'll take you through the importance of considering neurodiversity when we're looking at to build accessible, inclusive and diverse products, finishing with a few specific examples of how the power of neurodiversity can add huge value to organisations, teams and products. So on that note, I'll pass it over to David.

Okay, good afternoon, everybody. I'm David and I'm autistic. This is me around about five years old, sat on my father's workbench in the UK. He was a Navy aircraft electronics technician and I was a fan of pork pies, thats a well known dish delicacy. Some 20 years later, after spending some time trying to settle on a career, which is another story in itself I found myself in the Royal Air Force Lucas in Scotland, and I was the officer in charge of grand communications and and navigation aids. This is before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Lucas played a major part in UK airspace defence against the Soviet Union at that time, it was the only UK air filled airfield in the north to maintain a permanent quickly reaction alerts or QRA. And this was to launch a couple of fighter jets on Minutes standby, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. So we're always on alert. So I have an important and responsible job. I was 26 years old, leading a team with 50 technicians. My responsibilities were to keep all the ground electronics working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That included the Plessy AR-1 Approach Radar, this was the eyes of our local controllers. So what is this got to do with neurodiversity or autism? If you asked me then I wouldn't have known at all I only found out I'm autistic a year and a half ago and that's well over 30 years later. So let me continue. Okay, this is a system diagram with the radar the top section is the radar scanner and the cabbie below it the bottom section sits within the air traffic control tower to the right. This is fine when the cabin and tower are close together. As in the picture. However, at RAF Lucas the distance between the radar head and the control tower was about one and a half kilometres, everything to keep that system operational pass through a single 100 plus pair cable buried in the ground. It wasn't nicely colour coded like the one in the picture in the centre. Every single pair was dirty white, with very few distinguishing marks a bit like the smaller cable also shows. One Saturday morning about 11 o'clock. I was just leaving for a shopping trip with my wife and the phone rang. Sir, said one of my team I think he better come in. The radar has stopped turning. I drove immediately out to my office by the control tower and the duty technicians are waiting, Landrover engine running. There's been an incident so was I was told we drove out toward an open spot in the middle of the airfield and I was told laborer's digging a trench for some communications cabling had put a spade through the cable connecting the radar to the tower. The radar stopped and air traffic control and flight operations were not happy people. When we arrived on scene, the site the scene was not dissimilar to this, two men with thick Irish accents. Looking a lot like the dishevelled workers in the picture here, sat in the trench. Each has an end of the cable. Now I was told they had come across what looked like an old fashioned waxed paper wrapped cable about five or six centimetres in diameter. They assumed it was old and disused, so proceeded to dig through it with the pickaxe and the spade. I looked across to where the radar stood motionless. Look back to the tower picture in the panic and anxiety setting in amongst the duty controllers. And I look back to my technicians who returned my look expectantly. It was up to me. I looked at the labourers sat in the trench holding the cable. And as I registered their hands working, as we talk, they were each pairing off individual wires sorting through the ragged, dirty ends. These were labourers but my instincts my senses were translating data as information. I instinctively processes soon before me. I said to the two laborer's, more statement and the question, you know what you're doing? They nodded. I said, do it. My technicians looked at me and they're a bit perplexed. I said, let's go back to the office. In less than two hours, our radar was hot and turning once again, the full capability of the airfield is stored repaired by two labourers, many would not have given a second thought to. Had I followed the protocol for such an event, I would have declared a major outage on the airfield, I would have called in our regional repair team from the south of England, knowing the repair was beyond our capability. We would have been offline non operational for two days at least. If an anecdote is a story with a point, what's the point I'm trying to make here? So little known to me at the time, my autistic brain had been working on another level, focused on the problem without social bias, prejudice or preconceptions, I was able to see the solution before me, I was able to shut out the potential distraction of the many voices of concern around me with my technicians or potential senior officers, air traffic controllers and pilots, they would not have seen it, I was able to look beyond the appearance of what was in front of me to understand what it was that I was actually seeing, not what I thought I saw, I was able to see the solution to the problem way before anybody else. Not many years after the radar incident, I found myself as one of the Royal Air Force's leading IT and software engineers after the airfield at Lucas, I've spent two years learning Unix, Fortran and a whole bunch of other systems and computing stuff. I'd set up a team of over 20 Air Force technicians supporting software for Skynet 4 which is the UK military satellite communication system, and part of part of NATO's communications. And I was the first person to do that. There was no instruction book. It turns out my autistic brain is pretty good at working stuff out from common sense and logic. By 1991, I was the MOD software, thats the Ministry of Defense's software specialist, witnessing a subcontractor test for the handover of a new spacecraft telemetry control software for our satellites. British Aerospace was the prime contractor, and we were about a week into two weeks of full on test schedules. In a progress meeting, I asked the subcontractor what time early this morning Did you recompile the code? I can't find details in the test log. The British Aerospace manager immediately stopped the meeting and I was asked to leave the room. I stood outside in the corridor like a naughty child at school. There were a lot of raised voices in the room at that point. Then the door opened and the British Aerospace manager came out. David, we have a problem. He said, we don't know what to do the subcontractor did an unauthorised rebuild of the main system about 2am this morning. I know I said. Again, I didn't know about my autism then. But now I know that my innate ability to spot patterns in seemingly unrelated facts is one of my autistic strengths. Just like spotting the patterns before me in the muddy cable trench in a middle of an air field. It's fine. I told British Aerospace. They thought they could sweep it under the carpet. They know they can't, they won't do that again. I said I'm happy to continue. British Aerospace thank me. As my expertise pushed me up the ladders of technical competence within the Air Force I was let down by my relatively poor social performance amongst my peers, my fellow offices, I found it hard to mix socially. I could do it to a point but it wasn't easy or natural. It was hard work pretending to be someone I thought I should be. I had proven ability to solve problems. However, for high recommendations for promotion on technical merit were overturned by senior officers who didn't like aspects of my character I just didn't fit in. I now understand my difficulties are related to the social weaknesses that go along with my artistic strength around the late 1990s when leaving the Air Force, I seemed okay at getting shortlisted for instance, something really interesting interviews, like the role of Project Manager at CERN for the building of the then new particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. I was on a shortlist of three for that job. my CV has always had some interesting stuff on it. However, my last ever full year of full time paid employment occurred in 1999. That was over 20 years ago.

I've interviewed with consultancies, like the rates and grant Thornton's and others in the UK only to be told I have no relevant commercial experience. And now read that as a code for I wasn't seen to be a good cultural fit with their teams. While I haven't technically passed a job interview since 1980, I have been a Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer and I've employed other people. I've also gained a PhD when I was told the subject I wanted to study, the art of management, was probably not possible. My PhD did what I set out to do and won two international awards for excellence, and was published as a monograph by Palgrave Macmillan. I solve problems, I overcome difficulties. It's what I do. I don't let things like not having a job or upsetting some people get in the way of what I set out to do. If there are no problems, we might all sit back and relax, we might view our lives from our perspective, we might have the luxury of joining with like minded and culturally cohesive well contrive teams, we might set out to achieve a utopian ideal. We know we can do, as long as we don't face problems, as long as all goes to plan. I've sat in the recruitment chair, myself as an employer and a headhunter. I think the situation where we select people on some notion of cultural fit, rather than from any present ability to solve problems is itself problematic. The world around us seems to be throwing more problems than ever at us on an increasing basis. I believe the current recruitment protocols merely self select mediocrity. And I don't mean this in a pejorative sense, rather mediocre is the ordinary, the commonplace and norm of existence. When we empirically identify types and characteristics, we measure countless examples of that type, we draw statistical distributions and determine what the median the norm the average for that type. When we do this, so that when we look for it in the future, we can find it suggests that this is sort of represented representation, but the neurotypical population, the mean, the average, anything that doesn't resemble that mean exists in the realm of two or three standard deviations either side of it, those things are different messages. This is representative of the neurodivergent all different from the norm to IQ tests EQ test, Belbin team scores, psychometric testing many other instruments rely on evidence based statistical means, this is what I mean by self selecting mediocrity designing our ideal culturally coherent teams. If we look for and select some particular thing, on the basis of a mean we will get what we look for, we will not see the unusual or different or the richness of variety that sits outside even one standard deviation from that mean. collectively we share a problem and it may be a sweeping generalisation but in the UK, for example, the open University's 2018 business barometer show that organisations spent over 6 billion pounds on temporary workers recruitment fees, inflated salaries and extra training, all as a result of a lack of the actual skills required for today's problematic, volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. This is the VUCA world we hear people talk about. Having now been diagnosed as autistic. I believe most people don't consider looking beyond the plus or minus one standard deviation from their ideal, they miss the richness that lies beyond. Ultimately, this is what Matthew and I are Looking to deal with diversity is to create a platform that will help shake things up a bit, helping people to have honest conversations about widening opportunity to a whole host of thinking from all angles, including employment opportunity for the neurodiverse of all sorts in freelancing, employment and enterprise in general. So thank you, Matt, I'll hand over to you at this point.

Just came down, my clicking hand ready. Okay, so my journey of neurodiversity is slightly different from David's, my journey was inspired by my autistic son Thomas, as you can see in the picture, and Thomas was diagnosed as autistic age four. So we were fortunate, we got a lot of advice early on, and we were able to pivot his learning, and focus on what was works best best for him. Solet's start by having a quick look at accessibility. My background is software, specifically software testing. And as we know, technology is everywhere. My son uses technology. We all use technology, you'd struggle to use live in a world this world without being able to use technology. A lot of companies rely on a wide diverse satisfied customer base, and is critical to their bottom line. But more important than that accessibility drives inclusive and diverse products. And those those products benefit a wide range of people in their daily lives. When we talk about accessibility, it's not just about disabilities, we're talking about diversity. My definition of accessibility has always been opening doors that shouldn't be closed, and removing barriers that shouldn't shouldn't exist. So when we start in the context of neurodiversity, we need to find that start point. And I always say that the web content accessibility accessibility guidelines are always a good starting point. don't discount them. But they are not the complete picture, especially when we're looking at neuro diversity.

So my starting point tends to be emotional accessibility, someone's emotional response to a product? Well, that might be when they first go into the product, what their initial reaction is. Is it too busy? Is anything over stimulating? When the first load that up? We will have an emotional response, whether we're conscious of it or not. So when we're using software, how does it make us feel? There might be triggers in there that make us feel uncomfortable or frustrated. A lot of that might be usability. So is it intuitive. We need to break open a user guide just to be able to get through to work our way through the product. And expectations. We always go into using products with with a set of expectations. Again, whether we know it or not, we haven't pre predetermined expectations based on experience. Things like is the new navigation familiar? Is it something we've used before other pop ups that are thrown while we're in the middle of doing something? It's performance what we would expect. So where when we're talking about inclusive products, I'm going to I'm going to start by looking at few things that it's worth avoiding. Or if you can't avoid them, maybe consider how we can we can do better. And so unexpected delays are touched on in the previous slide. We should try and avoid these or limit these as much as possible. However, if we can't limit them, then we should look at maybe what how we can continue communication during those delays, how we make sure people know what's happening. For Thomas as an example, am unexpected little delay can be a stimulant that can really can result in ultimately anger, frustration and panics. And if he gets into a state of panic, then we will we're talking about a product that is potentially unusable for him. And is there any time sensitivity? Do we need time sensitivity? Now that might be around? completing purchases? It might be around offers or logging in? Do they need to be time sensitive? Can they be longer time periods? Is the consistency on the site consistent as a big usability factor? Things like navigation colour schemes? Do we know are we using the same navigation experience throughout the site? Is the colour scheme now consistent throughout the site or do we feel like we're potentially on a different page altogether a different site altogether, partway through that experience. Contexts So we should avoid assuming context for people to be using this. And many autistic people have something called context blindness. They struggle with understanding specific concept context, an example for my son, an early example was, we use the phrase "good to go" a few times when we were going out, "are you good to go?" Now he associated "good to go", or go with going home at the end of the day. So when we talked about "good to go", he often responded with but I don't know, I don't want to go I haven't finished yet. Jargon. And excessively complex language can be really frustrating when you're using a site. It's always it's always important that we keep text clear, non ambiguous. And I've always said be functional and clear, not fluff, not fancy.

Okay, we've talked about what was a few things that might be best avoided, but what about some things that might improve we can, we can ensure we do to improve the inclusiveness of products. neurodiverse people ultimately, like all of us are individuals. So you can't you can't look at one universe person and and say, there'll be the same have the same experiences another, you know, diverse person. So we need to think about diversity and provide options. Providing personalization on products, like things like turning advert pop ups, video content, on or off, is important. A lot of people talk about the power of visuals for for neurodiverse people. And again, that is, visuals can be a really powerful aid. But it's not an absolute. Some people still prefer written content. So use both, give them options. Don't rely on catching accessibility issues and testing. And this is one that I'm sure Baron or attest to, in testing in general, build things in from the start, consider inclusive how inclusive products and ideas and designs are, before we start building.

Finally, we look at when we're looking at inclusivity, we have to include people in that people are going to be using these products. So we need to include them in the journey. So if we want to include people, how can we do that? I mean, how do you know that you're building an inclusive environment? And where do you look at look up to do that? Especially when we're talking about neuro diversity. So there are some external companies, they're a good, a good option for some people. consultancy and services, places like Autocon exceptional testing in Australia, Specialisturn in who were across the world. It's likely within your companies that there are already existing neurodiverse people. That may be people who are known to the company and disclosed that then you're adverse. It may be people who either haven't disclosed that they're neurodiverse or don't even know themselves that the neurodiverse as David said, he didn't realise until a lot later in life that he was autistic. But ultimately, if you're struggling to identify neuro-diverse people, because we can't just go and ask people, are you autistic? Are you neuro-diverse. ultimately getting people involved is in creating variants in different perspective is going to increase increase diversity. And there's a good chance that in that in those people, you'll be including neuro diverse people. Look at hiring. So if we want to get people through the door, we need to make sure that diversity is built into the way we hire. I'll go into more detail in a moment. But ultimately, we need to consider if we've got any biases that we may be unaware of biases that may discourage neuro diverse individuals to to either apply or home or force them to struggle, put them in a position where they struggle. Hiring is only one part of the story. For neuro diverse people to thrive, organisations have to be accessible. We need to build teams to achieve success and avoid disengagement. We need neurodiverse individuals within teams to be able to achieve our full potential. Great, so how do we actually include how do we make sure we've got inclusive teams? We want to we want to build inclusive teams, what does that look like? So some of the key factors that I've talked about and this isn't an all inclusive list by any stretch of the imagination, it's just a few examples. So meetings, meetings can be really, really powerful and you can get a lot of valueout to meetings. But look at those meetings. Do they encourage input from everybody? Do they encourage engagement for everybody? Do they provide opportunity for everybody to input? And also, do we empower people who want to avoid engaging with their meetings to find a different way of inputting? Are they met, well spaced? If overcrowded meetings can make people uncomfortable? And if people are uncomfortable, they're a little less likely to engage? Do they get broken into manageable time chunks? And are we using meeting rooms that are located in areas that are away from visual and audible distractions? communication is a massively important factor in any team. But we need to make sure that communication is flexible. There's a lot of people who talk about best practice in communication. But but it's taken that concept of good practice in different contexts rather than best practice applied everywhere. Remember, it's a message that's important, not how we deliver it. Som autistic people I've spoken to struggle with the concept of stand-ups, for example. So can we support them? Can we find different ways to help them engage in a stand-up, maybe pairing them with somebody who can give an update for them, so they're not put on the spot. and avoiding when we're communicating avoiding things like hints and implied messages, maybe avoiding things like sarcasm.

At the end of the day, misleading and miscommunication or misunderstood communication is going to lead to cross lines. We need to look at look at the environment. Is the environment suitable? open plan offices have a lot of value, but can also create overwhelming experiences for some people. Can we create safe spaces away from away from the hustle and bustle of the day to day office? Hot desks are quite popular, especially while people are working from home some days and going and others will some people find some people really struggle with that idea. And they prefer something comfortable and familiar routine of going into the office in the same location every day. Keeping working spaces away from communal areas, things like kitchens and other distractions that might stimulate through noise or smell. Looking at personal development, and I know, Baron asked a question in relation to this. So it's about understanding individuals. And if you've got neuro diverse individuals in your team, understanding what how they how they think and how they work, what are the what are the areas of excellence? And what are their limitations? Try not to push people down the route of trying to approve every area that they struggle with, it may not be possible. Do they have interests in growth? Or do they do they see growth in the same way that everybody else does. growth can be a deep dive in a specific area and being the the go to person who knows everything about one person, one particular thing. But for those who find focusing on a single area more more challenging. Sometimes that can be it can be better for them to to have a variety in their development plan. But we need to think about individuals and work with individuals. Finally, acceptance inclusion. So sell the fact that you are trying to drive acceptance in in inclusion, get people in get coaching, there's a lot of coaching groups out there who who draw who can give coaching around New neuro diverse, friendly environments. Tell people that you're you're you're creating these environments, talk to people in teams, talk to them about their awareness of who may be in their team. And some people can make minor adjustments and make a whole difference to somebody else's working life. Think about bodying so some of the challenges around going into a new company can be in finding ways of engaging with people. So how do we start getting people? How do we put somebody with the right person, the appropriate person to to help them to engage better.

But ultimately, if we want to get there, we can have inclusive environments but we've got to get people through the door we need need hiring to be inclusive. So we need to look at job adverts. That our first line of attack when we're trying to bring somebody in. Do we focus on necessary skills? Don't pad advert out with unnecessary skills don't go down the journey of of adding everything you can think of when it's not relevant to the job. Things like 'good communication skills' is subjective. Somebody who thinks that they've got 'average communication skills' might not apply. Instead of 'good team player', maybe try willing to work with colleagues. interviews, avoid panels things, Try and focus on a small number of people maybe one to one where possible, is there an option to allow supporters to come in with interviewees. One example I've seen that's been really powerful is providing is where we have to have an interview situation is providing the first four to five questions in advance and allowing somebody to prepare on those in an in a job, you're generally you'll have the opportunity to prepare, and you can go and access information. So why not provide that opportunity within an interview? Make sure that the process is clear and defined and include things like support and directions to get there maps, pictures of landmarks, entrances and things like that can be really powerful and, and put somebody at ease before they even got there. And look at alternatives. Is it important that they go or be able to interview to be able to do the job? interview is a very specific skill. And it's really good for some people, and other people really struggle with it. Can we use skills based tests to prove that somebody can do the job without having to put them on the spot? Things like job trials and placements? Can they prove it without? Can they go and do the job and show that they can do the job taking the pressure away, and then maybe an informal coffee to take the pressure away in a chat, you might get better engagement in an interview and disclosure. So when we're whenever we're talking about disclosure, this is one of the biggest factors for when people are going for jobs of the people that I've spoken to and I've done a number of meetups talks, a number of meetups, over 60% of around 200 people that I've spoken to said that they don't disclose because they're worried it will affect their chances. So can we can we sell that the company is neurodiverse, friendly? Can we put them at ease where they feel comfortable having that conversation? And can we expand that search to look at neuro diverse to go out and look for neurodiverse groups, so that we're ultimately expanding our network that we're trying to find? Get people applying from? There are a lot of groups out there that haven't gotten a number of neuro diverse people. So engaging the neuro diverse community directly shows that you've got common confidence that you are in an equal opportunity employer.

Right, so we've talked about accessibility. But what are we really want to end on here is the value of neurodiversity to companies. It's not a superpower, but it can be a superpower. Neurodiversity is ultimately not neurological diversity. And there's a reason that diversity forms part of the word net part of that neurodiversity word. I can't give you a blow, blow by blow account of everything that you will get from a neurodiverse person and a team. But I can give you a few examples. So there's been a lot of studies : hard working traits, a driver productivity. So ASD employees have generally found, and this is across several pilot studies, that [ companies have generally found across a number of sub pilot studies] that ASD employees outperformed your typical employees for work hard work and productivity. Also, pattern recognition and memory. Generally, aid learning and analysis and this is quite common in neurodiverse people.

So, JP Morgan's autism at work programme, a guy named Anthony Sileo. Talked about an individual that was that they were trying they were interviewing. This guy had no Java programming experience. They interviewed him on the Friday. He didn't know Java, but he said he learned it by the Monday. And sure enough, he came back after a few books and YouTube tutorials and by Monday he was profecient enough to get the job. Rational decision making and in different ways of thinking tend to result in less cognitive bias and drive innovation. And SAP have have talked about this in a few research programmes that are out there. So SAPs autism at work programme. They talked about how people who see things differently have made massive impact. And people who don't easily fit seamlessly tend to change the direction that the company looks in. And as a big company, it means that not everybody is looking in the same direction. Finally as a society, it's really valuable to us. So David touched on this already, but reducing the cost of owner underemployment in that neurodiverse group is going to save us money. An example study found that lifetime economic cost of the support of under unemployment for neurodiverse people is around 1.4 to 2.4 million per person. That is an awful, awful big cost to society that if we can work on, on driving inclusivity. And diversity in the way we hire, and the way we retain staff will save us a lot of money in the long run. There are a lot of other figures out there that you'll be able to find. And on that note,we come to the end of the slides.

So myself and David are passionate about this very important personal reasons. So much so that we came together and we started Diversitas. Our aims are quite simple, provoked promoting the value in neurodiversity, improving opportunities for neurodiverse community, and helping grow greater greater diversity and inclusion across theacross the whole community. I'd advise you to keep your eyes open, because Diversitas, we're hoping to go live very soon, we've got some beta testing. So if anybody's interested in getting involved to help us early on with that, and just just having a look at the site for us and [getting some] giving us some feedback, go taking some of those things we want to lead from the front. So taking some of those examples I talked about around accessibility, the more people we can get looking at that. Those early examples of the sort of their platform, the better we will come out at the end. And the more diverse the product is going to be. You can follow us on LinkedIn, and Facebook. And if you want any more information, drop us a line the emails there. Thank you.

About the talk

We will be looking at neurodiversity and how it fits into the Tech industry. A brief experience report, where the industry is now and how we can revisit our approach to inclusion within teams. Looking at how accessibility, open doors and improved lines of communication can create opportunities for teams to grow and to realise the value of neurodiversity.

About Matthew Parker

Matthew is a dynamic systems test specialist and consultant, with over 19 years software experience, 17 of which spent working in testing and quality management roles. Matthew has a passion for building, coaching and growing teams to be innovative and free thinking with a focus on continual improvement. In addition, Matthew, who has an autistic child, has a passion for fighting for improvements in autistic employment and software accessibility. His current focus is very much on driving acceptance and inclusion for the neurodiverse community.

Photo of Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker

About David Atkinson

Following an early career as a commissioned officer and chartered engineer in the Royal Air Force, David has established several businesses in sectors including the recruitment, finance, hospitality and FMCG(food). In 2012, he divested himself of his interest in an Insurance-broker consolidator and set up an award-winning food and hospitality business. David holds a post graduate qualification in accounting and finance, a PhD in Critical Management, and has a passion for solving big problems David takes a creative approach to business, with a passion for identifying opportunities and innovating solutions. He received a formal assessment as autistic in 2019 and has put his acute conceptual, systems and analytical skills to use in looking at addressing the opportunity challenges for the neurodiverse community.

Photo of David Atkinson

David Atkinson

You Got This is a network of community conferences focused on core, non-technical skills coordinated by Kevin Lewis.