Neurodiversity is your, my, and our unfair advantage
Who knew? Who knew that what I phonetically understood for 30 years as “escape goat” was actually “a scapegoat,” and that people I converse with are not also processing three other mental threads at the same time.
I am Chris Riley and I live with hypomania and two superpowers: ADHD and dyslexia. My days are filled with rapid-fire thoughts, vanishing nail tips, darting eyes, and writings plagued with typo shame. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my neurodiverse mind.
I am just one of many neurodivergent tech professionals, and my goal here is nothing more than to create awareness. I call on everyone to embrace the beautiful world of diverse minds – to reduce stigma and unlock talent.
“Normal Sucks” is the only book that has ever made me cry. Jonathan Mooney challenges the assumption that normal is even a thing, and documents how “normal” as a social metric in the form of IQ and standardised testing, etc. was created specifically to isolate and suppress neurodiversity.
“I wonder if we recognize the irony of telling people to act normal, because to act is to perform a role that isn’t real. And I wonder if we truly understand what it does to a human being to tell them to pretend to be someone, or something, they are not, and how this demand requires people to repress, efface, and cover up who they really are.” ― Jonathan Mooney, Normal Sucks
By eschewing “normal,” neurodiversity can be seen and appreciated for what it is. “Neurodivergent” is not a badge to be pinned on anyone who is perceived as quirky, weird, intense, and distracted. Neurodiversity does not need a specific diagnosis that requires medication. It does not need to create the discomfort and stigmas often associated with psychological and mental disorders.
It simply needs to be acknowledged that there are neurodiverse people who process, react to, and share information in ways that deviate from neurotypical individuals; that neurodiversity adds vibrance to the world.
“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it." —Vincent van Gogh
Neurodiversity in Tech
The tech industry is no stranger to neurodiversity. Tech leaders are obsessed with disrupting the status quo and rapidly delivering value. They do this by designing, supporting, building, and architecting software applications; by solving complex problems that require creativity and elaborate internal thought processes. Neurodiverse teams, in my opinion, are drawn to and best suited to accomplish this.
Many DevOps, Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) and App Dev teams are based on cultures built around “blameless” software development and “psychological safety.” This creates a framework and guardrails that support efficiency and accelerate innovation. It requires “embracing the human,” which creates space for unique ideas and competitive advantages.
In theory, this approach might seem obvious. In practice, however, embracing the human requires deviating from “normal.” It means allowing individuals to truly be themselves – including their quirks and quick shifts and unexpected responses. It means never punishing anyone for mistakes.
Safe Spaces Without Consequences
My experience is in the tech industry. However, the relevance of creating spaces without consequence is universal. What I can offer now after a lot of contemplation, conversations, and some real-world practice is:
Measure performance by results, not the process for producing them.
For example, my method for writing blog posts – stream of consciousness; all in one sitting – is not typical. I do not script my presentations. My best project-based work is completed in my head, over a period of weeks, resembling no linear progression, and delivered last-minute before a deadline. While that makes some people nervous, the results of my work are most often at or above expected quality.
High-functioning neurodivergent professionals are where they are due to their creative adaptations and ability to deliver good work. You hired them for a reason. So, allow them to do what they do. You only need to focus on the outcome.
Make it OK to be vulnerable.
True vulnerability comes from a place of strength, but also requires courage. Making it OK to be vulnerable means not requiring someone to mask; allowing them to be matter-of-fact and genuine.
My vulnerability comes off as an objectified sharing of my disorders, and admission of their potential impact on my work and relationships. I don’t expect everyone to be receptive and accepting. However, people should have the opportunity to see me through an informed lens. I can’t deny that my relationships have been impacted by my behaviour. But I have the tools to address these instances, and I grant my permission to talk to me and be comfortable bringing it up if the situation requires it.
Provide guardrails, not rules.
Guardrails give direction toward a vision. Guardrails allow and even invite creativity. Conversely, hard and fast rules limit – even discourage – creative expression. This can lead to resentment and burnout, and be especially painful for someone with ADHD. In my case, personally, I become frustrated and angry.
An example of the use of guardrails is HubSpot. HubSpot gives its talented employees a framework to know if what they are doing is good for the customers and the business. I.e., to Use Good Judgment. This practice of productive decision making gives employees the space to be themselves while still supporting business objectives.
Acknowledge the cost of masking.
Masking is a coping behaviour often required to fit in and be accepted. It takes energy. A lot of energy. The mental exhaustion can be triggering, cause depression and burnout, and impact relationships outside of work. Further, energy spent on masking is then unavailable for creativity and productive decision making.
A company that directly or indirectly requires masking is compromising the mental efforts of neurodiverse employees. Employees who need to mask in order to fit in are effectively prevented from doing the job they’re hired to do. This comes at a cost to the company.
Sans masking, the neurodiverse employee is free to be their most comfortable self, which translates to producing their best work. They can approach complex problems from their unique perspective. Unhindered, they can tinker and experiment and access levels of creativity that would otherwise be off-limits. This is a strategic consideration when it comes to leveraging a company’s resources and providing value.
Neurodiversity as a Value-Add to Any Business
Some companies realize that neurodiversity can be part of their culture, their product, and their value. This doesn’t necessarily apply to all types of businesses. But companies like SAP and Microsoft are making a deliberate effort to hire neurodiverse talent because they know what benefits it can bring.
A deliberate and strategic approach to neurodiversity leads to a healthier and better business. By mitigating the distractions that come from stress, fear, and guilt related to mental challenges, neurodiverse employees are more productive. The bottom-line benefits of increased productivity are obvious.
Neurodiverse talent also brings the untapped potential to the business, particularly in the tech industry. If you allow that talent to surface, you will have an advantage and build high-performing engineering teams.
“Applications are a reflection of the teams that built them” - many smart people
I’m Not Broken, I’m Talented
Neurodiversity is difficult to understand – even for doctors. When viewed as a mental disorder, it begs for “a cure.” But I’m not broken. I’m talented. I know this because I gravitate towards others like me; those I affectionately refer to as being from the “island of misfit toys.” In their presence, I am exposed to the most creativity, genuineness, compassion, and productivity to be found.
When seen as a psychological disorder, neurodiversity becomes uncomfortable to talk about. So what? It’s uncomfortable for everyone – the neurodiverse and neurotypicals alike. Being uncomfortable about neurodiversity is EXACTLY the reason we should talk about it.
That discomfort is the symptom of a problem and leads to awful and direct consequences such as misdiagnosis, no diagnosis, masking, and public and private policy that hurts people's lives. A former CEO of mine often said, “Be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Whether you identify as neurodivergent or not, it doesn't really matter. We need to stop seeking “cures” and avoiding the real conversation. Expose yourself to the content of neurodiverse creators, become an ally by halting behind-the-back conversations, and correct and prevent misused terminology like the oh so trendy, “I’m organized and, therefore, OCD.” I invite you to be uncomfortable, have a conversation, and experience amazing talent.
Chris Riley Bio
Chris Riley (@hoardinginfo) is a bad-coder-turned-technology-advocate who understands the challenges and needs of modern engineers, as well as how technology fits into the business goals of companies in a demanding high-tech world. As a neuro-diverse professional living with hypomania, dyslexia and ADHD he is a strong advocate for less stigma and more awareness for neuro-diverse professionals.
Chris speaks and engages with end-users regularly in the areas of modern AppDev, Site Reliability Engineering, DevOps, and Developer Relations. He was one of the original founders of the developer marketing agency Fixate IO, and currently works as a Sr Manager in HubSpot’s Developer Relations team. Chris regularly speaks at industry events, contributes to industry blogs such as ContainerJournal.com, DevOps.com and Sweetcode.io, and serves as a technical adviser to tech-enabled enterprises. He is also the host of the podcasts Developers Eating the World, Dissecting DevOps & Tech A’Sketch.