Intense focus, sharp memory and pattern recognition are some of the traits that a great software tester has to have. It so happens that those traits are prominent in individuals on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a term used to describe complex disorders of brain development, and a person with autism often experiences difficulties with social interaction, communications and imagination. But they also often shine in areas of visual skills, music, math and art, according to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks.
There are many talents a person with autism can bring to the workforce, but they often have difficulty landing jobs. According to Autism Speaks, about 85% of people who have autism in the United States are currently unemployed or underemployed. One company is not only trying to help change that, but is doing so by training autistic individuals to become the next generation of software testers.
Meticulon is a social enterprise organization, located in Calgary, Alta., that prepares individuals on the autism spectrum for a software testing career, and also helps them find jobs after training.
Preparing for the workforce
The idea for Meticulon arose when Russ Peardon, a member of the company’s advisory board and cofounder of Snirt Labs, saw the kinds of challenges his son, who has autism, was facing after high school as he started to enter the workforce.
“We became aware of some companies internationally that were employing people with autism in software testing, and after having looked at one of those and seeing the power of it, it isn’t something you can walk away from and say ‘That looks nice.’ You have to make it happen, so that is what got us going,” he said.
An autistic person often has two skills that are particularly useful to software testing: a great memory and an ability to match patterns.
“It is not that every person with autism has these skills, but it is no question that they are going to be much more prominent in people with autism and much stronger when [the skills] are present,” Peardon said.
An individual with autism may have a better memory when performing certain tasks than a neurotypical person—or a person without autism. “My son, for example, can go back and recite verbatim some story we read to him when he was 4 years old,” said Peardon. “He pretty much remembers everything he reads and is very visual. That’s something that is very common in high-functioning autism. You tell them something or they see something and then it is just there.”
The ability to pattern-match requires an attention to detail, repetition and sequencing, all of which are very important in software testing. “An autistic person can quickly spot patterns as if they were highlighted for them,” said Peardon.
So if autistic individuals have many advantages over a neurotypical person, why is it so hard for them to get a job? The problem is that they can’t sell themselves, according to Nigel Chanter, Meticulon board member and cofounder of Snirt Labs.
“A good example is in an interview when an employee asks, ‘Why should I hire you?’ Most neurotypical people take that as a chance to sell themselves, while an autistic person thinks ‘How can I possibly answer that question, I don’t know who the other candidates are,’ and the interview process trips them up,” he said.
Meticulon takes on a group of autistic individuals every year to mold them into software testers—or as the organization calls them: Meticulon Consultants.
“In many ways this is less about finding the one best candidate, but trying to make sure that any candidates we take on will be happy and successful once placed in regular work environments,” said Chanter.
To be eligible to become a Meticulon Consultant, the organization conducts a three-week assessment process that involves testing, interviews and observation of collaboration in a group setting.
“During the assessment, we give over 45 tasks, and each task has a purpose,” said Joy Hewitt, chief employment coach at Meticulon. “We observe and evaluate any of their assignments, and we put them into different situations like working in a cubicle or doing team projects, and we track everything with all that information.”
The information is used to create a consultant’s MindMap, which is a unique profile that displays the Consultant’s talents, skills, required accommodations, ideal work environment and any suggestions, according to Hewitt.
On the technical side, the organization has a chief technology coach whose job it is to train the new consultants.
“We teach them the business of testing the software and retesting, regression testing when new releases come out, we teach them how to use common bug reporting tools, how to interact with the software development team, how to write test cases, how to refine them, how to retest the fix,” said Peardon. “A lot of those things to be truthful are not the most glamorous part of the IT industry, and it is very difficult to keep a neurotypical person in those jobs and executing them well. But for an autistic person, they just love it in many cases.”
Peardon and Chanter’s startup company, Snirt Labs, became a big part of the screening process. The consultants are provided with old buggy Snirt Labs software releases as part of the training program so that the technology coach knows in advance what types of bugs the Consultants are going to find.
“Occasionally they surprise us with a bug that wasn’t previously found in the release,” said Peardon.
In addition, Meticulon works with consultants on their social skills. With methodologies such as agile and DevOps gaining in prominence, building software has become a team game for some businesses. And while social interaction is often an obstacle for autistic individuals, Peardon said it really doesn’t become a problem at work.
“One of the interesting things that I’ve found is once you sit down and start working together, it really isn’t a different experience,” he said. “What you see across the table are people who have an unusual intense focus on a project, but when you start talking about the work, it is as if all those social skill issues melt away and you are just really talking to a coworker.”
Currently, Meticulon has been able to find employment for six of its consultants, and it said 12 more will be employed by the end of the year. The organization has only been in operation for a year, and aims to have 50 autistic software testers employed within three years.
“The participants are just so thrilled to have this type of employment that lines up quite nicely with their skills,” said Peardon. “We have one tester who, at her one-month mark [of] being employed, was performing as well as someone who had been in the company for six months.”
Sometimes companies must make accommodations in order to employ autistic software testers, but Peardon said they’re small and are overall better for the company.
“The accommodations are most often related to environmental sensitivities—for example, reducing strong smells like perfume or loud noises,” he said. “It depends on the individual. In general, you also want to manage change a little more carefully to avoid stress. Ironically, all these things are good for your neurotypical staff as well.”
Aside from working with Consultants to place them into software testing careers, Meticulon also wants to help found more organizations to train autistic people in software testing. In about six months, Meticulon—along with Passwerk, an organization in Belgium that helped Meticulon get started—plans to achieve this by open-sourcing its business model, training materials and software used for evaluation.
“We don’t see it as a competitor situation,” said Peardon. “The need is so great in terms of…employment and the need for good quality software testing. We want to make it easier for an organization to hire people with autism without needing someone like Meticulon to help them. The main thing is you have the opportunity to hire an employee who is going to be a superior software tester and it won’t [take] much on your end to get that.”
Becoming a Meticulon Consultant
When Meticulon is evaluating consultants to join its program, it is not only looking for natural abilities such as attention to detail, repetition and sequencing, but also an interest in the technology industry, according to Meticulon’s Hewitt.
The Meticulon assessment is a modified version of a European assessment toolkit used by Passwerk, a similar company located in Belgium that helped Meticulon get started. The assessment starts off with an interview, and after the interviews are completed the organization chooses approximately 12-14 people to continue onto one day of testing in areas such as logic, aptitude and personality traits.
“I’m looking for honest and literal answers,” Hewitt said. “I disregard body language and eye contact, yet I still look for aspects such as motivation levels and interest in IT.”
After evaluating the results, Meticulon selects a maximum of seven Consultants to continue in its three-week assessment session. That session includes a variety of tasks, which range from computer skills to social skills. During the three weeks, Meticulon tracks and records every observation in a system called the Candidate Assessment and Learning Matrix (CALM).
“We simulate various work conditions to observe individual responses, and we alter schedules, seating arrangements, time restrictions, etc., again to test for stress, reactions and modifications every individual has to a variety of employment situation possibilities,” Hewitt said.
The information from CALM is then used to develop what Meticulon calls a MindMap for each candidate in order to provide him or her and potential employers an understanding of the candidate as a worker. A MindMap is meant to serve as a representation of a candidate and covers areas of work ethic, handling tasks, accuracy, efficiency, mindfulness, authority and teamwork, dealing with autism, physical appearance, sensitivity, communication, social relations, temperaments, and anything else Meticulon feels necessary to include.
“Each task reveals aspects of qualities and attributes specific to our MindMap development: a guide showing our observations to determine areas where they excelled, their level of skills and include suggestions to challenges that may require additional coaching,” said Hewitt.
Once assessment is completed, consultants go onto training, which includes learning software testing skills and also an internship period to give candidates hands-on experience.
“Besides our outstanding assessment and training programs, we also provide job coaches to offer various tools and manage every step of the employment relationship,” Hewitt said.
Overcoming misconceptions associated with autism
When Mackenzie Whitney, 25, graduated from the University of Alberta in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in science and a specialization in mathematics, he faced a harsh reality that many college graduates experience: the inability to find a job.
“It is a very difficult market right now simply because you never get any feedback after you hand in a resume to a certain company,” he said. “There is no ‘Here is something you could have done better with your resume.’ ”
But Whitney had a bigger challenge that most other college graduates don’t have to deal with: overcoming the misconceptions of being on the autism spectrum.
“The important thing to note about people on the spectrum is that each of them have many diverse skills and that you shouldn’t judge many based on one particular example,” he said. “A common misconception is that people on the spectrum have similar traits and temperaments, which is not the case.”
Whitney found part-time work in retail, graph keeping and tutoring, but was frustrated because he wanted to put his education to good use and do meaningful work. It wasn’t until he heard about Meticulon on the news that he had the opportunity to do so.
“They were able to accurately assess who I am through their detailed and rigorous screening process and training,” Whitney said. “It is an invaluable resource for anyone on the autistic spectrum. The process of going through even the training allowed me to form a more complete picture of myself in terms of whom I am as a worker.”
Through Meticulon, Whitney was able to land a two-month contract as a software tester at Coverity. While he wasn’t asked to stay on longer after his contract, it was only due to a lack of communication; Coverity expected Whitney to have a lot more developer-oriented knowledge, he said.
“I felt like I was fitting in; there was no stigma toward my condition,” he said. “My employer was very impressed with my performance, despite my lack of developer knowledge, and my persistence to learn continually on the job, especially on difficult subjects that would be only expected for developers to know.”
Whitney will be starting a three-month contract as a software tester for Palantir, a computer software provider. Meticulon expects the contract to be extended after the three months.
“I am very excited for this new opportunity,” Whitney said. “With this new contract coming up, it is another opportunity to showcase my skills and hopefully impress them.”
Autism in the workplace
One of the biggest problems a person on the autism spectrum faces is the lack of understanding by people and potential employers of what being on the spectrum actually means, according to Tiffany Johnson, doctoral student at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Business.
Johnson, along with her advisor Aparna Joshi, an associate professor of management and organization at Penn State, have been researching what organizations can do to be more inclusive for people on the spectrum for the past three years.
“From what our research shows, it seems that people don’t understand the social behaviors that are associated with people on the spectrum, and they think the diagnosis is associated with their ability to work well and perform well, and typically that is not the case,” Johnson said.
Based on their research, she recommended the following things organizations can do to include a person on the autism spectrum in its workforce:
Creating organizational fit: “The organizational culture plays a really big role in whether or not somebody that is on the autism spectrum can, first, find a job and, second, keep a job,” said Johnson. “When I say fit, I am talking about things like what is acceptable in terms of social behaviors, in terms of what sort of social support a person is able to get at work from coworkers and supervisors and leaders, and also in terms of what those coworkers and leaders understand autism to be.”
Creating awareness: “A lot of times you have a stigma around the label of autism, and people have these misconceptions that lead to mistreatment at work,” said Johnson. “Creating awareness is really an important first step. Just being open to learning about the autism spectrum disorder and what that means in terms of employment.”
Take action: “It is not only about being aware, but demonstrating some of the behaviors that you do value,” said Johnson.
Remember that people on the spectrum are people too: “This person is still a person who wants to work, and if they are showing they are committed to that job and organization, then they should have a chance to work there,” said Johnson. “If they have the necessary skills to complete that task and perform well, then they should not be taken out of the running to work there.”
Make accommodations if necessary: Everyone on the spectrum is different, according to Johnson. This means that not everyone is going to need adjustments at work, but there are some things organizations can do to make a person on the spectrum’s work environment more comfortable. According to her, those include offering a separate room to go to if they are experiencing sensory overload, changing the lighting so they don’t experience sensory overload, allowing them to take a break if they feel like they’ve engaged in too much informal social interaction, and assigning a coworker to them that they can trust to ask for help.
Johnson notes that these are only a small example of what organizations can do. “Each person comes with his or her own individual needs,” she said.