Education Society

Neurodiversity: We Need to Think Differently About People Who Think Differently

HBR has what I think is their first ever piece on the topic of neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.  I recently had the chance to speak with Rajesh Anandan, co-founder and CEO of Ultra Testing (as well as SVP of Strategic Partnerships at UNICEF ventures), a firm built around a neurodiverse workforce. We discussed not just his firm, but the wider issue of neurodiversity in the workplace and society. – Ed.

Rajesh Anandan: I grew up in Sri Lanka in the middle of a civil war. My parents were from two different ethnicities, the two sides of that conflict. In the south of the country I had the wrong last name, and in the north of the country I spoke the wrong language. As you can imagine, I grew up being very conscious about how societies can get stuck on aspects of us as individuals that separate us but that ultimately aren’t important. As a global community, I firmly believe that we need to move past our differences. You could say I have a high level of intolerance for intolerance.

I was lucky enough to leave Sri Lanka and the war and come to the U.S. to finish secondary school. I then went to MIT and got a couple of degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. Right after undergrad, I started working at Microsoft and realized very quickly that while I was fascinated with technology, I didn’t really want to be a software developer. It’s not what I wanted to do when I woke up every morning. I went back and finished grad school and started at Bain & Company as a management consultant.

After several years at Bain, I transferred to the office in South Africa. I was on an engagement for South African Airways, looking into the airline’s cost structure, which was out of line with the industry. We were trying to figure out what was going on and realized that the company was over-hiring their blue-collar workforce because they were losing people to HIV and AIDS. People were dying of AIDS, and the company was over-hiring as a way to manage losses in productivity and avoid rehiring and retraining costs. That was the reality in South Africa at a time when there were no generic AIDS drugs on the market, and the cost of treatment was too high. The government was denying that HIV caused AIDS, and the company was minimizing the disruption to its business.

I walked away from that engagement realizing that I wanted to be solving a different set of problems. Not too long after that, I quit my job and went to work for a pediatric AIDS foundation focused on expanding programs to prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. From there I went on to work at a startup inside the U.N. called The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, where I was one of the early employees. The Global Fund scaled from an idea to a $10 billion fund within a few years, thanks to both public and private sector partners, and played a critical role in scaling up AIDS treatment globally.

After that, I started a couple social enterprises focused on human security, and then joined UNICEF USA where I founded UNICEF Ventures, an incubator for launching new digital businesses to support UNICEF’s work for children around the world.

Rajesh Anandan (far Right) and associates at Ultra Testing


Carlos Alvarenga: That’s where you launched the Kid Power wearable?

RA: Yes, one of the first ventures we launched was UNICEF Kid Power, the world’s first Wearable-for-Good, which was just named one of TIME magazine’s “25 Best Inventions” in 2016. Kid Power taps into kids’ intrinsic desire to help and inspires them to get active and save lives. Kid Power has proven to dramatically increase kids’ physical activity levels and is already outperforming the wearables industry at retail. It has quickly amassed the world’s largest kids’ wearable user base. It turns out that purpose as a motivator is much more powerful and enduring than fun or entertainment or any other extrinsic reward. The reason Kid Power works is simple. It taps into a deep desire we all have, the desire to help and do something that matters.

CA: But you are also the founder and CEO of ULTRA Testing, which has built its workforce around people on the autism spectrum. How did that project come about?

RA: In the early 2000s, my wife, who’s a child psychologist, was practicing in Oakland at a community mental health clinic. She had seen an increase in the number of kids coming into her clinic who were on the autism spectrum—PDD as it was called at the time. She started doing group work in addition to her individual therapy sessions to help kids develop social and relational skills. She came home from work one day and said, in passing, “We spend all this time focused on things these kids may never be good at, but we spend no time nurturing the things that they’re already amazing at.”

That simple idea stuck with me and is at the heart of ULTRA, a company that we launched to prove that neurodiversity serves as a competitive advantage. Over the past four years, we’ve redesigned every aspect of the business from the ground up to empower neurodiverse talent to do their best work, to capitalize on what each team member is already amazing at, and to deliver a service that’s far superior to what the software testing and QA (quality assurance) industry currently provides. Today, we have team members working in 12 states across the U.S., 75 percent of whom are on the autism spectrum, and 100 percent of whom believe our differences make us better.

CA: I understand your first customer was your roommate?

RA: Yes, in 2012, I mentioned the idea of people with amazing abilities who were being overlooked to Art Shectman, a college roommate of mine and fellow MIT engineer. Art is a serial entrepreneur and had a software development shop that he was scaling at the time. I described individuals with Asperger’s and similar autism spectrum profiles, citing evidence of the presence of abilities like heightened pattern recognition and enhanced focus.

Art jumped on it and said, “You know what? You’re describing some of the characteristics that would make for a fantastic software tester. I can never find good software testers for my companies. If you think you can find three people who fit that profile, I will put them to work next week.” That’s how we got started.

CA: Was he your first client or your co-founder, or both?

RA: Both. The next week Art and I went to talk to the CEO of ASTEP, which is the Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership, a nonprofit that focuses on employment for individuals with Asperger’s. We also met with the CEO of GRASP, one of the world’s largest advocacy networks for adults with Asperger’s. They were very receptive and, frankly, kind to hear out two stubborn MIT engineers with this crazy idea. The CEO of GRASP said to us: “Listen, I don’t know what exactly you guys are talking about. Software testing, no idea what that is. But you seem like well-meaning, serious guys, so I’ll tell you this. My community has two problems: love and relationships, and work opportunities. If you think you can solve one of those, I’m behind you.”

We said, “Well, we don’t know about the love thing, but we’re going to help solve the work thing.” They helped us quickly craft a job description and post it on the GRASP network. We received 150 applicants in 72 hours. A third of the applicants had graduate degrees. This was not an attractively crafted job description; it was for a part-time software tester position. We were overwhelmed since a lot of the resumes had no “relevant” work experience, and we knew from our conversations with ASTEP and GRASP that a job interview wasn’t going to be the best way to assess talent on the spectrum.

We muddled our way through screening those applicants. We brought on three folks and trained them up over the space of a few weeks to do basic, manual software testing and QA. We staffed them on several QA projects at Art’s other company, and the results were fantastic. We were blown away.

CA: What were these people doing? You said some of them had graduate degrees, but they couldn’t find work. I assume that you mean that there were jobs open, but they just couldn’t make it through the interview process. What was the situation that they faced?

RA: Of the first three folks, one of them had studied astrophysics but never graduated. The last job he had was as a part-time retail associate where he didn’t do well. Another had a graduate degree in electrical engineering and had been trying to find work for five years. He’d applied to dozens of jobs, and he wasn’t successful at getting through the interview process. An interview is essentially an assessment of your ability to interact in a fluid social situation, which many folks on the spectrum are likely to find challenging. To be honest, there’s a lot of evidence pointing to how ineffective interviews are as tools for assessing any type of talent. But most organizations still use them because of inertia, because it’s what we’ve been doing for many years. At ULTRA, we were forced to rethink the entire recruitment process, because if you can’t rely on a resume or an interview, what does that leave you with? That was one of the first big problems we needed to solve.

Today, we can go out and predictably recruit world-class software testers from applicants who have no previous software testing experience, who may not have a college degree, who may never have worked in a skilled job and who would probably not do well in a job interview.

We’ve developed an eight-step process that includes an online questionnaire, a pattern recognition test, and a week-long simulation of software testing work. And while we do conduct interviews, they come at the end of the process, not at the beginning, after we’ve already gathered as much objective data as possible.

CA: So, what is your approach when you look at someone for the first time? How do you evaluate a person who, like you said, may not have prior work experience, may not have finished college, may not even have any technical background at all, and yet for some reason you or they, or both of you, think that they have a place at ULTRA?

RA: We have turned recruiting on its head, including how we define talent. Typically, you would look for people who’ve done the thing that you’re trying to hire into. They have a degree, they have certifications, they have years of experience, etc. Those are not viable alternatives for us, and frankly, we don’t care what you’ve done in the past at other organizations; we only care about what you can do in the future on our team. We don’t just rely on past experience as an indication of future potential. Instead we develop a very precise profile for each job that’s a combination of attributes, including cognitive abilities, innate interests and behavioral traits. We then try to assess each of those attributes as objectively as possible.

For an entry-level software tester role, the ideal profile has 25 attributes. For example, a knack for pattern recognition is a critical ability for the job, so we use a pattern recognition test. Whether someone is able to listen to and act on feedback is an important trait, which we test for during a week-long work simulation. A curiosity for how software works is an interest we look for, so we’ll ask interview questions like, “What’s your favorite web browser and why?”—because if you have a thoughtful answer to that question, then you’re the kind of person we want on our team.

CA: I want to make sure that I summarize this point for readers. You are going to move from, let’s call it a profile of achievements or qualifications. It sounds like in your case, the profile is really secondary, if it’s important at all. You have reversed the typical process: You’re starting out with a human profile that says this kind of person, irrespective of what may or may not be in a CV, is the kind of person who does well.

RA: Yes, absolutely. It’s an objective assessment with no preconceived notion or bias. Some folks might have an advanced degree in a STEM field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a great software tester. We don’t look at the past as a predictor of the future; we try to objectively assess someone’s abilities, interests and behaviors in a way that precisely maps to what we believe is the “perfect” profile of a software tester. Over the course of the past four years, we’ve been able to successfully, repeatedly find talent who exactly match the profile of a world-class software tester with no previous software testing experience. For example, if you have the ability to digest complex sets of rules and apply them diligently without any decay in focus, then you’re going to excel at accessibility testing. Accessibility testing is essentially making sure that websites and applications are adhering to federal accessibility guidelines, which are many and somewhat ambiguous. Our teams are able to digest these guidelines, translate them into clear pass-fail criteria, and test against those criteria with incredible consistency. And the results speak for themselves. We recently won an accessibility testing project for a Fortune 100 financial services client away from a major IT firm. We redid the old firm’s work and increased the bug detection rate by 56 percent. We’ve since become the client’s default accessibility testing partner and have successfully completed a dozen projects.

CA: We talked about a different way of hiring and acquiring talent. What about once they are working for you? I would imagine there are things that are different about managing this kind of workforce, just as there are differences in acquiring this kind of a workforce. Can you highlight a couple of things that you’ve learned that might be a little bit different about how you manage these kinds of people on teams?

RA: We’ve redesigned every aspect of a traditional workplace to empower our neurodiverse team members to do their best work. But, while it’s convenient in conversations like this to generalize about talent on the spectrum, it’s important to remember that autism affects 1 percent of the world’s population, including 3.5 million Americans. That’s a lot of people representing a wide range of abilities, interests and needs. One thing we learned early on was not to assume that every team member on the spectrum had similar strengths or challenges. Many of our team members on the spectrum are great at comprehending complex systems, but some aren’t. Many aren’t great at advocating for themselves or proactively communicating issues, but some are. As we’re designing systems and tools and processes for a very diverse company, it’s been critical that we not assume that everyone has the same abilities or needs.

A second learning was that because we were building a remote company where many team members aren’t great communicators, we needed to make sure that we had multiple channels for feedback. This is critical for any remote team—to both flag when things are going wrong or when things need to be fixed, but also to reinforce the positive things that are happening on the team. We rolled out a number of simple tools that we either invented or borrowed to allow us to share feedback, learn from each other, hold each other accountable and build an effective team and culture.

CA: For example?

Now, everyone in the company has a biodex. And before a team kicks off a new project, team members look at each other’s biodices, so that when the project kickoff meeting happens, everyone on the team already knows quite a bit about their colleagues. I would argue, every team should do this.

CA: And every CXO …

RA: Yes, and actually I had called it a “user manual” initially, and a bunch of team members rightly pointed out that that sounded a little bit cold!

CA: You use the term “neurodiversity” a lot when talking about your workforce. How do you define that term?

RA: Neurodiversity is a concept that emerged in the ‘90s, which defines neurological differences like autism as naturally occurring variations of the human brain, not as disorders. This concept suggests that the idea of one “normal” brain type is a cultural construct and proposes that variations in thinking, learning, processing information and experiencing the world are neither good or bad. In some contexts, certain types of variations can be advantageous, while in other contexts those same variations can be challenging.

If we as a society are able to see and embrace all of these variations, then we can define our social norms and design our work environments in such a way as to take advantage of the best parts of the brains that each of us have. That’s what we’re trying to do at ULTRA: We’ve thrown out all the rules of a typical business and workplace, and we’re rewriting every single rule so it’s designed for a team of neurodiverse individuals to do great work together.

CA: I recently interviewed an expert on the future of work and workspaces, and one of the interesting things we talked about was this idea that in the past you had to adjust yourself to fit into what a predefined work space looked like. She noted that one of the things that’s changing in her company is that space is being designed for the employees. There are lots of different spaces: open spaces, private spaces, and so the physical work world is changing. It sounds like you’re describing a psychological version of that same phenomenon, where you have built a company around an employee model and not the other way around.

RA: Absolutely. We are a VC-backed startup, and we’re building a company in a highly fragmented and competitive industry, to wit. All of the things we’re doing ultimately tie back to creating enterprise value. At ULTRA, we measure value in terms of the superior results we deliver for our clients and the well-being and productivity of our team. That’s because we think those two are the same and completely interlinked. We try to find ways to be very clear about defining what’s important, measuring those things and then taking very focused actions to move the needle on the things that matter.

For example, the entire leadership team is accountable for the net promoter score of not only our clients but also our employees. It makes it very real, and our approach is paying off.

We have proven that we do in fact deliver a superior software testing and QA service for our clients. We have now firmly established ourselves as the preferred software testing and QA vendor for the advertising industry. Some top-tier agencies use ULTRA exclusively for all of their QA. They don’t have internal teams, and they don’t use any other vendors. More recently, we’ve started to work with cutting-edge software companies like Slack and Fortune 100 enterprises like Cigna. Of course, companies are interested in our mission, but let me reassure you that no one is interested in putting the quality of their applications or websites or campaigns at risk just to help a cause. In a world where users have zero tolerance for any friction or defect, quality really matters, and our teams at ULTRA can deliver a level of quality assurance that is unmatched in the industry.

CA: One last question, Rajesh: As you think about your experiences with ULTRA, and also in your role at UNICEF, for an audience of business managers and executives, what are your perspectives about the future? What would you say to everybody who’s reading this interview about this new workforce you are pioneering?

RA: Two things. The first thing is that good talent is hard to find, and we need to fundamentally rethink our notions of what good talent looks like. There are pockets of brilliance and ability hidden everywhere. At ULTRA, we’re focused on talent on the autism spectrum, but there are many other untapped talent pools that can deliver positive business results.

The second thing is that having purpose, having a bigger mission beyond simply creating shareholder value, is increasingly going to become a critical part of what you need to do to attract and retain good talent. We’re not just able to attract amazing talent in our testers by focusing on people on the autism spectrum; we’re also able to attract great talent across the board.

We’ve been able to hire star talent from fantastic companies into our leadership team and as senior managers because we’re a company with purpose. Would you want to go work for a software testing company that’s only successful financially, or one that’s inventing an entirely new business model to prove that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage? A company with purpose that’s creating real benefit to society is a much more compelling proposition.

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