Things started to click into place for Jamie Davila after she discovered she was on the autism spectrum five years ago this summer.
She had already worked in accounting for more than a decade before starting her own website development business but struggled in traditional workplace settings. Davila had long felt a disconnect with more emotionally driven clients and colleagues and had always preferred working in more isolated, quiet, and dimly lit settings.
“I typically didn’t last beyond a year or two, in retrospect due to overstimulation,” says Davila. “As soon as I found out I was on the spectrum, I began looking for employment that would work to accommodate me.”
That search eventually led Davila to a post on an autism blog about Ultra Testing, a New York-based software testing and quality assurance startup that employs over 60 workers remotely across 20 states, 75% of whom are on the autism spectrum. Not only was the company open to hiring neurodiverse employees, but it actively sought them out.
“The best part of Ultra is working with a group of peers that understand my needs,” says Davila, who has been with the company for almost three years and is now its lead QE tester. “We’re doing the same work as any other quality engineering firm, but in my opinion, we are doing it better and more effectively because of our workforce.”
Though small, the company punches well above its weight class, growing an average of 50% year-over-year since its founding in 2013, with 60% of revenues coming from Fortune 500 clients and the remainder from hypergrowth startups. Its innovative employment and talent management strategies have also received accolades and praise, including an honorable mention in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas awards.
“We’re going up against global IT firms and performing significantly better,” says Ultra Testing’s cofounder and CEO Rajesh Anandan, citing contracts won away from IBM and Capgemini. “We’re staffing these teams with fantastically capable talent who just haven’t had a fair shot before.”
An Untapped Talent Resource
Anandan founded Ultra Testing alongside his former M.I.T. roommate Art Shectman after discovering research on the overlooked strengths common among autistic individuals. Anandan’s wife, who worked with autistic children at a community mental health clinic in Oakland, had also pointed out how much energy is spent trying to improve the skills that are lacking rather than nurturing the children’s often remarkable natural talents.
“Individuals on the autism spectrum are more likely to have strengths around pattern recognition, logical reasoning ability, enhanced focus, and so on,” says Anandan. “That’s not to say that everyone on the spectrum has those abilities, but based on peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals, there is evidence that there is an over indexing of those abilities—and those very abilities are exactly what you would look for in quite a few roles, especially around quality engineering or quality assurance.”
Despite these strengths, however, only 35% of 18-year-olds with autism attend college, and only 15% of those who graduate find employment. As a result, nearly 80% of young adults with autism work part-time, earning an average salary of $9.11 per hour, according to Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, a nonprofit that helps those on the autism spectrum find employment.
“One of the biggest challenges, if you think about the interview process, is that it is a process that is largely dependent upon one’s social communication skills, and that is an area where many people—not all—but many people on the autism spectrum struggle,” says Integrate Advisor’s president, Marcia Scheiner.
Scheiner explains that those who have difficulty with nonverbal cues, answering behavioral interview questions, or engaging in small talk are likely to struggle in the interview process—even those that have the potential to be top performers. Her organization works with a range of Fortune 500 companies—including SAP, Microsoft, and JP Morgan Chase—to help them better identify and evaluate high-potential candidates of all abilities, especially those who might not excel in the traditional recruiting process.
“We talk about doing more skills-based interviews, as opposed to pure question-and-answer interviews,” she says. “[Candidates] may not be as adept at verbally describing to you what they might do in a certain situation, but if you give them a workbook in Excel with a problem, they’re going to blow you away with what they can do.”
Scheiner helped develop a more inclusive recruiting process with Anandan and Shectman as they began hiring for Ultra Testing, and Anandan believes their approach is far more effective than traditional evaluation methods, no matter the candidate.
“We don’t say we need X years of this, that, or the other, or these degrees and certifications, because those things have very little correlation with on-the-job performance for anyone,” he says. “Instead, we list out very specific abilities, traits, and interests that we’re looking for, and then we’ve constructed a different talent screening process that doesn’t rely on résumés or interviews.”
Anandan adds that his staff only meets with candidates midway through the evaluation process, after an objective measurement of their abilities has already been taken.
“We have a seven- or eight-step process that attempts to gather data, as objectively as possible, on each of the attributes we’re looking for,” he adds. “There are about 25 attributes; a combination of cognitive abilities, behavior traits, and interests.”
Anandan explains that the company designed objective evaluation methods to test basic abilities and engages candidates in a week of paid, remote, simulated work to observe some of their behavioral attributes.
“For ‘coachability,’ we’ll give someone feedback and see how they do; for ‘learning agility,’ we’ll throw a bunch of new tools at someone and see how well they can learn it,” he says. “As a result we can take someone who has never done the thing that we’re hiring for before and at the end of our recruiting process have a 95%-plus degree of confidence that we’ve found someone that will not only be good at their job but great at it.”
Slack’s Key Role
While many on the autism spectrum struggle with the overstimulation and the unwritten social code of traditional workplaces, a range of tools and the rise of remote work have enabled many to reach their full potential as employees.
Ultra Testing, for example, utilizes Slack for all of its communications, which Davila says, “feels almost like it is an extension of my brain,” adding that it “tears down a communication barrier that has stood in our way our whole lives.”
Furthermore, after one teammate quipped how great it would be if humans came with a user manual, Anandan developed the “BioDex” and attached it to each employee’s Slack profile.
“Essentially, it’s a quick start guide about ‘how to work with me,’” he says. “It’s self-authored, so it’s not creepy or patronizing, but it does cover what we think are a range of topics that are important for any teammate to know.”
The 28-point BioDex includes instructions on how each team member prefers to receive critical feedback, their preferred communication medium, their typical response time, and more.
“Something as simple as being mindful of how a colleague would prefer to receive feedback can have a dramatic impact on their well-being and productivity,” says Anandan. “This makes a huge difference, and arguably everyone should do it, because your team would be a lot more productive that way.”
Related: Working with autism and ADHD
The company also polls every team member daily at 5 p.m. with a single question related to inclusion and well-being via Slack and shares responses anonymously with the rest of the team.
“Some of the polls are ‘I feel my unique strengths are understood and valued by the company’ or ‘I feel comfortable sharing my challenges with my supervisor’ or ‘I understand whether or not I’m meeting the expectations of my job,’ and so on,” explains Anandan. “Every quarter we pick the worst two performing polls and do something about it.”
Ultra Testing isn’t the only company actively pursuing candidates on the autism spectrum, but Anandan is unique for founding a majority neurodiverse workforce five years ago, at a time when the word itself was rarely used in conversations about workplace diversity and inclusion.
“We’re proving that we can build a very different kind of team—a much more diverse team and a much more inclusive workplace—and still perform better than most of the peers in our industry; not in spite of but because of the diversity of our team and the practices we put in place,” he says.
With over seven million unfilled job openings in the United States, Anandan believes employers can’t solve the talent crises by looking in the same places and using the same strategies. Scheiner adds that she’s already observing some of the country’s biggest employers evolve their thinking, adding that the Ultra Testing model is slowing transitioning from an outlier to the norm.
“In the past 18 months—not even two years—we’ve seen a significant shift in general attitude among the employers we target in terms of interest in neurodiversity hiring,” she says. “And almost every other month, I read about another company like Ultra Testing being started somewhere.”