Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage in Data Engineering

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Founded in 2019, ExteND Testing provides superior software and data quality engineering services by reimagining how to recruit and develop exceptional talents.

Data quality

As many companies and organisations strive to be more data-driven, data quality becomes more important in delivering effective outcomes. The phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ succinctly summarises the impact of data quality issues. If, for example, a statistical model is trained with garbage data, it will output garbage results.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the vast majority of time spent on data-driven projects is spent cleaning, preparing, and labelling data. Importantly, these tasks are human-intensive and require dedicated concentration performing repetitive tasks. According to survey results, more than 75% of data scientists view data preparation as the least enjoyable part of the work. However, for a statistical model to work, the data preparation phase is critical. While most people find it boring, neurodiverse individuals excel at and enjoy it.

Neurodiversity

Neurodiverse individuals, including individuals on the autism spectrum, have exceptional skills such as superior attention to detail, heightened pattern recognition, and sustained concentration, that make them very valuable employees. Due to their different way of thinking, neurodiverse individuals can also be very innovative in solving complex problems. Yet this talent pool remains largely untapped.

Neurodiversity is an inclusive term that emphasises the differences in neurocognitive functions of people such as those on the autism spectrum, dyslexic individuals, and people with ADHD. In Australia, it is estimated that 1-1.5% of the population are on the autism spectrum and around 1 in 50 Australian school children are autistic. Evidently, more than 31% of people on spectrum are unemployed, which is three times the rate of people with other disabilities and six times the rate of people without disability. However, when they are employed, most are underemployed. This is despite the fact that most people on the autism spectrum score in the above-average range in cognitive tests.

Companies that have accessed neurodiverse talents report surprising benefits. SAP, a European multinational software corporation, says that working with neurodiverse individuals has increased their productivity, product quality, and innovativeness. Similarly, the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) says “no other initiative at HPE delivers benefits at so many levels”. Informed by these successes, the Australian Defence Force is also employing autistic individuals in cybersecurity roles to analyse large datasets and find patterns that help detect intrusions and attacks.

The case for utilising neurodiverse talents is compelling given the skills shortage in the technology industry, especially in strategically important and rapidly expanding fields such as data analytics. Neurodiverse individuals have unique skills, such as superior pattern recognition, extreme attention to detail, enthusiasm for repetitive tasks, and dedication to task completion, that are key in data and software analysis. For example, neurodiverse teams have shown to find at least 50% more defects in software systems than a conventional team.

ExteND Testing

ExteND is an initiative of the award-winning Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance (AASQA) founded by Professor Tele Tan that provides individuals on the autism spectrum training, education and mentoring programs to create pathways to valued, long-term employment. Launched four years ago, AASQA has supported over 200 autistic high school autistic students through STEM clubs, placed over 30 high school students on work experiences at 12 companies, helped 17 students complete the International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB) certification examination, and created over 35 internship scholarships placing students at companies like BHP, Bankwest, Deloitte, Woodside, and Government Departments.

While neurodiverse employees excel technically, they can sometimes struggle with the social and interaction aspects of the job. ExteND maintains a support system that helps neurodiverse employees manage their work requirements and thrive in the workplace. For example, neurodiverse employees are paired with a job coach that helps them communicate with the client more effectively. The job coaches also guide the client on how to work with the neurodiverse employee. This model leads to high rate of project completion outcome and improved employment outcome for the neurodiverse employees.

ExteND’s Perth office opened in December and has 12 neurodiverse employees. While the hiring processes used by most companies screens out neurodiverse individuals, ExteND uses a flexible recruiting strategy that emphasises the strengths of the candidates. Candidates are assessed in two phases: 1) assessment of cognitive abilities such as attention to detail, pattern recognition, and the ability to visualise and understand complex problems, and 2) assessment of technical skills such as programming and data structures.

Department of Communities Western Australia is the first organisation that has financially supported ExteND. Therapy Focus, the premier provider of disability services in Perth, the Curtin Autism Research Group (CARG), and the WA Data Science Innovation Hub supports this initiative through in-kind contributions.

To discuss your project and how ExteND can support you, do not hesitate to contact Mortaza Rezae. Email: mortaza.rezae@curtin.edu.au

 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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