A big opportunity in neurodiversity
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A big opportunity in neurodiversity

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Monday: tech's neurodiverse hiring efforts, the e-signature war heats up and the feds level big hacking charges.

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The Big Story

Tech sees opportunity in neurodiversity

Over the past several years, top tech companies like SAP and Microsoft have expanded efforts to hire more neurodiverse employees.

The term itself matters. "Neurodiverse" encompasses those with autism, dyslexia, ADHD or other developmental conditions. The "diverse" part emphasizes these conditions as differences, not disabilities.

The opportunity is immense. An estimated 80% of neurodiverse individuals are unemployed or severely underemployed.

  • Microsoft is working with other tech companies, even fierce competitors, to address the problem. The issue transcends business rivalries. "It really is a space we don't compete in," Neil Barnett, the director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at Microsoft, told Protocol. "We can't move that unemployment rate by ourselves."
  • The pandemic added some complexity to those initiatives, as well as to the day-to-day lives of those with autism. But it also brought attention to practices that could benefit neurodiverse workers in the long term.
  • Advocates hope that the flexibility of hybrid work will bring even more neurodiverse individuals into the workforce.

Wired once called autism "the geek syndrome." That's a dated stereotype. Jobs for the neurodiverse aren't just technical.

  • SAP has neurodiverse employees working in marketing, human resources and consulting.
  • An autistic employee there won its coveted Hasso Plattner Founders' Award in 2020 for building a tool to help automate aspects of invoice management. It was the first time an individual employee, not a team, was given the distinction.
  • It's a testament to SAP's own neurodiverse hiring program, which is viewed as the poster child not just in tech, but broadly across corporate America. Companies like Microsoft and Dell tapped the German software giant for advice in creating their own programs.

But even SAP fell short of its ambitions. Launched in 2013, the goal was originally to hire roughly 1,000 individuals by 2020. SAP now has 185 full-time employees recruited under the program.

  • Leaders readily admit they were unaware of the challenges posed in scaling across the globe, where acknowledgement of autism as a developmental disorder varies wildly.
  • "What we are looking at here is not so much a diversity and inclusion initiative. This is more of a business transformation," said program leader José Velasco. "It is not just contained in one area and there are a lot of elements you need to change."
  • There's a tendency to view the programs "through the lens of altruism," said senior vice president Lloyd Adams. "One of the things that doesn't strike as many people until you get a little bit closer to it is how much this makes sense from a business perspective."

COVID-19 put a wrench in neurodiversity recruitment. And program leaders had to get creative.

  • Prior to the pandemic, for example, Microsoft would hold interviews with potential candidates over several days, according to software engineer Serena Schaefer, who was hired under the program.
  • That included sessions where the individuals would work in teams to solve an engineering challenge. Now, that's all virtual. Microsoft used Minecraft and other programs to keep that same team-style interview.
  • Microsoft's neurodiversity recruitment initiative began in 2015. Now, it has over 125 full-time employees who were hired under the program.

Remote work has the same downsides for neurodiverse individuals as for most employees. The lack of social interaction can exacerbate conditions for individuals with autism, given their reliance on the community for support.

  • There are also some distinct advantages. Employees like Schaefer, for example, have certain behaviors that could look odd to a neurotypical individual.
  • "I tend to fidget a lot just to keep my hands busy and that may look kind of strange in a working environment," she said. "But working remotely, no one is going by my office wondering why I'm twirling a pen all the time. It lets me feel like I can be more relaxed."

Hiring more neurodiverse individuals is just one of the industry's challenges in becoming more inclusive. But the stigma around neurodiverse conditions is fading, which is opening the eyes of leaders and prompting more focus on the efforts. Just ask David Aspinall, the CEO of Auticon US, an IT consulting firm that has a predominantly autistic workforce.

  • "We have a true belief that the team that we have … has a performance advantage over the same skills from a neurotypical individual," he told Protocol. "The compromise that people have to make in order to work with us is just good for the business and the way that people lead people. There's no downside."

— Joe Williams


"We're moving faster now than we've ever moved, and we'll never move this slow again." ICYMI, catch a glimpse of what the future looks like for developers in this Protocol interview with Stacey Shulman, VP and General Manager in Intel's Internet of Things Group for Health, Life Sciences, and Emerging Technologies.

Watch now

This Week On Protocol

The new e-signature battle: Electronic signatures have been legal since 2000, but adoption has been slow. Now, after the pandemic accelerated usage, industry leader DocuSign is looking beyond the dotted line. It faces stiff (and growing) competition from Adobe and others.

How restaurants are changing: Even after the pandemic, dining will look very different. That's an opportunity for software vendors and other tech providers.

Coming Up This Week

March 23: Adobe reports earnings, and Y Combinator holds its Demo Day.

Around the Enterprise

  • A big hacking fish is charged. The hacker who recently breached Verkada's cloud camera systems has been charged with leaking proprietary information of over 100 companies and government agencies.
  • The cloud had a big year. In 2020, cloud infrastructure services spending jumped an eye-popping 35% to $130 billion, according to Synergy Research Group. That's no surprise to anyone who followed recent earnings from AWS and Microsoft.
  • Intel and AMD are fixing bugs. Linus Torvalds has thoughts on the chipmakers' attempts to deal with legacy code issues.



"We're moving faster now than we've ever moved, and we'll never move this slow again." ICYMI, catch a glimpse of what the future looks like for developers in this Protocol interview with Stacey Shulman, VP and General Manager in Intel's Internet of Things Group for Health, Life Sciences, and Emerging Technologies.

Watch now

Thanks for reading — see you Thursday.

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