Tech firm finds power in workforce's neurodiversity

For people with autism, finding work can be a real struggle.

"My own mannerisms are such and the way I present maybe doesn't communicate what I would like," said David McNabb, who graduated from college in 2001 with a degree in computer science and spent the next 13 years applying and interviewing for tech jobs. And then not hearing back.

David is on the autism spectrum and struggled with the stereotypical eye-contact and firm-handshake that hiring managers seem to require.

"It has nothing to do with success in your job or out-performance in your job," said Art Shectman, the founder and CEO of Ultra Testing.

Art hired David three years ago. David is now one of the company's lead testers.

Three-quarters of Ultra's 55 employers are on the autism spectrum. And that isn't to satisfy some grant requirement or serve some altruistic higher calling. Ultra is a for-profit company that pays its employees the market average and grows by 50 percent a year. Art and his co-founder recognized that neuro-diversity could offer a competitive advantage.

"The ability to take these complicated problems and rule sets and break them down into clear actionable testable things," Art said.

David said that is part of his makeup. And with brains like David's, Ultra uncovered 56 percent more defects than IBM in a head-to-head test for Prudential.

To preach the advantages of neurodiversity, Ultra launched "different better," a public awareness campaign that challenges people with a series of puzzles. After completing or giving up on a problem, visitors can see and hear how David solved it.

"My own preferences for work or the way I think about problems," David said.

An estimated 4 million people are on the autism spectrum in the United States; 85 percent of them are either under- or unemployed.

"Off-the-charts persistence and perseverance, amazing talents and logical reasoning," Art said.

When Ultra built its specialized recruiting pipeline from various autism message boards and organizations and started interviewing for quantitative attributes, the company found a wealth of qualified applicants, Art said. Those employees with extra abilities and Ultra's competitive advantage create an engine for social change, he added.

Ultra open-sources all it learns about recruiting and employing a neuro-diverse population to demonstrate for corporate America why it ought to consider employing similar hiring strategies.