TL;DR: Mask much? Wanna not? Try remote working!
This post will talk about my personal experience as a neurodivergent software developer at Seeq. It will NOT speak for anybody else who is neurodivergent, because I don’t want to give the impression that my experience can speak for others. I hope that by sharing my experience, I can provide some assurance and resources to neurodivergent people who worry about finding their place in the software industry.
Why am I writing this? Well, as a relative newcomer to the industry, and as a person with ADHD, autism, and CPTSD, I recall being very nervous about how my brain and I would fit into the professional world of software development. While I can’t speak for the industry as a whole or for the typical experience, I can talk about some benefits of working remotely as a neurodivergent software engineer.
Some key terms you should be familiar with while reading this document
- Neurodiversity, neurodivergent (ND), and neurotypical (NT)
- Masking (The link refers to autism masking but all kinds of ND people do it, not just autistic folk)
No, not that kind of mask. Keep that discussion elsewhere on the internet! This is about the kind of mask that many ND people put up to protect themselves in many social scenarios. Masking is when an ND person attempts to “pass” as NT by suppressing some ND behavior or by forcing themselves to engage in a common NT behavior. For example, common masking behaviors that I have engaged in include:
- faking eye contact or forcing myself to make consistent eye contact with people
- pretending to follow mundane social interactions, usually with a set of canned responses
- pretending to be relaxed
- mimicking facial expressions or body gestures
- suppressing my unease when surrounded by people in an enclosed space
- suppressing my urge to stim (which can be unhealthy if the stimming behavior is not disruptive to others)
Readers who are neurodivergent themselves may intimately understand the exhaustion that masking can bring. Many such readers may worry about finding a job or career where this costly social survival strategy is not necessary.
I recall when I was an intern at a BUTC (Big Unnamed Tech Company) in a typical office environment prior to my own autism diagnosis. While I was working there, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted by 1 or 2 pm every day, and I couldn’t figure out why. I was aware that I ‘acted differently’ when I was around my coworkers at BUTC, but I never gave it much thought, until I learned about masking. By the time I learned about masking and about my own diagnosis, the internship had already concluded, and I was left halfway convinced that I couldn’t make it as an engineer, partly because I am different than other people.
Six months after that internship ended, and three months after I realized that I spent most of my time around other humans masking, I got an opportunity to come aboard as an intern at Seeq, which is an entirely remote company. You must understand, at this point, I had nearly lost faith in my ability to work as a software developer because of the exhaustion and difficulty of trying to force myself to fit in both at my previous internship and at school. However, three months into my internship, I noticed that the old exhaustion just wasn’t there, and I started to wonder why. After a bit of reflection, I realized that I was not spending all my time masking!
Remote Work For The Win
It turns out, there are lots of benefits for someone like me working remotely. The biggest one is that I spend my working day in an environment that I have shaped to my liking and that the interactions I have with other people are remote, and therefore, easy to end. At Seeq, if I am masking, it is only when I am in a Zoom meeting, which means that I have some control over the situation. If I am not speaking, I can usually turn off my video and audio, but more importantly, when the meeting is over, I am alone and back in my meticulously arranged home office. This makes a huge difference for me because I immediately get to relax and be myself.
One of my favorite benefits of working remotely relates to eye contact. A masking behavior I often find myself engaging in is forcing or faking eye contact with people. Guess what? Nobody on Zoom can make eye contact with you! And nobody can tell where your eyes are pointed, so you never even have to look at someone’s eyes if you don’t want to. (Note to neurotypical readers: not all autistic people avoid eye contact or are bothered by it, so don’t let this inform any stereotypes).
Just as there are many benefits to working remotely, there can be some challenges. In addition to Zoom, we use several other tools to communicate across our teams, most notably, Slack and Outlook. We have many Slack channels ranging from our sub-team channels to a dev-team channel to a company-wide channel. This means that between Slack and email, there are a lot of notifications and pings to keep up with. As someone who does not context switch very well, and can have difficulty focusing, this can present a challenge. Fortunately, I have found a strategy to deal with this deluge that works well for me. I have two periods of time blocked off on my calendar daily, one in the morning and one in the afternoon that are just for catching up on asynchronous communication. Most of the day, I simply don’t worry about my email or about Slack, and I only check Slack if I am sent a direct message, or if someone tags me in a thread. This frees me up to focus on the task at hand for the rest of my day.
What about Culture?
Some of you ND readers may be thinking to yourself, “Okay, it’s great that remote work helped you avoid times where you felt you needed to mask, but the real problem is a culture that makes you feel like you need to mask, you shouldn’t have to rely on Zoom and/or solitude to avoid that.” And to that I say, I agree! An ideal workplace is a place that I don’t feel the need to mask, not just one where it is easy to avoid situations where I do mask. I can’t speak for other remote companies, but Seeq does a good job of fostering a culture that celebrates differences and diversity in a way that makes it feel like a safe place to be myself. While this isn’t intended to be a recruitment post for ND devs, I do want to highlight a few things that I think Seeq has done or is doing well.
Focus on Strengths
The most helpful thing for me is that Seeq makes a point to focus on developing its employees’ strengths and making sure their day-to-day jobs provide opportunities for them to use those strengths. Many companies put such a strong emphasis on adaptability and “well-roundedness” that they forget both to identify an employee’s natural strengths and to identify the actual skills needed for the job. What such companies are forgetting is that not all employees need to have the same skills or tendencies. For example, I am fully capable of communicating, and I generally communicate well if I have some reason to communicate, such as this blog post, but I am not so good at novel communication situations, like interviews or grabbing a coffee with coworkers, because I don’t have time to prepare what I will say, and I am not good at noticing NT social rituals. But I don’t actually need to be good at those rituals to do my job, and I am fully capable of communicating in the ways that are necessary for me to do my job.
Seeq focuses on strengths by offering all employees the opportunity to take the StrengthsFinder assessment and then integrating the results into team discussions. As these strengths are identified and developed further, we seek opportunities to put each employee into a position where they can use their strengths. Naturally, this benefits not just ND people, but everyone else too. Personally, I am not very good at multi-tasking or rapid context switching, but on the flip side, I am really good at hyper-focusing on an issue to move it along rapidly and digging really deep into issues. For my team, acknowledging my strengths and assigning work with them in mind means I am typically assigned things that need singular focus and/or need some digging to find a solution rather than rapidly switching between many small but unrelated issues (of course this varies based on what needs to be done). I also tend to fixate on things that excite me, which allows me to build expertise in whatever subject matter I am fixated on.
For example, lately, I have been fixated on TypeScript and the promise of static typing in our frontend code. For context, we have a TypeScript codebase that was historically compiled using the loosest possible settings for TypeScript. We needed new tooling and training for our developers in order for us to move toward a future where we could use TypeScript in a more strict fashion. I was given the freedom to focus on this problem, which allowed me to build up a strong foundation in the language and begin writing tutorials and providing resources to other developers on my team. I dove deep into the rabbit hole and found new tooling that allowed us to enforce “strict mode” for all new TypeScript files while slowly transitioning our older parts of the codebase to “strict mode”. While I am currently very focused on TypeScript, I may find myself obsessed with something new in a few months. As I hyper-focus on a particular feature, tool, or technology, I build up a body of knowledge that is useful to my team. By putting me in a position to use my strengths, the team puts me in a position where they can use my strengths.
Another cultural benefit at Seeq is that they give employees space to speak about what matters to them. I have had multiple conversations with my team about my ND status and how that impacts my work and life, and these conversations have led to easier communication between us as well as a sense of being accepted as I am. There is a growing conversation at Seeq about neurodiversity and how we can be better at communicating with one another, and that conversation is shaped by genuine curiosity rather than mandatory training or seminars, which has made the conversation feel more genuine than it might have felt otherwise.
If you are an ND person and you have found yourself wondering whether there is a place for you in the software industry, there are a few takeaways I hope I can leave you with. One, in my personal experience, remote work is an equalizer of sorts. The typical office environment and the social norms and rituals of NT people can be exhausting for many ND people, but with remote work, a lot of this is mitigated. You have control over your environment, and you have more control over social situations than you might have otherwise. Two, find out as much as you can about the culture at any company you may be planning to work with. When trying to decide if it is a good culture fit, look for evidence in job postings, Glassdoor, and even Reddit that the company has some focus on developing each individual’s strengths and that the company celebrates individuality in its employees. This can be a good indicator that the company cares less about social conformance and more about individual wellbeing. I work with many great folks, and many of them are neurotypical. I may not talk the way they talk or focus the way they focus or even work the way they work, but I am still valuable to my colleagues, and you will be too.
A Conceptual Analysis of Autistic Masking: Understanding the Narrative of Stigma and the Illusion of Choice
Autism Masking: To Blend or Not to Blend
What is Masking and Why Do Neurodivergent People Do It?
‘Masking’ for Years Can Leave Autistic People Confused About Who They Really Are
My colleague firstname.lastname@example.org for acting as editor and making me sound good
My colleague Mandi Burley for the illustration