People with autism face a variety of obstacles in getting jobs, a factor that puts their rate of unemployment upward of 80 percent.
But it turns out that some of the qualities that make it hard for those on the autism spectrum to find employment make them ideally suited for certain tech jobs, such as quality assurance and finding bugs in code.
Four years ago, entrepreneur Rajesh Anandan had a hunch that might be the case — he figured that the autism community might be an ideal place to find people with great attention to detail and an ability to focus on a single task without losing concentration.
Anandan convinced his former MIT roommate Art Shectman to hire a few people with autism as testers for Shectman’s software shop, Elephant Ventures. Within 72 hours, they had 150 applicants for three openings, a third of whom had graduate degrees.
“There is an incredible talent pool hungry for opportunities,” said Anandan in an interview.
Anandan’s intuition turned out to be right. What started as an experiment is now a New York-based company, Ultra Testing, which handles a wide range of software testing projects. Co-founder Anandan is not on the autism spectrum himself, but three-quarters of the company’s workers are.
Ultra, meanwhile, has grown from five people to 32 people, working remotely from 12 states. The company is now profitable, and expects to triple in size again over the next three to four years.
Some big tech firms are taking notice. Microsoft, for example, launched a pilot program last year to hire more people with autism. But advocates say more efforts are needed, and are using Saturday’s World Autism Awareness Day to draw attention to the community and its employment needs.
Several companies that have switched work to Ultra say its employees have proved far more adept than other firms at finding bugs.
The Webby Awards, for example, turned to Ultra to make sure its website worked across different browsers and found it 20 percent more efficient than the prior testing company.
“The Ultra team delivered a level of QA (quality assurance) that I have never seen in my 14 years of Web development, and this year, we’ve had fewer issues with our platform than we’ve ever had before,” Webby Awards executive producer Steve Marchese said in a case study on the project.
In another project, for insurance giant Prudential, Anandan said Ultra found 56 percent more bugs than IBM, the vendor it replaced on a project to ensure that its website was accessible to those with disabilities.
Some Ultra employees are telling their own stories on a site called DifferentBetter.us, designed to support autism awareness.
Managing a team whose workers are mostly on the autism spectrum has had some challenges, Anandan said. While his employees excel at the work, he said special attention has been needed to ensure good companywide communication, and to make sure the company has a good sense for how workers are feeling. Each day, workers have to rate their happiness at the end of the day on a five-point scale — a method that Anandan said has worked to identify when workers are struggling. It also works to find out how employees prefer to receive communication, and to identify what types of things are stress triggers.
Work is broken into predictable chunks, with clearly defined goals and criteria.
“Some of our team are great at adapting to change,” Anandan said. “Others aren’t. We try to make change as predictable as possible.”
The hiring process also required some extra attention, Anandan said. Ideal employees don’t necessarily do well in traditional interviews, nor did many have significant work experience. Instead, Ultra tests for 28 attributes known to be common to those well-suited to testing work. It also monitors new recruits on a simulated project to make sure they have found a good match.
“We have a fairly accurate picture if someone is going to be a great tester,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.