A tale of untapped potential

Before COVID-19 brought travel to a halt, test specialist Dyllan Rafail would board a plane every Monday morning to fly to Boston, where he spent the week working onsite for global food retailer Ahold Delhaize. On Friday evening, he headed back home. A demanding schedule for anyone, but Rafail isn’t your average employee — he’s part of a small but growing cadre of neurodivergent IBMers.

The flight is just two hours, but Rafail’s real journey began in third grade, when he was first diagnosed with autism. “They found me spasming in class and thought I was having seizures,” he said. “It turned out that I was having an anxiety reaction to the temperature in the classroom and to how crazy the other kids were being.”

Autism is one of several conditions that fall under the diagnostic umbrella of neurodiversity. Others include dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia and Tourette syndrome. Rather than viewing these differences as handicaps, experts urge recognizing and respecting neurodiversity as just one of many human variations.

Unfortunately, neurodiversity is not well understood by the public. More than 40 percent of autistic adults are unemployed — and the gaps begin to form early. When children like Rafail struggle in the school setting, too often they grow into adults who struggle to find their way in a world that doesn’t understand their challenges — or their potential. But that could be changing.

Outdoor portrait of Dyllan

IBM test specialist Dyllan Rafail

Two IBMers on a mission

Rafail was hired as part of an initiative spearheaded in 2017 by IBM employees Paul Austin and Andrew Williams with the Specialisterne Foundation, which works with companies around the world to successfully bring neurodiverse candidates on board. It was one of several pilots launched across IBM globally to pave the way for a more inclusive workplace.

Austin, a New York-based senior manager in WebSphere development, has been on a mission to expand job opportunities for the neurodiverse since attending the first World Autism Awareness Day at the United Nations in 2015.

“People from a number of companies spoke, but the one that really got to me was the company Ultra Testing — now they call themselves the Ultranauts. Their speaker said they ate IBM’s lunch at testing by using an all-autistic staff.”

Austin launched the “Autism as a Skill” Business Resource Group (BRG), and within a few months 500 IBMers had joined. In 2018, the group became the ND@IBM BRG and now boasts over 1,400 members — neurodivergent employees and allies — in locations around the world. “It’s kind of similar to the LGBT+ movement — people are starting to come out more as autistic, and this group provides a resource both for those on the spectrum and for those who work with them.

Websphere manager Paul Austin

Websphere manager Paul Austin, one of the IBMers driving the initiative to expand hiring of neurodiverse candidates

“I have a nephew with Asperger’s, but I think my real driving motivation is that I know what it’s like to be on the outside. I’ve always felt on the outside, and I’ve always sympathized with people who are not quite understood. This is my chance to fight for people who don’t get represented. Autism is a condition that crosses class boundaries, racial boundaries, gender boundaries.”

Australia-based Williams found his way to the cause of neurodiversity in 2015 when a friend introduced him to the CEO of Specialisterne, founded in 2004 by Thorkil Sonne, after Sonne’s son was diagnosed with autism. Sonne chose to focus on the abilities often exhibited by the neurodiverse — attention to detail, high accuracy, innovative thinking, loyalty and honesty — rather than seeing it as a disability. At the time, Williams was the global technical offering leader for IBM testing services.

“I knew IBMers who had autistic kids, and I saw their struggles,” Williams said. “One of them turned to me once and said about his daughter, ‘I really don’t know what her future is.’ So I had a personal reason to move forward with this as well as a business reason.”

Austin and Williams met at a design thinking workshop in New York and hit it off immediately. “Andrew was on the same mission that I’m on,” said Austin. “And he came up with a way to build a business offering where we basically told potential clients, ‘We’re going to test your stuff, and we’re going to do it using a group of autistic people, and this is why it’s going to be better for your company.’”

Pencil sketches of plans for point-of-sale improvements

A glimpse into the mind of Dyllan Rafail. He created this drawing to show his client some of his ideas for improving their point-of-sale testing environment.

Sometimes being different is an asset

Hired as part of that first group of neurodivergent employees brought into IBM’s IGNITE Quality and Test program, Dyllan Rafail brings special qualities to his job that make him a highly valued member of both the IBM team and the client team.

“Dyllan has turned out to be an exceptional guy,” said Austin, noting that, “many times, individuals like Dyllan have a number of skills and traits that compensate for the other things that they lack. One of those traits is perseverance, another is a high tolerance for repetitive tasks, as well as an intense ability to focus. They happen to be well-matched for testing and pattern-matching. A neurodivergent person will often be better than their neurotypical peers at finding anomalies in how a program runs.”

Williams was drawn to the innovative thinking Rafail brought to the job. “He was testing point-of-sale (POS) equipment in the lab, and one of the problems was that the testing cards they used would frequently be lost. Dyllan designed, built and deployed a card holder so his fellow workers could easily remember to set their cards not just on any table, but in a recognized place where they could be found at the end of the day.

“Then Dyllan started thinking about how it would be helpful to have an individual shelf-mounted test card stand available to fellow team members,” Williams recalled. “He went further in the design and magnetized each holder so it could be easily attached to the POS machine.

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‘When Neurodiversity Works’: Follow four individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in their journey to find meaningful work and independence.

“Dyllan’s creativity knew no bounds,” continued Williams. “One of the testers would take an item, like a can of soup, and run the barcode across the POS to make sure it registered, and they would have 15 or 20 different items on hand to do the testing. He created and deployed a scanner for testing POS registration by putting multiple barcodes on a single piece of cardboard and then running that across the machine — he accelerated the testing process. He also developed a mobile phone scanner device to run multiple scans across multiple phones. And he did all this with his own materials, in his first 10 months of employment as a new IBMer. Remarkable.”

“When we found out what he’d been doing, first we said we need to start paying for these materials, and we also put him in touch with a patent lawyer to understand the value of these inventions,” said Williams. “I opened a dialogue between Dyllan and IBM Research so they could explore his ideas further. As a result, the Research team in Haifa is giving him guidance on some of his inventions and the client is so happy with Dyllan’s productivity that they gave IBM a reference just based on his efforts.

“The client said to him at one point, ‘We want to redesign the lab, just show us how the machines fit together.’ But Dyllan went beyond and created a virtual reality version of the lab, using exact measurements of all the components so the client could take a virtual tour of the redesigned lab. Using VR glasses, the client could actually experience walking into the test lab. This enabled them to see where modifications should be made before it was built. The client was so thrilled they asked Dyllan to do the same for all the other test labs at the site.”

And yet, said Williams, if Rafail had just applied for the job under the normal IBM hiring model, he might never have been hired. “People who are autistic struggle to get through the standard hiring process,” he explained, noting that engaging in small talk or making eye contact can be an overwhelming challenge for them and create an uncomfortable situation for the interviewer. By adapting the process to meet the needs of a neurodiverse candidate, employees like Rafail can find their way to opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach — to their benefit and IBM’s. 

A point-of-sale tablet mount with vents in the shape of the IBM 8-bar-logo

Rafail designed tools like this point-of-sale tablet mount to streamline the testing process

Accelerating the hiring effort

In 2019, the grassroots initiative started by Austin and Williams got the attention of IBM’s Diverse Abilities Council, which decided to focus on two areas related to neurodiversity in hiring: making the workplace more accessible for neurodiverse employees, and developing hiring models to bring more neurodiverse employees into IBM.

“Nothing About Us Without Us,” is the motto of IBM’s #ActuallyAutistic Task Force. Formed in 2019, it’s a support group for neurodivergent employees as well as a sounding board providing important advice and guidance, which is critical for the success of the ND@IBM Program.  

Heading up that effort are Yves Veulliet, IBM’s global disability and inclusion leader, and Diane Delaney, program manager for IBM’s global neurodiversity program. “So now we have a two-year plan to hire neurodivergent employees in various locations around the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the UK and the US,” said Delaney. One challenge is identifying locations that suit neurodivergent candidates. The design thinking model in place at many IBM locations tends to be noisy and ever-changing.

“Some autistic people may be comfortable with that, but more often they need a quieter workplace to be comfortable. An accommodation as simple as noise-canceling headphones can make a huge difference for them, or making sure their desk isn’t on a main hallway with a lot of traffic,” said Delaney.

While the effort with Specialisterne is seeing great success — almost all of the neurodivergent employees hired early in the program are thriving at IBM — a bigger challenge is creating an environment where the neurodiverse can successfully apply for opportunities across IBM.

Yves Veulliet at a conference in Australia

Yves Veulliet, IBM’s global disability and inclusion leader

“People can apply through the regular application process, and I would recommend that when they get the email asking if they need any special accommodation, they say yes,” said Delaney. “It won’t be held against them, and it will let the hiring manager be better prepared.

“Some people have a preconceived notion that neurodivergent people aren’t capable, but many are very high-functioning,” she said. “A study by JP Morgan showed that ‘after three to six months […], autistic workers were doing the work of people who took three years to ramp up — and were even 50 percent more productive.’ Once people hear the success stories and learn about the abilities that neurodiverse people have, then they’re like ‘Okay, how do we become a part of that?’”

IBM developed a course with Uptimize called “Neurodiversity 101” that employees can take. It’s a 77-minute course on how to work with neurodiverse individuals. “We would love for every hiring manager to take this training,” said Delaney.

“The goal is to have a neurodiverse hiring process fully integrated into the standard hiring process within the next few years,” said Veulliet. “Nothing is ever perfect, but we want to make sure we’re providing equal opportunity regardless of factors related to neurodiversity. IBM has a long tradition of welcoming people with diverse abilities, and we’ve developed a very structured process for onboarding people living with various types of disabilities, like vision or hearing loss. We need to make sure we reach that same standard of quality for neurodivergent candidates.”

“People need to be patient when they’re engaging with someone who’s on the autism spectrum,” said Rafail. “Just because someone is not responding in the way you expect doesn’t mean they’re responding negatively. They might struggle to pick up nuances in a conversation. It comes down to human understanding.”

Rafail is a clear personification of the value delivered by the neurodiversity hiring program. He may be a trailblazer, but neurodiverse candidates are beginning to find their place across the full spectrum of IBM opportunities. And that’s good news for everyone.

Diane Delaney smiling outside

Diane Delaney, Neurodiversity@IBM Global Program Manager

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