As the global pool of malicious cyberattackers grows in strength and innovation — finding new, unheard of ways to breach our systems — the pool of professionals with the skills to outsmart them continues to shrink. If your company has ever tried to recruit an IT professional with cybersecurity experience, you know the skills gap is real. More than 80% of IT organizations face a shortage of employees with specialized cybersecurity knowledge.
This labor shortage is one organizations can't afford to ignore — no matter your industry, it's all too easy (and far too likely) for you to become the target of a cyber threat. Criminal attacks have hit companies in all business areas, from manufacturing to retail, and everything in between. The wearisome search for skilled reinforcements to work against these attacks has left the IT industry uneasy, but we haven't unturned every stone yet.
There's a bright, uniquely talented, yet underemployed group of people who may have just the right skill set to fulfill our cybersecurity labor shortage. They have the intelligence, competence, and technical expertise to thrive in the IT industry; all they need is the opportunity to put their talents to work.
Who are these talented workers? Individuals with autism.
While people with autism have traditionally been overlooked in the labor market, tech companies have begun to take notice of the impressive contributions they can make. It appears that some traits associated with autism, such as a propensity for numbers, the ability to hyperfocus, and meticulous attention to detail, are all qualities that are a great asset to a programmer or anyone who works with large data sets.
Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and software giant SAP have all instituted pilot programs to hire people with autism for IT positions. Others, including IBM and Dell, are laying the groundwork for similar programs, according to the Harvard Business Review. There's also the nonPareil Institute, a Texas school and software company devoted to teaching coding to young adults with autism.
The results look promising. If your company hasn't previously considered tapping into the pool of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — especially in the world of cybersecurity — here's why you should.
Consider one of the heroes of modern computing: Alan Turing. The British mathematician and logician is famous for his contributions to cracking the code of the Enigma machine during World War II, which allowed the Allies to intercept the Germans' coded messages. Some historians believe his work shortened the war in Europe by two to four years.
If that accomplishment wasn't enough, Turing is also considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence — and it's widely believed that he had autism.
While Turing was not diagnosed during his lifetime, experts such as Kevin Pelphrey, the director of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute at George Washington Institute, point out that Turing's “mathematical genius and social inelegance” suggest he may have been on the autism spectrum.
“[Turing's] story illustrates how society benefits when it gives a voice to those who think different. Until he came along, no one perceived the need for a computer; they simply needed to crack the code. It took a different kind of mind to come up with that unexpected, profoundly consequential solution,” Pelphrey remarked in Wired.
Turing's autistic brain may have been the key that allowed him to think far differently from his coworkers — so far outside of the norm that he came up with a computing device no one had imagined. This is the sort of inventive mindset we need in cybersecurity today, at a time when cyberattacks are advancing faster than we can invent new methods of prevention.
Slowly, perceptions of people with autism are beginning to change. In the 1990s, sociologist Judy Singer introduced a new term to describe conditions including autism, dyslexia, and ADHD: neurodiversity. It was meant to change the discourse around disorders like autism. And the recent spate of ASD-oriented hiring programs suggest it's working.
This is not to say all people with autism will be able to (or will even want to) work comfortably in an office environment. Roughly one-third of people with autism also have an intellectual disability, and some find even brief social interactions to be too overwhelming and disruptive. For others, though, minor adjustments from employers — like allowing them to converse via typing (or text-to-speech software) — can help them feel at ease, and work productively in a professional role.
Many people with autism have average or above-average intelligence; the fact that their minds work differently than most can be a strength for companies that want to think differently. Employers seeking innovation already recognize the benefits of having diverse employees, and those on the spectrum are no different.
A 2016 study by Australia's Curtin University of 59 companies found that employees on the autism spectrum performed at above-average levels in the categories of work ethic, attention to detail, and overall work quality. On productivity, ASD and non-ASD employees were the same.
The study also found no added cost associated with hiring workers on the spectrum.
“Employees with ASD were also found to have a positive impact on the workplace in terms of the creative and different skills they brought to the organization and by increasing awareness of autism amongst employees,” said Dr. Delia Hendrie, the lead researcher on the study.
Cybersecurity may be an area particular geared toward people on the spectrum. At a British cybersecurity conference in March, a presentation on neurodiversity in the industry suggested that individuals with autism may make excellent pen testers and SOC analysts. Meanwhile, a guide to incorporating people with autism into the industry notes the following traits associated with autism that are an asset to the cybersecurity industry:
● Strong memory of facts
● Methodical thought process
● Skilled in pattern recognition
● Attention to detail
● Strong problem-solving skills
For obvious reasons, skills like these can be a phenomenal asset for someone who scans lines of code, meticulously analyzes data, or performs any other number of other cybersecurity tasks.
In many cases, the hiring process is stacked against people with autism, as traditional interviews emphasize social skills and communication abilities — areas in which many autistic people operate outside of traditional social norms.
This is likely a large part of why as many as 90% of American adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. The Harvard Business Review described one such man, who needed two years to find a tech job despite having two master's degrees with honors, this way:
He seems, well, different. He wears headphones all the time, and when people talk to him, he doesn't look right at them. He leans over every 10 minutes or so to tighten his shoelaces; he can't concentrate when they're loose. When they're tight, though, John is the department's most productive employee.
Or there's Aaron Winston, who has wanted to be a video game programmer since he was a child. He enrolled in college after high school, but dropped out immediately because of the social atmosphere. By age 22, though, he was employed full-time by the nonPareil Institute and had already created his own video game — all because the Institute was designed to take a chance with people like him.
For companies who speak about being committed to innovation, growth, and new ideas, it's time to recognize a reality: if you want people who think outside the box, you must accept people who behave a bit outside the box, too.
That's why initiatives such as the Autism at Work program at SAP include an interview process custom-designed for prospective hires who have autism. The program aims to tackle some of the biggest hurdles autistic people face when seeking jobs.
SAP didn't stop at the hiring process. The organization has also taken steps to ensure a more welcoming work environment for people with autism once they're hired. Through the Autism at Work program, candidates are matched with a mentor at the start of the hiring process. Once they're hired, this mentor turns into a coach to help them make a smooth transition into their role.
It doesn't work out every time. To assess whether applicants in its ASD program are a good fit, Danish consulting company Specialisterne offers a multi-week training program that gives the company the chance to see how the applicant handles work assignments. Their program was crafted with understanding in mind. The company's founder has a child with autism.
Building a neurodiverse workplace requires understanding that creating a welcoming workplace doesn't fall onto those with autism. It's the responsibility of their coworkers, peers, and managers — those without autism — to uphold an environment that fosters support, kindness, and acceptance. Part of this should involve autism awareness and sensitivity training for employees to educate them on how to make it easier for employees with autism to integrate into the workplace.
SAP's Autism at Work program has found great success; so far, 100 people have been hired for IT positions of all kinds, including software testing, data analysis, and quality assurance. SAP has launched the program globally, from the US to India to Brazil. The program's success challenges perceptions of what people with autism can achieve.
“The common prejudice is that people with ASD have limited skills and are difficult to work with. To the extent that's true, it's a measure of our failure as a society,” Pelphrey told Wired. “[W]e have clear evidence that job-focused training and support services, especially in the transition to adulthood, can make a huge difference, leading to higher levels of employment, more independence, and better quality of life.”
Employers can share in this success. Alan Turing helped to shorten a historically brutal war, in large part because of his ability to think differently. Organizations need this kind of creative and innovative thinking to advance in the IT and cybersecurity space.
If more tech companies are willing to accommodate people with high-functioning autism — by adopting inclusive hiring practices and creating welcoming environments for neurodiverse people — we may just find stronger and more innovative IT teams, better equipped to address the complexities of cybersecurity.
- Contributed By: With 20 years of experience in the enterprise space, Xuyen Bowles now oversees one of the most successful cyber security firms in San Diego, CA. Sentek Cyber (a division of Sentek Global) offers a wide array of cyber security protection from penetration testing, consultancy, training to advance threat detection. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when." Ms. Bowles finds great gratification in helping companies ensure they are safe from data breach.