Over the last few months we have had the privilege of hosting several panel discussions focused on issues that many industries have long faced, including gender diversity and women in IT. These have prompted very constructive conversations amongst our community of IT professionals in the Legal and Finance spaces.
During one of these webinars, Shane Brownen, a cyber security analyst with Kensington Mortgages, opened up a conversation about neuro-diversity in IT. As a person living with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Shane brought a new dimension to the conversation that we thought deserved further investigation, as it casts a personal, positive light on the impact that Covid has had on working environments.
Shane’s interests in IT started when he built his own computer at just 12 years of age. As Shane grew older, his love of technology progressed into a curiosity with hacking using Telnet. But as a young adult, he enjoyed a mixed engineering background and had a keen eye for fixing all sorts of machinery. For a time, Shane even did a stint in construction, which suited his to desire work independently. Eventually, though, he gravitated back to IT.
“Ultimately, IT was always going to be the thing for me.”Shane Brownen, Cyber Security Analyst, Kensington Mortgages
Prior to his current position, Shane worked at Brunel University as the lead IT technician in ‘Game Design’, a role he was selected for thanks to his deep understanding of technology. “It worked well for me, as I can read and understand code and essentially I’m good at telling people where they have gone wrong and how to resolve it.”
ASD, or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, is something that an individual is born with. It affects people in different ways, and can vary in severity, hence the term ‘spectrum.’ Contrary to many perceptions, ASD is not an illness or a disease, and having ASD doesn’t stop people from living full lives. In simple terms, ASD affects the way the brain works compared to other people.
People with Autism may find it harder to communicate with others, they may struggle with empathy, repeat things continuously and get anxious. Despite some of these social challenges, people with ASD typically have an above average intelligence. The conditions can vary, as can the level of assistance that people with ASD may require.
Shane explained that his ASD makes some aspects of business more challenging for him. “Social situations are the most difficult for me personally,” he explained. “They really take me out of my comfort zone. Even just going to the kitchen to grab a coffee, people want to talk, and I often find that a struggle.”
“We were up for a cyber security award in 2019 and being around lots of people and shaking their hands at the ceremony made me especially anxious. I also have to remember how to behave in those types of situations, simple things like when someone asks how I am, I need to remember to ask them back because it doesn’t come naturally to me.”
Strong leadership makes a difference
Most people will agree that having supportive managers is pivotal to a company’s success. As they say, people don’t leave companies – they leave bad managers.
Strong leadership really does make a difference. Having the ability build a diverse team of complementary talents and manage them efficiently is a very important part of that. Shane works in a cyber security team of 6 people. Fortunately, he speaks very highly of his current manager and his colleagues.
“I am very lucky to have such an understanding, skilled manager who is an absolute wealth of knowledge. It’s great for me, as I love information. His drive and motivation to gather all of this information, retain it and impart it on others really intrigues me. He’s also a nice, down to earth guy, too. A rare talent.”Shane Brownen, Cyber Security Analyst, Kensington Mortgages
Welcoming more diverse opinions and ways of thinking can not only create a great culture but also actively aid productivity. Kensington is blessed with a diverse team of individuals who complement each other to get the job done, leading to high productivity and increased employee wellbeing.
“We have a diverse range of people and skillsets within our team, which means we always manage to figure out how to get the job done by bouncing ideas of off each other.”
Kensington asked all of its employees what they want when it comes to remote working. As well as saving money from a CapEx/ OpEx perspective (needing less office space), people are happier because they can have the option to work from home.
“It makes me more comfortable, so I enjoy what I do and am more productive. New, hybrid working models can appease both sides: those who want to go into an office, and those who don’t. Companies that can operate in this way see a real benefit.”
Attracting and retaining talent: Breaking barriers & educating the C-Suite
Education is critical in understanding an individual’s needs, especially someone with ASD, as the support they need will vary. That can only really be achieved by talking – and more importantly listening – to the company’s most valuable assets; the employees. That is why communication (in the right way) is key.
“Show employees that you care about them more than you want them to care about you. Prioritising that puts the responsibility on the C-Suite to make the effort to look after people.”
When thinking about recruitment, the hiring process is a daunting experience for most, but it’s heightened for those with ASD, and could put an otherwise perfect candidate on the back foot, if not off the role completely.
According to Shane, there are numerous benefits for people on the Autistic spectrum to pursue careers in computer science and engineering. The logical nature of problem-solving and spatial awareness are important skills in these fields, so it’s feasible that recruiting people by doing things ‘the way they’ve always been done,’ could let exceptional talent slip through the cracks. It would be far better to adjust the process to suit the individual.
“I suffer from hyperhidrosis when I get anxious. I can’t control how or when it happens. When going through the interview process, you’re already extra nervous, so I prefer not to shake anyone’s hand.”
With the increased acceptance of remote-working, screens are helping to remove some of the barriers for people with ASD. Shane explains, “I feel that all of the things that can trigger someone with ASD are slowly being eliminated – skype interviews, for example. You can be more yourself, without the social or ‘new area’ anxiety. I can see a point when it will get easier for people.”
Due to Covid, people are more aware about encroaching on other’s personal space. They are either greeting without shaking hands, or asking first if it’s okay. Shane hopes that practices like this will continue into the future.
Being more accepting and welcoming of diversity is a slow, forward trudge. If there’s been one silver lining from the global pandemic, it may be helping to pave the way for future generations to have an easier time of it. Diversity within IT and the workplace is massively advantageous to businesses, and something that needs to continuously be discussed and learned.
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