Autism at Work: There is No Try, Only Do.
Autism at Work: There is No Try, Only Do.
We are big Star Wars fans in my family. As I think back on building Meticulon and now managing auticon Canada, Yoda’s famous lines often come to mind “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This has been the most challenging undertaking of my career as an entrepreneur. I had been running global business development teams for over two decades when we launched Meticulon in 2013. The proof-of-concept was simple: we were going to be the first IT consulting business focused solely on utilizing the tremendous gifts and talents of people with autism. The gifts that make them valuable and amazing technology team members. The business value seemed obvious. Companies would flock to us to engage our people. I was mistaken.
Indeed, we had seven letters of intent from very large, well-known Calgary companies committing to engaging our services once we had recruited, assessed, and trained our first cohorts of people to deploy as consultants. We chose to focus on delivering software testing services. The skills required matched the abilities of many autistic people including sustained focus, accuracy and precision, and thriving in the repetitive task work associated with quality assurance testing.
We put our first teams through an extensive capabilities and skills assessment process. We trained them to international standards for QA engineers resulting in ISTQB certifications. We would demonstrate to the business market that engaging with autistic workers would yield tremendous business value and wasn’t solely about corporate social responsibilities. With our teams trained and ready, not a single one of our letters of intent turned into an engagement. It would be almost one year before we would engage and deploy our first consultant.
You would, but will you?
As our CTO and I delivered dozens of presentations on our business, the responses were always the same – extremely positive, excited about the concept, and enthusiasm to get started. Yet, days would turn into weeks, and weeks turned into months with no scopes of work or signed contracts. A theme began developing: “We just don’t have the right project for you at this time.” “We missed the budget window this year for adding resources so let’s talk next year.” “We’re working with internal stakeholders to identify the right people to work with your team.”
No one ever says no outright. There were a lot of “not yets”, but not a definitive “yes.” My experience in business development and sales had given me a pretty thick skin for delay and rejection. However, I had never had so many people say, “We would do this” in the first meeting only to have no one taking the next step to say “Now, we will do this.” Understandably, I was baffled, confused, and frustrated. We had a highly skilled team ready to be deployed and excited for the possibility of meaningful and substainable work, only to have their hope deferred.
Going from try to do.
As a seasoned sales executive I started to examine what the obstacles could be. Was it budget? Did I have the right decision maker? Was there a need for resources? The answer ended up being quite simple: fear. A lack of experience (knowingly) working with people on the autism spectrum was bringing lots of anxiety. As we gently probed this further, the questions started surfacing: How hard would it be to work with them? How much extra work would it take? Were they really able to do the job? What if they weren’t? How do we get out of this if it doesn’t work? Will I get blamed for this if it fails? The problem was really understanding and getting comfortable with autism and how it would fit in their workplace.
How were we going to get from “try” to “do”?
First, we decided to engage with clients who had a personal connection to autism and identified internal advocates who would engage in a trial project. We also started addressing the fear/anxiety issue head-on through educational presentations on autism, our assessment and evaluation processes, as well as the coaching and support we would be providing to both our people and the client’s manager. Eventually, a few progressive and forward-thinking clients started to see how autistic people could make a valuable contribution to their business and their overall culture.
Eight years later, I’m thrilled and extremely proud of our reputation for excellence and our people are consistently in high demand across multiple technology disciplines. Businesses are finally coming around to the fact that there is an autism advantage for them that encompasses positive impacts on productivity, profitability, and long term sustainability.