Cat Contillo recalls how uncomfortable she felt during an office internship a few years ago because of colleagues’ reactions to her masculine outfits and her inability to understand sarcasm.
Ms. Contillo, who was diagnosed with autistic age at age 18, was not a fan of the office environment. Now 33, she is thriving in a cybersecurity job and working from home in upstate New York for Huntress Labs Inc., a threat detection software company based in Ellicott City, Maryland, with an entirely remote workforce.
The typical office culture can be difficult to fit in with those with cognitive differences, but the massive shift to remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic has made it easier for job seekers who are neurodiverse, an umbrella term that encompasses conditions such as autism, attention deficit and deficiency. /hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.
The appeal of cybersecurity
The cybersecurity sector may be particularly suited to candidates with neurodiversity, who may possess traits such as hyperfocus, precision, perseverance and the ability to identify patterns, researchers and executives said. Such traits equate to skills needed to assess cyber risks, analyze suspicious online activity and perform many other security tasks, according to Crest Internationala UK-based non-profit organization that accredits organizations and individuals who provide cybersecurity services.
Hiring more neurodiverse candidates could help address the talent shortage in the cybersecurity industry, Crest said. The US Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security expects 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2025.
Ms. Contillo works from her home in Wappingers Falls, NY, with her two cats, and spends her days sifting through cyber data to discover malware patterns. She was hired in 2019 and obtained a PhD last May.
Ms. Contillo became interested in cybersecurity in college when she volunteered to teach seniors how to use their computers and other gadgets. A non-traditional student, she didn’t start college until she was 23. A friend from her cybersecurity classes at Utica University’s online program helped Ms. Contillo got a job at Huntress when she graduated.
Entering the corporate world inspired her to advocate for neurodiverse people pursuing a security career. “We are many,” she said.
Obstacles in the office
Neurodiverse people face obstacles in an office environment designed primarily for neurotypical workers. Constant and unpredictable social interactions can be overwhelming for people with autism. According to Crest International, harsh lighting or strong smells, such as a colleague’s perfume, can irritate people with sensory processing problems.
“The pandemic has helped level the playing field by creating working conditions that are the same for everyone and better controlled through the use of technology,” said Daniel Clayton, vice president of global security operations at Bitdefender Inc., a Romania-based company. company that provides hack prevention and response tools.
Supporting a neurodiverse workforce is no more difficult than having the necessary empathy to support all employees, said Mr. Clayton: “This is just understanding what one needs to be successful and then setting the conditions to be successful.”
Nurturing neurodiverse employees
The pandemic has helped neurodiverse people get along more comfortably with colleagues as companies increasingly turned to virtual communication channels like Slack. Video conferencing features, such as real-time captioning and transcription, are especially useful for those with ADHD, who are easily distracted, or those with auditory processing disorders.
Consulting firm Ernst & Young LLP has more than tripled its neurodivergent workforce worldwide during the pandemic, to nearly 300 now from 80 in 2020, said Hiren Shukla, founder of EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence, which is “responsible for converting the effort to neurodiversity inclusiveness” in tangible return on investment, the company said.
Building a psychologically safe space may mean providing noise-cancelling headsets or creating workspaces with low foot traffic when employees are in the office, he said. One of Shukla’s neurodivergent team members uses four screens to segment tasks and keep track of ideas in his raging mind.
“If you reduce the stress of the commute,” said Mr. Shukla, “and the environmental stimuli, lighting, temperature, texture, noise… they thrive.”
Last April, EY established a neurodiverse team of 10 in Boston, including those with dyslexia or autism, to be matched with client work in cybersecurity and other areas. A similar center in London opened in July, aiming to employ 150 neurodiverse people.
Working from home is not suitable for everyone. Mr. Shukla said that approximately 25% to 30% of EY’s neurodiverse team members preferred to return to the office because they felt more productive there.
For Ms. Contillo, working remotely in a technology-controlled environment reduces the stigma she has felt in other environments. “If we were going to be personal, face to face,” she said, “I would probably come across as very bitter or rude because I wouldn’t be around people all the time.”
Improving the application process
Interviewing job applicants remotely can evade a major challenge for neurodivergent individuals seeking employment in the cybersecurity sector: social norms.
Rather than squeeze multiple meetings into the same office building on the same day, video interviews can be interspersed with breaks, says Leigh Honeywell, chief executive of Tall Poppy, a San Francisco-based software company that helps companies protect their employees from online harassment.
“You can catch your breath in between,” said Ms. Honeywell, who has ADHD. “That’s ultimately very helpful and supportive for many people who struggle to maintain that level of attention through six hours of active conversation.”
Managers should consider a person’s housing requests, according to researchers in diversity and inclusion at Dublin City University in Ireland, who have a Neurodiversity toolkit for hiring managers† Such customizations could include allowing for note taking and pre-provision of questions and case studies in electronic form.
Nada Noaman, vice president of cybersecurity at Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.,
recommends that companies hire a professional organization to educate managers about cognitive differences. Ms. Noaman works with Integrate Advisors, a non-profit organization that advises executives on creating an autism-friendly workplace and recruits candidates.
She said she has learned not to judge someone based on a resume and the first few minutes of an interview. Instead, she puts more weight on questions about technical skills.
Crest International recommends attending meetings when working with an autistic person, as bouts of exercise can improve focus and minimize eye contact.
Remote interviews can remove potential biases, Ms Honeywell said. “We’re this little box on the screen versus a complicated, messy human who might want to move or talk differently,” she said.
write to Nicolle Liu at Nicolle.Liu@wsj.com
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