[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about neurodivergence with the familiar voice we have on Season 23, Frankie Nicoletti, VP of Engineering at SoLo Funds.
[00:00:21] FN: All these things are good for everyone. Listening to people when they give you their needs, good for everyone. Making accommodations to allow people to do their best work, good for everyone. Reducing people’s unnecessary cognitive load so that they can spend their precious time and energy while they’re at work on business problems is good for everyone. And I think that that’s really at the core of the sort of neurodivergent movement for me is that everything is all connected.
[00:00:46] SY: Frankie talks about what neurodivergence is and how to be more accommodating in the workplace after this.
[00:00:59] SY: Thank you so much for being here again.
[00:01:01] FN: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so glad to be back.
[00:01:03] SY: So for those of you who didn’t have a chance to listen to Frankie’s previous episode, Frankie came on our show in Season 23 and we got a chance to talk about Frankie’s tech journey. So for this episode, we’re going to talk about neurodivergence. Does that sound good to you?
[00:01:15] FN: Let’s do it.
[00:01:16] SY: Allrighty. So can you define what neurodivergence means?
[00:01:22] FN: Yeah. Neurodivergence is super interesting. You’ll hear a lot of people talk about neurodivergence, like plural, versus neurotypicals, but actually, I think there’s so much we don’t know about how the brain works, and I would imagine that everyone’s brain is actually a little more different from the “norm”, and maybe there isn’t a norm that exists, but most commonly when you hear people talk about neurodivergence, especially at work, they’re talking about conditions that we know as things like ADHD, autism, OCD, dyslexia, all of these kinds of things. Even down to things like there are certain conditions that affect whether you can visualize things in your brain, whether you could see images, or whether you just like think in concepts. But the point is that we’re all very different and some of these types of brains do better in a standard office environment than others.
[00:02:12] SY: Tell me a little bit more about some examples of neurodivergence. I think ADHD is probably the one that comes most top of mind. What are some other ones that we should be aware of?
[00:02:22] FN: Yeah. Autism is a big one. There’s a high comorbidity, which is a very serious sounding word between autism and ADHD, which basically means that it’s very likely for someone who has one to also have the other, and we know ADHD as being either a dopamine deficiency or executive dysfunction, it might also come with time blindness. Autism has some overlap with things that might look like OCD, where people who are autistic like things to be very organized. They tend to have bottoms up instead of top down thinking, which makes them really great at designing systems. Like you’ll find a lot of engineers. I don’t have any statistics to prove this. It’s just my suspicion from my personal experience is that there are a lot of people that work in tech who are autistic, who are bottoms-up thinkers, and that can make them really good at their job. But there’s also things like dyslexia. And a lot of people with dyslexia, which people understand as, “Oh, you’re jumbling up letters,” but did you know that the reason people with dyslexia jumble up letters is because bees and peas and bees, they’re so good at visualizing things that they look like the same letter?
[00:03:26] SY: Ha! That’s interesting.
[00:03:28] FN: This is why Comic Sans is a super inclusive font for people with dyslexia because every letter is different. They’re not shaped the same, rotated different ways. There’s many people with dyslexia who have this incredible ability to visualize things in 3D that blows past what the average person can do, which can make them really good at things that involve like architecture or things that involve a need to visualize something to just a greater degree than what most of the rest of us can do. And that’s a very common one. There’s other ones where people have trouble visualizing something in their brain. They think in words. For folks like that, like one of the things that’s good is having really good database documentation that’s written out on paper so that they don’t have to imagine the database connections in their brain, but there’s certainly a wide variety. OCD is a neurodivergence. Even things like traumatic brain injury actually count as under neurodivergence as well because it causes your brain to work in different ways. And traumatic brain injuries are all different, right? I can’t say that every person with a brain injury needs X, Y, Z accommodation at work, but just know that we think about them when we’re thinking about how to make the workplace more inclusive too.
[00:04:33] SY: I think one of the struggles with trying to be inclusive when it comes to neurodivergence, trying to be inclusive in the workplace and thinking about either a manager and the person they’re managing or just between coworkers, is that it’s not like visible, right? Like it’s not something that people wear on their shirt. So it might be hard to kind of identify, is this person dealing with some obstacles, some issues around being neurodivergent? Or is it something unrelated to that? Is there a way to be sensitive if you’re just not sure and just not made aware of that person? How do you help someone if you don’t know what they’re dealing with?
[00:05:11] FN: Yeah. I love this question. And there’s a bunch of different components to the answer, one of which that it is invisible and I subscribe to the social model of disability, which is that like I’m only as disabled as I’m not accommodated by society. For example, we don’t think about eyeglasses as being a disability aid, but they are.
[00:05:31] SY: Interesting. Yeah. Yep.
[00:05:33] FN: And we even joke about how some people look better with glasses on. We’re basically joking about how some people look better with their disability aid.
[00:05:41] SY: Yeah.
[00:05:42] FN: And it’s become totally normalized because every kid gets checked for their vision and they get glasses, and then later they get contacts or I’ve had LASIK eye surgery and we just accept this, like obviously people are going to have their eyes checked at some point and we’re going to do something about it. You are only as “disabled” as society does not accommodate you, or as your workplace doesn’t accommodate you. And I will actually probably make this argument several times over the course of this episode that accommodations that we do for people with neurodivergence actually benefit everyone. They’re just like good practices that make everyone feel safe and cared for and like they have the resources and the support necessary to do the job. The other thing that I will add is that the general thing you should do is listen to people. So if you’re a manager and you have an engineer who’s saying, “Hey, I have ADHD and I’m having trouble with X, Y, Z,” then you can sort of work with them to find like a solution for them for that specific circumstance. I wouldn’t say there aren’t general things you could do to sort of support neurodivergence because I think there are remote work being one of them. But more often than not, the trick here is to listen to people when they tell you what kind of support they need. And the thing that makes this additionally complicated is that there’s plenty of people out there who I think are still undiagnosed. Many people got their neurodivergence diagnosis or their realization as many people in the autistic community like to say that they realized they were autistic, but they don’t consider it a disorder. It’s a neurotype and it has its pros and cons, just like “neurotypicals” do. Many of us got diagnosed since COVID, and I’m sure that we’re going to see studies and theories around why this is. My theory is that when they send everybody home for an unknown period of time and everyone went through the trauma of a global pandemic, we lost all of our standard coping mechanisms that we had built up over our lives. And then at home by ourselves, we’re like, “Why am I so weird?” And then we went looking for answers, and whether that was through social media or through talking to friends, because many of these things, this is especially true for ADHD and autism, is that they come with friends. So chances are if you got diagnosed or realized you were ADHD, autism or both, chances are your closest friends are too. And so either you’re finding out through your friends, you’re finding out through videos on TikTok that are like, “Here are some signs that I was autistic and I didn’t know it,” and you’re like, “Wow! I do all of those things.” I think that a lot of us had to contend with life without our standard coping mechanisms for at least some period of time. And also the stress of a global pandemic sort of pushed everybody through a one-way trauma door. And it became harder for people to mask, which is the term we use when we talk about trying to pretend like you’re a neurotypical, which people can do without even realizing it. Right? You don’t know when you’re two that you have ADHD and you don’t find out till you’re older. And depending on how old, you might have spent your whole life thinking that you’re a neurotypical, even if that’s not a word you know and trying desperately to fit in. And then now COVID hits and we’re experiencing global trauma and your ability to mask goes down to zero or gets significantly reduced and then you’re like, “Why am I such a weirdo?” And then you go looking for answers. And so now we’re having people that are newly diagnosed, right? I am autistic, so I will use the realization word instead of the diagnosed word. I realized I was autistic in late 2021. I am in my late 30s and I have so many friends now that I have made on the internet where this is similar for them. They didn’t find out until post pandemic, which also means that there are people who don’t know that they’re neurodivergent, who are sitting beside you at work, who could benefit from some support, but they don’t even know how to ask for it, which is why I say that of the things that you can do that are general, they will benefit everybody even if they’re neurotypical, even if they think they’re neurotypical and they just haven’t figured it out yet. There are some things you can do that are good for everybody, and besides that, when people ask for help, you should just listen, which I think is universally true.
[00:09:49] SY: Let’s talk about some of those things that we can do. When you think about the workplace, assuming you have some influence on that workplace, assuming you have some say in the way people do their work, the way they operate, what are some things that we can do that’ll create a more neurodivergently inclusive environment?
[00:10:10] FN: Yeah, I love this question. So there’s a bunch of things, and many of them are things that you should do for a primarily remote environment anyway, because they’re good for everybody. I tend to look at things as like how the system automatically notifies people or like automatically prioritizes things rather than expecting people to remember things in their head, or asking people to do some like manual workaround, like sometimes that’s appropriate. But generally speaking, I want people to have systems that they can rely on to help them out with things instead of asking them to take like really good notes and remember little processes. So some of the things that I do at the company that I work at now are like we have an engineering calendar on Google and all of the engineering meetings are on there. So whether it’s yours or some other teams, like if you need to see what’s going on, it’s right there. I encourage everybody to install their Google Calendar in Slack, because if you’re an engineer, chances are you’re not checking email very often, and it would benefit you to have the place where you are doing most of your communicating throughout the day, ping you when it’s time to get on a call. Whenever somebody’s constantly late for meetings and they’re not like a manager, right? Like I’m running from meeting to meeting to meeting, and I get a lot of grace from my coworkers, thankfully. But if it’s an IC and they’re constantly late for meetings, the first question that I ask is how they get notified about their calendar events. Because sometimes they just need help setting up the system to remind them. It’s not because they’re bad at their job or being intentionally disrespectful, they just needed a notification in the right place.
[00:11:44] SY: I really like that.
[00:11:45] FN: That sort of informs everything else. Even things like having core hours versus saying everybody should be online from nine to five. This has made its way into tech because people are working across time zones, but even if you think everybody on your team is working on the same time zone, you could also benefit from this.
[00:11:59] SY: Tell me more about core hours. What does that mean?
[00:12:01] FN: Yeah. So at the company I work at now, our core hours are nine to two Pacific. And so if you are on the East Coast, your core hours start a little bit later and they end at 5:00 for you. I also have a couple exemptions for international engineers. Some of them, their day ends at 10:00 AM my time because they’re in Pakistan. So what that allows us to do is say, “Meetings are going to be in this time. You need to be available and around for that. But outside of that, I don’t care what time of day you get your work done.” If you need to go walk your dog, need to go to the gym, need to take a nap, need to care for a family member in those outside core hours, as long as you’re getting your work done, I don’t care which set of hours outside of core hours you work to make up your eight total. You can live a life that works for you. And this is if you don’t have like neurodivergent needs and you could just use this time to like make sure you get more time with your kids or more time with your pets or see the sun a little bit more, that’s valid too. But if you’re a person that needs to take a break from peopleing and interfacing with people and talking to people and you need some quiet time to think or do work in a quiet space, then you also have the time to do that.
[00:13:11] SY: I love that. Yeah.
[00:13:12] FN: It gives you more flexibility to define when your workday is while still making sure that there is dedicated time. Every day the office is open for people to schedule meetings with you. Another thing I like is providing communication avenues that are not just written. This is also great for people whose English is not their first language, and many of us have augmented our teams with people internationally, but this is also great for either people who are struggling with written communication or just like would prefer to talk through something. And so tools that I really like are… Slack has a cool audio message feature now, just like I have on my iPhone and my iMessages. I send a lot of like voice messages to my friends these days because sometimes it’s easier to just say something. But also I really love Loom.
[00:14:01] SY: Loom is great.
[00:14:01] FN: Loom is great. You can do video. You could do audio. You could do gesture screen. You could do your face. You could not do your face. All of these choices and you could just like do it super-fast and share ideas with your coworkers in whatever medium makes you feel comfortable. Because at the end of the day, I don’t want people worried about how they look or what face they’re making. I want them to communicate their good ideas. And be able to collaborate with each other. So the last thing I’ll say on this topic is that I think everybody deserves at least one camera off day a week. I know we think that turning cameras on helps us connect more with each other, but for some of us who are neurodivergent, we spend a lot of time thinking about how our face looks on camera, and I can have a much more productive conversation if I’m not worried about what you can see.
[00:14:46] SY: Yeah. Yeah. The camera thing is interesting because to me, which is my personal feelings about cameras, I feel very different depending on if I am leading the meeting versus attending the meeting. As an attendee, I would love to have my camera off, but as a meeting leader, I love having other people’s camera on. You know what I mean?
[00:15:06] FN: Yeah.
[00:15:06] SY: Because talking to an empty room is very… you just feel kind of silly, like just talking to nothingness, which is why I’ve always much preferred speaking to a live conference versus like a remote conference. Because for remote conference, you don’t see anyone. It feels like no one’s there. So it’s interesting, depending on the role that you have in the meeting, can kind of sway you one way or another.
[00:15:29] FN: Yeah, I completely hear that. And plus one, speaking in front of a live audience, because some of these online conferences that we’ve had since COVID, they’re not even Zooms. You can’t see anybody.
[00:15:38] SY: Right. Right. You can’t see anybody.
[00:15:39] FN: And it’s weird.
[00:15:40] SY: Yeah. It’s super weird. It’s so awkward.
[00:15:43] FN: So I tend to like having a mix. Right? And for some people that I talk to super regularly, we actually have like skipped doing the Zoom or the Google Hangout and we just go right to having an actual phone call. And that’s easier for some of us. Obviously, if it’s like a one-on-one where you need to share some serious information, I recommend turning the camera on.
[00:16:01] SY: Right. Right.
[00:16:01] FN: But yeah, I totally get that. That’s why I don’t think we can go full camera off all the time, even if some of us would like to. But I think if we get some balance in there where things that don’t require me to be on camera, my camera goes off, it can provide a lot of relief, especially if you’re a person who feels like you’re not only having to do your job, but also like perform normalcy.
[00:16:35] SY: So it sounds like the common thread around what would make the workplace a better, more flexible place, both for people who have neurodivergent needs, but also just people in general is around having options and having different ways that people can choose in terms of how they work, whether that’s different times of the day when they’re on, whether it’s turning your camera on or off, whether it’s choosing the way that I send a message, the way that I communicate. It sounds like the primary theme here is giving people choice in terms of the way they do their work. Is that fair to say?
[00:17:09] FN: Absolutely. I think it’s two things. It’s choice and also reducing unnecessary cognitive load and letting people do things in a way that allows them to do their best to work rather than like doing some sort of corporate theater.
[00:17:24] SY: Corporate theater. Tell me some corporate theater that you would love to get rid of. Tell me some of that.
[00:17:30] FN: Oh, there’s so much. I personally despise demo days.
[00:17:35] SY: Oh, tell me more.
[00:17:37] FN: This is a super spicy opinion.
[00:17:41] SY: Yes, it is.
[00:17:41] FN: And my opinion on demo days is that I understand what they’re supposed to do, which is give engineers an ability to show the rest of the company, or maybe just the rest of the engineering team, depending on size, what they’ve done. But depending on what interval you do this at, and depending on who’s responsible for making sure there’s content, you either set people up to be demoing things before they’re actually ready, which is why we all make jokes about, “Every time I try to demo this, my code breaks,” or you make people feel like the work they’re doing isn’t valuable because it’s not demoable. This is especially true of things like glue work that might be done by someone like a tech lead, but it might be done by other people. And to be honest, it’s frequently done by women. And you can’t demo that. It’s not a shiny new feature, but it’s super important to the engineering team’s functioning. So I think it just creates like a logistical nightmare and stress where there doesn’t need to be one. I am totally in favor of using Loom to record in a psychologically safe space when you are sure your code is going to work.
[00:18:48] SY: Yeah.
[00:18:48] FN: Record that video, let people watch it on their own time, and that way you can also release that at intervals that are appropriate for what you’re building and not some arbitrary, “Well, every two weeks, I have to put on a good show.” Like that’s not our job. We are not content creators. We are engineers. I mean, some of us are also content creators, but we’re not content creators at work.
[00:19:08] SY: Yes.
[00:19:09] FN: And so my opinion is that those sorts of demos can be done asynchronously according to like what the engineering teams actually working on and that we should be mindful not to have that create even the slightest hint that engineers are better if they’re producing better demos.
[00:19:27] SY: That’s a good example. What are some common misconceptions about neurodivergence that would be good for us to be just more aware of?
[00:19:37] FN: Oh, this is a great question. So there’s a concept we have, especially in the US, in industries like tech that are very much like grind and hustle culture that busyness is the opposite of laziness and laziness is somehow morally bad and that busyness is morally good. And so even if your mental health is failing and you haven’t seen your dog or your children in two weeks, you’re still crushing it. Girl boss, let’s go. And I would like everyone to give that up. Laziness, the way we think it exists in this society, it’s a lie. Everybody wants to do a good job. And if your staff no longer wants to do a good job, or if you no longer want to do a good job, that is a symptom of an underlying problem, not a moral failing. And sometimes what that means is that people don’t have what they need, they don’t have correct instructions. They’re not appropriately resourced. They’re lacking a skill or they’re lacking support or sometimes, this is less common, there’s something in their life outside of work. Like I had a one-on-one with someone that worked for me at one point, and I was like, “You haven’t been pushing as many PRs or getting as many tasks on as other people. What’s going on?” And he said, “My mother is actively dying from cancer,” and that allowed me to put support measures in place to help him, right? Whereas if that question hadn’t been asked in another environment, somebody could have just said, “Well, you’re not doing a good job, I’m going to put you on a PIP.” But I asked the question and I got an answer that was heartbreaking, but it allowed me the space as his manager to try to help out and then he ended up telling the team, and the team banded together and provided a lot of support. Sometimes it’s something completely outside of work, but it is something, right? They’re not lazy. The third reason why people might have stopped wanting to do a good job is that they’ve been so damaged by their job that they’ve just sort of checked out, and that is also management’s fault. So in the same way that I will approach the first round of “performance conversations” with people that work for me, looking for a reason why things changed, I would advise other managers that are listening to this podcast to also try to look for, “Was this person set up for success? Were they given the tools they needed? Were they put on a task that was appropriate for their skill and experience level? Or did you hang them out to dry?” Because that’s your fault, not theirs. I don’t think people are fundamentally lazy. I think people fundamentally want to do a good job. And if everybody believed that, I think we would have a very different kind of tech industry.
[00:22:15] SY: That’s really interesting because that, I feel like, is a misconception of just people in general. I don’t even feel like that’s specific to neurodivergence. Right? As a general comment, I think on the way we approach work and workers and how we approach just the subject of productivity in general.
[00:22:32] FN: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, I came on this podcast prepared to recommend two books. One is called Laziness Doesn’t Exist by Dr. Devon Price. Devon Price’s books are the only books on neurodivergence that I am currently recommending. There’s a whole host of things that were written prior to that, and many of them have a lot of harmful information in them. And you have to exercise a lot of media literacy when it comes to neurodivergence because A, there’s a lot of eugenics happening and also there’s just people that want to dehumanize neurodivergence. And this is one of the most obvious examples of this is Autism Speaks as this very well-known organization. And for those of us that are autistic, they’re a hate organization.
[00:23:19] SY: Oh, really?
[00:23:20] FN: They are not here to support us. Don’t listen to them. They think that autistic people are subhuman. Even a thing that is not a diagnosis anymore, but you’ll hear people still sometimes say, “Well, I’m not autistic. I have Asperger’s.” Hans Asperger was a Nazi. We don’t use that word to describe ourselves, folks. So you just have to exercise caution. So the only like books that are on the market right now that are talking about neurodivergence that I think are modern and appropriate are Devon Price’s books. There’s two, Laziness Does Not Exist, everyone should read, Unmasking Autism, you should read if you think that you might be autistic or if you are close to someone who is autistic. The other book that I want to recommend to your point, which is that this idea that laziness is morally bad is everywhere, not just here. The other book that I want to recommend that I think is relevant to this, but is so much more expansive is Viral Justice by Ruha Benjamin. It’s a beautiful book about all the ways that we can re-envision a better society than what we have going on right now. And it talks about this a little bit as well, where it’s sort of, you have to look at the whole system and when you see all the things that are wrong, which is plenty, all of the things that are good for our marginalized folks at work, whether it’d be neurodivergence, women, BIPOC, LGBT, all the things that are good for all of us are good for everyone. And they don’t take away from other people. And there’s a lot of work that the DEI space could be doing if we would give it the resources and the authority to do the things that need to be done instead of just paying it live service. All these things are good for everyone. Listening to people when they give you their needs, good for everyone. Making accommodations to allow people to do their best work, good for everyone. Reducing people’s unnecessary cognitive load so that they can spend their precious time and energy while they’re at work on business problems is good for everyone. And I think that that’s really at the core of the sort of neurodivergent movement for me, is that everything is all connected.
[00:25:25] SY: I wanted to get to something that we touched on at the top of this interview, which is the advantages of being neurodivergent. I want to speak and try to better understand the skills, the benefits that come from just thinking differently, thinking in that unique way. Can you tell us a little bit more about that side of things?
[00:25:45] FN: Yeah. I love this part of it too, because while you can consider things like ADHD, OCD, et cetera, et cetera, to be disabilities, they also come with some perks because they’re neurotypes, which just means it’s a way that your brain thinks that’s different, right? Some people know that autistic people tend to have “sensory issues”, right? Where they’re like overwhelmed by things and then they need to go spend time alone. But why do we have sensory issues? Because the answer to that is really interesting and not something that neurotypical people studying autism from the outside were able to pick up on properly, which led to a sort of weird diagnostic criteria. And the answer is that not every autistic person has the same set of sensory things that I’m about to describe because autism’s a spectrum. And that means you can have different sets of things. But many of us can “hear” electricity, like we have hearing that is way beyond what most people can hear, and this can cause issues when you’re trying to focus in on a conversation in a loud restaurant.
[00:26:47] SY: Ah, interesting. Okay.
[00:26:48] FN: It can also mean that like the sound of the refrigerator eventually annoys you, and that can show up in a lot of different ways, but you basically any given one of your senses could be absorbing more information than other people’s does, which has pros and cons. Right? And I feel like we see some of this represented when we watch movies like X-Men, where like every time somebody has a superpower, it very often has a downside as well. And looking at autism only through the medical model will only show you the downside without showing you the positive side too, which is that I can hear things other people can’t, and sometimes that’s cool.
[00:27:23] SY: That’s pretty cool. Yeah.
[00:27:25] FN: But another one that’s common in tech is that autistic people tend to think from bottoms up instead of top down. And this means that in order to form a picture of the whole system, and this isn’t just… I’m not just talking about a code base, it’s also like organizations, like a system of people or a process, like a large process that’s happening across the org. Look at how all the individual pieces fit together first, as opposed to looking from the top down and saying, “Okay, well, this is how the whole thing works,” and then maybe I can go dig in on the individual pieces. We’ll start from the other way around, which can make us really good at architecting software projects or at diagnosing problems in and outside of code basis. One of my core competencies is being able to come in and look at a system, whether it’d be the code or at this level in my career, it’s more often to be processes and people and teams and things like this. But I can start to diagnose where the system is falling down much faster because I look at it from a different perspective. Folks with ADHD are also often super creative because their brain is making connections that other people’s aren’t. And so that can help with a number of different things as well. Creativity isn’t just for arts, right? There’s a lot of creativity when it comes to making software projects. Not just like UI, right? It’s not just like the stuff you could see, but creativity benefits you in every job you could possibly have in and around tech.
[00:28:57] SY: Absolutely, a hundred percent.
[00:28:58] FN: It can help you with creative problem solving. You might be able to find a solution to something or even debugging. You’re like, “Oh, well, this thing could have affected this other thing over here.” And then you could start to put together pieces faster maybe than your peers in some cases. And it isn’t to say that like all ADHD and autistic people are better engineers than everyone else. That’s not what I’m saying. Because I also think that systems thinking is a thing you can learn. You don’t have to be born a bottoms-up thinker. Some of these things people learn in their CS programs, et cetera. I had an argument earlier in my leadership career with the person I was reporting to about coding bootcamp graduates, and his argument is that coding bootcamp graduates do not learn systems thinking in coding bootcamp and therefore don’t have it when they get on the job. And in my infinite wisdom at the time was like, “Well, but I know how to do that. So therefore, other coding bootcamp students must also know how to do that. So you must be wrong.” I did not know I was autistic at that moment. And it took me about six months after that conversation to realize that he was right. And that I went into coding bootcamp with a skill that they do not in fact teach in most coding bootcamps, and it would be actually difficult to learn that in three months. And that allowed me to sort of change over my approach to, instead of arguing with my manager to say, “Ah, so people that graduated from coding bootcamps, what are some tools we can give them to learn this after the fact?” Because obviously coding bootcamp is just the beginning. There’s no hate to coding bootcamp grads, right? They did something brave and amazing and you changed careers. And truthfully, if you want to survive in this industry, regardless of what your education came from, you have to keep learning. And so what you have to keep learning depends on what your initial education was and the field you want to go into, but lots of people in tech, lots of engineers would benefit from systems thinking if it’s not something that they have already learned.
[00:31:04] SY: Coming up next, Frankie talks about workplace performance and the advantages of being neurodivergent after this.
[00:31:19] SY: So you mentioned that you came to the realization that you were autistic, I think you said in 2021. Is that right?
[00:31:28] FN: Yep.
[00:31:28] SY: Can you take us through, if you don’t mind, that experience and what led to your realization?
[00:31:33] FN: Yeah. This is a pretty fun story actually, and I think a lot of people had a similar experience. I arrived at autism through ADHD because I had been diagnosed with ADHD in my 20s, and I never took it seriously, and I had a group of friends, it was like, “Oh, Adderall’s like meth. You can’t take that.” So I didn’t get medicated.
[00:31:54] SY: Okay.
[00:31:54] FN: I just was like, “Okay, well, I don’t know what this means and I’m just going to keep living my life.” And then I had a really bad case of burnout in the summer of 2021. And someone that I had just met, who’s now a good friend, was like, “Everything you’re describing to me about what you’re struggling with is ADHD.” And I was like, “Yeah, I have ADHD.” And they’re like, “No, you are describing symptoms of ADHD and you need to go talk to someone.” And so I went and I got a prescription for Adderall, which did a bunch of things at once. The first thing that it did is it made me want to go take a nap, which is not what happens when most people take stimulants. But when you have ADHD and you start taking Adderall, it does something to your brain so that you get to start receiving signals that your brain was not getting otherwise. And the signal was that I was tired and I needed to nap.
[00:32:49] SY: Oh, interesting.
[00:32:50] FN: So I started taking naps. That was great. And then I started seeing other things where I’m like, “Why didn’t this behavior go away when I take Adderall?” And then I started seeing those same things mentioned in TikTok videos. People were like, “Lesser known traits of ADHD.” And I was like, “Well, I just did all this research and I don’t think that’s right, but also I do all of those things. So what is this?” Which led to further research which resulted in me showing up for a call with my psychiatrist with a binder of information that’s like, “Here’s 20 pages of information about why I think I’m autistic,” which is also apparently a very autistic thing to do.
[00:33:29] SY: Just right on brand. Got you.
[00:33:32] FN: Yeah, and apparently this has been a common experience when people get medicated for their ADHD and then they’re like, “Oh, that wasn’t all of it. Was it?” And it has a comorbidity rate of like, I don’t remember, is it 40 or 60 percent? It’s a lot. So it’s very normal to have both of those things at one time. And my psychiatrist, bless his heart, he was like, “Well, I am not qualified to diagnose you with this, but I want to know what you want out of a diagnosis so that I can help you.” And I said, “I want to be able to join online communities and talk to people and say, ‘I’m one of you,’ without feeling like an imposter.” As it turns out, that’s also a very autistic thing to do, to be like, “I’m not sure, I’m autistic enough to count.” No. Like if you’re not autistic, people who are not autistic are not thinking about that. And I said, “I want to be able to meet people online who are managing this well and be like, ‘Hey, I’m one of you, can I be part of the community?’” And unless you need a formal piece of paper to get some specific kind of accommodation at work, formal diagnosis may not be necessary at all. And so I never actually sought one, but every day I get on social media and an autistic person makes a joke and I say, “Yep, me too.” And it’s been very life affirming. I was able to make some incredible friends, many even through TikTok, which is kind of strange. Like I feel like when I first got on TikTok, I was already supposed to be too old, and yet somehow it has been this wonderful place for me to connect with people whose brains work like mine, who are at a similar place in their career and a similar place in their life. It’s just been really life-affirming to be able to identify that way and to talk to other people about the accommodations that they give themselves or the accommodations they seek at work, and just like how they manage that. So it was probably in total between getting the Adderall subscription to being like, “Nope, I’m autistic,” was probably five months. It happened pretty rapidly.
[00:35:36] SY: How did the ADHD and the autism manifest themselves in your work? When you think about the way you operated as a coder, as a person in tech, how did it come up for you? How did it show up?
[00:35:51] FN: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I’m not even sure that I can properly answer that question prior to the burnout period in 2021, because I’d been running on fumes for years. I work at early stage startups, right? I’m sort of always working somewhere that’s like a little bit in crisis. Maybe it’s a lot in crisis sometimes, but it’s at least like a little bit in crisis because they’re early stage startups and many of them fail, right? So you are fighting for your survival every day at work and that sort of pressure is in fact a way to accommodate ADHD. It’s maybe maladaptive, but we make jokes about folks with ADHD will wait till the 11th hour to write their paper for school and then they still do a good job because they needed that pressure, they needed the deadline, and like that is true in startups. Like every day something has to get done right now. And I was just going at 90 miles an hour. And I was masking all the time. I didn’t know I was masking at the time, but I did know that when I got home, at the end of the day, I was completely exhausted. But I just figured that was because I was a young person who was out in the world. I was like going to happy hours with my friends. I was going to the gym. I was going to work. I was working all these hours. I was doing all this stuff. It didn’t occur to me that there was a problem. I just thought this is what life was until that burnout stopped me in my tracks. And then I ended up taking a job that was like a later stage startup that was a little bit calmer and then working with healthcare professionals. But the job I have now, we’re so fast paced and it’s the right level of pressure and interesting to my brain that I don’t even need Adderall where I work right now, which I feel like is really great because then I found this balance where I’m like, “All right, this is the right level of challenge for me where it’s not too much. I don’t feel like I’m going to fail. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s just right to where my brain is super satisfied at the pace of work.” So yeah, I think that if I had had more time before the burnout, or even before the pandemic where I had known more about what ADHD was, maybe I could have monitored it a little bit better. But I was really just living my life totally oblivious until the burnout caught up to me and it knocked me on my butt, and then I had to do something about it. And I hope that other people don’t have to have that sort of burnout level to explore this stuff for themselves. But I think it was a lot of just sort of running on fumes all the time, sort of covered up that maybe I was dealing with something that I could have accommodated myself better on and just didn’t.
[00:38:34] SY: Yeah. So when you think about your coping strategies, tools, technologies, resources that have been helpful to you, given that autism is not treatable through medication, what’s been most helpful? What’s helped you kind of hopefully thrive and be productive and feel good?
[00:38:55] FN: Yeah. It’s a great question. And to be honest, slowing down the pace of my life has probably been the number one thing that I have done.
[00:39:04] SY: I feel like we could all probably use that.
[00:39:06] FN: Yeah, just like not trying to do as many things in one day as I know that I used to be able to do. I need a lot more alone time now. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not running on fumes as much anymore, and I’m in a more healthy place like just mentally and physically, but I know when I need downtime. And I can’t stack my weekends as full as I used to. I do not know how I used to do the things that I used to do or have the life that I had before COVID, because that would kill me today. I can’t go all day, sit in an office for eight hours, go to happy hour, and then go to some other event with my coworkers. That’s too much time with other people. So I have to pick and choose what I do. And any of these weekdays where I have my job, I have a lot of responsibilities at my job, and then I also work out. I'm maybe running some errands, but I’m not going out. I don’t go out on weekdays. I mean, I’ve also been sober for a year and four months.
[00:40:09] SY: Oh, congrats. That’s awesome.
[00:40:11] FN: Thank you.
[00:40:11] SY: Yeah.
[00:40:12] FN: So like I’m not at the bar as much as I used to be, but I was doing stuff after work just about every day of the week in 2019, and I don’t do that anymore. And I make sure that I have time to recoup, have my downtime, have my quiet time. I sleep a lot more than I used to. I just sort of taking better care of myself and that actually has more to do with my life outside of work than it does with my job. I mean, working in startups, you’re always going to have times where you are working more hours than 40 because you need to get something out the door. And what I have found in the last whatever year and a half that I have understood my conditions well enough to accommodate them, if I know that I’m going to have weeks where I have to work like that, I will pull out of other things in my life in advance so that I have more time to recover. And I just don’t try to stack too many things on top. I’m sure that there are people listening to this saying, “Well, that sounds boring,” but I’m so much happier than I used to be. And I’m a lot more intentional with the things that I do spend my time on. And it’s not that I don’t have hobbies. I do, I’m a competitive power lifter, and that’s a significant amount of time in the gym. It’s the meal prep. It’s the additional things you have to do to rehab or rest that also like add to my sort of general, making sure that the rest balances out the things that I’m doing in my life or at my job. Right? And also, I have unlimited PTO. Many people that work in tech have unlimited PTO. You don’t have to wait until you have a thing to do to just take a day. You can just take a day and you don’t have to justify it. You can take a day and watch Netflix all day. If that’s what your body needs, you can just do that. We don’t have to have this performative busyness all the time, you’re allowed to rest, and I think that that was the big lesson for me is that your rest is not something you earn. You don’t have to earn your sleep. You don’t have to earn your food. You don’t have to earn anything. You need to support your body in the things that it needs, whether that’s nutrition or donuts, or watching Netflix, or going to bed at 9:00 PM. Whatever it is your body needs, you’re entitled to. And you should just do it, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone.
[00:42:28] SY: So for folks listening who are not neurodivergent or don’t think they are, but want to be supportive, want to play their part in creating a more supportive environment for people who are, what are some things that they can keep in mind? And especially assuming that they’re not yet managers, they maybe not have as much control over the workplace as they might one day, what are some different ways that we, as just everyday coworkers, team members, future team members, what can we do to be more inclusive?
[00:42:58] FN: Great question. And I think it sort of depends on the person. There’s a couple of things that stand out. One of which is to respect people’s focus time as much as possible, right? This is what Google Calendar has called time. You can block off on your calendar that’s meant to be like heads down, working time. Especially for people who are ADHD, disruptions to their flow can be more expensive than they are to everybody else, but even neurotypical people, there’s a cost associated with contact switching. So reducing contact switching, good for everybody, especially good for people with ADHD. The other thing that I suggest is to, as much as possible, because you might not have very much authority to impact this, but Slack can become a very overwhelming place. For a number of reasons, either it’s unclear what the social norms are in that particular channel, or whether you’re the one supposed to respond or whether it’s someone else. And so what I advise in my current workplace and generally is that if you need a response from someone on something, even if you tag them in another channel or in a thread, you should copy the link to that message, send it to them in a DM and tell them exactly what you want from them. If you need them to respond, you say that. If it’s just an FYI and you just want them to read it, you say that. Especially for autistic people, it’s very helpful to be very explicit about what it is you need from them, because sometimes we have a hard time reading between the lines, and it’s just easier to make a very specific ask. And that helps them do less guessing and more acting on the thing you need them to act on. So those are two things I would recommend. The other thing is if somebody wants to go camera off or they need some other sort of accommodation, they want to read about something in advance if like a complicated meeting or something, do your best to try to give them what they’ve asked for because you also want them to show up and do their best work. You want to show up and do your best work. And so anything that we can do to help each other in our individual needs to show up and do our best work, we should all be doing. I want the hardest thing that my team is doing on any given day to be solving a business problem, not trying to figure out if the coworker in that other Slack channel is mad at them.
[00:45:22] SY: Right.
[00:45:23] FN: Or whether they’re the one who’s supposed to fix this. We have on call schedules in engineering because there’s a thing called bystander syndrome, which is when we know there’s a problem, but everyone assumes someone else is going to do it. And we solve that in an on-call schedule by making it one specific person’s job all the time, which is basically the same thing as saying, “You need to respond to this incident. That’s what a page is.” And if we could do more of that in tech generally, a lot more people would be a lot more effective.
[00:45:54] SY: I really like that. That was great. Thank you so much, Frankie, for being on the show again and sharing your story about neurodivergence with us. Really appreciate it.
[00:46:02] FN: Thank you so much for having me. Always a pleasure.
[00:46:06] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. Thanks for listening. See you next week.Copyright © Dev Community Inc.