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Neurodiverse candidates find a niche in remote cybersecurity jobs

Cat Contillo recalls how uncomfortable she felt during an office internship a few years ago because of the reactions to her masculine outfits and her inability to understand sarcasm.

Diagnosed with autism at 18, she was not a fan of the office. Now 33, she thrives in a job in cybersecurity, working from home in upstate New York for Huntress Labs Inc., an Ellicott City-based threat detection software company. in Maryland, and which has a fully remote workforce.

Typical office culture can be a difficult adjustment for people with cognitive differences, but the massive shift to remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic has made it easier for job seekers who are neurodiverse, an umbrella term which includes conditions such as autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.

According to the Office of Disability Employment Policy, part of the Department of Labor, neurodiverse people, also called neurodivergents, have brains that work differently than those who are neurotypical. “Neurodivergent people offer key talents and skills to improve American workplaces,” according to ODEP. An initiative linked to ODEP has published an online guide to neurodiversity in the workplace that includes suggestions on how to support neurodivergent employees.

The lure of cybersecurity

The cybersecurity industry may be especially well-suited to neurodiverse candidates, who might have traits such as hyperfocus, precision, persistence and the ability to identify patterns, according to researchers and executives. These characteristics match the skills needed to assess cyber risk, analyze suspicious online activity and perform many other security jobs, according to Crest International, a UK-based nonprofit that accredits organizations and individuals. providing cybersecurity services.

Hiring more neurodiverse candidates could help address the talent shortage in the cybersecurity industry, Crest said. The International Information System Security Certification Consortium, a professional organization, estimates that 2.7 million cybersecurity jobs are currently unfilled.

Mx. Contillo, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns her and them, spends her working days at home with two cats, poring over cyber data to spot patterns of malware. Hired in 2019, she got a promotion last May.

She became interested in cybersecurity in college, when she volunteered to teach senior citizens how to use their computers and other gadgets. A non-traditional student, she didn’t start college until she was 23. A friend from his cybersecurity classes at the University of Utica’s online program helped Mx. Contillo lands the job of Huntress after graduating.

Her entry into the corporate world inspired her to advocate for neurodiverse people pursuing a career in security. “There are many of us there,” she said.

Obstacles in the office

Neurodiverse people face obstacles in an office environment designed primarily for neurotypical employees. Ongoing and unpredictable social interactions can feel overwhelming for people with autism. According to Crest International, bright lighting or strong smells such as a co-worker’s perfume can irritate people with sensory processing issues.

“The pandemic has helped to level the playing field by creating equal working conditions for all and better controlled through the use of technology,” said Daniel Clayton, Vice President of Global Security Operations at Bitdefender Inc. , a Romania-based company that manufactures hacking prevention and response tools.

Supporting a neurodiverse workforce takes no more effort than having the empathy to support all employees, said Clayton, “It’s just about understanding what someone needs to succeed, and then to define the conditions for it to succeed.

Nurturing Neurodiverse Employees

The pandemic has helped neurodiverse people interact more comfortably with colleagues as companies have expanded the use of virtual communication channels such as Slack. Video conferencing features such as captioning and real-time transcripts are especially useful for people with ADHD, who can be easily distracted, or those with auditory processing disorders.

Consulting firm Ernst & Young LLP has more than tripled its global neurodivergent workforce during the pandemic, to nearly 300 now from 80 in 2020, said Hiren Shukla, founder of EY’s Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence, who is “responsible for converting the neurodiversity inclusion effort”. into a tangible return on investment, according to the company.

Last April, EY created a 10-person neurodiverse team in Boston, including people with dyslexia or autism, to match with client work in cybersecurity and other fields. A similar center in London opened in July, aiming to hire 150 neurodiverse people.

Neurodivergent employees at EY can choose to be fully remote, the company said. When they arrive at the office, EY offers them amenities such as a quiet space, noise canceling headphones and lighting adjustments. One of the neurodivergent team members, Shukla said, uses four screens to segment tasks and keep track of ideas in his racing mind.

“When you reduce the stress of a ride,” Shukla said, “and environmental stimuli, lighting, temperature, texture, sound…they thrive.”

Gesturing Hiren Shukla is the founder of Ernst & Young’s Neuro-Diversity Centers of Excellence. Here he talks to a group of neurodivergent employees at the consulting firm.


Photo:

Ernst & Young LLP

Working from home is not for everyone. Shukla said about 25-30% of EY’s neurodiverse team members prefer to return to the office because they feel more productive there.

For Mx. Contillo says working remotely in a technology-controlled environment reduces the stigma she has felt in other settings. “If we were in person, face to face,” she said, “I would probably be very bitter or rude because I wouldn’t interact with people all the time.”

Improving the interview process

Interviewing job candidates remotely can circumvent a big challenge for neurodivergent people looking for jobs in the cybersecurity industry: social norms.

Instead of squashing multiple meetings in the same day, in the same office building, video interviews can be paced to include breaks, said Leigh Honeywell, chief executive of Tall Poppy, a San Francisco-based software company that helps companies protect their employees from online harassment.

Tall Poppy CEO Leigh Honeywell says remote job interviews can benefit neurodiverse candidates.


Photo:

Andrew Dunham

“You can take a break between things,” said Ms. Honeywell, who has ADHD. “It ends up being really helpful and encouraging for a lot of people who might struggle to sustain that level of attention for six hours of active conversation.”

Managers should consider an individual’s accommodation requests, according to diversity and inclusion researchers at Dublin City University in Ireland who have developed a neurodiversity toolkit for hiring managers. These accommodations could include permission to take notes and provide advance questions and case studies in electronic form.

Nada Noaman, vice president of cybersecurity at Warner Bros. Discovery Inc.,

recommends that companies use a professional organization to educate managers on cognitive differences. Ms. Noaman works with Integrate Advisors, a non-profit organization that advises managers on creating an autism-friendly workplace and recruits candidates.

She said she learned not to judge a person on a resume and the first few minutes of a conversation. Instead, she gives more weight to questions about technical skills.

Crest International recommends walking meetings when working with someone with autism, as periods of physical exercise can improve concentration and eye contact can be minimal.

Remote interviews can eliminate potential bias, Ms Honeywell said. “We’re this little box on screen versus a messy, complicated human who might like to move differently or talk differently,” she said.

Write to Nicolle Liu at Nicolle.Liu@wsj.com

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