Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity – Amy Root
People who are Neurodiverse often struggle in the job hunt, in interviews, and working at organizations that are not always friendly. Nathan Chung interviews Amy Root, director and neurodiversity leader at UnitedHealth Group. She shares amazing insights into hiring practices, accommodations, and recruitment. Listen and be inspired.
Hi, welcome to the NeuroSec podcast where we unite people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in Cybersecurity and beyond to make the world more diverse and inclusive. My name is Nathan Chung, and today, my special guest is Amy Root, Director and Neurodiversity leader at United Health Group. Welcome Amy.
Hi, thanks for having me.
Great. One of the biggest challenges to addressing Neurodiversity is understanding something that we cannot easily see. When people think about disabilities, it's easier to look for things that can be obviously seen such as a wheelchair. One of my past guests brought this up, and it was eye opening for me. How can companies address Neurodiversity when they can't see it?
I mean, that's a great question right, especially with other people with invisible disabilities, like how do we make sure that our environments are inclusive? And that's, I don't know if I have the best answer for that other than it's something that needs to change at the cultural level of an organization. And hopefully, you're asking all of your candidates, how can we help you be the most successful? That's what I would like to see and envision with organizations, not just people, they suspect have disabilities, but asking every candidate because every person has unique needs throughout the process. And I think it could help Neurodivergent people, people with disabilities, and all people just to ask that question.
1:27bout Neurodiversity from late:
I need to go back and listen to that. I can't remember what was said. But I have seen a lot of shifts in diversity right now. And I think the one I want to talk about the most, and the one I'm most excited about is the shift away from just doing Autism hiring programs. I mean, I think that there was a place for them. But we need to move beyond that and really look at inclusion. What does an inclusive environment look like? How do we bring inclusive design into the workplace, and how we know that creating certain environments and certain, you know, reducing barriers for Neurodivergent people help all people. And so that that's a big thing. And when it comes to inclusive design, I always put this on making sure that representation of impacted individuals are part of the design. So if you're going to be working and trying to hire more Neurodivergent people, you've got to make sure Neurodivergent people are at the workgroup at the very beginning. We need to make sure that that representation is there. Even the best intending people, you don't know the struggles of other groups, unless you're a part of that group. Oh, there was another few. I'm so sorry. I'm trying to find my notes here. Oh, seek out points of exclusion. That's a really big one for inclusive design. I mean, huge, right? Wouldn't it, when you think about the process of hiring our our barriers and exclusions happen far before we even interact with an employer. So they need to understand that whole end to end journey for certain people. I think that's a really big one.
Yep. And, like we just said, like, for the journey. So let's start at the beginning. At the recruiting process, when a Neurodiverse worker applies for a job, they often see, they often face obstacles right away with job, the job description that often include language, such as good team player or excellent communication skills like that will turn off a lot of people right away and add to that for cybersecurity positions, the job descriptions are often even more realistic. It's like, it's like as if people want everything including the moon, what can be done?
That is one thing, job descriptions. You know, that's the beginning of maybe what we would see with an organization. But again, there are barriers long before that, but specifically with job descriptions, I don't think organizations understand. I think women, I think Neurodivergent people, there's a large amount of people that opt out of certain jobs simply because we take job recs a little bit more seriously. Like if you say you need 10 years of experience in something, if we have eight, we're not going to apply to that. I really encourage employers to look at the end result of what the employee is going to be producing, or what kind of productivity they're looking at, or what kind of materials or what's the end result and work backwards. You know, you might not need 10 years of experience for consulting but if you want somebody to have a certain skill set, then outline that and especially reevaluate your job descriptions because a lot of these jobs don't need things like team player or you know, really look at the essential functions and responsibilities that are required. With or without reasonable accommodations. Just write down exactly what is required of that person, use plain language. Oh my Lord, if I could say that over and over. I look at job descriptions. Sometimes all day all night, I'm fascinated by job descriptions. And most of them have a lot of really interesting jargon, lingo they've got these abstract language and metaphors, things that are very difficult, I think for Neurodivergent people, but for all people. Yeah. And and you, some people might be so ingrained, like, my, my organization is very large, and our job descriptions, you know, we might have 500 of them that are very similar. There needs to be a lot more focused effort to really look at job description and understand is this what we're representing. Is this the kind of person that we're looking for, and, and limit non essential requirements. And that would be like, team player, strong communicator, excellent interpersonal skills. If those aren't necessary for the job, please remove them. Because people like me would maybe self select out of something unintentionally knowing that I may have been a really good candidate for that.
A few other things, too.
Like oh, you remember what?
Yeah, I was gonna say real quick. I remember a friend was sharing on social media just few weeks ago that a job req was asking for five years of experience for a new technology that has barely been out even a year, like that is insane.
You know, what I was in Design for a while, Experience Design. And you know, the field isn't even that old. But they were asking for people with PhDs and 15 years of experience, and it would just get me giggling because there aren't people like that.
Exactly. It's unrealistic.
It's unrealistic. Yes. Another thing you would, I rarely see this, but it would be so important for Neurodivergent people, especially autistic people is describe the environmental factors. What's the environment that they're going to be working in? Is it an open office setting, flexible seating? Are there individuals assigned to workspaces? Are there offices? Is it noisy? Little things like that can really go a long way. And it helps people with disabilities in general too if they're unaware about the environment that they're applying to, they may just not apply at all. Yeah, removing people that may be really good for your organization.
And you brought up a good point, especially with COVID, like a lot of us are working from home, do you see gains for Neurodiversity by working from home?
I do. Absolutely. Every organization that offers up remote working or flexible working all of a sudden has reduced a major barrier to Neurodivergent community. And we've been talking a lot about that in our organization and working with other organizations, I'm seeing it more and more. And that should be an option for everyone.
I love it.
I think the way that we're thinking about work has got to fundamentally shift. I mean, we're not a part of the Industrial Revolution anymore. We don't need an eight to five, we don't need it to be in an office setting. And I don't think our world is created to sustain that. I don't think it's good for our economy, I don't think it's necessarily good for environment. It's not good for people, we need to be more flexible and trusting. And a lot of that has to do with managers and and hiring organizations to be more specific in what they're looking for. And what does the, what does success in this particular position look like? It would be these fundamental things. And it kind of goes back to job descriptions, you need to really re-evaluate what are you looking for? What does success look like for this particular role? And that just opens up the floodgates if you if you kind of come in at the roundabout way we want 10 years of experience, we want somebody to be in the Boston location, you are drastically reducing your talent pool yourself. I mean, you're only hurting your company.
Absolutely. And those are really good good insights. So the next step of the interview process of the recruitment process is usually the dreaded job interview, which is traditionally a minefield for, for people and especially for Neurodiverse people such as myself as it can be, it can be a total nightmare, with some some people experiencing sensory overload or even breakdowns. What accommodations should companies consider to make the job interview process friendlier?
Oh, yeah. So I want to confirm what you said, interviews is a nightmare, it's a nightmare for me. And I even consider myself a little bit more, I don't know, I feel like I don't have a lot of barriers there. But I still, it's incredibly difficult for people if you're not Neurodivergent to understand how, how stressful, how ambiguous how overwhelming interviews can be. I think a lot of it has to do with traditional interviews completely prioritize candidates behavioral and social skills. We put far too much weight on behavioral and social skills. And it's ironic we don't even understand what those you know often mean but I do think Autistic behavior is misunderstood too and it can be interpreted different ways. And then I've seen this with different genders as well and how it presents, to some people, it could be a benefit. You know, oh, isn't me, isn't she odd and quirky, but with other people? Oh, he's unusual or untrusting. And I don't, I just don't subscribe to that, it's very harmful. Interviews can be overwhelming sensory overload. I absolutely cannot do panel interviews, because it's very difficult for me to watch, you know, five different people and have different questions coming at me. So there's a lot of things that they can do. One of the things I love is when I see offering up interview questions in advance, and quite frankly, I don't see the harm and in doing that for everybody. Even if you gave everybody questions in advance, the answers are going to drastically range and vary between individuals, I don't see any harm in that it helps people like us to kind of know what to expect. I also think setting the stage prior to the interview as much information as you can give. Like, when you expect the person to be there, who's going to be interviewing? Do you have a picture of that person? Or do you have a LinkedIn profile that we can look at? Or what is the location, you know, of the room that you're going to be interviewing in? There's a lot of different things that you could provide in advance that would help. And then my favorite part is provide options. That's a big one, especially the way we are now I could interview over phone, we could interview over Zoom, or a video call? Could we interview in person? Could it be more of a lunch and you know, informal conversations. There's a lot of ways to engage with people outside of the traditional interview. And we really need to start thinking about that, not just for Neurodivergent people, but for everyone. Because really, the whole point of an interview is to hopefully quickly assess is this person going to work well in the environment that I've provided her in this job? Can I manage that person? It's not do I like them? Are they. can they communicate well? So traditional interviews are really assessing for the wrong aspects of success in the job.
I totally agree, on to our next question, because for the past 20 years, I have observed that many workplaces still follow the traditional management styles that are structured, and follow a command and control model similar to a factory. As such, those management practices expect a certain amount of productivity from each worker, that Neurodiverse workers often fail to meet, often putting them at a clear disadvantage. What can what can be done to fix that?
This one is, is great, because I talked about this with my, my hiring manager, my teams all the time. Because, again, I don't think that we need to change expectations of the end product for Neurodivergent employees, we need to have same expectations. But we need to just blow open the path and be okay with people coming about answers differently. Maybe taking a different route, having a completely different path to creating that end product. And so again, it's the onus is on employers and companies to really look at what is success in this particular job? What do we really need the person to produce, setting that clear expectations and then allowing people to go on their own path. Because my co-workers. We might have the exact same, you know, responsibilities, but I'm going to go about it in a very different way, I may take more time for the strategy aspect, but take very little time for implementing. So I'm one of those who, you know, I have to slow down to speed up. I need a lot of time at the beginning to fully understand to develop a path and then I need a very short period of time to get it done. When other people might start immediately on trying to produce something but it might take them just as long if not longer. So people need to understand that there are very different ways to come about an end result. And I think that's the biggest thing is don't change the expectation of the end result and allow people to go about it however they need to.
Hmm, this is a very good input. And so the next question is about accommodations. Because I think for a lot of people, if they're, even if they are Neurodiverse, one thing a lot of people struggle with, including myself is whether or not to disclose that they have a Neurodiverse condition. Because yes, we live in a society that unfortunately punishes people for just being different or even thinking different. So the default human behavior is, I have to wear a mask, I need to fit in, that that makes it even harder for Neurodiverse workers to even think about asking for accommodations. Because to add to that, when a person ask for accommodations for not just Neurodiversity, but for any, any accomodation, organizations only see that this person is disabled, and they're increasing their costs. What can be done to change this line of thinking?
You know, this is a real issue, because when I talk to hiring managers about encouraging them to hire Neurodivergent people. And and I think a lot of people come at it with a good heart. A big question is what is it going to cost me? How much more difficult it is to manage a person? And I really want to say, oftentimes, now, not all the time, but oftentimes, it costs nothing. It actually is a different way of thinking or expecting and if it does cost something, it may be a headset, or it might be a, you know, different kind of bulbs in an office. But to be open to that, and again, you should be having these conversations with all your employees. Good managers, whether you have an employee with a disability or not, ask each individual, what what can I do to make you successful in this role? And no, no expense would be spared on buying a really nice standup desk. But when we talk about a $200 headset for an Autistic person, people get squirrely. We need to change our way of thinking. We know that people who think differently, who have different experiences, different backgrounds, different cultures, when they come together, they create phenomenal products and services and great innovation. And really good managers need to know what that looks like and how to manage it and how to navigate that cost. Really, I understand that's a concern, but it should not be because it's often very cheap, inexpensive or not expensive at all. I mean, you know that right?
Yeah. And you brought up a good point is. One obstacle I hear from the Neurodiversity community is often the managers because lack of a better term, a lot of managers, they grow up learning the traditional model, which, which means, I've done things in a certain way, I've learned from another person who done things a certain way. But if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Yeah, I've had good managers, I've had bad managers, I've had okay managers. And it's interesting when I really sit back and think about which ones was I the most successful under. They tend to lead through compassion. They were clear when they what they expected, they did not micromanage. And every individual got the support that they needed, depending on that person. And that was long before I knew I was Autistic by the way. I learned I was autistic when I was 36. And so I had quite a career before that. And now that I know, I'm much better advocate for myself, and I kind of know what I need to be successful, but I can look back. And the best managers, were ones that really connected with each individual, gave them the support that they needed. You know, made sure that they were set up for success. I don't know if that answers your question. But I think it was just really interesting.
It ultimately comes down to how to change managers from the traditional model, which is the opposite of what you described to, to what you described. It's like, how do we get there?
I think it's fascinating too that organizations really need to better understand there are two very drastic different skill sets between an individual contributor who is performing phenomenally, doing well, and they naturally progress that person up the ladder. And then people who need to be people managers. They are not one in the same and they are often put together. So if you're an individual contributor, and you're doing well, whether you can manage people or not, you often go up the rise. And if you're a director or senior director or anything else, you're going to have direct reports. And and really, companies need to reassess that. Especially with me, you know, what if I don't want to be a people manager, and I might be very successful as an individual contributor, we just need to rethink that.
You brought up a very good point, because in my very first security talk, I talked about this specific issue. Because the traditional career path, which is for IT and Cyber workers is for a person to go from a individual contributor and into a people manager role. And I think that, that turns off a lot of people because.
It's a huge barrier.
It's a huge barrier, because how can a Neurodiverse person who's not good at social skills, advance when that barrier exists?
Right. And so within our organization, we've talked a lot to leadership about that, what what would it look like, and they are opening paths to individual contributors at higher levels.
I love that.
So like with me, I'm in product. I, there might be a level that I don't want to get to just because of the breadth of being able to manage 500 people. That's not my skill set or my strength. But I'm really good at one specific thing or two specific things. I, you've, that is so good for organizations to understand that individual contributors do not equal a great people manager. They are drastically different skill sets and they need to take it seriously.
Yep, you're absolutely correct. Sadly, in my experience, I've even seen at some larger older organizations where it becomes such a barrier where that individual is put in a position where you either become a people manager or we need to fire you because you're not advancing your career. It's very old, traditional outdated thinking. It's sad.
Now you might see that in tech companies still. I know, I'm not in a tech company, but I can see that still. Gaming industry, I could see that. I think there's going to be a big reckoning in the in the next 10 or 15 years, I think it has to do with a lot of, you know, systemic racism, lots of barriers for people with disabilities. I'm really excited to see what's going to happen, because I think a lot of the things we're talking about today might be addressed through just inclusive design. Re-understanding, what are the barriers to employment for all people. There's different barriers for different groups. But my gosh, they're so similar. And that when you start working on one, it removes barriers to others. And it shouldn't be this hard. I think it was maybe started out of HR and compliance and trying to make sure that we don't exclude certain people. I know, we're going to talk in a minute about business case. But this is a this is a big one is, you know, people typically look at a business case for Neurodiversity, and they look at what Neurodivergent people can bring in. And that's, you know, I understand that we need to do that. But I want businesses to clearly hear that by excluding individuals, whether it's unintentional or not, you're at a great risk. Like there's actually a risk to organizations to not do what we're talking about. You need to look at your practices and policies. And and, you know, the business case doesn't need to be on the individuals and trying to prove that we're worthy to be employed. You need to prove why you have excluded us from your process. I mean, we're talking about 80 to 85% unemployment for Neurodivergent people. And especially underemployment is you need to prove that you're actually working on removing the barriers to bring us in. Because obviously, there's tremendous amount of talent, there are people that want to work, but the barriers are from early way before we ever get in connection with the company and they last forever. Yeah, I'm so sorry. I hope this is a good conversation.
Don't worry. This is really good conversation. But yeah, I was saying that essentially, if a company or nation doesn't want to hire Neurodiverse workers, other countries, enemies and friends, of America, they will probably hire those same workers. So it comes down to what should we do? Should we just let this happen? Or should we step up our game? How do you feel?
I am just always curious why people wouldn't want to. Because it's fascinating to me. You have an entire group. So let's say people with disabilities, and even Neuro, Neurodivergent people, that's an entire group of people who literally go day in and day out, trying to navigate between what's being asked of them of the world, how to, like engage in the world, and how to do it in their own way, you know, depending on what their strengths or challenges are, that's a group of innovators, like literally, all we do day in and day out, is create new ways to get to the end result to be a part of the group of the workforce. We're pure innovation. I mean, if you think about it, there's been a tremendous amount of innovation in America too. I mean, I can think of, you know, phone, you know, that the keyboard, there's a lot of things that were created by or for people with disabilities that the entire world has benefited from. So I'm just always curious, why would you exclude those people?
You know, that's a very good point, I didn't even think about that, it's beautiful.
Its' true. And so it's just fascinating to me, and, and a lot of it has to do with social nuances or communication. And so I guess I would just encourage people to be comfortable in the uncomfortable. There's nothing innately wrong or or there's nothing innately wrong with Neurodivergent people, we're just a different operating system. And I think it's valuable.
And for me personally, I take it one step further and my thinking is, we're all different. We just just gotta identify the differences and just respect each other's differences. It's as simple as that. Okay and on a closing note, do you have any personal success stories to share?
Success stories! Um, so when we talk about. I'll just tell you honestly. Up until just more recently within the last year, I've been a lot more confident in sharing that I'm Autistic. There was kind of a reckoning. I don't know, when other people are diagnosed or identified. It took me a long time to get there. I was about 36. And then it took me a couple of years to unpack that. And then it took me about a year to really embrace it and accept it. And then and now I'm to the point where I'm advocating for myself and others. The fact that we come to you and and, you know, tell you that we're Autistic, and maybe ask for accommodations. I want people to understand that comes from a tremendous area of strength and long, long process to get to that point. How people respond to that is pretty vital.
I have not disclosed and I probably should have, you know, I find myself in situations where my performance reviews are always the same. You know, you need to be better communicator, you need to be more succinct. You know, things that are kind of toast, aligned to my autism. And then after I have disclosed, my performance has been evaluated very differently and it's been encouraging to me, because I've taken the elephant out of the room and said, I'm Autistic, this is how I work. How can we be better aligned as employer and employee? And it's just been, it's just kind of blown the roof off of things.
That's a success story, right? I'm trusting that what I'm about to tell you, you're going to take that and you're going to take it well. I've had both I've had good and bad. And then I go a step further and say, this is how I operate, what can you do to help me and I will give you my best. And hopefully, hopefully, people can get to that point, right?
Yes. But yeah, you brought up a very interesting point, because it all comes down to self. Like does a person accept that they are, they have a condition such as Autism? And do they accept it themselves? Because if we don't accept it, it's like we're causing injury to ourselves.
Totally. And, you know, as Autistic people are, are, you know, there is a fear that we can, you know, harm somebody or, you know, there's a much greater possibility of us being victims of crime. Most of us have had tremendous trauma, long term trauma of not being accepted, being outcast, not understanding why years and years of that. So just hopefully, the workplace can be a safe, secure place for people like us. Yeah, and the more that like people you and I have, the more that we talk about it, the more we get it out, you'd be surprised how many people are Autistic, and they don't share it, which is interesting. Like, in my company, we were estimating about eight to 9,000 people are Autistic, and that's about 2% of our company. Most people do not come out and say that. So we need to do a better job about creating safe and inclusive environments, knowing full well that once we do that, we're going to be surprised how many people raise their hand and say, you know, I've had a disability I've not shared because I didn't feel safe. But now I'm going to. And that's when we're going to have a sense of belonging. People are gonna really, yeah, I'm really excited for that. I think it's coming.
Yep. I think also the other barriers still, some people let their pride get in the away, because they don't want to look weak. just such a negative stigma around disabilities as people just don't want to admit it.
Which is fascinating to me, because people just were like the strongest people I know. We have survived and have been resilient. And we get up every day, and we keep thinking of new ways to come about it. We are strong and resilient. There's nothing weak about it at all. In fact, it's pure strength. So I think sometimes we need to change our focus. Sometimes, we're just around people that don't support us. And yes, you know, that's not necessarily our fault. But you can be in a situation that is absolutely toxic. It's not just for you and other people, and you need to get out of that if that's true. And find workplaces that deserve you because they're out there. There are good people, good organizations that are trying their best.
I totally agree and that's all the time we have today. And thanks. Thanks for joining Amy and I really loved your insights. Thank you.
Good talking to you. We can talk again if you ever want to.
Absolutely. Thank you