Episode 6

Published on:

31st Dec 2020

Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity – Stephanie Ranno

People who are Neurodiverse often struggle in the job hunt, in interviews, and working at organizations that are not always friendly. Nathan Chung interviews Stephanie Ranno, Vice president at TorchLight Hire. She shares her personal stories and expert advice to help in the job hunt, interview process, and helping companies to hire Neurodiverse workers. Listen and be inspired.



Welcome to the NeuroSec podcast where we unite people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in Cybersecurity and beyond. My name is Nathan Chung and today my special guest is Stephanie Ranno. She is Vice President at TorchLight Hire. Welcome Stephanie.


Hi, thanks for having me.


Great. What are the biggest obstacles for Neurodiverse workers is the workplace itself. I myself have seen my share of hostile and toxic workplaces. In addition to the interview process, managers career paths, and corporate culture at many organizations are not friendly to Neurodiverse workers. First of all, let's start at the beginning with recruitment. Job descriptions often include language such as good team player or excellent communication skills, these tend to discourage Neurodiverse people from applying. What would you recommend to clients to change job descriptions?


Well, Nathan, that's a great question. And having been in staffing and recruiting for 15 years, I've looked at hundreds, if not thousands of job descriptions. And I think one of the things to note about all of the things we're going to talk about for a Neurodivergent candidate, are going to be good for your general population. So whether we're talking about job descriptions, the interview process, the culture of your organization, the things that you do to make things more inclusive. And to make things more clear, and to make things more or to make your work environment, just generally more equitable, is going to be good for all of the candidates applying. It's going to be good for all of the candidates who are interviewing with your organization. But specifically to talk about job descriptions. I think one of the things that every person that works on a job description, whether that's the hiring manager, or the talent acquisition professional or the recruiter is to look at the words that we use and the context that and the meanings that they have in the context that they give for the actual job. So one of the things that we tend to do is we we get into patterns of writing the same sort of overused words or phrases, things like team player, multitasker, that may not be indicative of the actual work itself. And by that, I mean, you might have a team player, but the work that you actually are doing is very individual. Or you might assume, if you are talking to a Neurodivergent candidate, that they aren't good at being a team player, which is a false assumption that they're not social. So I think that using very clear language to talk about exactly what are the skills, what is the past experience needed to perform that job. And being very clear about how that how that translates into that work? Is is my best advice for clients that are creating job descriptions. There are also companies, tools out there that can help you create better job descriptions. I just learned of one I'm we're doing some of our own research here on how to how to write better job descriptions. There's one called Textio, what's helped, which helps you look at language that you use, it's AI based. And it basically helps you look at how to create, you know, a more inclusive job description.


Great, that's incredible. And you brought up a really good point because even Autism, like that's a spectrum. So there are people who are high functioning and low functioning. So it's it is across the board.


I think you bring up a great, you know that it's, you're absolutely right, whether you're Autistic, whether you have ADHD, whether you have Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, whatever, all of our brains are different, right? I mean, that's kind of the whole, the whole crux of understanding Neurodiversity. Neither one comes with good or bad brains, whether my Neurotypical brain has things that it's good at and things that it's not so good at. It has, I have developed skills that that I am proficient in and ones that I know that are always going to be a struggle for me. So I think continuing to to, to push forward the narrative and the idea that everyone is going to need accommodations in different ways. You know, I don't want to digress too much. But I do want to say, I think about it a lot because I work in the space of marketing, communications and creative recruiting. And so I think about the fact that we individualize so much, right? The shopping experience, I get very specific messages in my Facebook feed, and in my email, based on my shopping preferences. Why we don't apply that individualization to work, where we spend 40 50 60 hours a week and to the hiring process? It kind of makes me scratch my head a little bit.


Yes, I totally agree. Second, the traditional interview process is a social dance where Neurodiverse job candidates often struggle. A person with ADHD, for example, will often find it difficult to maintain eye contact, concentration, or pay attention to questions. A person with Autism, on the other hand, may suffer sensory overload or find it difficult to communicate. How would you change the interview process?


p your marketing strategy for:


That's a very good point. And I think the other thing you you're stressing upon is the number of people in the interview itself. Because I can imagine for not just people who are Neurodiverse, but sometimes for women, like if you go into an interview and and the panel is all men, it can be very intimidating for women.


Yeah, I mean,


I think for any candidate, frankly, and it's funny in a panel interview, I know people like panel interviews. And I've I myself have been part of panel interviews. But what's interesting about them, is you end up having people, the interviewers, fall into roles, typical roles, which is something good to know in advance, you're going to have the person that is that is like your champion in that interview. Typically, this is someone you've had interaction with, could be the recruiter could be the hiring manager themselves. Then you're going to have somebody that is like the naysayer, they're the one that like wants to catch you in with some sort of like out of the ballpark weird question, right? So you have like the naysayer, then you have the person that's in the interview, and you wonder why they're there. Because they never ask a question. Or the question they ask is like a repeat to someone else's question. And then you often have like your softball question person, this may be the person that's your champion, they want to get, they want you to succeed. So if you know that people naturally kind of move into these kind of are in these roles, when you have a group panel interview, you can really play to the people that are your huge, you know, you can know that they're not all out to get you right. That you are going to have people that in that interview that you know, that are your champions. You know, I kind of overall have a problem with an interview process that is like, let's try and let's try and catch this person. Let's try and make this a game of and try and find all the reasons we don't want to hire you. I think that's the wrong way for an interviewer to go into. I think most interviewers just to let your audience know, they're not out to get you. Like they those people do want you. They want to like, they want you to succeed in the conversation. But the way we've sort of, we've we've created this, this aura around interviews can often feel adversarial and that's, that's unfortunate.


Yep, I totally agree. Because there's just so many candidates out there. And right now, the typical interview process just seems more like a kind of like an elimination game.


Yeah, yeah, it's true. It's true. So I think, you know, as you're preparing if you get, you know, to that interview panel, and sometimes you don't have a panel. In the world that we're in now and in the pandemic, pandemic interviewing, much of what you're going to be doing is actually quite advantageous for someone that's Neurodivergent. Because you can control your environment, you can jump on to that video interview, you can get on there early and prepare. You can not have to look someone directly in the eyes, right? You can, you can and that might make you feel uncomfortable. So I think, um, I think that there are some real benefits for and hopefully things We take post pandemic, into, you know, it key in the hiring process, which include things like virtual interviews, and work from home hiring.


Yep, that's a very good point. And the third obstacle which I talked about in my, in my first security talk yesterday, is the traditional career path. Because even in Cybersecurity and attacking outside, the typical career path, often leads to manager and then executive roles. To get there usually requires a lot of social skills resulting in Neurodiverse workers being stuck and failing to advance. Many organizations cannot or will not change them saying setting things like: this is how things have always been done. Or if it ain't broke, why fix it? Or even change is bad. How would you convince a client or organization to change their career path to better suit Neurodiverse workers?


That's a great question. I think career pathing for, there's a couple of things that come up for those that are Neurodivergent. So if you are looking at multiple opportunities, as a candidate, I would look for those that are led by more progressive leadership. Whether that's HR leadership and sort of business leadership. Because there should be pathways for advancement. And I'm but when I say advancement, I mean raises. I mean, advancing in your ability to make more money, that aren't tied to managing people. And that aren't tied to navigating company politics. Now, you you gather two or three people together, you're going to have some sort of politics, regardless of size of company. So let me answer that one. First, before I go to the to the raises and advancement that's not tied to management. If you're trying to navigate company politics, my best advice is to look for sponsorship opportunities with leaders in the organization that can be your internal advocates. So this is right for any candidate, but especially those that are Neurodivergent is get some, could be an outside career coach, or even better. It's someone within the organization who sees your value, and can help advocate for you and like help you politically maneuver within the organization. And again, that political maneuvering could be I think, again, there's a there's a misperception that if you are Autistic, you can't manage people. I think that's wrong, I think it's dead wrong. I think it's as stereotypical as saying women can't lead an organization. I think there are challenges. And maybe there are ways that, that the organization or the teams need to listen differently to leaders who communicate differently. But I don't think that set, you know, having these assumptions, and making these assumptions about people who have different brains, is right to sort of track them into well, they're going to do QA and they're going to do IT. And, you know, we couldn't we couldn't ever have an Autistic person in a customer service role or in a sales role or in a marketing role. I just think that's wrong. So I think having those mentorship opportunities, and mentorship is a little more top down. I kind of like the idea of sponsorship, you know, because frankly, that Neurodivergent candidate is going to give a lot of guidance that you know, is going to give some real knowledge to that mentor, to that sponsor. So there's going to be that give and take, it's not just going to be, I'm helping you. I'm so great as your mentor, and I'm helping you. There's going to be a give and take back and forth. So that's one thing. On the other side of advancement, I really encourage people that if they've been in roles for, and sameness can be really complex and can be really important, especially to autistic people like having that routine, having that sameness. So you may have you may be and be completely happy in doing that same work for maybe different projects or doing sort of this, you know, get having these, this work that you complete that you're really proud of, with little error, right. But what you need is you need to be able to still advance in your in your monetary salary that's coming home or in your bonuses. So what I encourage is that every cup, every year, but certainly every couple of years, you look at are there any salary adjustments that you need to make you more competitive with the outside market. So people always think of raises, right? I did a good job, I get a raise. I get my 3% cost of living raise, what I'm saying is, if you've been in a job for five years, and you have not seen a marked increase, likely the market and has has, if you were to go outside and get a new job, you would have a 10 or 20% increase. So what I'm saying is going to your boss, going to HR, and talking about a salary adjustment. Is there a band you can create. Is there a level two, level three, level four, that doesn't tie to management, but ties strictly to how the market has progressed. And if you went outside, or if they hired someone from the outside as a business analyst to come into the organization, they'd be paying that person 10 or 20%, higher than what you are currently making. So that's one of my kind of, I don't know if it's an insider trick or tip or something, but you can do that. You have power, use your voice, you know.


Yeah, those those are very good points, which to be honest, the first time I heard about those kind of tips. So those, that knowledge is very helpful. Thank you.


Yeah, salary adjustment. You're not asking for a raise or more responsibility. You're not asking to manage any people. You're asking for your salary to be adjusted to market rate.


I love it. So next up, in my experience, managers often follow traditional and outdated methods that lead them to view Neurodiverse conditions as a big negative because they see things kind of like a factory, people have to keep producing. The logical and natural course of action managers often take is to eliminate Neurodiverse workers in the workforce. This thinking is often ingrained into corporate culture, especially in larger and older organizations. How would you change corporate culture at clients and organizations?


I think you've identified something that is, I don't want to say an elephant in the room. But it is, it's almost like a self fulfilling prophecy. Let me play it out like this, you want to hire a, you want to create a more diverse team. So your team is pretty homogenous. You want to create a more diverse team, whether that diversity is coming from Neurodiversity, or whether it's coming from you know, ethnic diversity or, or gender diversity, right? You want to create. So you, you intentionally create a pipeline. You hire a candidate in, but you do nothing. Or very little, to adjust the actual team dynamics, to listen differently to those team members, to collaborate differently as a team, right? So often times, that team, the most verbal, the most extroverted people there, they're heard first. Their ideas are brought forward first. So you don't change anything about the dynamic of the team, what happens? That different person doesn't fit. And so they either they're, they're seen as not as being outside, they're seen as not really being a team player, you know, they use those type of words. And they're either fired, or that person is just so out of place and uncomfortable, because nothing has been adjusted, there's been no accommodation, there's been no adjustment, that they leave. And so thus, they say, well see, those people really don't, those people, hate that term. Well, they just don't really work. And so there's this self fulfilling prophecy, and then that person is going gosh, I just I know I don't fit in anywhere, right?


Yeah, it's a tragedy.


It's a tragedy. And it to me, I think you identified it as antiquated, archaic, like, Industrial Revolution, everybody needs to fit this kind of widgety cog productivity production line mentality. It's a command and control type of management style. That is all. It's kind of passe. And I think, I think those companies that say, you know what, maybe we need to, my biggest thing is like, we need to listen differently. We need to create different pathways to show knowledge to show ideas. So why does everything have to have a PowerPoint deck and presentation? Why couldn't you do it differently? Why couldn't you have like submissions happen in written communications, or maybe there's a show and show day, right? Like, there's so many other ways that we can elucid, you know, elicit ideas from our team and create collaborative environments that are more inclusive. But because we've always done it one way, we get, we get really stuck. And you know, what happens is those companies, they end up I think getting beat in innovation, getting beat in productivity, getting beat in employee engagement, because I think one of your last questions is around business case. And all of those things, you know, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey reports. I don't I could give you I could we could spend two seconds Googling,


You know what, you brought up a good point. Because one big question that company execs, leaders will have, especially for you is, what what is the business case for hiring, retaining, and advancing Neurodiverse workers? Because at the end of the day, they want to hear things like, ROI, and how does this benefit the company?


Yeah, I mean, it is just that. Take two seconds in Google, diversity, diverse workforce, profit margins, revenue, productivity, innovation. They are all, they all increase, if you create a more diverse workforce. So you are more productive, you are more innovative. I mean, think about it. It just makes like logical sense to me that if you have different brains, and different backgrounds, thinking about your products and services, from a different angle, you're going to create some innovation, right? You're going to create products that are more reflective of your overall customer base. You're going to create products that are more reflective of your overall employee base. You're going to be more competitive for overall talent, you know. And you're going to create it and company engagement. I, there's a gallup poll every year. It's been happening for like 25 years, and it's on engagement, employee engagement. And the sad fact is, it is not it's there's been 70% disengagement of employees from their employers for 25 years. Well, guys, like, why do we keep what we're doing clearly is not moving the needle to a more engaged culture. So we we win our companies, so an employee engagement leads to right productivity, innovation, you know, customer satisfaction. So, you know, I think it, I think that we just need to keep beating the drum consistently every day to say, your assumptions are wrong, about Neurodivergent candidates, and what they can do. Your processes should and can be refined to benefit all to benefit all candidates.


Totally agree.


'll look back and go like wow:


I totally agree. And the last question is the biggest one of all is, on a personal note, why why Neurodiversity? And do you have any personal stories to share?


So I sent you a little picture, I have three children. My oldest is 11. And he was diagnosed at seven, ADHD and, and there could be some other stuff going on, we're sort of in the process as we, as we continue to support him. My middle daughter who is almost eight, she is Autistic. And then I have a Neurotypical five and a half year old on a six year old son. So I've got an and then my husband is ADHD. So he's Neurodivergent. So really, in my family of five, I am the minority, my son, and my, my youngest are the minority in our Neurodivergent family. And I've been in recruiting, like I said, at the beginning for 15 years, so I i've been, I love, love the world of hiring and staffing and, and helping and career, you know, just watching people's careers flourish. And, to me, there could be nothing more important than all three of my kids working in a Neurodiverse team, and having opportunity to, to have meaningful work in their life, it's such an important part of being human is being able to have work that aligns with our talents and our gifts, and be able to feel like useful in a way. And so I want that for them. And, frankly, I have become a much better mother, a much better life a much better employee, because of the Autistic adults I've met. And that and because of my kids, like they have helped me to listen better, to be more empathetic, to be more humble, to be more creative in how I communicate, and how I give and receive feedback and love and you know, in every aspect of my life, so I know that there are millions of other families out there that that loves somebody that has a different brain. So, so yeah, I think it's like a mesh. For me. It's been a mash up of like, my professional and my personal life in a way that I'd never imagined. But I'm, I am so blessed to be able to talk about it with people like you.


Thank you. It is. Those are incredible stories. And thank you for everything you do, Stephanie. It's super important to help people like that. And I love your stories. And yeah, and yep. And that that's a wrap. And thank you Stephanie.


Yeah, thank you. I can't wait to listen to your other, your other podcast episodes.


Thank you. Have a good day.


Happy New Year. Almost.

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On a mission to flip the script on Neurodiversity in Cybersecurity, Technology, Society, and Culture
Uniting people and organizations to support and advance Neurodiverse people in Cybersecurity.

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Nathan Chung