Neurodiversity in the mainframe environment can foster unexpected solutions, and as we learned from Cynthia Coupé, speech language pathologist, TEDx speaker, and co-founder and CEO of Outreach Advocacy Resources and Services (OARS), Inc., when employers ignore the skills and knowledge that these colleagues can offer, the industry loses a competitive advantage.
We sat down with neurodiversity advocate Kenneth Ellington, software engineer at Broadcom, about his experiences in the workplace. He offers advice for his peers, and explores how tenacity and a thirst for knowledge propelled his mainframe career.
As a neurodiverse person working in the mainframe community, can you share some of the challenges you’ve faced in the workplace?
Communication failures and misunderstandings happen often. In an effort to address these communication issues, I sought to outline some accommodations that would lead to an adjusted work environment.
For example, an employee who experiences sensory overload with fluorescent lights and direct sunlight may request a workspace away from windows or no overhead lights. These kinds of adjustments can be informal, between the employee and their manager, or formal accommodations made with assistance from human resources.
My draft accommodations focus on communication challenges and include recent examples. I distilled critical points from that draft that highlight how my thinking style affects communication. I began sharing this list with my peers and leadership in June with positive results.
- My vocabulary is expansive. I am not talking down to you.
- My tone of voice and facial expressions often do not match my intent. I am not angry. I am concentrating on the message content.
- Visual descriptions work best because I think in pictures, not words. Diagrams, metaphors, and storytelling help me understand.
- I may ask probing questions, including "Why?" to understand your message better. Additional context is critical for accurate interpretation.
- I am direct, literal, and logical in my spoken and written communication. I am not questioning your authority, skills, or experience, nor am I speaking critically of you.
- My unconventional way of viewing the world can be an asset to the team. I often reach atypical conclusions that could be helpful about a given challenge.
- I sometimes have reduced ability to manage tasks (e.g., a diminished ability to focus), which we often refer to as executive functioning.
My written and verbal communication and the ability to focus suffered when multitasking was in vogue in the 1990s. There has been a distinct increase in miscommunication between myself and my audience with the widespread adoption of agile project management practices. To be agile requires more frequent peer interaction. In several environments, executive functioning decreased significantly due to the random 15-30 minute work periods between regular meetings.
What skills/experience and support resources did you have to help you overcome those challenges?
I read many books, such as The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey. For 15 years, I went to four different counselors (some of whom hold Ph.Ds.), and none of them were able to recognize I am autistic.
I frequently reached out to peers and managers for their input. However, meaningful feedback was rare because we did not know what the root of my communication breakdowns and performance challenges were. I never understood why peers in the workplace so consistently turned away from me.
In a 2020 issue of The New Yorker, my wife read an article about autism. Many descriptive statements in that article resonated with her, so she asked if autism had ever been a consideration. It had not. The first book I bought the next day was by Dr. Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism.
Before I reached the bottom of the first or second page, I was sure about being autistic.
Going forward, the three best things I have going for me are an insatiable quest for knowledge, an ability to recall the most minute details from ancient memories, and a tenacious dedication to figuring things out.
In the mainframe sector, what are some of the policies/procedures in place that challenged your productivity?
In the 1980s and ‘90s, documentation was very wordy and light on diagrams. I always had to create diagrams or copy the original document by hand so I could highlight critical points. Printed mainframe documentation sets were huge and expensive. Where I worked, one printed copy (about eight feet wide) was mounted on a steel table and bolted to the floor. There was a take-a-number device to access the documentation because 400 systems engineers shared it.
My degree was all about mainframe-specific systems engineering. However, my first assignment was as an Electronic Data Systems (EDS) consultant serving as a UNIX System V administrator.
When I completed the EDS mainframe development boot camp, I landed in another group where I maintained a 3270 emulator. It was embedded code that ran on a transaction receipt printer used by a Chicago bank. The emulator source code looked similar to Assembler with looping constructs from PL/I.
The programming language and its software development kit (SDK) were designed, built, and maintained by one guy at Bell Labs in New Jersey. My first business trip was one week to learn that language from him. There were no reference materials of any sort.
In my first eight years working in massive mainframe environments, I did mainframe-specific work for less than four of those years. From the first year of my career to today, whether the environment was mainframe or other platforms (Himalaya, UNIX, Linux, Windows, and OS/2), I have moved from one team to another, doing very different yet meaningful work.
This has been an incredible technical skill-building journey. However, this career-long modus operandi has resulted in several discussions with leaders in different organizations that I did not meet the criteria for career advancement because I did not do what was listed in the job description.
One key point (i.e., experiences that have occurred in multiple environments) is that it can be very difficult to stay motivated when the work I do is held in high esteem publicly but privately held against me. This seems to happen when my accomplishments do not align with my titled position or the team’s mission statement. Circumstances beyond my control, such as organizational changes and matrixed leadership structures, can result in leaders not knowing or understanding in a timely manner the value added by my accomplishments. These circumstances mean that I can miss out on multiple career advancement opportunities.
How has your neurodiversity aided you in your job and helped achieve company goals?
About that word I used above: tenacious. When a problem is to be solved, I do not give up. My mind catalogs and cross-references everything. For example, when discussing a problem to solve today in a language like Python, I can recall from memory and see a similar problem I solved in C++ in 1998. My instinct is to follow proven best practices when tackling any problem. The term due diligence takes on a whole new meaning in my mind.
Once a department head wanted to terminate my employment in one environment because I took longer to accomplish coding assignments than my peers. When the system administrator learned of this, he arrived at a meeting with a spreadsheet of after-hours support calls from customers.
When my peers delivered code to production, the administrator’s pager went off every night for about a week. The administrator stayed soundly asleep when I delivered code to production. Yes, we discovered unexpected issues in my code. However, none rose to a severity level that required customers to call the 800 support line.
Several times in my career, colleagues I worked with many years before have contacted me. They wanted me to know an application I designed and implemented was still running with minimal maintenance overhead. What a great feeling.
Have you or others in the workplace advocated for greater support of neurodiverse employees and have policies/practices changed over time?
The first few weeks after I learned I am autistic, I felt a profound relief to know why I am different. As my life flashed through my thoughts, grief settled over all that had been missed or was painful. In May of 2021, I left on a solo, 14-day, 3,456-mile road trip through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. Driving over more than 24 mountain summits, walking around several at 10,000+ feet between walls of snow, and keeping an eye out for bears fresh out of hibernation was profoundly moving. That trip was what I needed to let go of a lifetime of painful memories and put many events in a better context.
When I backed out of my driveway to leave, I had no idea if I would return to continue working in a 30-year IT career or find something else to do with my time. My wife and our children supported me on this journey by accepting that I had to go away and try to figure some things out.
About two weeks after that road trip, Diversity@Broadcom launched. Jill Turner, vice president of human resources (HR), invited employees to communicate with HR about their challenges to address the most impactful issues. I reached out to Jill, we met, and I gave a brief presentation about autism and how not knowing had severely impacted my career and all of my working relationships. When I gave my presentation and Jill read this quote from Marcelle Ciampi:
“Evidence now supports that many autistics have no social and communication deficits amongst our own people. It is not the autism that is at issue, but the culture we are immersed in, a workplace without autistic role models, without autistic managers, and without autistic leaders. Consider if the tables were turned. What if the non-autistic citizens were entering a workplace where all the upper management, all the decision makers, all the primary spokespeople, all the board members, all the leadership team, all the CEOs were autistic? What if the neurotypicals were the token 'poster child?' What if we tried to make you act more autistic?”
There was a long pause. Then Jill said, “Yes, we have work to do.”
A pair of articles by Marcelle that rattled me into action:
At the most fundamental level, I asked for help.
Yes, things have changed for a brighter future for anyone in Broadcom, who is neurodivergent. Today, I am the moderator of a "Lean In" circle with a mix of neurodiverse and neurotypical peers who are eager allies to learn about and support each other.
HR invited us to participate in the company’s redevelopment of employee management practices and training materials.
Here, I am answering interview questions for SHARE, and I will be a panelist in a webinar hosted by major players in the mainframe industry.
Yes, the change train has left the station.
What advice would you give your peers and mainframe organizations about including neurodiverse individuals in the conversation about policies/procedures?
Invest in the working relationship. Be willing to learn about our unique traits that enable us to see the world in a different context. The variable contexts, sometimes radically different, that we bring to a discussion can surface novel solutions to problems.
While there are some fundamental common truths about a person who is autistic, dyslexic, or some combination of neurodiverse conditions, each neurodivergent person is unique. Autistic people often refer to themselves as having a spiky profile. According to Oolong at Neuroclastic, "One of the primary things I wish people knew about autism is that autistic people tend to have ‘spiky skills profiles:’ we are good at some things, bad at other things, and the difference between the two tends to be much greater than it is for most other people.”
We are not broken. There is nothing wrong with us. We are neither less than nor more than our neurotypical peers. We are simply different.
Want to learn more about neurodiversity and how to create a more inclusive talent pool? Watch the webinar, "Diversity You Can't See," online here.
The webinar is part of the series created by the Making Our Strong Community Stronger initiative, sponsored by BMC, Broadcom, IBM, the Open Mainframe Project, Rocket Software, TechChannel, and VirtualZ Computing