Diversity enables businesses to be successful and solve problems, especially when individuals are given a safe space in which to break down problems or think creatively about solutions. Neurodiverse colleagues are like everyone else with different interests, personalities, and natural strengths, even though their brains operate differently from a neurotypical person. Neurodiversity can include people diagnosed on the autism spectrum (including what was previously known as Asperger’s syndrome), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, dysgraphia, dyslexia, and social anxiety, among others. These neurodivergent thinkers often end up in roles as specialists, such as mainframers, and they learn to amplify their strengths and turn what are considered weaknesses into tools they can improve.
Reg Harbeck, chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics Ltd., and Ray Mullins, senior software developer at Trident Services, Inc., share how their own neurodiversity has helped them navigate their mainframe careers and become stewards of their own successes.
Ray Mullins, a shy native Californian, was diagnosed with hyperactivity when he was about age seven, after his mother recognized that he had coordination issues. “She wanted to be a special education teacher and through her research, she found a pediatrician involved with UCLA studies about how coordination issues could be connected to hyperactivity,” he recalls. Additionally, in elementary school, he was bored and acted out because his intellect was above grade level. At that time, teachers were unsure how to keep him stimulated in lessons and actively participating in class.
As a result of this early hyperactivity diagnosis, Mullins took part in one of the original studies involving the drug treatment Ritalin, a medication used to calm children down and focus their attention. He started the treatment at age eight and continued the treatment through high school. “I went to a high school that was heavy in academics, and I turned things around,” says Mullins.
In his senior year of high school, Mullins had a programmable calculator and suddenly, “a light bulb came on,” he says. “I realized that I loved playing with it.” In the spring semester, his high school opened a computer lab. For college, he would be there for two years, and he ended up taking mostly computer courses before becoming a lab worker and then the lab manager. “Computers were just so much fun,” he adds.
For Harbeck, the journey was a little bit different, living in a First Nations area of rural western Canada, where one of the main industries was cement mining. “I grew up in a context where introversion was culturally expected, but I was an extrovert,” he says. Harbeck felt out of step with his classmates because his mind was on overdrive, which sometimes led to interrupting others. When he had something good to say, he would often blurt it out, so he didn’t forget it.
By fifth or sixth grade, a specialist came to school to evaluate students’ eyesight. “I thought it'd be really cool to have glasses, because I already knew I was a nerd, and so I deliberately failed,” Harbeck recalls. “As a result, I was seated at the front of the class, as teachers thought it would fix whatever was wrong with me. At least until my parents took me to an optometrist who found my vision was better than 20/20.” Around this same time, Harbeck’s IQ was assessed and found to be higher than expected.
One thing that was never in question for Harbeck was his intellectual nature, and that’s where he focused his youthful energy — cultivating his knowledge. However, he says, “It basically took until my 50s to get an ADHD diagnosis — but looking back on some of my symptoms and behaviors, it was obvious.”
Computers as a Safe Space
Harbeck went into computing, he says, “partly because it was somewhere I could be safe because computers don’t judge you.” He considers computers to be pedantic. “They follow rules, that’s all they know how to do.” Mullins adds that computers are the dumbest things in the world because they do exactly what you tell them to do. For instance, he says, “if you mistype something in the computer, it is going to execute that command exactly. It’s not going to interpret what you meant to tell it to do.”
“In the real world, everything is about context and culture and relationships. For those of us who work in computers and who are neurodiverse, it is easier to be in an environment where we are not pressured to be more people-oriented,” Harbeck explains. “Computers are not like people, who say one thing and mean another, but expect you to discern what they meant from what they said or how they said it.”
By understanding your own neurodiversity, he says that you can equip yourself with the knowledge and confidence you need to navigate relationships and interpersonal dynamics, while remaining true to yourself.
“We are all unique and have traits specific to ourselves. To diagnose someone is to put them in a box, but at the end of the day, we are all human beings,” Harbeck says. The challenge then becomes: how do you cope with your diagnosis without letting it define you?
Adapting to Neurodiversity
Both Harbeck and Mullins were intelligent as children. For instance, Harbeck was a Mensa member starting at an early age and Mullins skipped first grade and was often ahead of his peers. As their neurodiversity influenced their school years, both subsequently learned how to adapt and flourish as members of the mainframe community, but not without a few bumps in the road.
According to Mullins, “through high school and college, I was more focused on taking my medication on time and staying out of trouble. In my 20s and 30s, my symptoms were in the background and more under control, and my career was just beginning to plug along.”
Over the years, Mullins says that he’s made rash or odd decisions, those that he didn’t think too long or hard about. “In my mid-40s, I started to recognize the ADHD symptoms that I had in school were resurfacing. I also started to see that I had been self-medicating with caffeine. I drank tons of coffee,” he says.
Like the stimulant Ritalin, caffeine can provide that amphetamine effect, allowing you to calm the mind and focus for longer periods of time. “I stopped self-medicating with caffeine and started Adderall treatments to calm the ADHD,” Mullins explains. “It definitely helped.”
Harbeck also points out, “When your brain runs on turbo, you're more prone to manifest other symptoms, including volunteering for a number of projects, which can lead to other issues, such as missed deadlines.” Mullins agrees. He says that at work, he’s always had trouble with deadlines and pushing the work to the last possible moment.
“Generally, procrastination hasn’t hampered my success, but there have been times where I haven’t thoroughly thought out a project,” Mullins explains. “Because of that, I’ve sometimes had to backpedal on a programming project to correct something before a project could continue moving forward.”
Harbeck points out that it has been less productive for him to tackle projects before their due dates because criteria often change during the project and because his understanding of the criteria changes rapidly. “It’s only when I get things nailed down exactly, in the last minute, that I can be reasonably sure that what I produce is actually what's expected,” he says. With too much lead time, Harbeck indicates that he procrastinates more and then just feels guilty about it, rather than sitting down to do the work.
Another issue Mullins has had in his career is that he over-commits himself to projects. “I offer to help more than one project or person, and then find myself with too many irons in the fire,” he says. This type of over-extension leads to time management issues.
Neurodiversity hasn’t held either Mullins or Harbeck back in their careers, but their own introspection has led them to recognize when their symptoms or behaviors are likely to lead to difficulties with work projects or colleagues. According to Mullins, “becoming more self-aware has helped me navigate projects and relationships with colleagues more easily over the course of my 40-year career as a software engineer.”
Introspection Leads to Improved Social Skills
According to Harbeck, “Being atypically intelligent can mean that your brain is constantly overthinking everything all the time, which can often cause you to struggle more when it comes to adapting to societal norms, particularly if you are distractible and hyper.” Neurodiversity manifests in multiple ways, and Harbeck and Mullins say that coping mechanisms for social situations can differ greatly.
According to Harbeck, “coping mechanisms used to adapt to society and to optimize for the situational context can lead to further divergence.” In his case, his extrovert personality was a little incompatible with what he perceived as the introverted mainframe environment, which pushed him to adapt and try to behave as if he were introverted.
However, Mullins says, “Much of the time, we are adjusting ourselves to fit in and to make others more comfortable. We can sense when others are ill at ease.” Harbeck agrees. “You genuinely want to find a way to put the other person at ease. And it’s not necessarily about feeling bad about myself, but about helping others feel more comfortable around me,” he says.
Mullins has worked remotely for the last 25 years. When comparing his remote experiences to when he worked in the office three days per week, he says it was easier to read social cues in the office than online. He says building camaraderie and relationships as a remote worker requires more effort and nuance. “For example, there are subtle tones that can be missed in written communications,” he adds. “You have to be able to tell when a colleague is feeling overwhelmed and in need of help or simply when to stay hands off.”
Harbeck started working remotely halfway through his last job before deciding to strike out on his own 12 years ago. Working from home felt more productive given all the travel he did because he could come home, rest, and start on time the next morning without having to commute, effectively getting more work done. “Between working at a software company and in government, I started to realize that those cultures didn’t work well for me,” he says.
Harbeck says that in the government office environment, “there was that tall poppy syndrome, where you didn’t want to stand out more than the rest of your colleagues or you would be neutralized. There is a culture that expects people not to stick up above the cubicle wall, whereas at the software company, surrounded by salespeople, it was a very carnivorous context.” He added, “I had to be on guard at all times.”
According to Mullins, unlike sales staff, developers and customer support staff often have a similar mindset in that they are figuring out what went wrong with an application or customer experience and trying to fix the problem, so it doesn’t happen again. “We’re both problem solvers,” he says. “In this way, if you understand your own neurodiversity, you are better able to recognize environments that are not healthy for you. You can then change that environment to make it more comfortable and productive or get out.”
Like neurotypical people, neurodiverse people have a set of strengths and weaknesses. “Being neurodiverse has been a suffering point for me, but you can take your differences and turn them into advantages. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that your differences are superpowers,” says Harbeck. When experiencing pushback from colleagues about work projects, Harbeck says the key is not to forget what the end goal is.
The parallel ADHD journeys of Harbeck and Mullins showcase how neurodiversity can lead to different career choices and how to cope with societal and employer pressure. Mullins and Harbeck say that professional groups can be a place where neurodiverse employees flourish. SHARE and other technology groups can lead the way in recognizing and accepting neurodiversity in their workspaces and cultures. Colleagues can then network, educate, and communicate their own tips and tricks for navigating collegial relationships, corporate cultures, and mainframe careers.
To learn more about cultivating a neurodiverse workplace, check out “Building a Stronger Neurodiverse Workplace” and “Reaching Out and Growing Neurodiversity Talents: A Q&A with Neurodiversity Advocate Kenneth Ellington.”