Written by Cynthia Coupe, CEO, Outreach Advocacy Resources and Services (OARS), Inc
There is a parallel universe right here in front of you that you may not have even considered. It’s Neurodivergency and the Mainframe. During my keynote speech at the Open Mainframe Summit in Philadelphia this fall, I dove into this idea that the challenges Neurodiversity and the Mainframe face are actually fairly similar.
First off, you may need a primer on Neurodiversity. Simply said, neurodiversity is the differences between each of our brains, with neurodivergency being the differences in our brain that result in autism, ADHD, dyslexia, tic disorders and more. This is not a formal defiinition as one does not yet exist for the term neurodivergent…but it is widely accepted as containing these variations. The term was originally coined to describe autism, and to explain that it is simply a difference in the way a brain is patterned (a neuro diverse difference) and not a disability.
Many who are neurodivergent struggle with fitting in, with being understood, accepted or even included. Sometimes those of us who are neurodivergent know it, we are painfully aware, and sometimes we have no idea. Sometimes we find ourselves on the outside of social situations, not sure how to fit in…not sure why we can’t seem to make friends, or get invited to social events. Other times we’re the life of the party, the center of attention and the one cracking all the jokes. Often times other people think we’re “weird,” “antisocial,” “boring,” or “overly talkative.” Maybe these are true, or maybe those are just unnecessary labels that don’t actually describe anything important about us.
You see, neurodivergency is a spectrum…a rainbow of fruit flavors if you will…and this allows us to look millions of different ways. In the case of autism, the commonality falls in difficulty with social interactions and repetitive or restrictive interests. There is a lot more to unpack here too…but I’ll keep it simple for this post.
So, to say the least, it can be confusing to identify a person that is neurodivergent. And what if it didn’t really matter? What if we had a world, or an office, or a home or a school or any number of settings that were universally accessible for any kind of mind. I mean…what if you needed some quiet space to sit and think and get away from the noise that bothered you and that was just…available..no questions asked, no noise canceling headphones needed or no stressing as you tried to focus amidst the background noise but really weren’t able to. What if you manager understood how to manage different kinds of minds, and understood learning styles or how to support with social cues or any host of things most managers aren’t trained on?
What if that could exist?
I have spent most of my life working with the neurodivergent population, and yet I didn’t realize I was actually part of it until a couple of years ago when my daughter was diagnosed with autism. Suddenly, it all made sense. My entire childhood and early adult years made sense to me. I never looked “classically autistic,” but I know my brain thinks differently. In fact, research is only now beginning to see that many females on the spectrum present differently. We hide it better or our traits are less pronounced, but we still have divergent minds.
Anyhow, I digress.
What if a workplace could be inherently sensitive to all kinds of minds, and not just those that are typically developing?
An estimated 40% of the population is neurodivergent. That means that whether you know it or not, nearly half of us have ADHD or are autistic, anxious or dyslexic. And that’s just an estimate! I would beg to differ that all of our brains are neurodivergent…I mean, at what point do we look at the web of differences and say you’re neurotypical instead of neurodivergent? The truth is that each one of our brains diverges from the other…we are each neuro-unique. The description of our cognitive spectrum is so limited it causes confusion.
When neurodivergent and neurotypical minds are able to come together we strengthen our core. We can offer more, go further and complete tasks faster than when we are separate.
The mainframe industry needs modernization. So does society. Neurodivergents and neurotypicals need to work together. In both examples, Young people are driving change, and it’s remarkable. The next generation is bringing with it a different set of values, a different approach to our current society, new ways to solve old problems. And with that comes new asks, new responsibilities and different requirements from us.
The mainframe industry has always had neurodivergent minds, I guarantee if. Some of you are just finding this out now…maybe you’re getting diagnosed at 50 with ADHD or finally seeing you are autistic when you are 60. Within the mainframe, the younger generation knows their value and what they can uniquely bring to the industry. They are driving change.
And you know what is so absolutely great about this?
You’re in a unique position to be change-makers in this industry.
The next generation is asking for diversity of thought, gender, race, ethnicity and neurology.
And your industry can offer that.
Neurodivergency drives innovation, creative problem solving and original work. As in industry, it is time to look at some tough facts. You need to look at why you have Neurodivergent minds that are missing promotions or that are leaving the industry. Is it an unconscious bias? A miscommunication? What is being done to welcome, recruit and retain this community?
Without change, we see problems. We see an increase of quiet quitting. We see burnout, difficulty with retention or inability to attract needed talent.
The mainframe industry will always need neurodovergent minds just as much as it needs neurotypical minds. You need the minds that are centrally focused, enjoy solving unique problems and can think quickly under pressure. Neither of us needs to replace who we are, or what we have. Rather than quiet quitting, let’s focus on loud retention…actively, willingly and transparently change the perception of the mainframe.
In order to make this possible, neurodivergent workers need to be actively recruited and retained. To do this you need to Implement universal design principles by making products, environments and operational systems simple, flexible and efficient so they are welcoming and usable to the most diverse range of people possible.
I have 3 points that can help you get there:
Assess your workplace.
a. What are the known issues? Who is in your workforce, and what special talents do they have? What is being done currently, what’s working, what’s not?
Use this assessment to drive change
a. Learn how to implement universal design, include DEI and ND, restructure the corporate ladder (corporate tree)
Once you’ve done this, give an honest evaluation of your changes.
a. Is what you’ve dnoe making a difference? If not, ask some more pointed questions and cycle through again…
Some of us, like myself, may never be diagnosed. Maybe we don’t see the value in it, or don’t see ourselves as neurodivergent. And that’s fine…we don’t need to be neurodivergent to be able to talk about it, to feel in alignment with neurodivergent traits, or to be a champion of change for those that are actually identified. But we do need to be able to talk about it. We need an environment that welcomes us. We need to be curious about human behavior, whether or not it comes with a label. Think outside the label. Focus on abilities and needs. You don’t have to go out and get a diagnosis to get accommodations. You don’t need to be autistic to know you don’t like background noise.
Change is uncomfortable and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it is possible.
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” – Frank Zappa