Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The neurodiversity and cybersecurity connection

Cybersecurity is essential in 2022 — and it's a field where people with autism can excel. This industry pro says you should consider hiring neurodivergent individuals, even if they don't seem like a "cultural fit."

For Autism Acceptance Month, we're looking at neurodiversity and cybersecurity.

(Courtesy photo)

For 12 years, CBS’sThe Big Bang Theory” featured highly analytical scientists awkwardly navigating their everyday lives. The “quirkiness” of the show’s main character, Sheldon, was often at the root of the show’s jokes — a fact that not everyone found very funny, particularly because some of the traits the audience were encouraged to laugh at have been recognized by many as traits shared by some people on the autism spectrum.

While pop culture may uphold these stereotypes, it’s true that for some people on the autism spectrum, traits such as attention to detail make them strong candidates for jobs in STEM — not least of all in the rapidly evolving field of cybersecurity.

Rex Johnson, executive director and practice leader of cybersecurity consulting services at CAI, oversees the cybersecurity threat landscape at the Allentown, Pennsylvania-headquartered business technology services firm. One of CAI’s services is Neurodiverse Solutions, which helps Fortune 1000 clients across the country build diversity and inclusion employment programs while providing resources for neurodivergent members of the workforce.

Johnson, the father of 21-year-old twin sons who are both on the autism spectrum — one of whom is entering the cybersecurity field — has worked with many neurodivergent employees in cybersecurity over the years, and encourages employees to build neurodiverse teams.

“I had a coder that helped develop an application for heating and cooling, and there was one small thing that wasn’t quite resolved,” Johnson. said “We were going through an executive presentation and I remember that this person was thinking about how to resolve it during the meeting. The CFO looked at me and said, ‘I’m not going to pay for this time.’ I said give him time, and within about a minute or two he found the points in the code that was causing a particular bug, fixed it and tested it. The problem was resolved because he was so focused on that code and analysis and knew what every line is supposed to be.”

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Rex Johnson, CAI

Rex Johnson. (Courtesy photo)

Beyond anecdotal stories, CAI has found that neurodivergent workers can increase productivity, as evidenced by its client the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which hired a team from CAI Neurodiverse Solutions to digitize thousands of paper files, a project that was reportedly delivered early and with “notable accuracy.” DelDOT now employs about 30 neurodivergent people hired via CAI.

“There was even one case within our own Neurodiverse Solutions where there was web application quality assurance testing, and after three months, neurodiverse team members’ quality assurance exceeded the metrics of neurotypical peers,” Johnson said.

With the growing number of cybersecurity threats, and the increase in new, never-before-seen threats, cybersecurity needs people who can look at a situation from a different angle, something that makes diversity especially important.

“You hear about breaches all the time,” Johnson said. “The cyber criminals are getting very creative. We [at CAI] act like a real hacker and see how long it takes for us to get caught. That’s a lot of fun. Folks that are neurodivergent are very good at that, because they have the time and the detailed analysis skills. They’re finding things that people didn’t know were there, or would have passed, so those are taken care of.”

Prospective employers, he said, should not always value outgoing personalities as a value for the company during interviews, especially when looking for people to fill highly analytical jobs like cybersecurity. (Here’s more on supporting neurodivergent employees via DEI best practices.)

It’s also important to note that neurodivergent people do not all fit into the box that pop culture has created.

“There are people in cybersecurity on the spectrum that are high functioning, and they may be introverted,” he said. “Some are very good speakers. Some are very good in front of people and some are not. It’s varies by individual just like it does with everybody else.”

If you or someone you know is neurodivergent and needs career help, you can reach out to CAI Neurodiverse Solutions via its contact page.

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