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When global information services company Experian required a critical review of its current software, its existing staff were already working “flat out” on other projects, with no time to increase the firm’s test coverage, improve the test reporting already in place, and reduce bugs around systems and platforms.
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Head of global propositions development at Experian Paul Hill says “we weren’t really sure how we were going to tackle” such a huge task until he decided to trial three consultants from IT and compliance consulting business Auticon.
All of Auticon’s consultants are on the autism spectrum, which means a lack of inclusive culture in organisations previously left many of the consultants out of work – something the consulting firm wants to tackle through training and education.
Developing an inclusive environment
The Auticon consultants who worked with Experian, three ISTQB certified software testers, were placed on site at one of Experian’s Nottingham based offices.
Each consultant completed projects which included writing 2,500 new test cases, reviewing the 25,000 established test cases across several platforms and components and analysing Experian’s bug back catalogue to perform root cause analysis on systems and identify bug patterns and address issues.
Hill admits before hiring the consultants there was a level of “apprehension” due to stereotypes that already exist surrounding the time it takes external consultants to understand and tackle projects such as this, but he points out the firm would have had the same concerns as when hiring from any agency.
But to ensure there are no issues when placing consultants who may have special requirements, Auticon gives advice to prospective clients on how to properly include and cater to its consultants to make sure they perform to the best of their ability.
“Their advice was to treat them as any other staff, which is certainly what we did, but also right at the outset Auticon gave those who would be working most closely with the consultants a presentation on each individual so we could understand their specific needs,” says Hill.
Other than providing one of the consultants with noise cancelling headphones, not much else needed to change. “We moved them around the office several times because our own capacity was fluctuating, which was disruptive to everyone, but they handled that really well,” he says.
As part of making workforces more diverse, firms need to focus on building an inclusive environment so people can feel comfortable at work, and Experian found many of the changes made to develop an inclusive workplace for Auticon’s consultants benefited Experian in other areas.
Some of the advice given by Auticon to Experian in ensuring its consultants will adapt well to its working practices was to ensure that instructions were direct and unambiguous. “We learnt fairly quickly that we had to be more specific in our instructions,” says Hill.
While this required some change, Hill points out this isn’t necessarily a bad habit for the business to adopt, and he admits it made the team re-evaluate “our own ability to explain problems clearly”.
The consultant who worked most closely with Hill also asked for weekly lunch meetings to try and improve his social skills, something Hill says was “good for him” too as he previously had a tendency to “focus very much on work when I’m at work”.
“It helps in those working relationships, but also with our own people as well,” says Hill. “The whole experience was positive.”
All firms are putting a greater emphasis on diversity and retention in organisations to help increase competitive advantage through diverse thought, and Hill explains that at Experian the aim is to hire the best people from any background, gender, neurodiversity.
When Experian needed consultants in its London office to work on a similar project, it chose to hire from Auticon for a second time.
Hill explains that also Experian checked with its usual agencies when hiring for the second London project, but that the team needed people who would be able to “mobilise quickly”.
“We needed to get people in who we knew we could get up to speed quickly and could do a good job for us in a relatively short period of time,” he says.
The UK technology industry is currently suffering from a skills gap that is leaving both firms without skilled technical workers and the public without the basic digital skills needed for most roles.
Ray Coyle, UK CEO of Auticon, explains that many of Auticon’s consultants have the skills that firms need, but that many were unemployed for 10 years or more before joining the consultancy.
“The jobs they were doing were not the jobs you would expect them to be doing – we’ve taken on people who have PhDs who had relatively menial jobs, and that’s even within the people who were employed,” says Coyle.
Industry, education providers and parents still put an emphasis on gaining degrees rather than alternative routes, but those on the autism spectrum can have particular skills such as attention to detail, sustained concentration, pattern recognition, logical gap analysis, error detection that may not necessarily appear on a CV.
“Our recruitment approach is very much centred on skills and assessing people’s skills and people’s capabilities rather than looking at CVs and conducting interviews,” says Coyle. “Knowing how somebody gained the technical capability that they got, it doesn’t really matter.”
Competition for talent
There has been warning of a “competition for talent” in the future as firms are increasingly fishing in the same pool for talented workers, whereas Coyle points out finding consultants in this way allows Auticon and its clients access to a talent pool of people with more relevant skills that others will miss out on because of limited hiring processes.
When not working, Auticon consultants are training in new skills and technologies and occasionally do pro-bono work for charities.
“We know a lot more about somebody’s brain, about somebody’s capabilities,” says Coyle.
For the case of Experian, Coyle claims the skills consultants have as a result of being on the autism spectrum fitted well into what was needed for the projects.
“As we move into a more data centred, systemizing world with more complex algorithms, AI systems, databases, and big data, this much more systemised approach comes into its own,” he says. “The more people realise that the approach our consultants take sits very well with the direction the businesses are taking, the more people are going to want them.”
But as well as complete projects, Coyle points out many firms learn about inclusion and go above and beyond to make Auticon consultants welcome.
“It’s not part of what we go out and ask our clients to do, but we have found in a couple of circumstances now that when people within the teams that our consultants are placed in to learn what’s going on and get to understand what’s going on and meet the consultants they want to be more involved than just being a colleague and a co-worker on a project.” says Coyle.
“They want to help in any way they can and they want to make people feel comfortable and wanted, they want to do what they can to help them.”
When people are surrounded by those like them, the level of creativity in an organisation can decline as there is only one way of thinking, but when teams have more diversity they are proven to perform better.
“If you move people a little outside their comfort zone they perform better,” says Coyle. “The way you can run a business better is to work out which roles fit with which people and then have a neurodiverse team.”