Why your diversity and inclusion efforts should include neurodiverse workers

Neurodivergent workers bring pattern recognition and skills that are crucial for business and cybersecurity.

I caught up with Craig Froelich, Chief Information Security Officer at Bank of America, to talk about hiring neurodiverse workers and how they can benefit cybersecurity teams. Here are some important points.

Neurodiversity is part of Bank of America’s hiring strategy. Frœlich said:

Neurodiverse people and neurodivergent people have been part of our organization for a long time. Neurodiversity is one of those hidden diversity initiatives where there are a lot of people who are neuro-diverse. They may be on the autism spectrum. They may have ADHD. They may be dyslexic. And for a long time, they didn’t necessarily feel comfortable talking about it openly because of an associated stigma. So when we started thinking about neurodiversity and how important neurodiversity is to being able to help solve some of the toughest problems in cybersecurity, it was first about making sure we had an open conversation , honest and courageous within the organization. From there it was amazing all the people talking about how they wanted to be able to help. And then it was about finding partners in the community, people who knew a lot more than I did, so they could help us figure out where to start and what to do.

I think the important thing to understand is that it’s not a program. This is part of our recruitment strategy. And so neurodivergent people, either they’re already part of our team or those we bring into the organization, follow the same hiring practices.

The role of neurodiversity in cybersecurity. Froelich said neurodivergent people are adept at finding patterns. He said:

One of the great things that neurodiverse people can provide is an incredible ability to think about pattern recognition, for example. So in cybersecurity, it’s roles like crypto, it’s malware reverse engineering, it’s the hunt team, where focus and intent and finding the details is really important. And neurodiverse people have a great ability to be able to do that when given all the right conditions and support.

Neurodiversity brings business benefits. Frœlich said:

I think there is absolutely a business advantage. In cybersecurity, there is, depending on who you talk to, something in the order of about 3.5 million jobs that will be unfilled this year. And so it’s imperative for us as an industry to be able to make sure that we bring people to the table and those people need to be able to come from all walks of life. If you’re thinking about how to solve a tough problem, like defending an organization like Bank of America against different threats, you have to anticipate what those threat actors are going to do. And people who think differently can help you do that. The benefits are therefore clear.

The environment matters. When managing neurodivergent people, you need to think about the right environmental conditions, especially in a traditional office. Frœlich said:

When you have neurodivergent people on your team, you have to think, how do you make sure they have the right environmental conditions? Something as simple as providing them with noise canceling headphones, or placing them somewhere in the building, when we’re still in buildings, so we can make sure they’re not in a high traffic area, or that they have the right lighting. None of them are really expensive, and frankly none of them are really difficult, but it’s amazing what you can do when you open up and ask them what it takes for them can focus on what they offer and what they will do to help deliver.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it easier to adapt the environment to neurodiverse workers. Frœlich said:

When they transitioned from the office to working from home, it was actually very easy for them. In fact, probably even easier for them than for people like me. So their ability to stay focused and focused on results and details has been a real benefit to us through what we’ve been dealing with as this national human tragedy or pandemic-related global tragedy.

Neurodiversity meets machine learning. Froelich said pairing neurodivergent workers with machine learning models has been successful. He said:

I mentioned cryptography or reverse engineering malware, hunting. If you take hunting as an example, you’re talking about lots and lots of data. You look at the logs, you look at different anomalies, and the patterns will help you bring things out, but any good security team in a reasonably sized organization will most likely be inundated with different alerts. They’re going to have a lot of information that the models will eventually spit out, but you still need to be able to process it. Neurodivergent people have the ability to be able to pick up all of this information at a more efficient rate and in a better way to give you that type of information that needs to come to the surface so you can act on it faster.

Building a team with neurodiverse people. Frœlich said:

It’s a journey for us as it is, I think, for most companies. What I would like to tell you today is that, first, you should not view neurodiversity as an add-on to your hiring strategies and the way you design your organizations. It should be an integral part of everything you do. So there are definitely some jobs that neurodivergent people may be better at. For example, many neurodiverse people don’t necessarily feel comfortable going up against a company to be able to design a security solution because it requires human-to-human communication. But even if it’s not necessarily the right place, you take AI as an example, making sure it’s paired with people who understand how to be able to interact with neurodiverse people.

Whether it’s the manager or the team members, make sure they have the right training to say, “What kinds of questions should we ask and how should those questions be framed so that someone ‘someone who’s on the team and may need some extra support, like someone who’s neurodivergent, has the ability to do that?’ What’s been really interesting is that by making sure we to be more expressive, more direct, clearer, more direct in our language, not just in the way we manage teams, but also in the way we hire, our job specifications, it has not only improved us in our relationships with neurodivergent people, but it has also improved us overall.

To start. Froelich said there are community groups that are a big help for companies looking to hire more neurodiverse people. One group, Neurodiversity in the Workplace, has been key to Bank of America. Some tips for companies looking to hire more neurodiverse employees:

I think there are probably three things. The first is, start. This is an untapped market for the most part and getting started is really the first part. Second, when you go to start, be sure to bring partners with you. You don’t have to learn on your own. You can learn as you go, like us, but you can get partners like the one I mentioned earlier, Neurodiversity In The Workplace, and they can give you a head start. And the third is, don’t think of this as a bolt. Don’t think of it as a program. Think of it as a complete way to be able to work. And when you think your hiring practices need to evolve, the way you manage needs to evolve, that not only benefits you in terms of bringing new neurodivergent people to the table, but it actually helps the whole team. organization.

Helen D. Jessen