Ultra Testing is a software testing company founded by two MIT engineers in 2013, but its staff doesn’t just focus on browsers and bugs. They’re committed to neurodiversity, a term used to advocate for the inclusion of people who think and communicate differently—like those with autism or ADHD.
The idea behind Ultra emerged when cofounder Rajesh Anandan’s wife, a child psychologist, observed an uptick in kids on the autism spectrum at her clinic and wondered why therapists and educators focused more on addressing weaknesses rather than nurturing strengths. Anandan considered how to change this: “It was that simple idea of, what if we could turn the table and focus on strengths and develop systems and tools to make the weaknesses not be barriers or disadvantages in the workplace. What would be possible?”
Anandan and cofounder Art Shectman got to work on building a high-performing, neurodiverse staff and began rethinking traditional work culture. Of Ultra’s fully-remote team of about 55 employees, 75% are on the autism spectrum.
Anandan claims that employees’ “heightened abilities” give the company a data-proven edge, citing case studies that suggest a performance advantage over big-name competitors like IBM in areas like bug detection and quality assurance. By sharing these results and winning top-tier clients like Slack, The Webby Awards and Prudential, Ultra hopes to inspire more companies to consider how to attract and support neurodiverse talent.
In the excerpts below, Anandan shares how Ultra got creative and redesigned aspects of a traditional workplace to support its staff.
An unconventional hiring process:
“We’ve developed a number of very simple, but effective tools including kind of a methodology or approach to recruiting that doesn’t rely on previous work experience or resumes. We designed a recruiting process to try to gather as objective data as possible to validate attributes. It’s all done fully remotely. We don’t really care about what your resume says. We use a combination of assessments, questionnaires, tests, simulations. We do have a couple interviews, but it’s really diving in on very specific things, not trying to assess things like fit or attitude.
Some of the behavioral stuff is harder to test, but possible. The last step in our recruiting process is a week of simulated work, which you do from home and it’s paid. But that allows us to validate some of the character traits or behaviors that we’re looking for. So, coachability: we have a week to give you some feedback and observe if you’re able to receive it and change your behavior. And learning agility: we have a week to throw one or two new tools your way and observe your ability to comprehend it, learn it deeply and apply it.”
The biodex: A user manual for every colleague:
“You join a new team and there’s a ‘getting to know you’ period where you’re learning how to interpret different signals, how to interact with someone, how to give someone feedback or when they make that face, what does it actually mean? If I need an urgent response, should I text them or should I Slack them? If I Slack them, how long until they respond to me? If I’m going to deliver some tough feedback, how should I do that?
All that stuff can take months to figure out on any team. In the meantime, it’s just inefficient, right? And on my team, not only is it inefficient, it can be fairly destructive. Let’s say, I Slack you with a question and then I don’t know how long it might take for you to respond to me. I might start feeling quite anxious because not knowing could trigger stress. Or, if I’m not picking up on unspoken words or cues, then I may never go down that learning curve of interpreting those cues into a pattern of behavior.
One of our teammates said, ‘You know, wouldn’t it be great if every human had a user manual or a quick-start guide? Because I can never figure this stuff out.’ Now everyone in the company has what we call a biodex, essentially someone’s user manual for how others work with them. It has 28 or so data points: what every remote team should have in place like preferred modes of communication, typical response time on different channels of communication, preferred learning styles. Also things like habits you’ve adopted to stay productive at work so that, let’s say you’re wearing headphones and not looking around or looking at me, I know through your Biodex, that it’s something you’ve done to stay focused.”
The Smilecorp bot: A daily happiness meter for monitoring team well-being:
“It’s a Slack bot that DMs everyone on the team at 5:00 pm local time with a poll, every day there’s a different poll and we rotate through about 14 poll questions. Those 14 things are dimensions of well-being and team engagement that we’ve identified as a group, that are important for us to have a very real time, transparent view of.”
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