Culture

Dear Future Colleague, I learned to embrace my neurodiversity as a developer. And so can you.

Jalmari Ikävalko

Dear Future Colleague,

Do you remember the first time you saw a coding terminal? It probably looked like hieroglyphics to you — a bunch of colons and hyphens and quotation marks (and every now and then a word) all running together with no apparent order.

That feeling when you first saw that? That’s me. Or rather, that’s my brain a lot of the time.

I’m neurodivergent, meaning differences in my brain influence how it works. Specifically, I have attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia. These conditions affect — among many other things — my ability to concentrate, discern symbols from each other, and make sense of long lines of text, whether it’s in a human or a programming language. Yet, I’m a senior software consultant with 14 years in the industry.

How my struggles manifested

I didn’t always have names to go with how I felt. I was in elementary school when I found out I had dyslexia. By that time, I was already doing quite poorly academically. I was placed in remedial English and just barely scraped by without repeating a grade.

It wasn’t until age 27 that the ADHD diagnosis came along. Granted, I suspected I had it for some time before that. My whole life, I’ve struggled with motivation and focus. It even affected the things I was really interested in, like coding, which I started getting into around age 12. I would often feel very frustrated when I tried something and it didn’t work like I imagined it should. Discerning complex code, understanding graphics programming, and creating more advanced visual effects were nearly impossible. In those first years of learning to program, I wasn’t able to finish pretty much any project, even the tiniest ones. Meanwhile, some of my peers were doing complex 3D effects, full-duration demos, fully playable games, and more. I often felt pretty dumb in comparison.

Despite that, after high school I was able to land a trainee job in a small local company working on a 3D engine for phones. Once I started, I realized — somewhat to my horror — that I was completely out of my depth. I had managed to fake some sort of an impression of skill in the interview, but in truth, I had no idea how to properly program shaders or improve and optimize a rendering engine. Not surprisingly, my contract wasn’t renewed. 

In the tech industry, there’s a lot of talk about imposter syndrome. In this case, I actually was an imposter. 

I’m not, nor do I feel like, an imposter anymore. 

So what made the difference?

Getting a Diagnosis
First of all, the official ADHD diagnosis allowed me to receive publicly supported therapy. That process helped me make sense of how my mind works and find ways to deal with it. It also opened the door to medication, which I took for a time. Although I had to stop my prescriptions due to side effects, the treatment let me experience things that I could draw on later. It’s as if my brain got a taste of what it would be like without ADHD, and now with a lot of work I can train it to feel that way again without the meds (with greater and lower success rates depending on the day).

Finding Work That Fits
I also landed on a job that better suits me. After my failed trainee gig, I worked at a couple of startups, the last of which required me to do a lot of different things. Over the same day, I could be coding shaders for graphics effects, fixing up a web backend, configuring installers, and maintaining servers. Since I get bored easily, the various responsibilities agreed with me. Then one day our CTO left, and with no one else to step in, I became the replacement. I still wonder how exactly I managed to keep up with it all and not crumble under the stress, but I suppose by that time, I had come up with enough coping mechanisms and embraced the challenge of responsibility.

I joined Reaktor about three years ago when it felt like my chances for professional development at that company were exhausted. I’ve discovered a consultancy is really the best fit for me. It means I can change projects when I start to lose interest — although most of the work at Reaktor is so interesting I’ve found I typically stay on projects for much longer than I anticipate I would.

Some of our ways of working are really beneficial for me, too. For instance, our informal culture which doesn’t have a lot of extra bureaucracy is ideal. I don’t think I’d be able to handle a company where I was expected to attend 10 meetings a day and follow a bunch of administrative rules. Plus, at Reaktor creativity is applauded and it’s safe to make mistakes. So I’m not worried about doing things differently, because if I succeed, great. And if not, oh well. No big deal.  

Having Support
Throughout my life, I’ve had a lot of people backing me up. That’s crucial for someone with neurodivergence. Over the last several years, my wife has been my everyday cheerleader. She and I share some of the same attention deficit problems and she works in the school system as a special education teacher, so she definitely understands me. Having her in my life has calmed me down. Growing up, my parents did whatever was necessary so I could be and feel my best — which included encouraging the activities I enjoyed, even if they were hard for me. They deserve a huge thanks for their roles in getting me into software development. When I was a kid, Mom bought me a C++ book (which I totally didn’t understand) and paid for a broadband connection, which allowed me to connect with more people who shared my interests. Dad, who had done a few websites, showed me around HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. I also credit an older cousin with my first real introduction to programming, in Visual Basic. There are also less prominent figures that steered me in the right direction, like fellow coders in the Finnish programming community I met on IRC (a text-based chat system) and the patient librarians at my small, local library who tried to answer my confused questions about programming languages.

Thankfully at my different jobs I’ve typically found coworkers to guide me as well. This is especially true at Reaktor. When I joined I realized that there were parts of my technical know-how I had badly overlooked. Over my first 18 months here, my team members helped me significantly improve my functional coding skills and my ability to write easily testable code. I also modernized a lot of my knowledge of integration and testing tools, cloud services, libraries, and more. Don’t get me wrong — I put a lot of effort into it myself — but without my fellow Reaktorians’ encouragement, I’m sure it would have been a much longer process.

Jalmari Ikävalko

How neurodivergence has helped me

Like most everything, neurodivergence has its advantages and disadvantages. Often, I might not be able to grasp concepts as quickly as others, but there’s a good chance I’ll approach solving problems in a unique way. And while I do get bored sometimes, it also means I’m curious to learn new things. My interest level in what I don’t know is almost always high, and that’s a great asset for working in the ever-changing tech industry and dealing with whatever the customer brings to the table. Being on the spectrum has also given me a level of empathy. It’s easy for me to understand the problems people have and that’s helped me a lot in team and client situations. 

How we can better understand each other’s brains (and our own)

With ADHD, there are a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes I’m exhausted, and sometimes I’m super alert. Often I have difficulty concentrating, but in other situations I’m hyper-focused. As a result, I have some really productive hours or days and others that aren’t. In other words, I don’t do everything at the same level all the time. What’s helped me deal with that is looking at things, not from day-to-day or even week-to-week, but month-to-month. That allows me to see a more accurate average of my work. Because maybe I had one really lousy week, but the next one was super productive. Overall I find month in and month out, my output is pretty much the same. So, I try not to get caught up in the shorter durations and just do things at my own pace.

For others, it’s really valuable to recognize that we all have different ways of doing things. Not everyone prefers the same style of working or environment. What’s very important to some people — like they’re able to have their own desk — doesn’t matter at all to someone else. So try not to view it as a frivolous demand (or worse, as an act of selfishness and entitlement). What it may actually be is how that person deals with their neurodivergence.

I think the pandemic has helped neurotypical people understand these points. Covid made many realize we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. During that time, most of us experienced moments when we weren’t capable of doing what we normally could because of physical, mental, and emotional things we were dealing with. I hope as a society we can hang on to that empathy and keep displaying it toward each other — including when we interact with people who are neurologically different.

I’ve found the best way of handling work (and in some cases social settings, too) is to talk about my neurodivergence. Bring up your issues. It shouldn’t be something you have to hide or are scared to discuss. For those who are neurotypical, give neurodivergent people space to talk. At Reaktor, something we do that helps both sides is an exercise we call the “My User Manual.” I sincerely think it’s one of the most important tools for the immediate period after a team is formed. It’s not specifically designed with neurodivergence in mind, but it spells out how people like to be approached. It helps every member understand each other better and work together more efficiently, gracefully, and collaboratively.

Jalmari Ikävalko

These days, I’ve not only learned to accept my neurodivergence, but to embrace it. While my learning may take a different route and is sometimes affected by motivation, it’s by no means impossible. And the end result is all the sweeter, too, because the skills are hard-earned — a testament to overcoming a difficulty.

Years into their careers, developers look at a piece of code, and they not only understand it, but if it’s really well done, it can be beautiful to them. That’s how I view my mind now. And I wouldn’t change it if I could.  

One last note & further reading

Remember, too a person’s neurodivergence is unique to them. How I feel is not necessarily how someone else with perhaps exactly the same conditions feels. And the type of neurodiversity makes a big difference, too. While my ADHD makes me bored easily and want to start something new, someone with autism might really dislike change. All brains — and that includes neurotypical brains — are one-of-a-kind. So don’t assume anything I’ve mentioned applies to anyone beyond me. 🙂 

That being said, it’s always good to hear about other people’s experiences and educate ourselves. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for further reading on neurodiversity, courtesy of Jacek Ambrosiewicz, who recently gave a talk at our Lisbon office about his own journey with neurodiversity:

Get Me Out of Here: My Recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder  by Rachel Reiland
Lost Connections  by Johann Hari
The Choice  by Edith Eger
Beyond the Self: Conversations between Buddhism and Neuroscience  by Matthieu Ricard & Wolf Singer
Deviate: The Science of Seeing Things Differently  by Beau Lotto
The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To by Dean Burnett
Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are  by Robert Plomin
The Emperor of all Maladies: The Biography of Cancer  by Siddhartha Mukherjee


If you’re interested in more about my biography and the steps that got me to where I am today, you can read my Developer Journey on Free Code Camp.

 

 


Dear Future Colleague: A series of letters written by Reaktorians. Come join us, as you are.

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