Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Embracing ADHD and Other Neurodivergencies in Software Development Teams

Embracing ADHD and Other Neurodivergencies in Software Development Teams

Key Takeaways

  • Rather than being regarded only as a disorder imposing many challenges, ADHD traits can also be linked to recurring strengths valuable to teams and organisations.
  • To thrive with neurodiverse teams and become more neuro-inclusive, reducing the stigma around ADHD and other neurodivergencies is an essential first step.
  • Aside from the well-known benefits of psychological safety in the workplace, a psychologically safe environment helps neurodivergent team members to safely talk about (potential) problems with the team and share their ideas and feedback. Remember, possibly low levels of extraversion or confidence do not automatically equal low levels of expertise.
  • Lots of work in progress is unhealthy and wasteful. Limiting cognitive load and adopting “one-piece flow” helps teams and individuals (with and without ADHD) to better manage their work. Seek a healthy balance between focusing as a team and focusing as an individual with respect for comfort zones and focus time.
  • Providing coaching or mentoring at the team level, and increasing transparency and guidance with navigating company politics, helps to create more equal opportunities for neurodiverse teams and team leads.

In recent years, there has been increased attention to neurodivergencies such as ADHD, hyper-sensitivity, autism, dyslexia, etc. More people seem to self-identify as being neurodivergent, and companies are starting to pay attention to becoming more neuro-inclusive and fostering the strengths of neurodiversity.

In this article, I’m telling my own story with ADHD while working as a software developer and becoming a team lead, what I learned, and what I found to be working well to help people with ADHD and more to thrive in their teams and companies.

My story about getting into software development with ADHD

From a very young age, I was attracted to computers and electronics, and when my parents bought me a computer at the age of 12, I started fiddling around with it, installing Linux and breaking the thing once in a while. Once we had a broadband internet connection at home, I pretty quickly started building small websites and web applications, mostly using PHP. This was around 2002 or 2003. At the age of 17, while in high school, I was running a free Open Source software project alongside my studies.

Back then I didn’t know I had ADHD – I learned that by coincidence when I was 27. Only in later years did I understand that my ADHD traits absolutely helped me get into the world of software development and run software projects end-to-end. The web was not that new in 2003, but the world of building applications in PHP was, and all the free PHP forum packages and CMS’es were so cool to fiddle with.

I went on to study software engineering and computer science and started working in several companies building web applications professionally. My ADHD was not much of a downside, except for needing to spend extra energy to stay focused when things got boring or repetitive. I think the biggest challenges were more around the social aspects. As a neurodivergent person, it can be trickier to fit in with a group, and there were (and still are) stigmas around ADHD. After disclosing my diagnosis, someone at work stated it couldn’t be true I have ADHD, as I was not jumping around all the time and was rather timid. That’s not something you want to hear, especially after you find the courage to talk about it at work.

Recurring challenges for people with ADHD

Let’s zoom in on ADHD and the challenges it may bring. Depending on the person, a variety of challenges can manifest themselves.

The most common and well-known challenge is having difficulties with staying concentrated and focused. In general, we could say that our minds are not naturally wired to focus on the most important task, but rather we are frequently on the lookout for a "dopamine hit".

Research found that the dopamine levels in the brains of people with ADHD are lower than in other people’s brains. That’s unfortunate, as dopamine helps us to anticipate the benefits and rewards of long-term work. It motivates us to carry on and somehow stay focused. Hence, people with ADHD may be more drawn to seek out short-term rewards, get attracted to novelties, act more impulsively, and have difficulties starting or finishing up tasks and projects.

Another common trait is that many people with ADHD lack an input filter. This means that in a busy environment like an open space office, someone with ADHD tends to consciously hear every sound, conversation, noise, etc. The loud keyboard of a colleague three desks away, the conversation going on at the other end of the room, the noise of people passing by, traffic passing outside the building, etc. This "lack of input filter" of course does not help with staying focused and motivated on a task.

Over time while growing up, going to school or university, working in different environments, etc, it’s likely people with ADHD (and other neurodivergencies) build up negative experiences or some levels of trauma. These negative emotions of failure, not being "good enough", being afraid of letting down people, and the like can form an additional challenge. We can call this a "wall of awful", coined by ADHD expert Brendan Mahan and explained in the YouTube show "How to ADHD". Needing to start some task, it feels like having to overcome those negative experiences, just like climbing a wall, before you actually get to work.

Strengths linked to ADHD and their value for organisations

As much as some traits make life more challenging, they can also be regarded as or turned into strengths.

I believe seeking out novelties makes many people with ADHD excellent problem solvers, thinking out of the box, and not afraid to experiment. In "Building a Neurodiverse High-tech Workforce" by Eleanor T. Loiacono and Huimin Ren, it is confirmed that people with ADHD score significantly higher on creativity tests than others and that this "outside the box" thinking is a benefit in the competitive environment of the high-tech industry.

This is a trait we tend to severely undervalue within organisations, unfortunately. Many people – and hence organisations – are risk averse, preferring to stick to the status quo rather than experimenting with higher uncertainty even if this might yield commercially more interesting results. Next to that, there seems to still be an over-focus on hard skills and short-term thinking, as opposed to soft skills and systems thinking.

By allowing people with ADHD to put their creativity to use, these "natural innovators" can seek out process or product improvements, discover market opportunities, or be more naturally suited to lead short-term projects. I’m thinking of short-term client work or consulting, organising company events, running innovation or change initiatives, and the like.

An example of a company that sees the strengths of people with ADHD and other neurodivergencies is IBM, who run their "DiversAbility community" that focuses on "hiring, supporting, educating and embracing people of all abilities".

Working on exciting projects, especially with a looming deadline, also allows many to reap the benefits of entering hyper-focus. In that state, someone with ADHD is able to stay highly concentrated for a while, being undisturbed for hours on end and creating an enormous amount of value. I know, it sounds like the opposite of ADHD.

For example, while working on community software in the evenings and weekends I could build an entire feature in a few hours. I also built an entire website for an event from scratch in a very short time span because I wanted to get the thing online and share it with everyone.

Towards neuro-inclusive workplaces: how to value and include neurodivergent people

Reducing the stigmas is absolutely the first step for building neurodiverse-friendly workplaces.

ADHD and other neurodevelopmental conditions like autism and dyslexia are very much still regarded as disorders. And with disorders come various stigmas, unfortunately, that are often still present in companies and HR departments. There is sometimes a certain degree of fear for the unknown. "It’ll take a lot of time and energy to have someone with ADHD or autism on the team", or even "The benefits will not outweigh the costs!"- statements that are usually simply untrue.

I can also safely say that, with research ("Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults" by Nancy Doyle) estimating the total number of neurodivergent people in the world to 15-20%, except for in smaller companies you’ll likely already have (un)diagnosed neurodivergent people in your teams, even if you’re unaware of them.

So while I understand that ADHD, autism, and more are from a purely biological or psychological perspective defined as disorders, I and many others from the global neurodiversity movement believe these differences should be treated as a form of natural diversity, just as we have many other forms of diversity among humans, and organisations and society as a whole should become more open to the values everyone can bring to the table. This diversity makes us develop better products and services, and grow as societies.

After all, we should never forget that neurodivergent people are people like everyone else, with their individual needs, preferences, strengths, interests and expertise.

To reduce the stigmas, dare to ask questions and be curious over making assumptions about ADHD or other neurodivergencies. This applies during hiring as well as when managing people in the workplace. Also, don’t set your own or your organisation’s behaviour as the standard – here again, different behaviours and viewpoints can be valuable. In general, it helps to get (neuro)diversity awareness training from experts, and to set a positive example yourself.

As a next step, it’s a good idea to focus on building a more "people-first" culture and building transparent and psychologically safe environments. Psychological safety is good for creating learning environments with more innovation and creativity. Furthermore, research ("Exploring the Relationship between Team Diversity, Psychological Safety and Team Performance: Evidence from Pharmaceutical Drug Development" by Henrik Bresman and Amy C. Edmondson) has found that psychological safety specifically helps unlock the potential of diverse teams.

And for software engineering teams – with and without ADHD – I’ve found that four additional principles help tremendously:

  • Making many small steps in daily work.
  • Limiting the cognitive load (or "mental workload") of the team and individuals.
  • Reflecting and experimenting with the entire team.
  • Mentoring in the broad sense.

This creates better software teams while creating a productive environment where people with ADHD can better show their potential.

Fostering psychological safety in neurodiverse teams

To build a safe environment with a neurodiverse group, I’ve found it starts with ensuring all voices are heard within the team. I remember more than once being in or cooperating with teams where the most confident or dominant people are speaking the most. Many tend to attribute expertise to the most extroverted, social and confident people in the room, while there is no correlation between both. Team members that have trouble speaking up (because of for example the "wall of awful" I mentioned before), who are more introverted or have difficulty putting their thoughts to words, may keep silent more often or frequently get interrupted. As a manager it’s also key to ensure and stress that sharing ideas, concerns, and critiques, and openly talking about personal struggles is good and welcomed, and does not put the person at risk for getting a negative performance review.

Composing meeting agendas and allowing people to prepare upfront, using "round tables" to let everyone contribute their proper viewpoints, listening to understand rather than to respond, and especially avoiding a blame culture is essential.

Changing an environment can be hard and take a lot of time, but it’s worthwhile. Start by listening to everyone’s needs without judgement, and ensure thoughts, critiques and feedback can be shared without people fearing for negative consequences.

Why and how to limit a software development team’s cognitive load

Many software teams tend to work on multiple features or tasks at the same time. Sometimes this is because of client demands, big batches of work which eventually get blocked in the system, managerial viewpoints on efficiency, or simply because the team prefers it ("we’ve always done it like this"). Yet working on many items in parallel comes with hidden costs, not in the least the often forgotten cost of context switching (for example because of people needing each other’s help, code reviews, etc). In Lean software development terms – introduced by the book "Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit" by Mary and Tom Poppendieck – we also call these "muda". In some cases, with continuous struggles or failure to deliver the agreed scope in time, it can lead to circles of distrust with the company’s management. This is a situation to avoid at all costs, of course.

A better approach is to maintain a healthy balance between focusing as a team, and focusing as an individual. To succeed, the team needs to first be aware of the company/client’s goals and objectives, and the value and impact of the possible jobs to be done. There are plenty of approaches here. User research, OKRs, prioritisation techniques, user story mapping, dimensional planning, etc. The team needs to find out what to do and why, preferably in small steps, but also what not to do (or rather: not at this point). With a previous client for example, we performed cross-team user interviews with people from Product, Engineering, Sales and Marketing to understand the client’s needs better before defining and ultimately splitting into small, valuable and prioritised user stories.

Once we have identified the first step (or user story), let’s try to tackle and deliver it as a team while leveraging "one-piece flow". That means the team is going to finish this and only this small step as a group without distractions (bar any incidents, of course), before continuing with the next step.

Working like this avoids or diminishes the costs of getting interrupted or distracted, especially if we can park outside requests for the duration of that task. We protect what is dear to us: our focus, and we’re able to more quickly deliver working solutions while learning from and helping each other. As long as we keep delivering value to our clients or stakeholders, the team and any people with ADHD therein get their "dopamine hit". "We finished something valuable!" Plus, we avoid our brains staying occupied with multiple ongoing tasks.

An ensemble can continue to work like this for as long as possible or useful, staying focused on the next step of the project or initiative. At the same time it’s, of course, a constant conversation with everyone in and outside the team. It’s okay to return to individual work once in a while, or switch to other tasks if necessary. Introverted people, and those with ADHD, autism, and many others may also find being in a working group the entire day tiring, or need to be able to work within their comfort zone every few hours. It’s important to be mindful of this and listen to each other’s needs. The benefits of people’s well-being are more valuable than a limited amount of extra work (i.e. reviewing and some interruptions). In my case with a previous client, at the start of the day, we agreed as a group on which user story or task we absolutely wanted to finish that day. This improved team morale and the can-do mentality.

Finally, depending on the company and environment, looking into domain-driven design and team topologies can further help drive down cognitive load.

What being a team lead taught me about leadership ... and my ADHD

When I was promoted to the role of a lead engineer for the first time, I was very much focused on the functional and technical side of building software and IT solutions. That worked fine in some companies and environments, but less so in more complex ones or with bigger teams.

Over the years to come, I learned by trying, failing, and trying again that the focus of leading teams is really having that people-first mentality. This may sound logical. "Yes of course, Dietrich, you’re leading people!" Yet time and time again I see many others struggling with the same problems I dealt with: keeping people motivated, resolving interpersonal issues, staying on the same page with senior management, etc. Even more so when aspects of neurodiversity are at play within a team.

These are skills that are not always taught before or after people get promoted to management positions. For instance, what I encountered appears to also be a common problem among technical start-up founders when they move to CTO roles focused on strategy and people. All of a sudden, the technical work you have been doing for years is no longer the most important thing. You’re no longer spending all your time writing code, drawing technical diagrams, or doing code reviews.

Having ADHD did not make things easier for me. The "wall of awful" is also at play here and makes you doubt whether you can coach people at all. Then ADHD tends to make you miss out on essential company politics and unwritten rules of the job, a recurring struggle for many neurodivergent people. For example, I tend to easily miss insights that are shared verbally during work lunches or company after-work drinks because I have trouble following conversations in busy environments. And finally, with my tendency to experiment and push for change where I found it was needed, I had to learn how to deal with corporate inertia and understand the importance of change management. Oftentimes, people or companies fear change and will naturally push back, while I need some amount of it to thrive.

I was lucky enough to come into contact with the principles and values of agility, interact with peers and mentors in that space, and to enrol in leadership workshops. Over time I built my own toolbox of principles and practices, including the ones I mentioned before. And most of all: that I could apply the same principles of agility and management in my personal life. For instance, to (re)gain the insight into what matters most to me, that I needed to focus on my own well-being more, and how to set and achieve mid and long-term goals. It’s still hard from time to time, and becoming independent has also taught me more new things in the past 2.5 years.

Wrapping up – five principles for neurodiverse software development teams

Both for the teams as a whole and on a personal level for neurodivergent members, to achieve higher levels of resilience and productivity, refer to the five principles I introduced earlier. These help build high-performing teams that excel in creativity and innovation.

  • First and foremost, foster psychological safety within the team. Agree on some ground rules together. For example: "It’s safe to express feedback and concerns, and we do not judge each other for that". Or: "Don’t dominate conversations, and don’t interrupt". Treat everyone equally, and avoid toxic management at all costs.
  • Build trust and tackle uncertainty and risk by working with many small steps.
  • Protect focus and avoid high mental loads, both for the team as well as for individual members, especially if they are neurodivergent.
  • Find your ideal approaches. We all know about retrospectives, especially with Scrum being so popular. Truly listen to one another (remember psychological safety), find issues or bottlenecks, experiment, and update your ways of working. This also applies individually. And don’t forget to celebrate what you achieved!
  • And lastly, provide internal or external coaching or mentoring, especially when changes are made to the team: new people joining, people leaving, someone being promoted to a leadership position, etc. As a senior or engineering manager, focus on maximising transparency while helping the team to navigate any company politics.

In the end, it’s all about making an equal playing field for all, including minorities such as neurodivergent people.

About the Author

Rate this Article