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Software Quality Assurance (QA): How Autism At Work Can Work – A Success Story

January 28, 2019

One of my most vivid parenting memories is the day my son graduated from high school. A milestone celebration as important as his first word or first steps, and yet, it was a somber event for my husband and I.

Wait…don’t stop reading…you didn’t just click on your favorite parenting blog by accident…your go-to tech professional blog hasn’t just been hijacked…This is still People Driven Solutions and I’m your guest blogger. I’m here to tell you how Autism-at-Work really works and give you a first-hand, well okay, a second-hand, story of its effectiveness.

It’s no secret that the tech industry is suffering from a talent shortage. Good help is truly hard to find, especially in areas like Software Quality Assurance, where the work is essential but can be considered monotonous. What if I were to tell you that there’s a hidden pool of talent filled with people who want nothing more than to work for your company and to competently and diligently run all of your test scripts for as many times as you need or want them run? Before I tell you how you can tap into this tech talent gold, let me tell you about my son, Nick. Read on and I promise to connect the dots.

What is Autism? Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition with a combination of affected areas: including behavioral, social functioning, and communication. Autism exists on a spectrum with each individual being affected differently. 60% of people with Autism have average to above average IQs


High school graduation is a terrifying time for Autism parents because most people with High-Functioning Autism (previously known as Asperger’s Syndrome) receive what little support they get from the school system. I’ve heard it compared to falling off a cliff in Autism circles but, for my husband and I, it felt more like being hurled into a Black Hole. We dutifully clapped and cheered as Nick walked across the stage in his cap and gown, but from where we sat the future looked bleak for our son with nothing to look forward to but a life of self-imposed isolation in his bedroom playing video games and reading comics.

Approximately 600 students with Autism graduate every year from San Diego County High Schools. That’s like an entire senior class of people with Autism leaving the school and entering the workforce each year!


Nick lacked the developmental maturity to live on his own at college at that point, but also wouldn’t have been a good fit for the front-facing, customer service jobs that are traditionally open to high school graduates. Then a friend told me about a program her son had just finished called the National Foundation for Autism Research Technical Training Program, or NFAR Tech for short. At the time, I had no better idea of what NFAR Tech was about than you do reading this, but I called and made an appointment for the very next day.

What we learned at that initial meeting was that NFAR Tech is an intensive 7-month technical training program designed specifically to teach people like Nick with High-Functioning Autism to be software quality assurance testers. Our appointment was with Juan Leon, the founder, and director of the program. Leon, an engineer and a father of a child with Autism, started NFAR with his wife, Sharon, fifteen years ago as a way to support programs and services that were aimed at improving the quality of life for people with Autism and their families.  While still working in tech, Leon heard about a program in Europe started by a company called Specialsterne, that was successfully putting people with Autism to work in software quality assurance at companies like SAP and Microsoft.

SAP’s Autism-at-Work initiative, “Dandelion,” aims to hire 1% of its global workforce by 2020, reflective of the incidence rate of Autism around the world.

“I knew San Diego with its high concentration of tech-based businesses would be a good place to start a program like this and as an engineer, I knew that software testing would be a good job fit for people on the spectrum who tend to be very computer savvy and excellent with structured, repetitive tasks,” Says Leon.

Nick, the Bug Hunter

We didn’t know much about the NFAR Tech program when Nick started but was glad for the structure and purpose that it gave him every day.  It wasn’t until Nick started talking in a foreign language at the dinner table, referring to things like “functional black box testing,” “test scripts,” “JIRA,” “TestRail,” and “RaspberryPie” (not the delicious treat it sounds like), that we started to wonder if Nick was doing more than just showing up each day at NFAR Tech.

Software quality assurance engineers are the unsung heroes of the tech world. When you tap on your favorite app and it does what it’s supposed to do, you can thank a Quality Assurance tech who relentlessly tested each and every function of the app, across every platform, many, many times over. Software quality assurance is time consuming, methodical, detail-oriented work. It is also essential because users, like you and I, don’t like it when our tech doesn’t work.

As Providence would have it, Software Quality Assurance is work that my son and others like him have a special aptitude for. As one manager at Microsoft explained in a letter to Steven Silberman, author of the book, Neurotribes: “All of my top de-buggers have Asperger Syndrome. They can hold hundreds of lines of code in their head as a visual image. They look for flaws in the pattern and that’s where the bugs are.” And as for running the same tests over and over? Nick’s idea of a great time is seeing the same Marvel movie six times in a row in one day. Routine is definitely Nick’s friend. As one of Nick’s NFAR Tech classmates explained to me, “There’s nothing more satisfying than running the same tests and getting the expected results.”

The day Nick passed the ISTQB certification exam was the day that we didn’t have when he graduated from college. Now, Nick had a marketable skill to put on his resume and the potential for long-term, gainful employment. Being all too familiar with the bleak employment outlook for adults with Autism, the importance of this professional certification cannot be underestimated. Still, we wondered if there would be any company willing to take a chance on hiring Nick.

Currently, the unemployment rate in San Diego is approximately 3%; the unemployment for people with Autism is 85% nationally.


The Final Piece in the Puzzle


In addition to giving Nick the soft skills, hard skills, and professional certification he needed to launch a career in software QA, NFAR Tech also arranged a professional internship for him as a way to round out his resume with some professional experience.  NFAR Tech aims to place each person who successfully completes the program in at least one professional internship with a local tech company. These internships are designed to be win-win opportunities for both the company and the intern. While companies gain a trained intern with strong testing skills, interns are given an opportunity to demonstrate their skills and to earn invaluable practical work experience and a professional reference.

  • NFAR Tech graduates have a 78% pass rate on the ISTQB exam; the international certification for Software Quality Assurance testers;
  • NFAR Tech graduates have a 125% placement rate in jobs and internships, with several graduates benefitting from more than one opportunity.

Solar Turbines was one of the first companies in San Diego to partner with NFAR Tech to create internships for its graduates. Initially, Solar Turbines hired 4 interns and when the staff at NFAR Tech, which provides extensive support services for all its graduates once they are placed in internships, had their first follow-up meeting with the managers at Solar Turbines, the only complaint they had was that the interns had already completed all of the tests that had been assigned to them. That’s 6 month’s worth of work in a single month!

 “Our autistic employees achieve, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues, depending on the roles,” says James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism-at-Work at Chase.

This problem was easily solved by staggering the hiring of the interns and allowing the senior interns to assist in the training and supervising of their junior counterparts. Since that initial internship 2 years ago, Solar Turbines has taken on 9 more interns and have become vocal proponents of the NFAR Tech program and the Autism-at-Work movement as a whole.  

“The interns have really just become part of our team. They are just like any other team member that we have.”—Jenny Eyes, Solar Turbines

The Rest of the Story

When Nick graduated from NFAR Tech, he was offered an internship at the University of California, San Diego’s Power of Neurogaming Institute (PoNG). Talk about a confidence booster. Needless to say, Nick was passing out his business cards to everyone that summer and with the experience and confidence Nick gained at PoNG, he was able to springboard into a position at a software testing company in Los Angeles which is where he lives and works now. This isn’t just a job for Nick; it’s the opportunity to have an independent and productive life that we all dream of for our children, but that eludes so many with Autism.

Nick didn’t stop having Autism because he went to NFAR Tech. He still struggles socially and suffers occasionally from anxiety that can be debilitating. But what NFAR Tech did do for Nick was show him, for the first time in his life, that he has something of value to offer the workplace and more importantly, that there is a place for him in this world. That’s what Autism-at-Work is all about–opening doors to allow the competent, capable people that your company needs to walk in.  

If you have Software Quality Assurance needs and would like more information about the NFAR Tech program, email me at Chelsea.asaro@nfar.org.

NFAR Tech video link: http://www.nfar.org/item/422-tech-video.html



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