Ultranauts: Proving the Power of Neurodiversity
Founded in 2013, Ultranauts (formerly Ultra Testing) is a software engineering firm with two main goals: to prove that neurodiversity is a competitive advantage in the workplace and to provide superior service to clients. As of 2019, Ultranauts has met both of those goals, with 75 percent of its employees being on the autism spectrum and a sustained average growth rate of 50 percent per year. Ultranauts attained this success by using non-traditional hiring methods that offer neurodiverse job candidates opportunities to excel and working with employees to develop innovative strategies for improving workplace accessibility.
Ultranauts is a software and data quality engineering firm founded by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates with two main goals in mind – to prove that neurodiversity, including autism, is a competitive advantage in the workplace and to provide superior service to clients. From the start, co-founders Rajesh Anandan and Art Shectman wanted to apply the principals of a “universal workplace” where accessibility is prioritized and to tap into the skills and abilities of an underutilized population. According to Anandan, “There is an incredible talent pool of adults on the autistic spectrum that has been overlooked for all the wrong reasons. People who haven’t had a fair shot to succeed at work, because of workplace, workflow, and business practices that aren’t particularly effective for anyone, but are especially damaging for anyone who is wired differently.”
To attract and retain neurodiverse employees, Ultranauts has deviated from traditional hiring methods to ensure potential job candidates have opportunities to demonstrate their skills and abilities. “We set out to change the blueprint for work, and change how a company could hire, manage, and develop talent,” explains Anandan. Instead of focusing on evaluating candidates’ communication skills solely by reviewing resumes and conducting interviews, a practice which often screens out those on the autism spectrum, Ultranauts has applicants complete a basic competency assessment that evaluates 25 desirable attributes for software testers. After completing the assessment, candidates work from home for a week to demonstrate these skills. They can also choose an adjusted schedule, working the number of hours they wish.
“We have adopted an approach to screening job applicants that is much more objective than you’ll find in most places,” says Anandan. “As a result, we have a talent screening process to take someone who has never done this job and at the end of that process have a 95 percent degree of confidence… whether people would be great at this.”
Ultranauts also works with employees to develop innovative strategies for improving workplace accessibility, from small things like ensuring every meeting has a clear structure and agenda, to larger ones like adjusting open-plan workplaces to take into account the needs of people who have noise sensitivities. Another innovation was creating a guide, called a “biodex,” based on a colleague’s observation that they wished people came with a “user manual.” The biodex provides Ultranauts employees with information about their colleagues to help them determine the best ways to work with one another.
As of 2019, Ultranauts has met both of its goals, with 75 percent of its employees being on the autism spectrum and a sustained average growth rate of 50 percent per year. According to Anandan, “We’ve shown over and over… that we’ve delivered results better because of the diversity of our team.”