The lives of autistic individuals are challenging ones, especially when it comes to finding employment. But could it be their condition gives them the unique skills that make them ideal as software testers?
At least one outsource testing firm—Highland Park, IL-based Aspiritech, with a staff of 10-plus autistic testers—thinks so. And the companies that are their clients—including optionsXpress, Cars.com, and ISI Telemanagement Solutions—apparently like the quality of service they get.
In a TV news interview, David Fisher, CEO of optionsXpress (now part of the Charles Schwab Corp.) talks about how outsourcing software testing to Aspiritech allowed the company "to push out more technology faster which allows us to scale our QA and QC resources up and down based on where we are in our product development lifecycle—and do it very efficiently."
According to Brenda Weitzberg, co-founder of Aspiritech, no one on her staff had ever worked with stock options software like that of optionsXpress. But "after an expert came in and taught our staff the terminology in a two-hour session, our people started testing and did a phenomenal job."
Other types of software Aspiritech’s team has tested include CRM (especially related to Salesforce), telemanagement, and medical tracking.
The traits that make great software testers, says Weitzberg—intense focus over long periods of time, comfort with repetition, memory for detail—also happen to be characteristics of autism.
Don Rawitsch confirms "those are the traits you look for in certain detailed testing, especially when you want to make sure every step a user takes with the application is going to operate the way you designed it to operate." Rawitsch is an independent educational software developer and served on the education board of directors of the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA).
Weitzberg says her firm was inspired by a similar company that employs autistic testers, the Denmark-based Specialisterne that is the subject of an MIT case study, "Harnessing the Power of Autism Spectrum Disorder."
In that study, Thorkil Sonne, the company’s founder, discusses how, on tasks that include manual data entry or validation, their testers can complete tasks with seven to eight times greater accuracy than non-autistic testers. And for component-level testing that follows a scripted input-output recipe, he estimates his testers are over 50% more accurate.
"These advantages come from several sources," he says. "The first is the ability of many autistic people to see details that do not register with most people. The second is the preference that many autistics have for highly focused and repetitive tasks. The Specialisterne consultants are less averse to the repetitive nature of the task. In fact, they gladly work in a quiet environment lacking the distractions of cell phone calls, water cooler gossip, and instant messaging. This extreme focus translates into increased productivity and accuracy."
Having trained approximately 20 testers in its first two years of business, Weitzberg says that Aspiritech has since received its "own proof of concept from watching our own testers work and experiencing how well they do."
Because today’s cloud technology allows the developers at Aspiritech’s clients “to actually see live what our testers are doing, there is constant communication between the two," says Weitzberg. And so, she adds, her clients should have no qualms about the testers’ abilities.
"I must admit this information has opened my eyes," says Rawitsch. "As a result, if I were looking to hire some in-house testers, I would tell the hiring manager to open up their recruitment to take advantage of people with this health condition, whereas in the past we wouldn't have recognized the advantage it offers."
Paul Hyman was editor-in-chief of several hi-tech publications at CMP Media (now United Business Media), including Electronic Buyers’ News.