It seems like every week brings news of yet another major cybersecurity breach. Evidence suggests that the bad guys are getting smarter and more professional. Nowhere is the problem tougher than in national defense, where sophisticated actors, including nation states, engage in cyberwarfare. A big part of the problem: There simply aren’t enough great cyberdefense analysts to go around.
The Australian Defence Organization (ADO), which consists of the Australian Defence Force and the civilian Australian Department of Defence personnel supporting the ADF, has the same escalating challenge. To help address it, ADO has, with the help of some innovative business firms, leapt to the forefront with a new approach to sourcing cybersecurity talent: “Dandelion programs.” They tap non-traditional talent sources — especially people on the autism spectrum who, because of the social difficulties that accompany their disorder, can have trouble getting hired and remain unemployed. As the pioneering Danish firm Specialisterne showed first in the early 2000s, however, and as the Australian Defence Organization’s partner DXC Technology has demonstrated through deployments in Australia, if you manage things right, you can recruit great talent and activate it to a maximum degree from populations of autistic people.
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The dandelion metaphor comes from Thorkil Sonne, the founder of Specialisterne, who observes that dandelions, despite being very valuable plants, are considered weeds, primarily because they turn up in green lawns that are supposed to be uniformly green. The analogy to people with autism suggests that they are weeds only if we try to fit them into organizations in standard ways, using traditional management. If we adapt a different managerial approach, however, we can access superior talent. DXC developed the Dandelion Program based on this metaphor, in collaboration with a number leading universities and independent advisors.
Although we’re talking here about support staff, not people in uniform, it helps that the military has a lot of success taking in people who don’t “fit in” and providing them with opportunity, skills, and a strong sense of self-worth. The story of the ne’er-do-well teenager transformed by military training and service into a highly productive member of society has been recognized for decades, if not centuries. Though the challenges of people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are of a different kind, some of the military’s capabilities for integrating people of different backgrounds and talents into effective organizational units are relevant to people with autism.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) pioneered the idea of recruiting analysts from populations on the autism spectrum. The IDF’s Intelligence Division’s Unit 9900 primarily concerns itself with the analysis of visual information from surveillance satellites. It’s “Roim Rachok” (Hebrew for “beyond horizons”) team is composed entirely of people on the spectrum. According to the IDF blog, these specialized analysts are “gifted with an incredible ability to analyze, interpret, and understand satellite images and maps.” In other words, this is not about compromise or settling for whatever talent you can get in an overly competitive labor market. These are true A-teams; it’s just that the “A,” in this case, stands for “autism.” Perhaps surprisingly, when it comes to skills required for cybersecurity analysis, (some) people with autism excel.
Of course, this all must be done right and not in traditional ways. Going to populations of largely unemployed people with autism spectrum disorder, DXC administered psychometric tests and discovered that in some areas many of these future analysts are “off the charts” in terms of skill potential. They are not, however, classically well-rounded. Often their talents are very deep in specific areas but not broad and are near zero in some areas.
Also, some analysts exhibit eccentricities. One, for example, is comforted, and her talent is enabled, by keeping sand in her pockets, and she only wants to walk on grass, not pavement. Though these, as well as other elements of her interaction style, might seem odd, there is no mistaking her talent with data. In her spare time, at home or wherever she is, she categorizes, charts, and otherwise sifts through data. Not surprisingly, she’s very good at it in professional settings as well, given proper conditions. When DXC found her, she had been struggling in an undergraduate, computer science program not because she couldn’t do the work but because she was bored.
Much has been learned about how to manage these programs. Many people on the spectrum don’t do well in standard interview processes, so recruitment and assessment processes have had to be changed. Interviews are out; longer-term “hangouts” and project work “tryouts” are in — these give observers opportunities to watch individuals’ analyst abilities in action, a more accurate gauge than what might come out in an interview. La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, working in conjunction with DXC and the Australian Defence Organization, has been translating, studying, and adapting the IDF’s psychometric assessment tools, figuring what works and what doesn’t in cybersecurity. Specially developed training provides unique preparation for the job. Once composed, dandelion teams work in highly effective “pods” (a DXC innovation), which have built-in support systems, including an autism specialist, to keep workers on track.
Though it remains early days, so far this works well. Preliminary evidence suggests that these new cybersecurity analysts are doing an outstanding job. Analysts with ASD are mostly very hard workers; it is difficult, in fact, to get them to take breaks. They are able to spot patterns others cannot see. And, in part because they do not like changes in routines, they have very high retention rates so far, across DXC’s dandelion programs (some of which are outside the Australian Defence Organization).
The softer benefits are also impressive. Data from La Trobe’s Tennison Centre confirms significant improvement in the quality of life that dandelion analysts report. The government and society benefits a lot as well every time someone on public assistance can be transitioned into a tax-paying tech worker. A study by PwC, commissioned by DXC, shows that even limited deployment of such programs can throw off hundreds of millions of dollars of benefits for the country’s economy. The general managerial templates being developed as part of this project are so promising that the Australian Defence Organization is thinking now in terms of “talent incubators” — creating a broad capability to staff A-teams in many areas of military and intelligence data analysis from populations that, remarkably, had been mostly unemployed.