“You know you have ADD when
you stop at an intersection and wait for the stop sign to turn green!”

“You know you have ADD when
you take an IQ test and end up covering it with doodles!”

It’s a cultural cliche now, and
few understand it well, but ADD/ADHD is now part of our professional world.
Since it was legitimized as an adult condition in the 1998 release of the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ADD/ADHD has emerged as
a reality in the lives of roughly five percent of the adult population – making
it possible, and perhaps likely, that such a person works in your IT

Whether or not ADD/ADHD is a
“disorder” or simply a natural state that’s at odds with the
expectations of the culture at large is still heavily debated; it’s a reality
that a significant number of us deal with. And if you’re a manager in a large
IT organization, you may find yourself dealing with it from the other side.

How the ADD developer looks,
from the outside looking in

Most of the time, he underperforms.
He achieves his goals more slowly than those around him, which puts him at odds
when he’s working within a team context and others are counting on him.
Consequently, he is often given mundane work that can be easily handed off,
when he’s slow.

He hits homers, not singles; when
he’s on, he’s on – that’s why you haven’t fired him. Once every so often, he
cuts right through the fog and delivers an outstanding solution, or the key
piece of some puzzle that others haven’t solved.

His desk is covered with
distractions – a Doctor Who screwdriver in his pencil cup, a Firefly
screensaver on his desktop, a Star Trek calendar on his wall. He actually plays
with these things from time to time.

You catch him surfing the net more
than anyone else. And he gets up from his desk far more often.

You know he’s smart, and you know
he’s not lazy. He’s just not in sync with those around him, or with your

What’s really going on – ADD
from the outside in

ADD/ADHD is a consequence of a
gene complex that deprives the brain of the number of dopamine receptors that
might be thought of as “normal” – meaning that such a person requires
more stimulation from the environment than is typical. This was a powerful
trait, 20,000 years ago – such people made excellent trackers and hunters, able
to zero in on subtle environmental details in stalking prey. Four hundred
generations of farming have pushed those genes to the side, but they still
surface – in artists, writers, musicians, inventors – people with an eye for
the new and different.

The ADD adult craves environmental
stimulation and intellectual challenge, the opportunity to be creative. What
does that give the IT manager, in terms of assets?

  1. Very high energy.
    Give the ADD developer a job that’s stimulating, creative, near-impossible to
    solve, and he’ll give you an energy output you’ve only seen before in battle
    robot builds and Star Wars Lego projects.
  2. Trouble-shooting.
    While the task has to be stimulating, rather than mundane, the ADD guy is the
    one you want scanning for problems – he lives for that sort of thing. He’s your
    first line of defense in pre-UAT functional testing.

  3. Hyper-focus. The
    ADD guy seems distracted most of the time – but the rest of the time, all of
    his attention is squarely on the problem. He has as much attention to give as anyone
    else in the shop, he just uses it in concentrated bursts. When a problem needs
    solving, his hyper-focus will trump most other peoples’ normal focus.

  4. Creativity. ADD
    children and adults tend to express themselves artistically, in new and
    different ways – they become artists, writers, musicians, and so on, when they
    don’t go into IT. Give the creative task to your ADD guy, and see what you get.

  5. Taking risks. IT
    was once a conservative professional domain, averse to risk. Today, we don’t
    have that luxury; we are forced by the demands of the marketplace to re-invent
    ourselves every few years. That means taking the frequent leap into the
    unknown. Your ADD guy is right for that job.

Finally, there’s the “H”
factor: some (not all) ADD people just can’t sit still. There’s the story of an
eight-year-old girl who had that problem in the schoolroom, and was finally
taken to a psychologist for evaluation. Sure enough, she had to wander the room
in order to even respond when questioned.

The psychologist didn’t drug her
or put her in a “special” class: he realized that she had kinetic
intelligence – she needed to move, in order to think. She grew up to
be Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of the twentieth

Someone like that may be working
for you right now.