Finding the hidden value in the ADHD developer

has become a cultural punchline, not well-understood or considered; but those adults who carry it have traits that can work to IT's advantage.

"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 department.

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 expectations.

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 century.

Someone like that may be working for you right now.