“Neurodiversity @ Work: Afternoon Keynote”: Jessica Sahagian, Director of Engineering at ConnectRN (Video + Transcript)

March 20, 2023

Jessica Sahagian (Director of Engineering at connectRN) champions women’s neurodiversity in tech. As an ADHD/autistic, she talks about why women’s neurodiversity gets overlooked, and shares tips on how to attract and hire neurodiverse candidates – and how to create an atmosphere conductive to amplifying these voices. Don’t miss her advice for shining as a neurodiverse woman in a neurotypical work world.


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Angie Chang: Happy International Women’s Day. I hope everyone is having a great time in speed networking or meeting people at networking tables in air meet. We’re excited to be welcoming our afternoon keynote of the day. Jessica Sahagian is a director of engineering at ConnectRN and founder of Appraisely.io. She is a champion of women’s neurodiversity in tech and will be speaking about neurodiversity at work and previously held tech and finance positions at Fidelity, MITRE, and Raytheon. We’re excited to welcome our keynote speaker. Jessica, take it away. <Laugh>

Jessica Sahagian: Thanks so much, Angie. Hi everyone. Thank you Angie for the warm introduction and for having me. I’m really, really excited to talk to you today about one of my favorite subjects, neurodiversity. First so we can get to know each other better. If you could, could you type in the chat why this particular session was of interest to you? Both for my curiosity’s sake, but also because I wanna make sure that if you have a particular question or concern, that I can address it in the time we have together. Thank you for doing that and I’ll try to look at them throughout the session.

Jessica Sahagian: As Angie mentioned, I’m Jess Sahagian – very Armenian last name, <laugh>. A little bit about me. As Angie mentioned, I’m the director of engineering at ConnectRN. I’ve been in that position for a little over a year. I’m the founder of a real estate tech startup. I’m also an executive MBA candidate. I’m an owner of a luxury leather goods restoration business which has clients like Neiman Marcus. And I’m a mom to a wild two-year-old boy. Neurodiversity for the win with all of that <laugh>. Prior to ConnectRN, I spent two years at Fidelity Investments, five years prior MITRE Corporation, and prior to that I was at Raytheon and BNY Mellon so there was a little bit of finance in there, and some Department of Defense. Prior to that, I was an NFL analyst and I worked in higher education and technology publishing. In between all of that, I’ve been in situations where I’ve been unable to afford heat for my apartment. I’ve been in an abusive marriage. I’ve been divorced. That’s a lot, right?

Jessica Sahagian: A lot of role change, a lot of industry change, and a lot of ups and downs personally. However, being neurodiverse has actually been an asset once I figured out that I was neurodiverse. Since I like to follow my own advice, and you’ll see this later, I will first present an agenda to you before we’re gonna talk about. Agendas are very important, especially for NEURODIVERSE folks. <Laugh> I wanna give you an idea of what I’ll be talking about. That’s not to say I’m not gonna veer off topic here and there. It’s apropo of this conversation. I’m neurodiverse. I tend to go off and get really interested in something and then not be able to stop talking about it.

neurodiversity at work jessica sahagian hiring retention tips

Jessica Sahagian: First, I’m gonna do an overview of neurodiversity. Then we’ll chat about hiring, how to attract a neurodiverse, and I’m gonna refer to neurodiverse. Instead of saying the whole word. I’m gonna say ND as I talk about different things, retention, how to create an ND-friendly workplace, and finally how you can be an ally and how you can succeed as an ND person in a work world and in a world that’s really set up for neurotypicals.

Jessica Sahagian: Let’s dive in. Neurodiversity, what is it? Neurodiversity is all around you. You’ve likely heard the term, it’s become both happily and begrudgingly a buzzword lately. Happily, because it’s getting a lot of attention and folks who have been marginalized are speaking out and speaking up more. Begrudgingly, because caring about neurodiversity shouldn’t be a fad or something that goes in and out of fashion like shag carpets or shiplap walls, right? We, we should care about the neurodiverse experience as part of DEI and that should be the standard, not the exception.

Jessica Sahagian: So let’s get into a definition. Neurodiversity refers to diversity in the human brain and cognition. For instance, sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. And that’s straight from Wikipedia, friends, so you know it’s true <laugh>, but what constitutes neurodiverse, the list is very large and it grows every day, but it includes most popularly, autism spectrum, ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, OCD, and more. And while there are Googleable lists of all these symptoms for everything, I wanna make it very clear, none of these manifests the same across people affected. None.

Jessica Sahagian: In fact, up until the two thousands, it wasn’t even thought that women could have a ADHD. It was seen as something affecting hyper, misbehaved little boys. I remember as a little girl it, the little boy who lived down the street who was always jumping around, my grandmother said, “oh, he, he’s ADD, he doesn’t behave.” And autism’s really undiagnosed it, rarely diagnosed in women, especially adult women. There are reasons for this that I’ll get into in a little bit, but that this is why I went under the radar, right? I was well-behaved on the outside, as many of us probably were. I was at the top of my class. I brought home report cards glowing with praise, but I was masking. I was pretending. I was putting in hard work every single day as a little kid to be palatable to society and everybody’s expectations because of the lack of resources for young women and adult women.

Jessica Sahagian: Many neurodiverse women don’t know they’re neurodivergent, which is why consideration of neurodiversity really should be given to everyone. Also, a formal diagnosis – I do wanna mention this – a formal diagnosis is obviously valid, but self-diagnosis is also valid. In the United States, many doctors who diagnose neurodiverse conditions for adults do not accept insurance. In 2008, after years of struggling, my diagnoses cost me over $4,000 out of pocket at a time when I was working five jobs just to survive. Nobody would choose to be autistic.

Jessica Sahagian: If someone says, I think I’m autistic, you can just listen, you’re not there to solve a problem for them. You’re there to support. So now we’ve just established what neurodiversity is. What does the working world look like for neurodiverse folks? Well, miserable. That is, if we can even find a job. Our unemployment rate in the US is estimated at around 3.4% right now, overall. For the neurodiverse population that rate soared to 30 to 40%.

Jessica Sahagian: How do we fix this? We hire neurodiverse folks and we create environments conducive to their retention. Simple as that. We can’t just tolerate. We have to move away from tolerance, and we need to celebrate and accept. It starts with the hiring process. Make it short, make it sweet, and give feedback at each step. If you can’t tell in two to three interviews, maybe four, if someone’s a good fit, you’re bad at hiring. Plain and simple. You should be able to tell, and you shouldn’t be putting people through that arduous process.

hiring neurodiverse folks tips short interview process remote friendly job inclusive accommodating

Jessica Sahagian: Focus on, in your interviewsm focus on thinking and process, not perfect results. An example for engineering, I would give someone a code example. I’d walk through it with them. Why did you make these decisions? A candidate who’s neurodiverse may have a better idea, and may not have the the right answer at the end, but if you’re grading based on what your idea of right is, you’re excluding many talented people who may have a different way of getting there, and may be thinking outside the box.

Jessica Sahagian: If possible – I’m gonna harp on this a lot – Positions should be remote with an option for in-person if that’s how you work best. Focus on getting the most out of your workforce, not being you know, very prescriptive about where and how work gets done. That just ends up being good business sense. You know, you do have some positions that you need to have. And if you’re hiring for a factory position, people need to be in person unless they’re remotely operating a machine. We’re talking about positions that it can be flexible and it doesn’t require it. Have that be an option for folks to come into the office. Offer a remote option if possible.

Jessica Sahagian: Also, a big one that I harp on, despite being a person who constantly gets degrees because I love school – Don’t require degrees for certain jobs unless you need a medical doctor, in which case probably want them to have an MD. <laugh> Degrees often mean little, and they exclude not just neurodiverse folks, but all sorts of folks from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. This is how we lift people out of the cycle of poverty. By the way, if you can do the job and you’re a good human, you should be hired. Also, make sure in the hiring process that you’re asking about accommodations for everyone, when you have that initial screening phone call, ask, “Can I provide any accommodations to you on this during this process?” And give those without any sort of judgment or without marking something on someone’s resume that they have a check mark against them.

Jessica Sahagian: All right, so we talked about hiring. You’ve made a neurodiverse hire and now you want to retain them. Excellent. How do you do that? Focus on the following. Stim acceptance, a sensory friendly workplace, clear adaptive goals and asks, agendas – again, agendas on every meeting request, -and again, remote if possible. I do wanna dive a little deeper into the first two.

how to retain neurodiverse hire stim acceptance sensory friendly workplace nd friendly workplace jessica sahagian

Jessica Sahagian: I mentioned stim acceptance and sensory friendly workplaces. What is stimming? So stimming by definition is a repetitive performance of physical movements or vocalizations. It’s usually a form of behavior by persons with autism or other neurodiverse conditions. It’s considered self-stimulation and it can serve a variety of functions. It can be calming. It can be an expression of feelings. What does that look like? Popularly? It looks like fidget toys, right? They became those, those little poppy things that everyone has. The fidget spinners. That became popular culture and that’s what became pervasive. But it also looks like picking at your nails. It looks like picking at your skin. It looks like a condition called dermatillomania, where you pull out your hair.

Jessica Sahagian: Repetitive hand stretching, and flapping, and consistently repeating oneself. I’m a nail picker. I’m a skin picker. I’m also a word repeater. Me repeating my words doesn’t mean I don’t think you understood me. It also doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s how my brain reinforces ideas and thoughts, and it’s a totally acceptable way to communicate. We need to create environments where we don’t get angry or irritated at folks who display these behaviors and push our own assumptions onto them, but where we assume that positive intent, unconditional positive regard, we want it, we should give it.

Jessica Sahagian: Also, please don’t stare – I have sensory issues with clothing and footwear. A lot of people on the spectrum do. I wear open toe shoes year round, which in Boston gets me a lot of looks <laugh> but when I wear socks or close- toed shoes, I get the heebie-jeebies, I literally feel like my skin is crawling. And in a previous job, I had a woman who was a skip level manager, give me a coupon for a shoe store and tell me I should consider getting heels to look more professional, despite the fact that her favorite direct report wore flip flops constantly. The only difference between myself and her direct report, I was on the spectrum and her report wasn’t. Other than that, we had the same competencies, the same skills. Mine were just constantly overlooked. We can do better as women supporting each other. Anyways, off that soapbox, let’s talk about the next thing.

Jessica Sahagian: Sensory friendly, quiet rooms are important. Let’s talk about how we can, I know a lot of times our offices now are all open. We have open architecture, there’s no not a lot of offices, and everybody’s out there in the middle talking constantly – that can be really loud. Try to offer quiet rooms. Try to take some conference rooms and put up – they have these things that kind of look like gym mats. Put them up around the outside so it creates a noise barrier so someone, if they’re feeling overstimulated, can book that room, go into that room, and be able to work, if they choose to come in, in person, Again, how do, how can you help this? Remote work. Somebody can go to a different room in their house, they can go to a coffee shop. If they maybe need more stimulation, they can go into their bedroom if they need a more sensory friendly environment than sitting at their desk. Give folks options. That’s really the key.

Jessica Sahagian: We talk about a lot about surviving. I wanna get neurodiverse folks, I wanna get us all really, to thriving. How do we go from surviving to thriving? And how you, as a neurodiverse person or someone who cares for a neurodiverse person, maybe your child is neurodiverse or a relative is neurodiverse. How can you put your best foot forward in a work environment or encourage somebody you are a caretaker to or a friend of? How can you encourage them to, how can you coach them to that? I have a couple tips and tricks that have helped me over the years. While I chat about them, I’d love to hear from ND folks on the call or folks who care for ND folks. If you feel comfortable, please share your strategies in the chat.

Jessica Sahagian: Okay, so my first tip, I use the old improv standard of “yes, and.” The idea being here that if someone asks you for something and is a neurodiverse person you feel afraid to say no to, but you know, you can’t complete and the time-frame desired, you use the “yes, and.” For an example, if I worked for an airline and my boss had just told me, you need to build a new airplane in two weeks. I’d like to say that is a ridiculous request and you’re not getting that. But what I would say is, yeah, “I’d love to build you a new airplane in two weeks – and it’s gonna be made outta popsicle sticks.”

Jessica Sahagian: This isn’t just an a neurodiverse tip. By the way a lot of us, especially as women, we get overwhelmed by being given extra tasks on top of what we’re currently doing. And we often feel that pressure to take on this work. Hit them with “yes, and.” Another example, my boss came to me and said, Hey Jess, can you take on X, Y, Z project? I would respond with “yes and an ABC project will have to be reassigned to someone else. Who should I sync with to make that happen?” Or,” yes, an ABC project will need to be reprioritized as a result. Its timeline is now moved. Can you please communicate to to stakeholders?”

Jessica Sahagian: You are in the driver’s seat. This is a theme we’re seeing throughout the day today, right? And we’ll see tomorrow. You are in the driver’s seat. That leads me to another tip. Lean into your neurodiversity. Don’t pretend you’re not living with it. I did that for a long time and it was a detriment to my success. Find the systems, tools and processes that work for you. This could be anything from automated note-taking software to the short meeting feature in Google Calendar, and I think Outlook has it too. Instead of scheduling a meeting for an hour or 30 minutes, it’ll schedule a meeting for 25 minutes in 55 minutes, and that gives you that five minute buffer to context-switch, to breathe, to get up, to get the synopsis firing again to, to go get some fresh air. And so work with these things that these tools and processes that are built to help you.

Jessica Sahagian: Pick a career that works with who you are, not against it. Personally, I get bored easily. I need a career where I get to have broad influence across an organization. I need to be able to dip my feet into engineering product, product management, business operations, and so on. That is what keeps my synapse is firing <laugh>. And it’s okay. It’s okay that I’m not quiet and dainty and satisfied with the status quo. It’s okay that I wanna climb the corporate ladder and run a startup. It’s okay that I’m ambitious. I learned being neurodiverse that I had to retake those reigns and steer my life in career in a direction that aligned with who I was instead of trying to fit fit myself into non-Jess-shaped situations. Like Stevie said this morning, own your story.

Jessica Sahagian: Another tip, project management software isn’t just for projects. I know we’ve all probably all heard of Jira, Asana, monday.com, Trello. I use a Kanban-style list keeper for my house and personal life to-do list. It has alerts built in. I’m a mom. I run a couple businesses. I’m also an employee. Oh my goodness. I have a lot of things going on. And it has alerts built in. I’m gonna forget something. It alerts me. I set these systems up. I automate these things to help myself. And an engineer, I can build things that help myself.

Jessica Sahagian: I so desperately wanted to be the type of person that could maintain a bullet journal. And if you guys know what bullet journals are, it’s like these very colorful, beautiful journals and everybody has like seven different colors of pens and they like do these sweet little doodles and bullet points and write, and everything’s color-coded and they check it off and it’s just so beautiful and perfect. So pretty, so neat. It’s not me. I’m not a bullet journal. I’m a massive handwritten chai-stained paper with doodles <laugh>. And again, that’s okay. I think it’s really powerful to know thyself, right? And to craft that life and career that goes with who you are, and not society, or your parents, or your family’s, expectations of you.

Jessica Sahagian: Final tip: schedule blocks. We’re talking about owning your stuff, right? Own your time. If you don’t work well with constant contact switching – I don’t – block off time in your co calendar every day where you can do heads down work. A lot of us can end up in those back-to-back meetings – every single day it seems like it can be that <laugh>. And you need to be a hundred percent on for all of them. That’s not sustainable. So block your time. Ask meeting organizers where you’re needed versus optional.

Jessica Sahagian: Your time is just as precious as everyone else’s. And remember one thing as as a neurodiverse person as you attain these goals, as you get promoted, as you get to higher levels, lift as you climb. That’s a central theme of Girl Geek X and Elevate. And it should be a central theme. I I think we’ve all seen the recent picture of Jamie Lee Curtis cheering you know, be the hype woman for other women. Lift as you climb. To whom much is given, much is expected, right?

Jessica Sahagian: Let’s be each other’s hype women across every spectrum, neurodiverse or not. So that’s pretty much what I wanted to touch on. I want to give everyone time to ask questions. We can have a dialogue. I appreciate you having me here today. This is a huge honor, by the way, to talk about this subject that’s near and dear to my and obviously many of your hearts.

Jessica Sahagian: I’d love to connect with folks on LinkedIn. My LinkedIn is up there. But in the meantime, I’m gonna check the chat and let’s see if we can answer some questions. Uh.. “currently work at the first place where I feel I can be authentic and open about ASD” – that is so important. I am as well. I’m at a company that allows me to be me and come with a hundred percent me to every interaction and every every meeting. And you know, I feel like I don’t have to dial myself down, down. I don’t have to be 70% Jess. My best friend described me as a brick of glitter to the face. I can be a brick of glitter to the face and it’s okay, you know, I can have that. And, I can also I can have days where I’m not my best self and nobody’s going to blink an eye, because they have those days too, and they they accept me for me, and I seek, I think, again, acceptance above tolerance. Just tolerating someone.. I never thought that was a good baseline. I thought tolerance is like, oh, I tolerate you, but I don’t accept you. Let’s get to acceptance and celebration. If you connect with me on LinkedIn, I can send you a lot of different resources. I would love to do that.

Jessica Sahagian: Outlook is my executive functioning tool. Yes. Schedule everything. I schedule everything in my Google calendar. I send alerts to my husband <laugh> he probably gets alerts. He doesn’t, he’s like, what is this thing? Whose birthday party? Whose child’s birthday party are we going to? But use the tool. There are free tools out there. Trello is free. Iit’s very easy. There’s an app called AnyList on my phone and I use that for my grocery list, but categorizes everything into dairy, bakery, fresh fruits and veggies, freezer.. so I literally can go to the supermarket and plan my route instead of just aimlessly walking around and being like, I guess I’m just gonna swipe the entire shelf of goldfish crackers, right? <Laugh>

Jessica Sahagian: Questions. “I’ve been a tech over 10 years in the process of getting an diagnosis and hoping to get more insight. Thank you.” So getting a diagnosis getting diagnosed with anything as an adult is really hard as a child. That’s easier as a woman, it’s near impossible. But there, there are places that do it. I do know if you’re getting an ADHD diagnosis, the Hallowell Center in Sudbury, Massachusetts does it. I don’t know if they do remote. I think they might have a branch in California, but it’s very difficult to get those diagnoses is an adult because a lot of places don’t accept, like I said, insurance for them. But there’s also a place that diagnoses autistic adults in Massachusetts. It’s called the Lureie Center and I think it’s division of Mass General Hospital, and I believe they also have outposts around the country, so definitely check them out.

Jessica Sahagian: Yes. Advocate for take home interviews. Have a take home test. Totally fine. Live interviews are nerve-wracking and I think that having that ability to take it home and to complete it in a time-frame, make the timeframe reasonable. Say, you know, if you’re asking somebody to de develop something, say, can you get this back to us in a week? And what you’re really looking for is not the right answer. I’m looking for how somebody thinks. I’m looking for, “Can you think critically?” I don’t care if you get the right answer. We all get the wrong answer from time to time, or a lot. I’m wrong a lot, but I like to think that my thought process is, okay, let’s think about, I wanna know if somebody is actually attacking the right problem. Does this person know how to know how to get to the root cause, or are they just trying to solve symptoms?

Jessica Sahagian: And do they ask, do they go through a five why analysis? Do they understand whether they do it formally and say, I know the five why’s. I know a Gantt chart. You know, they don’t need to know the names of it, but are they a natural? Are they naturally curious? Are they, you know, do they have that proclivity for “I wanna dig into a tough problem and work on it and learn.” The aptitude for learning. The ability to learn and collaborate is chief among anything. They took me from finance and turned me into an engineer, a software developer. If that can happen to me, anybody can, anybody can do it, right? Anybody can switch careers, anything can be taught, really, anything can be taught and a lot of things out there because of the, the one, the wonder and the horror of the internet, we can learn anything, right? We can learn anything for free. And so I think that really opens up careers to a broad swath of people who may not know the exact technical terms for something, but they can explain to you how it works and why, and they can reason. And I think that’s really important. So yes, absolutely to take home.

Jessica Sahagian: “How can we speak to our passion, fast talking and wide range of knowledge to articulate and focus our delivery of our capabilities as it can get lost in translation when limited on time?” Hmm. I would just be honest. I would say, I talk really fast and I know a a lot about a lot of different things, and I’m excited to talk to you today. And I might stumble, I’m gonna be nervous, and I’m going to say a lot of words, and if you have any questions and if I can make anything more clear for you, please ask me. Start with that. Own it, own it. Say, “Hey, I’m on the spectrum. I’m ADHD. I’m really nervous for our call today and I’m probably gonna stumble a little bit. Is it okay with you if we circle back at the end and I can clarify anything that maybe didn’t seem clear?”

Jessica Sahagian: “What are my favorite or life organizational tools?” So that AnyList app is really good. Trello, JIRA, but Jira costs money, so don’t do that. Get a free Trello. And I mean, I’m really bad at order. I have a calendar in every single room and each one has different things written on it, so I’m really not the person to, I am not a person to come in here and say, huh, I have discovered the fountain of of brain youth and I’m going to bestowed upon you. I’m still struggling and working through it, right? I’ve always been, I have a ton of journals, I have a ton of planners – paper planners – I’m a paper book person. I’m a writing person, not a typer. And I desperately want to be the type of person that keeps a journal and remembers to keep that and I don’t., so I would say get the AnyList app, get the Trello app if you are more of a digital person, and definitely use those to your advantage.

Jessica Sahagian: Productivity apps? Just mentioned those.

Jessica Sahagian: “What should tech company employee resource groups ask for in terms of information on how to better accommodate and neurodiverse employees?” Well, so it depends. Every company should have a neurodiverse advocacy group. I am the co-lead of the, what’s called it ConnectRN “the Brain Trust” and it’s neurodiversity and mental health. And so we are able to advocate for ourselves. We’re a group of folks who do do that advocacy. I think starting an employee resource group for neurodiverse folks is a great way to do that.

Jessica Sahagian: “I have trouble, I have ADD and I have trouble staying focused or getting motivation after the initial splurge of passion wanes. Any suggestions?” Oh, Sarah, I understand my friend. I have a closet full of hobbies that <laugh> that. I.. gosh, embroidery was a wonderful three month journey. If I’m not immediately good at something, I tend to put it away. I was actually not too bad at embroidery, but it hurt my fingers, and so that got pushed aside in favor of some other things. My spark gets re-lit when I look at things on Instagram so what I try to do is, I try to follow people who do the thing, or like a Reddit thread. After my passion kind of waned for that. I joined an embroidery subreddit and I see all the beautiful things other people are making and I’m like, oh my gosh, I wanna do this again. Not that I have time for you, but I wanna do this again. I think like actively seeking out and saying like, “Hey, you know, I really enjoyed this at one time, I’d like to get back into it.” And seeking out the beauty in it, whatever that is can often be enough motivation to start again.

Angie Chang: Awesome. Thank you so much Jess, for answering all of the attendee questions. We’ll continue to be chatting the next session’s coming up soon. I wanna say thank you again. We’re gonna wrap up this session. Jess, if you wanna eventually share, I don’t know if people ask for slides or resources. If you send in one person, can you copy me on it and then I can put it somewhere, somewhere people can get it or something. Thank you so much!

Jessica Sahagian: Absolutely. And if folks co connect with me on LinkedIn, happy to answer the questions I wasn’t able to get to.

Angie Chang: Thank you.

Jessica Sahagian: Thank you.

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