Monday, May 21, 2018

What it's like working in tech with ADHD

Whoa, it's been almost 3 years since I last update this blog? Geez, what's happened in the interim? Well... A lot. I'm currently coming up on two years as a software developer for Uber, and what a crazy couple of years it's been. I'm not sure why I haven't written in a while. This blog was always designed to describe my adventure, navigating from job to job and what I learned or sharing some perspective that might help others.

Today I'm going to share a personal perspective on what it's like working in tech with ADHD (if you couldn't tell from the title).

Alright, so first things first, let's define some context. This is as much for you reading this as it is for me writing it. What is ADHD? ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Okay, so that's not very useful is it. I mean there's this ADD thing which is everything minus the hyperactivity. Okay, perfect, that explains it! I have a deficit of attention.... and it's considered a disorder... Cool. Oh, and the H part in ADHD means I'm hyper. Super useful.

Yeah, no, this definition doesn't help me either. Honestly, the part I hate most about this acronym is the "attention deficit" part of it. Maybe I should switch to a Medium blog? Wait, focus. See, the problem is I don't have a deficit of attention. I've found most people define focus or attention as how long you can work on or think about a single task without switching. So when it appears from the outside that I can't stay on one task for more than all of 30 seconds, you assume that I have a lack of focus. Hence, attention deficit. I'm defined based on the neurotypical view of me. Hence, disorder. I'll get back to the hyperactivity part in a bit.

Let's reframe this in a way that's more positive for me: context switches. What's a context switch? Well this one seems easy enough. It's when you're working on one thing, and then for whatever reason something happens and you have to switch to another context. For a real life example, it's when you're sitting there, in the zone, and your boss comes up to you and says "Hey I have this one quick question". poof Everything I was thinking about before is gone. What was I doing? Oh yeah, coding on this one bug. Let's see. I was in the middle of that test case... Right right, so I need to assert....

It's because of this that context switches are called "expensive". Because in this example, you had to switch to the context that your boss wanted to talk about, then switch back to what you were doing previously. It can also happen for scheduled things. Say you're scheduled for a meeting. You waste the 10 minutes before the meeting either preparing for it or just not wanting to start another thing. And then you spend another 15 after the meeting addressing follow ups and just generally getting back in the zone.

Why is that positive for me? Well... It's sorta complicated. If your brain itself is jumping you from context to context, you might get really good at regaining the context that you jumped from. This is actually something I learnt to practice at a young age, and I highly suggest to anyone with ADHD or ADD. One of the ways you can practice is by having a conversation with someone, and continually (or even after the conversation), tracing backwards through the conversation. "How did we get to this topic? When did the topic change? Did I change the topic by going off on a tangent?"

Applying that technique really helped me with context switching. I figured that if my brain was going to jump from one thing to another, I might as well understand why or how it did that. And because of that training, I now consider it a benefit to me in my job. For example, I can look at a system as a whole, its architecture and design, and see it from that high level. I can also think of the individual classes that I know and how they piece together. And jumping back and forth from those two levels is near effortless. The benefit of that is that I can be a subject matter expert in several systems, languages, ecosystems, etc. and have a deep understanding of that technology, while being able to bring it up a level and try to explain it. Granted, my written communication itself could improve, but that's part of what the blog was for. :)

Okay, so where was I? Ah yes, focus. You know, I tried to learn to juggle once. It didn't go super well. I honestly could probably learn it right now, but don't really feel the need to. Juggling has always kinda appealed to me, because while one ball is in the air, you're already performing the motions to get the next ball in the air, followed in quick succession by the next one. My focus sometimes feels like that. On a good day, it feels like I can time any action down to the second. I can look at a clock, have hours pass, and still know what time it is to within a minute or two. I can have 30 tasks planned out in order, and just execute on all of them.

On a bad day... not so much. Everything seems difficult. What I think should only take 5 minutes ends up taking 20. I make a plan but suddenly lose focus on step 2. And that's honestly only because I made step 1 "get up from the couch". And it's unsettling, because I feel that. Like, not that I notice it's happening, but I feel it in my bones. It's uncomfortable, I feel trapped inside my own brain. In comparison to a state when I'm doing well, it's as if my entire body decided to rebel against my wishes.

That's why I don't like the "attention deficit" name. Because when I'm having a good day, there's no "deficit". I can complete my tasks and get everything done. You might say that that means I am able to focus, but just like juggling, I'm not even really thinking about the task up in the air right now. I'm just doing it. When I'm having a bad day, there's not really a "deficit" either. I didn't suddenly lose the ability to focus. The number of things I'm thinking about hasn't really changed, it's just the coordination and how I execute those things is all fudged up.

I could honestly spend hours talking about the various ways that messes with my ability to get things done. It makes things difficult to follow up on (I use todoist to help with that), remember meetings (Google calendar), or even write code. But this blog post would already take me a couple of sittings to read through, so I'm gonna jump over to the hyperactivity part and go from there.

Hyperactivity. This one's oh so much fun. I've heard so many great ways of describing that part: "ants in my pants", "won't shut up", "can't sit still", etc. So if the ADD part of your brain is hitting you with thoughts at a rate that is frankly quite terrifying, what does the hyperactivity part make more difficult? That's right! Not verbalizing them. I was told a lot growing up that I didn't have to say everything that came to my mind. That always frustrated me, because I wasn't. That simply wasn't possible.

See with ADHD, almost every thought that comes across your brain feels important. But there's no way to verbalize them all. You might try, but it won't go well. A friend gave me a great set of rules a few months ago on this. It works well! When I remember to use it, that is. "Does what I say need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Am I the one who needs to say it?" And when I remember that, it works pretty well overall. It's a train wreck when I don't, but... I'm working on it.

I wonder what my goal even is with this blog post. I could spend hours telling you about all the things that can become difficult when I'm having a bad day. I could brag on my amazing team at Uber who supports me when I'm having one of those bad days, and tries to help me grow. But really, I just want to give you a perspective into my brain. I have this label, ADHD. I've been told that I shouldn't define myself by that label. But really, that label isn't for me. It was always for you. It was always for those who were trying to understand me, to understand my brain and others like me.

I've met many people with ADD and ADHD, and although we have our quirks, the amount of creativity and passion that can come from our minds is staggering. So please be patient with us. Understand that some days we're frustrated with our behavior too. I promise that we're learning and I promise that if you work with us, you'll learn too.

This has been another day and another step in my technological adventure. Follow me @jnesselr and tell me about yours. If you want to reach out to talk about ways to handle ADHD, please do! I may do a follow on blog post with more specific examples if there's interest.