From her home in Beaverton, Oregon, Jamie Davila leads a team of eight engineers in seven states for technology startup Ultranauts. Like millions of other people during these work-from-home times, she relies on popular communication tools like Zoom and Slack.
But Davila and Ultranauts also work remotely in ways that make them different from most companies. They follow a distinctive set of policies and practices to promote diversity and inclusion among employees.
All video meetings have closed captioning, for workers who prefer to absorb information in text. Meeting agendas are distributed in advance so people who are uncomfortable speaking up can contribute in writing beforehand. Employees are asked daily for feedback, like whether they believe their strengths are valued and if they feel lonely at work.
“The whole idea is to create a safe space that allows everyone to be heard,” Davila, 36, said.
Ultranauts has been working for years on the challenges confronting so many companies during the pandemic, and probably beyond: how to effectively work remotely, make progress toward diversity and inclusion goals, and build a strong organizational culture.
The company, founded in 2013 by two former roommates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has had a remote workforce from day one. It was also founded to use the untapped talent of autistic people, who often think and process information differently from the rest of the population. Seventy-five percent of Ultranauts employees are on the autism spectrum.
So the small startup may offer lessons for corporate America in how to hire, manage and motivate far-flung employees, whose work and careers can suffer without the face time and hallway conversations of office life.
“Ultranauts’ purposeful construction of a workplace that really supports people is extraordinary,” said Susanne Bruyere, academic director of the Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability at Cornell University. “Its techniques and tools could absolutely be applied more broadly.”
The startup’s customers include big companies like AIG, BNY Mellon and Cigna. It began with manual quality testing of websites and apps but has steadily moved to more advanced work like data quality engineering, data analytics and automated software testing.
When the pandemic hit, Ultranauts, which is based in New York, lost business as a couple of large customers made cuts to conserve cash. But it quickly picked up new work from companies that are accelerating digital projects despite the downturn. The business now has 90 employees, up from 60 a year ago. Its goal is to expand to 200 in two years.
Ultranauts is backed by social impact investors — which seek financial returns but not windfalls — including The Disability Opportunity Fund, SustainVC, Wasabi Ventures and Moai Capital. They have invested $5.7 million so far.
The company insists its workforce is a competitive advantage. The edge, it says, is not so much that autistic brains are wired for computing tasks but that people on the autism spectrum are a diverse group.
One person may recognize patterns quickly, while another has a more measured cognitive style but arrives at different patterns and ways to fix code. The key lies in harnessing the varied talents of teams.
Meetings are recorded, transcribed and archived not only to accommodate workers who prefer reading to listening but also to foster a more open organization. That extends to the weekly meetings of the six-person leadership team at Ultranauts. The notes of those sessions, including the decisions made and reasons behind them, are published on the companywide Slack channel.
“It is a lot more transparency than most people in business are comfortable with,” said Art Shectman, a co-founder and the company’s president.
Ultranauts’ leaders believe their style of wide-open, explicit communication — no unwritten rules — could benefit any company. Ultranauts is giving away a valued homegrown software product, Biodex, as part of a test to see how widely its tools and practices might take root in the corporate mainstream.
Each employee at Ultranauts has a Biodex profile that states the person’s work, communication and feedback preferences. What is your typical response time to messages: a few minutes, a few hours, same day? If a colleague has constructive criticism, how do you want to receive the feedback: orally or in writing?
Each morning, Biodex sends out a bot message with two questions: How “interactive” — ready to communicate with others — are you feeling today? What’s your energy level today? Workers answer on a 1-to-10 scale.
Rajesh Anandan, a co-founder and the chief executive of Ultranauts, describes Biodex as “a quick-start guide for how to work with a person.”
Ultranauts is letting teams at about a dozen organizations, from big corporations to startups, try out a test version of Biodex. If trial runs with outsiders go well, Ultranauts plans to make Biodex a free download on the Slack app store by the end of the year. Other Ultranauts apps, like its program for polling worker sentiment and well-being, would follow.
“We’ve built an engine that unlocks opportunity for people who haven’t had a fair shot before,” Anandan said. “But if we only do that for ourselves, it won’t have much of an impact.”
Anandan is a former Bain consultant who switched gears and careers. In 2003, he went to work for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and later started an incubator for social ventures at UNICEF. Both he and Shectman, a software engineering consultant, had known since their MIT days autistic people who struggled to find work.
Many autistic people do well with the structured coursework of school, earning undergraduate and graduate university degrees. But they often stumble at the first hurdle into the job market: the traditional job interview. They tend to struggle with social interaction, speaking informally and reading the nonverbal cues of communication.
That was the case for Leslie Reis. She holds a master’s degree in software engineering but had not had a full-time job until Ultranauts hired her last year.
Writing, Reis explained, is how she communicates best. “For a lot of organizations, that was perceived as something that would be a drawback,” she said in an email, “rather than a way for me to participate more fully.”
Ultranauts does not use work experience to filter job candidates. The company does conduct structured interviews, but hiring is largely based on skills assessments that it has developed to measure traits like the ability to work through new problems and take guidance and apply it. Work simulations are another test.
Tulco, an investment firm in Pittsburgh, hired Ultranauts this year to do data quality work. Tulco invests in traditional businesses that it thinks can become more efficient and profitable by applying data science and artificial intelligence, but creating those AI algorithms requires sifting through troves of messy data.
Ultranauts’ work has impressed Matthew Marolda, executive vice president for data science at Tulco. On one project, its team cleaned up and loaded a vast amount of information into an AI model with remarkable speed: days instead of weeks, he said.
“This is a workforce with inherent strengths,” Marolda said. “They’re really good at pattern recognition and really good at detail work.”
Seeking new pools of skilled workers and prodded by advocacy groups, several companies in recent years have begun programs to recruit and employ autistic workers, including SAP, Microsoft, Ernst & Young and JPMorgan Chase.
Ultranauts is one of a handful of small companies and nonprofits in Europe and the United States that employ mainly autistic workers for jobs in technology. Others include Specialisterne, Auticon, Daivergent and Aspiritech. Ultranauts stands out, experts say, for working entirely remotely from the outset and for developing its carefully crafted combination of digital tools and workplace practices.
Its culture has certainly resonated with Davila, who is autistic and was hired four years ago, with no formal training in computing. Since then, she has mastered not only programming languages but also skills as a manager.
Ultranauts has also been her ladder to the middle class. “Before I got the job at Ultranauts, I was on food stamps,” Davila recalled. “Now I own my own house. And it’s a nice house in a nice neighborhood.”