The Surprising Right Fit for Software Testing

Software analysts and programmers live to innovate—but hate to run tests. Yet top-notch testing saves many a company money when bugs are caught early. A case study describes the secret behind a Danish consultancy's success: The majority of its testers have Asperger syndrome or a form of autism spectrum disorder.
by Martha Lagace

If there is one job that many software analysts and programmers cannot stand, it is testing software on the path to launch. The grinding concentration and repetitive nature of the tasks serve to drive many techies around the bend.

Testing—due in no small part to the resistance it meets in some cubicles—is often treated as an afterthought at immature IT organizations, says HBS professor Robert Austin. Yet this attitude is unwise, because the sooner bugs are caught, the easier and cheaper they are to correct.

But who is best suited to control and manage the tests? The surprising answer may be found in a group of people previously thought to have a crippling condition: autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

In a new case coauthored by Austin, "Specialisterne: Sense & Details," an innovative consultancy in Denmark has turned testing into its own specialty. While its 50 or so part-time consultants are considered best-in-class—they are paid industry-competitive wages, and customers include LEGO, Microsoft, and Oracle—75 percent of them live with what others might consider a handicap: They have Asperger syndrome or some form of ASD.

Austin first learned about Specialisterne from Jonathan Wareham of ESADE Business School; the two cowrote the case with Javier Busquets, also of ESADE. As detailed in the case, these software consultants enjoy their work and are great at it. The testing process—checking and rechecking outcomes, documenting test plans, and maintaining follow-through—makes use of the high intelligence, precision-oriented skills, deep concentration, and patience that can be positive features sometimes accompanying ASD.

"These are useful distinctions for CIOs when thinking about talent management."

Says Austin, "This case is about delivering IT services. IT managers typically find themselves with diverse talents. People in IT are idiosyncratically talented. This case is about putting talent where it is most effective."

Companies with in-house talent tend to focus on the more creative tasks of writing and installing software, and dreaming up innovative solutions to unique problems. Analysts and programmers may also underestimate their own capacity to make mistakes.

Testing, for its part, calls for a whole different set of skills. Testers must pay strict attention to detail as they scrutinize the functionality of menus, navigation, and applications. Regression testing should be done well if software is not to revert to an earlier state. The kind of testing that takes place varies according to the needs of applications and end users. It may include but is not limited to component or unit testing, component integration testing, system testing, and system integration testing.

Personal Motivation

Specialisterne's founder, Thorkil Sonne, launched the company in 2004 following a high-level career in telecommunications IT. (Specialisterne is Danish for "the Specialists.") Sonne was already deeply familiar with the challenges facing people with ASD: When his son was about three years old, the boy’s development of speech and social skills seemed delayed. The Sonnes reached out to pedagogues and psychologists in an attempt to understand what was happening. As Sonne says in the case, "When we were told that our son had autism spectrum disorder, a lifelong handicap with no cure or treatment, we knew that all our plans needed to change. We needed to accept that."

"The business model is tricky for a CEO."

ASD is not a single condition but rather a spectrum of neurodevelopmental impairments. It is part of the same family of impairments as classic autism and Asperger syndrome. While psychological and medical experts do not agree on its precise contours, nor on how common it is in the general population, they recognize that people affected by ASD typically experience difficulty with social relationships, with communicating verbally as well as reading gestures, and with using their imagination.

Many ASD sufferers prefer routine to novelty, and exhibit steady focus and repetitive behavior patterns. If employed, they frequently face obstacles when workplaces don’t recognize their particular skills and needs. People with ASD may also have little preparation or capacity for the common social interactions required on a daily basis at work.

As Sonne and his family adapted to life raising their son, the nature of Sonne's career made him increasingly aware of the testing gap in IT. He saw an opportunity and need for entrepreneurship. This family background—and the potential for addressing an industry niche, along with his commitment to raising the profile of hidden talents of individuals with ASD—led him to found Specialisterne.

Specialisterne now has two offices in Denmark, another under construction in Scotland, and branches being planned in Sweden and India. Its niche, according to the case, is testing when the cost of establishing automated testing is too expensive and complex. In March 2008 Sonne was honored with Denmark's IT Award for outstanding contributions to IT development. In a statement read at the ceremony, the award was bestowed to Sonne of Specialisterne because "these highly gifted people require special support to get on in society—but via their particular logical skills and sense for precision, they can contribute massively."

A company like Specialisterne seems uniquely suited to the kind of consulting work that requires tremendous powers of concentration. Not all software testing lends itself to offshoring. Certainly, some testing may be automated, but other elements cannot when the work requires a lot of iteration and close proximity to the client, particularly during a time crunch.

As the case states, "Sonne knew from experience that for some applications, especially financial and others that executed mission-critical functionality, co-location of testers and developers remained essential. Some testing, Sonne suspected, would not move offshore, even in the long run."

"These are useful distinctions for CIOs when thinking about talent management," says Austin. "An IT organization needs all kinds of talent—skilled workers in security and databases, and architects for putting lots of complex things together."

Potential consultants for Specialisterne undergo a five-month training process that familiarizes them with the intricacies of LEGO Mindstorms technology. According to the case, "There was a natural fit between LEGO robot kits, called Mindstorms, the inclinations of ASD consultants, and the work they might do for Specialisterne."

A Winning Model

The case also brings to the fore the potential of like-minded companies to build a business model around qualities in employees that at least in the past were considered handicaps.

Given that human capital is the core of Specialisterne, with a heightened need for supervisors, could the company find itself needing to charge customers more than they could pay? How should it handle issues—one at the center of the case—when a client might want to cut costs by trying to negotiate lower fees for consultants than their skills merit?

Adds Austin, "The business model is tricky for a CEO. No one wants to be perceived as taking advantage of someone with ASD. It is a fairness issue that most companies don't have."

Although the company has emerged from Denmark, Austin adds, there is nothing uniquely Danish about it. "It could be anywhere."

So far the specialists, and the high quality of their work, are making a good impression on clients in need of focused testing. The specialists' ability to catch critical flaws in software serves to highlight the value of testing—and their individual value as well, as professionals who play a crucial role in bringing about first-rate IT.

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