Spectrum of Success
Rajesh Anandan, seated in a small conference room in the open-office, Manhattan headquarters of Ultra Testing, the company he cofounded three years ago, wants to make something clear: This is no charity. Yes, Ultra Testing has created 20 jobs so far for people with autism. And yes, the company’s growth plans call for hundreds of additional jobs for people on the autism spectrum. But Ultra is a for-profit venture that aims to do very, very well financially. “Our pitch is simple: We’re the best at what we do,” Anandan says. “Bar none.”
Ultra performs quality-assurance testing for software companies. Its testers scour software for bugs, glitches and errors. The results have been impressive. Revenue tripled from 2013 to 2014; Anandan won’t give numbers, but says Ultra will repeat that growth this year. Last spring Ultra completed a round of angel investment and it is in discussions with investors for a second round. “Impact investing is now a rallying cry for discerning investors,” says Russ Hagey, chief talent officer at Bain and an Ultra board member. “The Ultra founders have put technology, services and social good together in a powerful way—the triple crown of investments, in my humble opinion, and why I’ve chosen to invest.”
Of the estimated 1.5 million autistic adults in the United States, about 500,000 have at least a high school diploma. Yet difficulties with social interaction mean that an estimated 75 to 85 percent of them are unemployed. Hundreds of thousands of people on the spectrum have the skills required for in-demand jobs, but the search process “is heavily dependent on one’s ability to communicate and socialize,” says Marcia Scheiner, an Ultra board member and founder of the New York-based Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership. “This plays right into the challenges of many individuals on the spectrum.” Those who do find jobs, Scheiner adds, “often get fired, not for job performance issues, but for social missteps at work.”
People with autism can make excellent QA testers. Many of them have advanced pattern-recognition abilities, focused attention and capacity for performing repetitive tasks with little or no loss of quality, exactly the skills that Ultra needs. “Our teams test enterprise software, mobile applications, websites and digital campaigns to make sure they function and appear exactly as intended, in every context, on every device, at all times,” says Hagey. “This requires a very specific skill set, including logic and creativity in conceptualizing what to test, focus and rigor in executing tests, and discipline and clarity in documenting results.”
“We’ve increased bug-detection rates for clients by 20 to 55 percent” over other vendors used by those clients, Anandan says.
“Eighty percent of our team members have Asperger Syndrome or similar autism-spectrum profiles, and every day we deliver results for our clients that are measurably better than the competition.”
Anandan, 42, grew up in Sri Lanka, where a brutal, 26-year civil war broke out in 1983. As the minority Tamils fought the majority Sinhalese for the right to form an independent nation, some 100,000 people were killed.
Anandan, son of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother, was 15 when the war began to worsen. Desperate to get him away from the fighting, his parents researched American boarding schools. Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire offered a scholarship, and Anandan spent his junior and senior years there. After graduating, he attended MIT, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and met Art Shectman, a fellow computer engineer who would eventually become his Ultra cofounder.
After a stint as a program manager at Microsoft, Anandan joined Bain in 1996. During his six years at the consulting firm, Anandan traveled to South Africa, where he helped a client devise staffing strategies to prevent the staggering mortality rate of AIDS from disrupting operations. “Our job was to figure out whether this company could operate profitably,” Anandan says, but his concern was for the people dying. “I wanted to be helping solve that problem.”
Anandan left Bain after returning from South Africa in 2002 and later joined the Global Fund, a Geneva-based nonprofit that fights AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, where he spent five years. In 2009 he joined UNICEF USA, and he is still senior vice president of UNICEF Ventures, a group that works to spur innovation at the nonprofit.
Anandan started looking for a new social venture in 2012. He focused his attention on three communities of disabled people—the deaf, the blind and the autistic. Each had an unemployment rate of at least 50 percent, but Anandan was convinced that, in the right environment, the members of each group could work at a high level. After some market research, he concluded that a company built around employees with autism offered the best prospects. Meanwhile a tech company Shectman had founded, Elephant Ventures, was struggling to find good QA services, “If you can find me three folks [with autism] you think will be great testers,” Shectman told Anandan, “I’ll put them to work next week.”
Ultra launched in the summer of 2013 with three part-time testers. The testers work offsite in 12 different states because testing doesn’t require employees to be in the same office and allowing people to work from home enables Ultra to recruit the best talent regardless of location. The founders understood the new company would have to be designed around the needs of its employees. “If you say the call starts at 5, it starts at 5,” Anandan says. “Five is not 5:01 or 5:03. It’s 5.”
To avoid the potential for miscommunication and stress—two common challenges for people on the spectrum—emails at Ultra are kept short. If there are more than two replies, company policy mandates that the conversations are moved to a live chat such as Skype. Each Friday, employees take a five-question survey on issues like team communications and stress levels. The company also uses relationship managers as intermediaries between the clients and QA testers.
David McNabb, who is 36 and was diagnosed last year with autism, was hired in December. He had graduated from Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., in 2001 with a computer science degree, but spent most of the next 13 years unemployed. “I was comparing myself to my own image of what everyone else was doing,” he says. “I came up short there. As time went by, it wasn’t something I felt very good about.”
McNabb tests software for Ultra from the home in suburban Chicago where he lives with his father and stepmother. “It’s rewarding and challenging,” he says. “I’ve learned a good deal and I work with a good group of people. It’s definitely something I feel has been very beneficial and satisfying.”
Ultra’s clients share the sentiment. “The Ultra team delivered a level of QA that I have never seen in my 14 years of web development,” says Steve Marchese, executive producer of the Webby Awards, an Ultra client that issues awards for online excellence. “This year, we’ve had fewer issues with our platform than we’ve ever had before.”
After IBM withdrew from the QA duties on a project for a Fortune 100 financial services company, Ultra took on the project; Anandan says Ultra increased bug-detection by 56 percent. Now the company is adding four or five more testers every couple of months.
“The one-size-fits-all approach to identifying and managing talent is leaving out millions of Americans who are smart, capable and willing to work hard,” Anandan says. “It’s time to change that.”