Welcome to the Information Age series on Diversity & Inclusion Champions. This week, we speak to Jan Kornweibel on mentoring young people on the autism spectrum and placing them into gainful employment.

Ongoing concerns about the ICT skills shortage may have many pundits wringing their hands, but Jan Kornweibel is doing something about it.

Her mentoring of Australians with autism is producing a half-dozen internationally certificated software quality testers per year, and she is brimming with excitement over the successful placements of students she has helped.

Student Song Yi Loo, for example, has been working within Curtin Information Technology Services while finishing year 12 last year, while another student recently secured a permanent role with a Western Australian government department.

“Research has shown that people on the autism spectrum can make really good software testers because of their focus,” she explains.

“Also, many of them don’t mind repetitive work.

“But their confidence suffers in school, because they spend a lot of their time struggling with the general nature of school study.

“Barriers in schooling prevent them from reaching their potential, including for entrance to universities and colleges.

“Generally, they are more successful in institutions like universities as they can follow their passion.”

Building competencies

Kornweibel’s involvement in Curtin University’s Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance (AASQA) eventuated in 2015, in the wake of her decision to wind down her own, more than 50-year, career in computer technology – which saw her start working with computers in 1963.

Her technical focus saw her spending most of the 1960s and 1970s honing her software-development skills – and she experienced first-hand the challenges of establishing a career as a woman in a male-dominated technology industry.

In the early 1970s she became the first female elected on to the ACS WA Branch Executive Committee, which led her to a long-running relationship with ACS that included running a Special Interest Group (SIG) exploring the use of computer technology to assist disabled people.

In 1981, her interest in disabled people being helped with computer technology was piqued with being awarded a Churchill Fellowship that saw her travelling to the USA, UK, France, and Netherlands to study developments in the practical application of computerised aids for disability.

“The whole profile of people with disabilities has changed since 1981,” she says.

“At that time, Apple computers had just come out and I really enjoyed promoting the technology of putting something so complex into disabled peoples’ lives.”

The IT industry has also changed dramatically in the decades since, she says, but some of the fundamental concepts around software development and quality assurance have persisted.

Kornweibel honed her skills working as a project manager, principal consultant, and other technical roles with the likes of the Commonwealth Bank, Optus, and others – including extensive work remediating the Y2K bug, which she described as “just another big testing project”.

Those concepts have laid the foundation for a program – to which Kornweibel applied her expertise to help Curtin University Professor Tele Tan – that has been actively engaging with students on the autism spectrum since it began operating in 2015.

Through a combination of training, education and mentorship, AASQA students are involved in programs such as CoderDojo and helped to pursue certification through the International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB) examination – which delivers a range of certifications through the Australia and New Zealand Testing Board (ANZTB).

The ISTQB’s Foundation level certification has been widely credited with improving career prospects and incomes for those completing the test.

This made it the perfect target for Kornweibel, Tan, and the AASQA team to help students with autism work towards – and their success has been deeply satisfying for her.

“Everyone needs opportunity and some of us have other needs that can be helped,” she explains.

“That is being realised a lot with autism – and my background and experience led me to realise that I was able to take it and run with it.”

Accommodating differences

The challenge of helping students with autism to study for and complete the ISTQB exam has benefited from corporate support from the likes of Planit Testing, which provided access to the online course for free to allow students to study remotely as their schedule allows.

The exam, which is paid for by corporate supporters, is invigilated by a local representative from the ISTQB’s ANZ Testing Board, who accommodates these students’ special needs by holding the exam at Curtin University in an environment that is comfortable for them.

In 2017, the first group of students sat their ISTQB examination – and out of six students, five passed.

The 2018 cohort of seven students, which included the program’s first female student, saw a 100 percent pass rate.

Kornweibel is looking into expanding the program with additional content areas, such as mobile testing, and weighing appropriate training and qualifications to support this.

“I’m just so pleased that all of my background experience has come together to be able to contribute in this way,” she says.

The program’s co-ordinators are also talking with other universities about expanding the program – which is racking up one success after another.

Corporate support, from the likes of Bankwest, BHP, Woodside and Deloitte Australia, has provided career pathways for numerous AASQA graduates, who are benefiting from growing recognition that workers that are on the spectrum have unique skills that can be productively harnessed.

Studies suggest that just 42 percent of Australians on the autism spectrum are participating in the workforce, compared with 53 percent for all individuals with disabilities and 83 percent for those without disabilities.

For Kornweibel, those statistics paint a disappointing picture of a community of eager workers that many employers have traditionally ignored, or just not known how to engage.

But by combining a teaching and mentorship role with therapy and other forms of support, she believes the program has provided “a good combination of all these different discipline areas coming together to really help these young people in a way that’s still being learnt a about.”

“It is inclusive, and they are interesting people to work with,” she says, laughing as she recalls students that “can be very vocal when they don’t agree with some of the course’s exercises”.

Decades of industry experience meant that teaching technical skills has been the least challenging element of the engagement for Kornweibel, who works with the program on an average of two days per week.

The disabled community has changed, too, since the days of her Churchill Fellowship.

“They are far more vocal now, and know what they’re demanding,” she says.

Motivated students make for better outcomes, but Kornweibel notes that much of the satisfaction from the role comes from successfully confronting some of the more traditional challenges of autism.

“Some are not always comfortable with face-to-face communications ” she explains, “and this really is one of our main problems.

“But my background, and their interest in doing the study has created ‘a bridge’ for us all.”