Dealing with ADHD as a developer


"Hi, my name is Lenz and two years ago I was diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)." Well, this is not going to be a self-help-group, but I think it is important to talk about this wildly underrepresented topic. Since my diagnosis, I have spent a lot of time talking to other developers about it - and many of them also have ADHD, often a late diagnosis. It seems that we are quite the vulnerable population - or rather, it seems like a lot of ADHD people are drawn towards a developer job. In this talk, I want to tell you about myself, how ADHD affected me and how the late diagnosis changed my life. But it didn't only change my life - it also affected everyone around me. As colleagues, we have found a new level of understanding with each other that helped us more than any team-building event. And in the end, made us more productive since we now know how to better use our individual strengths, instead of trying to meet social expectations. I will also talk about general ADHD symptoms and try to give you a rough overview on the topic - what kinds of treatments exist, what kind of coping strategies there are and where the line between "everybody is a bit forgetful" and "ADHD is an illness" lies. You might recognize yourself in this. Or just a close friend or colleague. Either way, this talk will give you awareness & insights how the mind of a neurodivergent person can work differently - or it may even be an important wake-up-call. Disclaimer: while I have an interest in the topic and am personally affected, I am not a trained professional on the topic and everything you hear here can only be an inspiration, but never medical advice.



Welcome to my talk about dealing with ADHD as a developer. If you have any trouble hearing, there are subtitles on this talk, so please turn them on. This talk is about awareness and empathy because when I first tried to do this talk, I was like, okay, I can give other ADHD developers tips on how to get through the day, or I can give tips to teams on how to work best with an ADHD person and how to enable them best. But the more I talked with people, the more it became apparent that it's impossible to give those tips, especially in a 20 minute talk. So instead, I'm going to tell you about a person with ADHD and that person is me. It's important either if you have ADHD for yourself and maybe don't even know it yet, or if you have a person with ADHD on your team, that you get to know that people can think differently and how differently we can think. So this really, to get you into the mindset, there are people that have a different thought process than me and to enable you and your team that way to be more patient with each other and more welcoming. Generally, this is not medical advice. I'm a software developer. I'm definitely not a medical professional, as you will see, and I might also just be telling you something plain wrong. I don't know. I'm trying as best as I can, but there's no guarantee here. Also, it's important to note that you should please not diagnose yourself and you should please not medicate yourself. Of course, at some point you might be asking yourself, could I have ADHD? And that's a valid question, but the step from could I have ADHD to I have ADHD is always a step that has a professional diagnose you in the middle. So please don't skip that step. Please don't start getting some medication somewhere and medicating yourself. Please talk to a professional. Before we get any deeper, we have to talk about what ADHD is exactly, because people have very different conceptions of ADHD, and maybe we should get some of the weirdest misconceptions out of the way. No worries. This will be over really quickly. Generally, until the 80s or so, there were ADHD and ADD. So ADD would have been the dreamer that's not paying attention. Nowadays, that's called the inattentive type of ADHD. And on the other hand, the classic ADHD, so the person that always moves around a little more than they should and can't really sit still, that's the hyperactive impulsive type. There's also a combined type, and to get diagnosed with this combined type, you really have to have a lot of symptoms from both. Also there's another misconception about attention. And people always think like if you can concentrate for six hours or for eight hours on one single task and people say that about their children or even about their colleagues, you can't have ADHD. But there's a problem. You swap the word attention from the diagnosis to concentration, and they mean something completely different. Attention deficit in this case means that you cannot choose what to concentrate on. You might be extremely good at concentrating for hours and hours and hours, but it might not be your choice in the first place what you concentrate on. So if you go through your house and you see something that needs to be cleaned and you think about that single part for the next three hours until you finally do it, that's not your choice. That happens. And the other way around, if you want to do something specific, it might be the case that your body doesn't let you. Attention really means the freedom to choose what to concentrate on in this case. Also people often talk about the spectrum, and while talking about the spectrum of having ADHD, people always think that it looks a little bit like this. So I have a slider and I turn it up and down and I have this much ADHD. Personally, I think I have a light to medium variant of ADHD, but that's not really worth anything because it will look completely different for everyone. So if you look at the spectrum, really, it looks more like a skill tree. We have on the left a representation that's more everyday behavior. That's very observable, but that might also change depending on your mood or on how tired you are. Things like you don't seem to listen when spoken to directly, you lose things or you blurt out answers. On the right again, we have behavior like it is more generally observed from the outside. You have a certain level of impulsivity. You have a certain level of inattention. And of course, that also changes, but it's much more stable. Both of these representations are perfectly valid, but nothing really catches the full image. We can just work with what we have. I already said you need to be diagnosed for ADHD and I really mean that. You have to have at least five symptoms over the last six months. Several of those symptoms have to have appeared before the age of 12. Those symptoms don't just occur only when you're at work. If you are at work and you go home and those symptoms disappear, you probably don't have ADHD. Those symptoms appear everywhere in your life. Also those symptoms need to in some way reduce the quality of your everyday functioning. So it really has to have an impact on your life. Let's get into my ADHD story. My name is Lenz Weber-Tronick. I'm the author of RTKQuery. I'm a co-maintainer of Redux Toolkit. I do a lot of typescript. I'm a full stack senior developer, devops and internal dev rel at Mayflower. I've been doing PHP since almost 20 years and about 10 years later I started with javascript. Shortly after that was react and typescript. I'm a person with a million hobbies and I only got diagnosed with ADHD in 2020. If you search for me, you can find me on GitHub as franius or as fri on Twitter. Talking about my life, of course we have to start in school. I wasn't really one of those kids that had the luxury of being diagnosed because usually when people get diagnosed, they are up here. They are male identifying and they are pretty much on the hyperactive and positive side of the spectrum because that's what teachers have in mind when thinking of an ADHD kid. I was more on the attentive side. I didn't really make any trouble. When a topic was interesting to me, I was pretty good at it. When it wasn't interesting, it was very hard for me to learn it. When I was on a deadline, I somehow always delivered something. After school, I went to university and in parallel, I already started working as a software developer. Those two things opened up a world of choices to me. University also opened up a lot of hobbies for me because before that, I only was programming and I was programming a lot. I was only photographing. But in university, of course, I had to cook for myself. So I learned cooking and I learned all different kinds of cooking and stuff. I went deep into drinking coffee and tried to do latte art. I somehow got into carpentry and my roommate was kind of amused and kind of annoyed by the fact that I was doing it in the living room. I also got into mask making and while I was at both of those, it was a natural step to also do cosplay. Friends of mine got me into strength training and then I started running. From there, I went into biking and wanted to go into a triathlon, but that never happened because I saw a YouTube video on parkour. So I started climbing up buildings. I was missing a little bit of balance for that. A friend of mine was chuckling, so I started chuckling and trying to train my balance at the same time. And meanwhile, I also got into motorcycling and got pretty extreme with that, which meant at some point my motorcycle was broken and I needed to learn how to repair a motorcycle. At that point, I wasn't really afraid from repairing things anymore. So I also started repairing my coffee machine, which had broken down in the meantime. And while I was at that, getting into electronics, I also started soldering a little bit. Because I had done things with wood before and this was already kind of metal, I started making a knife. And because I was at some hacker events from the Chaos Computer Club and there was always a lockpicking table, I got into lockpicking. I also wanted to buy myself a nice suit, so I started reading books about suits and I went back to making more masks and crafting smaller stuff. At some point, I even had a hyper focus on organizing my things, which was pretty great and held a long time. Also, there's a lot of digital stuff that I just can't really show here. I said I worked as a dev and I was kind of the jack of all trades in our company. All the little projects like doing embedded work here, doing a web interface there, desktop applications. In the meantime, I started a second job as a sysadmin, created myself a home lab, got a little bit into security and pen testing and capture the flag. I built up my smart home, which by now is technically dead. So if it gets killed, I have to debug something. And I finished my university with an actually very good degree and I'm proud of that. After that, I switched to a full-time software developer job and that gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. And especially on every second Friday, we had a full day to do whatever we wanted to do. So I got into open source and I started small contributing here and there, got co-maintainer of fork TS checker webpack plugin, and finally ended up with a Redux toolkit, which is great for me because I am constantly facing problems other people have and they are so different that it's never getting boring. Of course, all of a sudden, this sounds pretty happy until now and it doesn't stay that way or I would never have been diagnosed. Before we continue, let's repeat this. This talk is not medical advice. You might be in a completely different situation. Always talk to professional. In 2020, Corona hit the world and the pandemic hit my home. It hit my home in the shape of lockdowns. I couldn't have visitors anymore. And I quickly realized that people visiting was the only thing that made me actually care for my surroundings. So it got more and more messy and as much as I wanted to do something about that, my body wouldn't really let me. I was sitting there five hours at a time, just waiting for the point where I could clean up the kitchen. And this is called executive dysfunction. And actually it's very common for ADHD people to have this. At that point in time, I started talking on Discord with a good friend and he told me about his ADHD and I started getting interested and listening. And I started doing my own research. I already was following the How to ADHD channel on YouTube and one of their videos really hit me. It was the video about what she calls the wall of awful. The point where you're sitting in front of a task, but you don't really know where to start it because there might be something other you have to do before and something you have to do before that. And it just starts looking intimidating and you're completely helpless in front of that task. And inspired by that, I got deeper into it and deeper into it and deeper into it. And at some point I started ringing up psychiatrists in my area. And I think I called about 17 of them because we're in the middle of a pandemic and everybody needs a psychiatrist right now. Also many of them were just not taking new patients during the pandemic. So I got an appointment, but it was three months in the future and stuff couldn't stay that way for that long. So I started observing myself with that new information I thought I might be had about myself and changing a few things. The most important thing was that before that I wanted to do things in a neurotypical pattern. A normal person decides they want to clean the kitchen and they just go and clean the kitchen and that didn't work for me. What I noticed instead was that about every 30 minutes when I wasn't doing anything, a wheel of fortune started spinning in my head and giving me new options to do. So there might be three things popping up there and one of them might actually be useful. So I changed my behavior and instead of waiting for the next spin until the kitchen might come up, I just cleaned the living room. And after a few days of just doing the most useful thing that comes up, I actually could walk through my place again and it was a great thing. I also started looking into other things that I could just do for myself and I got myself some fidget toys. I mean, right now I have this stone in my hand because it feels nice and I can play with it while recording this talk and you won't notice unless I tell you and it helps me concentrate. I also have a Rubik's cube here and after two years I still don't know how to solve it, but I play with it a lot. I have one of those fidget cubes here and that's interesting because it's good if you're alone and you can make noises, but it also has a lot of silent buttons and very different haptic feedbacks. So I like that one. I got these and they helped me and they helped me over those three months especially. After three months I got my diagnosis and I also got my medication and I took that medication. I took the medication home with me and didn't really know what to expect because that was how I knew my brain before. It was said like after two weeks you will notice a difference and I was lucky. I took my first pill and it hit where there was usually chaos in my head. There was no silence. I could just not think of anything and that's really remarkable for me because usually my head would be multi-threading. If I'm talking to a person there would be a second thread in my head going on, maybe analyzing the room for things to climb up on because I'm thinking about parkour right now or my hyper focus could be on carpentry. So I'm going to analyze all the different woods in the room and how the furniture is made and how I would make it. There might be a third thread that's thinking about something I want to say later in the conversation or generally analyzing the conversation and a fourth thread that talks about back and maybe finds it while I'm talking to someone else. I took the medication and I was down to one thread and I could add another half thread if I wanted to but I didn't really need to. What was also interesting is that suddenly I could decide what that thread was thinking of and it was easy. I could control my thoughts. I could decide what to do next and I could decide that now I really want to clean the kitchen and I noticed it was a 25-minute task. That really was a big wall for me but once I got to doing it, it was over pretty quickly. So that executive dysfunction was pretty much gone for me and on top of that, I could finally sleep again. Before I would always have a YouTube video running on the side to distract me, to stop my running thoughts but now I was down from those three to four threads that I barely could control to one thread that could just say, nope, I'm not going to think about what I said to that person today and how they might interpret it. I'm going to sleep now and within five minutes, I was asleep. It was absolutely amazing for me and apparently, many people are just like that normally. Also I looked into medication before getting it, of course, and this is not complete. I can just give you a few information that I have. The most important thing for me was I was afraid of being addicted to the medication and most ADHD medications usually are not addictive. A lot of them are stimulants, that's true, and if those stimulants would be abused, they could be addictive but for an ADHD person, they won't really stimulate, they will just help concentrate and they are not addictive taken that way. Not all medications are stimulants, there are also a few non-stimulant alternatives and while most of ADHD medications are controlled substances, not all are. In the end, most people probably go through multiple medications so you really have to work together with your doctor and try what works for you and work it out over time. I also started looking back at things from a new perspective because I was thinking before that I was just a normal kid in school but then I realized that I really was not. Every time the bell rang, I had no idea where my next lesson would be. I just was getting my plan out and I had to look it up every time. In all the tests, I did so many careless mistakes. I had hard times remembering faces because I had hard times concentrating on the person in front of me in the first place. Learning if it was something that I didn't inherently want to learn could feel absolutely overwhelming for me and learning for my finals, I mean, I went through that but at what cost I learned eight hours a day only sitting in front of a paper for seven hours 45 to get to that sweet spot of 15 minutes of learning a day. I also have auditory processing issues and that's why I said in the beginning that the subtitles are interesting for you. Many people with ADHD apparently have auditory processing issues and of course I had all those hobbies and most neurotypical people have maybe one or two hobbies and don't change them three times a year. So that was a good indicator as well. I also started changing my surroundings. That might be easy stuff like, simple stuff like just in the fridge when you notice something getting stale all the time, put it in front of everything else. It's annoying to grab around it but if it's in the way, it might help. Putting things not where they look nice but where they are convenient to me. If I drop something all the time in one place, why not make it the real place for it? I also changed not only my physical surroundings but also how I interacted with people around myself. I talked to my partner, I talked to my friends. I made them understand how I think and how I feel and I also talked to my team at work and we established some things that just made sense for me, that made things easier for me. One thing was fidgeting in meetings so nobody would feel offended by that. Another thing was that we would really take regular breaks in meetings. That together with the medication and it was totally fine in most meetings. Also I revisited my coping mechanisms because there were some like sitting there and waiting for the right idea to happen that were just not healthy. Other coping mechanisms like asking myself every time I make a decision, is this a good decision or is it just an impulse? I didn't really need that anymore but I could use it. I could use it in the team if we made decisions on new technology. I was always the person, is this a new technology we need to use or is it just a shiny new thing? Because I was used to that question. I also started introducing new coping mechanisms like starting activities with a very fixed time box or regularly checking in with myself if I'm still on track. In the end, I did not condemn my ADHD. I'm pretty much embracing it. It allows me to think in ways that are very creative and that I really like but I don't like every part of my ADHD. So it's great to know that I don't have to do everything all of the time but I have the help of medication. I mask less when I'm in public. I don't spend 80% of my energy to play a neurotypical person anymore. I'm just myself and if people think I'm weird, that's okay. And ideally, I should not need to do this talk for you. We should already know that everyone else thinks differently from us and we should already be an open environment for everyone. But let's be real, we are caught in our own shells and it's not often present for us. So it helps talking about it and I'm going to be here and talk about it to help myself and others. If you think you might have ADHD, I already said it twice, I say it a third time, talk to a professional. Online tests are a nice indication but the questions in online tests are not to be interpreted by a layman. A medical professional can explain every of those questions to you, what every answer means and then you get your diagnosis. You won't get it just by yourself. If one of your colleagues has ADHD, ask them about their ADHD. It might be wildly different from what I've experienced. And really listen to them and try to create a safe space for them. In the end, I think that software development is a natural choice for many ADHD types because we don't like to do repetitive tasks so we learn how to automate them. Computers are flashy and interesting and draw our attention. So I think in our group of people, there might even be like 10 or 20% ADHD people and I hope I reach some of them that maybe get a diagnosis because of this talk. But software development being a natural choice for some ADHD people doesn't mean it's easy for everyone. There might also be people that are hindered by their ADHD and while this talk sounds pretty positive about it, please don't forget that. It can be really painful for someone else to have ADHD. We all think very differently and that should be the main takeaway from this talk. It doesn't matter if a person has ADHD or anything else really. We all think differently and the more we have that in our everyday life, the more we can help each other. Rounding this off, this talk was not medical advice. Please talk to a professional and I want to give a very big shout out for my colleagues at Mayflower because two years ago, I went public within the company with my diagnosis. I've done many internal workshops with this and it helped me understand myself. It helped me grow and I think I also helped some of my colleagues. So thank you all for your trust and for welcoming me.
27 min
24 Oct, 2022

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