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How Daivergent Is Providing Autistic People With a Stepping-Stone to a Career in Tech

While most people find artificial intelligence pretty interesting, much of the work that constitutes the foundation of such technology would bore most of them to tears. Take, for example, building training datasets, a job that requires a person to do the same thing—tagging images and video, identifying and labeling text sentiment—over and over without allowing their mind to wander. “Anytime you have any models, you need large numbers of training sets. When it comes to training-set generation, you can have a great model, but if your training set’s not great, your model’s going to struggle no matter what,” says Rahul Mahida, co-founder and CTO of Daivergent. “When I worked as a data engineer, we tried to solve it ourselves; basically, we got bored and then our quality slipped.” Outsourcing the labor tended to produce a similarly mediocre result.

As a data scientist, Byran Dai also knew how difficult it was to reliably generate high-quality training datasets. He and Mahida found a solution to this workplace problem in a shared aspect of their personal lives: “We both [have] family members with autism. We know the type of things they enjoy doing,” says Mahida. “People on the autism spectrum tend to prefer jobs that are defined but repetitive, but they’re still able to hit that same level of complexity as anyone else…They don’t get that falloff based on repetitiveness where they’re getting bored, where their quality’s dropping. They can stick with it at a high quality for much, much longer.” Founded in 2017 by Dai and Mahida, Daivergent is a platform that connects companies with high-volume data needs—most of them artificial intelligence-related—to a remote workforce comprised of people with autism.

While building the platform, Daivergent consulted The Arc, an organization that provides services to people with autism, on how to tailor its interface and communication for its workforce; Mahida says that they’re still in “constant contact” with the group’s experts and social workers. After signing up for Daivergent, members (the title the company gives its contractors) “can put in as little or as much time as they want,” a few hours or all day. “It’s truly full flexibility because for us the goal is, in order to get the maximum spread amongst this population, we want to lower the barrier as much as possible,” says Mahida. He adds that a fair wage for members is priced in to every project Daivergent takes on, and that the company has a matching process intended to ensure that members are only given assignments to which they are well-suited, so they don’t end up “spending a lot of time just to do a few tasks and then not make much money.”

According to Mahida, the unemployment rate among autistic people, including those who are educated, is around 90 percent. He says that the typical Daivergent member is either not working or working very part-time, generally doing something like stocking shelves. Though Mahida is quick to note that there’s nothing wrong with that type of job, he points out that, “Often [autistic people] have gone to school. They’ve done high school, some have college degrees, often in tech. They want to work in tech. They want to work doing things for AI and for the web and they, up until now, have been just completely shut out from that possibility.”

“Our ethos as a company is to have people on the autism spectrum be able to get jobs, to be able to find meaningful work, and gain a meaningful life from it. For this, we actually see kind of a bifurcation. We see two sides,” says Mahida.

For some members, Daivergent can serve as a stepping-stone to a career. In addition to facilitating work experience for people who might not otherwise get the opportunity to demonstrate their aptitude and abilities, the platform offers video-based skills courses, job-interview coaching, and groups to help members get to know each other. Mahida says that members have told him that Daivergent “provides them a lot of stability, provides them a lot of confidence, to the point where it improves their chances when they are going for other jobs.”

For other members, Daivergent can simply serve as a venue for earning money on their own terms. “Some people, they don’t want in-person employment, or they don’t want a full-time job, and they want this variety of tasks. That’s okay, too. And for them, we might see people being longtime members of Daivergent, and just doing that as their primary day-to-day.”

Regardless of which path Daivergent members choose, Mahida believes that tech firms would be well-served by learning to integrate autistic people into their staff. “At its heart, autism is a social and communication disorder, and that makes it harder for someone on the spectrum to maybe work in a standard environment. But it also makes it harder for a manager who’s not maybe aware or used to working with someone in this population in how to communicate and how to work with them. And, for them, it’s a risk that they’d just rather not take.” But tech, with its general openness to risk and willingness to “edit [processes] to be focused more on getting things done rather than looking for a certain kind of criteria for a person,” is a sector where people with autism—a large number of whom are interested in the industry—should be able to thrive. Daivergent hopes to prove that “if you lower those barriers on social and communication, their technical ability shows through at the highest level.”

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Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung

Michelle Kung currently works in startup content at AWS and was previously the head of content at Index Ventures. Prior to joining the corporate world, Michelle was a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, the founding Business Editor at the Huffington Post, a correspondent for The Boston Globe, a columnist for Publisher’s Weekly and a writer at Entertainment Weekly.