AWS Training and Certification Blog

Unlocking the potential of neurodiverse talent

A remarkable IT training program for the neurodiverse grows in the Netherlands, fueled by kindness, understanding, and AWS.

When Dutch 20-year old Rebecca de Jong enrolled in the tech training program ITvitae she did not have high hopes. “I was at a very low point in my life,” she says. “I had some complications in high school that delayed my education to the point where it was easier to just drop out. I had lost all confidence in myself, and that feeling just grew over time.”

Photo of Rebecca de Jong

Rebecca de Jong

Nine months later, however, de Jong graduated from ITvitae with two AWS Certifications, then stepped into an IT position at Rabobank, a leading cooperative bank in the Netherlands that has been in operation for 125 years. Making this transformation all the more inspiring is the fact that de Jong lives with autism, a condition that has significantly impacted her education and relationships.

ITvitae (pronounced eetay-veetay) is not your average IT reskilling program. It was started after co-founders Peter van Hofweegen and Frans de Bie learned that, due to autism, an estimated 20,000 Dutch people were not participating in the workforce. Meanwhile, the Netherlands’ robust tech sector was starved for qualified IT workers. ITvitae’s entire focus is helping neurodivergent people learn the technical and soft skills needed to have high-level IT careers,

High school can be a particularly difficult time for people with autism. The classroom environment and teaching methods that work for most students often clash with neurodivergent learning styles, the noise and chaos of most high schools can be upsetting, and bullying is rampant. 70% of students enrolled in ITvitae’s programs are high-school dropouts, and half were both unemployed and socially isolated for at least two years before joining the program. Unsurprisingly, many struggle with depression.

“The students come in with no self-confidence,” says Saskia Meeuwessen, General Manager of ITvitae. “They think ‘here we go again, I’m going to study again, I’m going to get bullied again, I’m going to fail again.’ Then they look around the group and see other people who are just like them who have struggled with the same issues.”

ITvitae has created an environment where neurodivergent people can not only feel comfortable but learn the skills necessary to thrive in a typical tech workplace. “We consider being on the autism spectrum a gift, not a handicap,” says Meeuwessen. “When you have a brain that is connected in a different way, you think differently, you see different things, and you often have an incredible memory. Often things that are easy for others are difficult for you. And sometimes things that are very difficult for the neurotypical, such as learning a challenging programming language, you find perfectly natural. Many people on the spectrum don’t tolerate ambiguity well, which can be a liability in some aspects of life. But lack of ambiguity is critical for building banking software. Their desire for precision can become a tremendous asset.”

Before joining ITvitae, Meeuwessen spent 25 years in commercial IT, rising to become a division director of a major IT software company in the Netherlands, making her an ideal ambassador to the business end of the IT world. It also gave her a deep understanding of the skills students need to be valuable. ITvitae works with a variety of companies in the Netherlands to place students in jobs as they complete the program. Companies that hire students pay about two thirds of students’ tuition, and in exchange they get access to highly qualified candidates in valuable fields.

In 2021 Meeuwessen connected with her former customer, Dennis Janssen, Tech Domain Manager for Rabobank. Rabobank has a long history of early adoption of technological innovations, mounting a web presence in 1996 and mobile services in 1999. More recently, the bank has been steadily migrating its operations to the cloud since 2015 and is always on the lookout for new IT talent. “It was important for us to add cloud instruction to our program,” says Meeuwessen. “When choosing what technology to teach, we follow the market so our students go into the world with skills that are in demand.”

After his initial discussions with Meeuwessen, Janssen advocated within Rabobank for the organization to fund an ITvitae scholarship in the hopes of finding new, neurodiverse talent to augment their IT workforce. “We have always been a cooperative bank,” Janssen says. “That means we are in the business of giving people chances, whether with a mortgage or with a job. We don’t think of our customers as just numbers, and the same goes for our employees. Getting the right mix of people is very important, and you can’t get an ideal team by only looking at performance metrics or the school someone went to. At the same time, however, we are bankers, and bankers are highly risk averse. We needed to be sure that the quality of candidates was going to be high, and they have the necessary skills to be an asset to our organization. The cloud is crucial to Rabobank’s strategy going forward, so we need to be sure they have those skills on board.”

To ensure the candidates they sent to Rabobank were cloud-ready, Janssen introduced Meeuwessen to the team he works with at AWS. AWS then designed a custom training program based on the neurodivergent-friendly learning techniques ITvitae uses. “We adjusted the program from our regular way of presenting material,” says Martijn van de Korput, Technical Business Developer at AWS. “We broke the lessons up more, so there were a higher number of shorter classes. It took time to earn the students’ trust, but after about four sessions the students started to feel comfortable opening up. Also, we made extensive use of AWS Cloud Quest, our game-based learning environment to teach real-world technical skills in a fun and interactive way. It was enormously successful with the class.”

“AWS was incredibly helpful,” says Meeuwessen. “They didn’t just dump a bunch of materials on us and leave us to figure it out. They worked with us to create a training program that would be effective for this population. Not to mention that AWS and Rabobank also funded the AWS Training program. If they hadn’t, we would not have been able to afford it.”

De Jong was clearly energized by her experience in the program. Interested in computers from a young age, she has known she wanted to work in technology since age 12. But her struggles in the conventional education system made her doubt she could ever achieve a career in IT. “Before ITvitae I had gotten to a place where I truly didn’t know if I had it in me,” she says. “For years I wanted to try but was overwhelmed by constant doubts. They helped me find that confidence and showed me how to let it flow out.”

De Jong credits both the structure and the flexibility of the AWS Training for helping her dial in her understanding. “I loved the freedom I had to learn and practice,” she says. “I’m a quick learner, and it allowed me to go as fast as I wanted and do it in my own time. There were a lot of rules about how we were going to learn, but within that there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. If you wanted to try to learn something a different way, you could do it, as long as you asked.” Rebecca also recalls that AWS Cloud Quest game helped her prepare for her first AWS Certification exam. “It gives you so much knowledge in so little time!”

De Jong studied for both AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner and AWS Certified Developer – Associate certifications. And to earn them, at the end of her studies she had to take the same exams as anyone else. “Exam stress is very common in people with autism,” says Meeuwessen. “We do our best to prepare them with sample tests and other techniques. But at the end of the day, they have to go in there and pass the test for themselves.”

The outcome of de Jong’s’s AWS Certified Developer – Associate exam was a surprise, but not in the many ways she might have feared. Test takers are allowed two hours to finish the exam, with an extra half hour given to non-native English speakers (Dutch is de Jong’s first language). After just 60 minutes, however, she was walking out, having aced it. Soon afterwards, three groups from Rabobank came in to interview students. All three were interested in hiring her. Ultimately, she chose to join the “business banking” area , working with Janssen. “I chose the best team ever,” she says.

The team is happy to have her as well. Though overall unemployment rates for the neurodivergent are between 30-40% (3 times the rate of people with disabilities and 8 times the rate for people without disabilities), research shows that neurodiverse teams can be as much as 30% more productive than teams with only neurotypical members. “If you saw me on the floor working with a team, you would never be able to pick out the employees who came to us through ITvitae,” says Janssen. “They are just employees now. And that happened very quickly.”

ITvitae is fielding a new cohort of students for the fall of 2023, and continuing to work with Rabobank. “It’s wonderful when you work with an organization like Rabobank that truly understands the value that neurodiverse workers bring to an operation,” says Meeuwessen. “This is precisely the kind of philosophical and financial commitment that is needed to bring these remarkably talented people into the workforce, which benefits both themselves and the companies that hire them.”

When asked if she misses anything about her high-flying days in the corporate IT world, Meeuwessen is clear. “This is my dream job,” she says. “The entire team at ITvitae is deeply committed to this work. We work here because our heart is here, and we do it for the people, not the money. But I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. When I’m gone, I don’t want my kids to remember what an amazing car I drove, or how much money I had. I want them to remember the impact I had on other people’s lives.