Damien Porter joined the WiseTech team about two years ago as a software engineer. Working across different teams and responsibilities, Damien’s currently focused on bringing an improved WiseTech Academy experience to people, while also building his leadership skills through WiseTech’s Emerging Leaders program.
Open about being autistic, we sat down with Damien to get his insights into some of the challenges he has overcome and how the narrative around neurodivergent people needs to change to bring about real diversity.
What was it about a career in technology that appealed to you?
I started coding in high school and it's something I enjoyed and liked doing. There was a bit of a club at my high school that I joined for a while. I was taught by a bunch of kids my own age, we focused on QBasic. I’m a mathematical person, and I learned I could use it to solve problems. It was a fun thing to play around with.
When did you know that you wanted to study software engineering?
I didn't. Originally, I wanted to do engineering, so I did engineering studies in high school and I got pretty bored of that to be honest. I then decided I was going to give nursing/paramedics a try. I started a nursing/paramedics degree and in my second year I realized I wasn’t enjoying it. It was challenging, but it wasn't the right kind of challenging for me, even though I was learning a lot, it just didn’t fit.
I made the decision to leave the degree and experienced a few different things until I started an Advanced Mathematics degree at Sydney University. And because it was technically a science degree, I had options of studying other subjects in the field, like computational science. I realized to get a computational science major I would essentially be doing mostly math subjects along with some computational science subjects, which suited me and my interests. So I did that and ended up getting a second major in computational science.
There’s plenty of coding in computational science, but I have to say that a lot of my coding knowledge came from playing around and passion projects in my own time.
Is the problem-solving aspect of mathematics what also drew you to technology?
Yeah, it is in some ways. But computational science is a little different in that you’re dealing with very well-defined problems which you don’t really see in the tech industry. Software design is more about ideas and concepts and then it goes through a design, UX and UI team. So it's a lot wider than solving a specific problem. The skills in software engineering are very transferable. One of the best skills you can have as a coder, is knowing how to search for stuff and learning how to learn. Because you don't have to have a depth of knowledge, you just have to be able to access it and use it.
It’s kind of like the Dunning Kruger effect that the more you know about something then the less confidence you have in that knowledge. But yeah, I very much think that 100 years ago you had to know stuff to survive, and society hasn't really caught up as much as it should have. Knowledge is no longer really power. That’s because you can access all the knowledge you want at your fingertips now that everyone carries a phone.
How did you start your career at WiseTech?
I was connected to Xceptional, who provide accessible recruitment and placement services for autistic people. I did a couple of tests with them, but nothing really lined up with my skills and my area of interest. One day they said to me if I wanted to learn C#, they could put me through the WiseTech process. So I took a couple of weeks to learn C#.
I didn’t get my hopes up too much because I was told the standards were high. I did an interview, some online tests and activities, and then I did another interview and that’s where I actually began to get hopeful because it had gotten to the final stages. I’ve now been at WiseTech for about two years.
What have been some of the challenges that you face as a neurodivergent individual?
Technically, I would be classified as having ASD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. So that's why I'm not neurotypical. The word ‘spectrum’ isn't used too much anymore because it indicates that everyone lies somewhere within that line, but that's not really the way it is. There are many conditions and many individuals and if you study the whole you could say there are commonalities. But if you pick one person out of that bunch you don't necessarily see all those commonalities, you see different things.
I think one of the most dangerous things about being identified as an autistic individual is that then having some collective meaning put behind it. We are a community, but every autistic individual wants to be treated in different ways. Has different triggers, has different challenges. You have to treat everybody on that case-by-case basis.
How have you overcome some of those challenges that have come about and also broken down some of those barriers in terms of people's misunderstanding about how to to talk about neurodiverse people as well?
There are a couple of things to think about here. One of them is some people just aren't supported. I was with a disability service provider before I went to Xceptional. I also had depression before I was working, I still do, but it was quite bad at that stage in my life.
I told this provider that I really wanted to get a job in coding. I was worried because I didn’t have a degree yet or qualifications, but I really wanted to work. This person said to me that because I wasn’t qualified, I wouldn’t get a job, and no one would hire me. They said I should be focusing on jobs in retail, not the type of work that fits me or my skills.
So don’t put up with people that won’t support and encourage you.
Also, don’t let people restrict you and your abilities. Just because you may not have experience in something doesn’t mean you can’t try different things.
Lastly, let people know what type of support you need to be at your best. For example, communication can be challenging. If you don’t like face-to-face communication, let people know that you’d prefer to communicate in writing. You need to be very clear about what the best way to communicate with you is so that you get the right support.
While this advice is tailored towards neurodiverse people, this is general advice we can all understand and that really should apply to anybody.
What advice would you give young teens who may be experiencing some of these challenges and misconceptions?
That's a difficult question for me because I wasn’t diagnosed with autism as a teen. I was diagnosed in my mid-20s. But I think it’s important to surround yourself with the right people. Educate those that are willing to learn and ignore those that are intentionally ignorant or bullies.
Understanding that it isn't your responsibility to educate people but being willing to talk about your own experiences and being open is necessary to help the community.
Do you feel that an earlier diagnosis would have made things clearer for you?
Yes, definitely. Even though I did see some specialists when I was younger, I wasn't diagnosed.
There's a lot more recognition now, so it's a lot easier to get diagnosed, I think. And there are a lot of early interventions when you're young and your brain is growing and learning patterns that are going to be with you for the rest of your life. Some help there and guidance from specialists and therapists is really helpful. It's not going to cure autism and it should never be looked at as a cure or fix. But it does help you adjust to the world. And that's kind of at a crucial point in time to understand yourself
How would you like to see the narrative change for neurodiverse people?
As much as I'd like to say I don't want there to be bullying etc, that's not a realistic pattern. There are always going to be people that will pick on what they see as flaws and there will always be a lot of people that are very supportive. For me, it's the people in the middle that are really where I want to see the change.
I know being neurodivergent is often seen as a disability. And I can understand why but being referred to as a disability is not something I personally like to see, it's a difference.
I spoke to somebody recently, who talked to me about ‘curing autism’. This person’s son has autism, and they were talking about how they wanted their son to be able to hug and do different types of things. My response was that we shouldn’t be trying to cure autism. It’s not a disease. That while they wouldn’t be happy in their life without those things, their son can be perfectly happy without them. He’s different, it may be a different way of existing but it’s no worse.
What has your experience been like working at WiseTech?
I’ve found that WiseTech has been very supportive of me as an individual as they would be of any other individual, and I very much appreciate that my talent is being nurtured. I’m part of the first cohort of our Emerging Leaders program. I’m learning a lot of new material focused on how to communicate with people and also how to manage people. I’ve learned a lot about leadership and being a strong leader. I’m looking forward to putting it into practice.
If anything, I think there is a risk for businesses in being overly supportive in some ways. When it comes time for feedback and all that kind of stuff it’s important to provide feedback on positive things but also where there can be improvement – you need to keep going, keep learning, and know where to focus your efforts.
I have always been very upfront and open about being autistic, so for me it’s important to not hide that in corner, it’s not a secret about me. That may not work for other autistic people who may not want to be as open about it, but for me it’s about knowing how we can all work best with each other.
How important do you think it is for workplaces to create diverse teams?
There's two answers to this. First, there is good benefit for having both women and men, able bodied people, people from different cultures, disabled people etc. This is a positive benefit because people have different experiences they can bring to the table. It’s important and valuable.
But I think a far more important reason to bring diversity into a team is so that no group is excluded. For example, if you see there's only men in dev roles as a woman that might make you feel less inclined to take that role. If you see this type of exclusion on an individual level, you may think the company doesn't have any commitment to this and that they don't want people to stay and be part of the team.
Diversity for the sake of a diverse team is good, but nothing should be a blocker to getting employment, to being successful. This is the real reason why diversity is important to me.
Having a diverse workplace means that you are accepting of anybody and everybody, and that means nobody should be afraid of picking up any role.