A career as a Data Engineer can be tough for anyone. Tackling complex problems requires focus, attention to detail and a dedication to learn and grow.
Throw in the additional, significant hurdles faced by those with ADHD and the combination can quickly lead to burnout. It is a career choice seemingly at odds with ADHD, yet it is quite common in the tech industry.
And so, to help others, I wanted to present my own perspective and share how I’ve adapted to life with ADHD as a Data Engineer at Hippo.
What is ADHD?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is an umbrella term for several conditions.
All of them are based on parts of the brain (the Frontal Cortex, the Limbic System, the Basal Ganglia and the Reticular Activating System) not developing in a neurotypical way.
ADHD is further split down into two categories, Inattentive and Hyperactive/Impulsive. Someone with ADHD can be diagnosed as both or either category.
The categories are quite self-explanatory. People in the Inattentive category are defined by a struggle to focus and forgetfulness whilst those in the Hyperactive/Impulsive category are identified by restlessness and an over-active nature. I fit mostly into the Inattentive category.
Growing up with ADHD
Childhood is when ADHD starts to take shape and is often when it gets picked up by teachers and parents. However, as in my case, many children are missed.
ADHD is much more well researched and understood now compared to 20 years ago, and so the visibility of children showing the acknowledged signs is much higher.
Due to not being the hyperactive kind of ADHD, and being able to get through schoolwork well enough, I was overlooked.
I did well throughout primary school and into secondary school but increasingly started to struggle when prolonged studying was necessary to pass higher level work. I was labelled as disinterested rather than having an inability to focus.
This led me to having the habit of leaving everything to the last minute. Or when the pressure was high enough for me to be able to focus for the short time before an exam.
This way of working continued as I went to university. The first few years were doable but by the time I was in my fourth year, there was too much information to take in and too much work to do in the time I was leaving myself.
Many people with ADHD come to a point where the personal systems they have in place fail, leading to many comorbidities appearing.
I managed to finish my degree but was left burnt out and my ADHD symptoms seemed amplified with other common ADHD comorbidities beginning to rear their head.
Diagnosing, defining and discovering
Fast forward to 2021, while taking a break to do my MSc Data Science, someone mentioned to me that I had many symptoms of ADHD and to look into it.
This was the first time I’d ever considered that ADHD may be the cause of many of my issues with focus. Many symptoms lined up and I started to look for ways to manage the negatives that had been plaguing my work life.
Motivation is fleeting, and just like motivation, the ADHD brain often loses interest if something is dragging on.
Ask anyone with ADHD how many times pressure needs to be applied to them before they can finish a task that has taken slightly longer than they expected.
Having a task written down in full is exceptionally useful for those with ADHD as, even in the midst of a task, they can forget what they are doing.
Losing a train of thought is common, even while speaking about the topic; and a mild distraction can totally derail a thought process.
ADHD can reveal itself in many ways. Here are some that showed for me:
- Forgetting what someone told you
- Being paralysed at the thought of starting work
- Being unable to complete work
- Lack of attention to detail
- Forgetting what you were doing
- Losing a train of thought
- Easily distracted
- Difficulty organising things
ADHD in the world of work
The first job I had was an assistant administrative job with little stress but as soon as I took a more intensive job, all the old issues came back as strong as ever and seriously hindered my ability to get work done; never mind to a high standard.
At Hippo, I’ve found that ADHD can manifest in many ways. The most common is the inability to focus which, in data engineering, can cause errors or the missing of parts of work resulting in the significant slowing down of progress.
Although a lot can be done to give you the best chance at being focused, it’s not something that can be fully mitigated.
Starting a project or piece of work can always be difficult, but it is especially challenging for those with ADHD. Rather than there being a barrier, it is closer to the feeling you get when your brain doesn’t want you to get hurt.
The closest example I can give is how you react when you want to touch something you know will be burn like a hot frying pan. There is a resistance that is more of a survival instinct than anything else.
This is how it can feel starting work with ADHD.
Adapting to ADHD
Your best option is to build up systems to help support you and give you the best chances of being able to focus and work.
Understanding yourself and your needs can go a long way. And building a system for coping can help you lead a life with less stress.
Each person’s system will be different and will require a lot of effort to understand. But Rome wasn’t built in a day so don’t pile the pressure on to find immediate answers.
Here are some of the ways I mitigate or redirect my symptoms:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy has been proven to help individuals with ADHD as much as medication. It does not yield fast results but is a slow burn that helps with the building of self-help systems, and it can be used as accountability for those systems.
Exercise is another slow burner that increases focus and helps burn off excess energy that could lead to your mind wandering or being unable to sit still. A personal favourite of mine is to take regular breaks from sitting down and play Just Dance on the Nintendo Switch or to go to the gym at lunch time.
Use a calendar
Using a calendar and writing information down has been one of the biggest changes I’ve personally made. Knowing that what I have in my calendar is exactly what’s happening takes a worry away with plans.
Previously, I wouldn’t know what I was doing on any given day, even if it was something regular and so having a calendar to show everything planned out reduces stress.
Write things down
I have also taken to writing down everything important that I’m told. Manager asks me to do a specific task? Write it down. Girlfriend says she likes something? Write it down.
People with ADHD are prone to forgetting things, especially myself, so this is a very important part of any system.
Healthy eating is generally very good, but it is especially important for the focus of people with ADHD.
One part in particular is protein intake. Protein helps with the regulation of blood sugars which can be vital in being able to focus for longer periods of time, rather than having short bursts. I’ve started having more protein in the morning which has massively improved my focus and work output.
ADHD as a Data Engineer
Life as a data engineer with ADHD can be challenging but also rewarding. With the right strategies, tools, and support, it is possible to thrive in this field and create meaningful contributions to the industry.
Whether it’s finding ways to manage distractions, breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, or advocating for yourself and your needs in the workplace, there are many ways to succeed as a data engineer with ADHD.
It’s important to remember that everyone’s journey is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another.
But by embracing your strengths and seeking out resources and support, you can overcome the obstacles and achieve your goals as a data engineer with ADHD.