Imagine my surprise when I discovered, at thirty years old, that I was suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Sure, all the signs were pointing to it, but in my country (France), even as this psychiatric disorder seems to affect 3 to 5% of all adults1 2, it stays extremely under-diagnosed (particularly amongst women), and most people, doctors, and even psychiatrists don't know about it. The name of the disorder itself is very confusing.
People with ADHD indeed manage to focus, and sometimes better than neurotypical people. This phenomenon is nicknamed "hyperfocus". It's quite an all-or-nothing deal: you go from extreme procrastination to high-speed train. People with ADHD often are the "eternal unsatisfied with binary energy" type, who spend their sundays bored out of their minds and with no motivation to start anything.
The boredom is deep and permanent, except when it's not there; then it's replaced by a constant need for physical or intellectual stimulation.
Our "reward cycle" only knows those two states.
Following this, it ensues that it is extremely difficult for us to keep a continuous focus on an activity that is not extremely stimulating and interesting, or on the contrary to stop working on such activity.
This represents many a challenge: it can be difficult to socialize, to manage your life, or even to accomplish simple tasks (don't ask me how many times I failed my driving exam). ADHD comes with impulsivity, substance abuse, attraction to risks, and much more3. And imagine how much you'd hate your life if you knew you were going to forget your keys twice a month, but you never know which days it's going to happen.
But I have great news for my fellow programmers, and in particular those that will recognize themselves in my -brief- description of symptoms4: the job of a programmer is, in my humble opinion, one of the best in the world to exploit the advantages that this difference5 yields.
It is not in the scope of this post to build a list of all the issues this disorder can bring into your professional life; there would be so much to say that my readers with ADHD would have been long gone to start something else instead. We're only going to study the question under the webdev angle.
Web development might be the perfect career for people with ADHD6
The intellectual stimulation that programming brings might have the full potential to become the passion of the person with ADHD. A lot of them are able to absorb at a freakishly high speed the huge amount of technical skills needed to become a good webdev. It's a job where you do stuff. You learn by doing, by being active. No one I know ever became a good webdev just by reading documentation.
Least you can say is that it's hard to get bored.
All is not nice and happy there though, some challenges are also harder, and the first stands in three letters : git, the famous versioning system.
Imagine the work history of an ADHD programmer. It goes in all directions. You start by fixing a small bug in file A, but you noticed a typo in file B, and it would sure be nice to factorize file A a little bit, but then you have to modify C and D, but that factorization pattern could easily be applied to E, etc.
Now imagine the look on your lead developer face, who asked you on monday morning to fix that small bug in A, and who now have to do your code review, which code you were supposed to finish in the afternoon, and it's already thursday7.
Your lead dev or yourself might get annoyed at your tendency to go in every direction at once8, especially if you forgot more urgent priorities !
But let's say nothing is urgent right now. You might then confront the second challenge of the ADHD webdev. I'm talking obviously about meetings.
It's a common trope: meetings are hated by all programmers; but for ADHDs it's even worse.
Sitting and listening for extended amounts of time, especially when it doesn't concerns you directly, are torture-levels of boredom for the ADHD programmer. However, if the ADHD programmer start talking, they will systematically go off-topic, making the meeting last longer than it should, and it's already noon thirty, everyone is hungry.
Thank god our best ally, the smartphone, can save you, if by chance it is socially acceptable in your work environment to use it9.
I'm arriving to the hardest part for the ADHD programmer: communication. One of my mentors once told me: "Communication is the number 1 skill of the programmer", and sadly it seems he was right.
How to socialize at work when most discussions are so damn boring ? Small talk is already painful for many of your neurotypical colleagues. Colleagues that might, by the way, feel hurt by your total lack of attention during your discussions.
It's also worth mentioning the potential social challenges that might come from ADHD comorbidities, either that you acquired because of the disorder (low self-esteem, anxiety, depression...) or that appeared in parallel (autistic disorders, Tourette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorders10...)
In truth, people with ADHD are often seen as weird, or at best eccentric. This can be an issue in a lot of jobs, web development included; Indeed, it can be hard to form good relationships with people that have a deeply different functioning11. An inclusive and benevolent work environment is of uttermost importance to not suffer from those particularities.
Also a great enemy of the ADHD programmer, and most notably of their productivity. I advise to invest in good noise-cancelling headphones, and to blast as much psytrance13 as possible. Or even better, try to negotiate remote work days14, which also have the massive advantage to preserve your unreliable energy levels.
This might help you with the next challenge: the documentation. Again, no one I know likes to write or read documentation, but for someone with ADHD, it's yet again double the pain. The ADHD programmer need to go against their tendency to do, to build, to make, to progress... and rather sit and study attentively how this new library works. As the adage goes: "One week of code can save thirty minutes of planning".
I'm arriving to the last point, which again makes webdev a great career for people with ADHD: the right to screw up.
As long as the production database is safe, you will probably not ruin everything. Comparatively, if you're into Arduinos, you know that the smallest distraction can instantly destroy all your circuits (and the circuits inside your MacBook if you were really not careful). And to guard against mistakes, we maintain strong test suites. Test suites are a must for any codebase, but even more if this codebase is maintained by one or more developers with ADHD. Don't even hope to go far without those.
Unit tests or integration tests are just examples amongst others. In web development, we assume that everything is complicated, and we supposedly have many safeguards, monitoring systems, processes to avoid mistakes. That's also a great way for a junior ADHD developer to discover new ways to prevent accidents in his private life. Organisation is your best friend.
Prescription drugs can help tremendously for ADHD, but adapting our inner mechanisms stays the first and best possible treatment for the challenges that this disorder can bring into your life.
I wish to everyone with ADHD a brilliant career.
Obviously those symptoms can be present amongst any person; their intensity and frequency determines a case of ADHD. ↩
If you think your life presents particular challenges that might be linked to ADHD, I invite you to check in with a health professional. If you live in France, PLEASE, consult with a psychiatrist that advertises as "ADHD specialist", since most psychiatrists sadly lack education on this particular disorder. ↩
Because it's a difference more than a disorder. The suffering from ADHD seems to mostly comes from the dissonance between this particular functioning and the expectations of a neurotypical environment. ↩
Believe me, I had 4 completely different jobs before. ↩
This part of the text was written in the subway, and I literally just missed my stop. ↩
You might have noticed this text was full of digressive footnotes. ↩
Those two paragraphs were written during a meeting, on a smartphone. ↩
A problem rarely comes alone: a huge ratio of people with ADHD have other psychiatric particularities. ↩
Two people with ADHD meeting for the first time often have the agreeable feeling of finally meeting "a normal person". ↩
I find one of the two fantastic and the other terrible; I leave the debate on which is which for the comment section. ↩
A meta-study that I sadly lost indicates there is only three ways to increase your productivity: Coffee, bigger screens, and music. Not just any music, but electronic psytrance. I doubt that researchers tried every obscure genre, so if you're a fan of alternative dark-vapor-chillwave, maybe it also works. ↩
The french version of this article was written before Covid-19 was a thing. I do hope you all work full remote right now. ↩