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An autistic Googler and his manager thrive through communication

To mark World Autism Awareness Day, we sat down with Tim Goldstein, who is autistic, and his prior manager, Patricia Li, to hear how they created an inclusive experience and career opportunities for Tim. They explained how they worked together on communication, collaboration and mutual understanding to build a strong and successful working relationship.   What…

To mark World Autism Awareness Day, we sat down with Tim Goldstein, who is autistic, and his prior manager, Patricia Li, to hear how they created an inclusive experience and career opportunities for Tim. They explained how they worked together on communication, collaboration and mutual understanding to build a strong and successful working relationship.   

What do you do at Google?

Tim: When I worked on Patricia’s team I provided professional services consulting and education for the Looker product of Google Cloud. Thanks to her help I am now in Cloud Global Training, specializing in Looker.

Patricia: I’m a practice manager in Google Cloud’s Professional Services organization (specializing in Looker). I support my team in tackling client challenges.

What was that first conversation disclosing your workplace needs with Patricia, your manager, like?

Tim: For me it was not anything out of the ordinary. Because of my work as an advocate for autism and neurodiversity, I am very public. To better control my disclosure, I regularly tell people up front.

When I told Patricia I was autistic, I also sent her a manager tip sheet that I designed for Vanderbilt University’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, which is specifically focused on disclosing your neurodistinction and ways to self-advocate with your manager. It gives your manager concrete ways to best work with anyone who is neurodistinct.

A question for both of you: How would you describe the first few months of your working relationship?

Tim: As is normal for me, I asked lots of questions, especially about details. Detail-up is the way many of us who are autistic process information, not concept-down. Because Patricia didn’t yet understand the scope of what being autistic can be, my questions often came across as pushback. 

At the same time, I was struggling to understand what exactly was being asked of me because it was being presented from a higher level. Our relationship deteriorated, despite our best efforts. Even though we were being open and communicating in our individual ways, we were ineffective.

Patricia:The first few months were an uphill journey. Even with the best of intentions, there were many misunderstandings, resulting in frustration on both sides. We hit a low point that forced an honest conversation around whether the role was a good fit. That was a turning point, as it helped me understand how to better support Tim. The conversations also demonstrated positive intent from both sides and helped us re-establish trust.

How did you improve communication?

Patricia: We worked out systems of communication that worked for us: keywords that told us to stop and go back to clarify, tags that meant “I’m just venting” versus “I need help,” knowing that sometimes more context is needed over a call rather than a chat ping.  Ultimately it comes back to communicating, assuming positive intent and establishing trust.

It also helped me understand what Tim needed to be successful, and how to lean into his strengths to give him the opportunity to lead and excel.  Tim is fantastic at presenting, and has a real passion for teaching and mentoring, lighting up when he is able to make something click for someone.  When I saw the opening on the Cloud Global Training Team, I knew it would be the perfect fit for him.  

How has this experience enhanced your perspective as a manager?

Patricia: Everything I learned while working with Tim is applicable in my role as a manager to any team member. This experience has enhanced my awareness that we each come from different perspectives, informed by different contexts and experiences.

Tim, do you have any tips you’d like to share with neurodiverse employees and aspiring Googlers on the spectrum?

Tim: The most important step is to be willing to be open about your neurodistinction. This is good for the individual as there is awareness before some issue may come up. This can help managers to recognise the true challenge instead of incorrectly assuming it is an attitude issue.

When you do disclose to your manager, don’t just wing it. Have a plan and ideally resources you can provide to help the manager better understand you and your neurodistinction.

Beyond your manager relationship, how has Google continued to create an inclusive workplace for Googlers with disabilities? 

Tim: Google has been very open and supportive of presentations and training opportunities on neurodiversity and autism. Much of this has been at the grass roots level with interest and support from DEI, HR, individual teams, and managers.

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