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TechVibe Talks to CodeReal and Autism2Work

Interview by Audrey Russo and Jonathan Kersting


TechVibe Radio is back on air at ESPN 970 AM every Saturday at 8:00 a.m. from the Huntington Bank Studio.

CAI is stopping back to update us on its Autism2Work program. Discover how they work with the Autism Society of Pittsburgh to train and place people with Autism Spectrum Disorder into tech and business careers across the region.

We all know that virtual and augmented reality are some the most exciting technologies to take gaming and business to the next level. Get a primer on the opportunities from Diane Bowser of CodeReal.

So tune in and geek out with us!


I'm pumped up because we always talk to the best, the brightest, the coolest in Pittsburgh tech sector, Audrey and we're starting to show up with a bang! That's for sure.

I'm excited to be here. I wish people could see Diane Bowers' avatar It's so cool. I wish there was a way we could share it. But I'm so glad to have our guests here today because we're going to talk about all things AR right and VR. I hooked up with a really cool company called because they're doing some really transformative work around all things AR and VR. And so I know Audrey, you got your Oculus through a few months ago. And you are all about it. And I'm just a complete neophyte about it all. But I think it's frickin amazing. And I can't wait to learn more. I'm so excited to see also the business application behind this as well too, which is where Diane really shines, right? Listen, here's the thing, we're all going to be wearing something like this, okay, you just need to get over it. We're all going to be wearing something like this is probably not going to be this kind of headgear. Diane will give us all the specs on that. But I can just give one plug. Here's the Oculus, it blows my mind. I am a serious traveler. I no longer travel I this year. And I go all over the world. And it has really changed me.

You can go I was in Lima, just sitting in Lima. And you're there. You're there. So I am now going to pass the baton to Diane, and she's going to tell us what she's up to. But I'm not making that up. And the visuals on this. And I know we're in the early stages this this world. But the visuals on this today, Jonathan I the next time I see you, I'm gonna bring it in so that you can check it out. Please, please, please.

Right. So that in and of itself is amazing. So Diane browser, how are you today and thank you so much for joining.

Well,  I'm great. I'm thrilled to be here with you guys. I'm like over the moon. If I'm not exuding glowing things, I should be like that should be my anime avatar today. I'm so excited to talk about VR, AR and mixed reality and just kind of try to like dig out the differences in those three things and maybe start with that a little bit. We were in a time that's just as awesome as like when the internet started, right. And when the internet started, everybody was like, well, I need the internet. Well, I want the word out, right. I feel that way about the mixed reality community. Now. There's so many different paths and avenues that people are on. And mixed reality so many great companies coming up around Pittsburgh, and as you to well now Facebook is probably going to move most of its mixed reality and virtual reality team to Pittsburgh later this year. So I'm really excited about you know, all of the activity around that community. So mixed reality is just as broad category right? And it includes everything from augmented reality to 360 video and tours and things more like a viewfinder. A few years ago in VR, we were all excited about getting like the Samsung Gear headsets and popping our phones into them right I forgot. We had fun with that right for a little while and then you would upgrade your phone and you would get the cool awesome little phone headset and go in there. And oggi to your point it was great for travel. You could look around and have three degrees of freedom. And we have 360 video and companies here in Pittsburgh doing a lot with 360 video and tours for marketing Right. And so the big differentiator with VR, your cool new Oculus, which is off the charts cool is that you can interact with the environment in the newer forms of VR, like the newer Oculus headsets. Whereas in the older, sort of pop your phone in model or the Oculus go, you were sort of confined to visiting predefined spots and looking around, right, and you couldn't really interact with the environment at all. And we weren't building apps and games that allow you to experience those worlds. And nowadays, oh, my God, just five years later, where we are, it's amazing, so quickly, and tell us more about how code real and the work that you guys do in regards to the AR VR stuff as well, too.

So we started in AR VR for marketing, right. And we were taking these complex engineering diagrams and whatnot. And we were building from CAD, these big machines, and then allowing customers to tour them in VR. That's where we started. Nowadays, we're working with educators. And we're also working with manufacturing and industry still, to bring more training experiences, more education experiences, which are like two separate pieces of the same puzzle, right? In the K through 12. sphere, we're looking at education, simulations, and teaching and training for natural disasters, we're doing a project with wheeling University, their challenger center, cool, wrote a grant a few years ago to do a 3d simulation of natural disasters. And the little irony there was that we were replacing a disaster called the pandemic simulation. And nowadays, we're, we're in the pandemic reality, which is very interesting, but we're still building this tool with them. That's a 3d immersive reality. And they get to learn how to respond from disaster coordination, to triage to emergency treatment in six or seven different natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on, and so forth. So that's just incredibly exciting. And we're putting people in those geographic areas, we're doing that in regular old 3d reality that's more like your Xbox or your halo or something like that. In the VR sphere, we're working on training, and corporate training and business. And this is where it really shifts over to like enterprise applications. The fun stuff about the Oculus is all the great gaming, but gamification also can contribute to great training. And so we're looking to the trades and industries to simulate training experiences around say the OSHA for disasters, falling, getting trapped, electrocution, things like that, real experiences that you can train for in VR to respond to emergency situations.

You know, it's so funny, right? Like, people keep thinking, this word gamification. It's almost like I get it. But it's off putting to those people who don't understand that the methodology of what you're doing is teaching people skill. And it keeps you know what I'm saying. So when you say gamification, it's all of a sudden, you can see people check out. Oh, like, that's the game, you know, that's a behavioral strategy to help you master a skill. So we've got to come up your assignment. Diane's come up with another word for that.

Yeah. And actually, oggi that is my biggest sales challenge. Really, when we're in an environment people put on the headset. And you know, if you've put on a VR headset, there's like, there's a wow moment that you have. And then you realize, you know, this is wonderful. And as soon as we talk about gamification, yeah.

I am telling you that I know that I've watched it. And I'm gonna, let's work on it. Let's work on another way to capture it. Because if they don't understand that it's just a behavioral methodology to now it has to be a synonym.

Yeah. And I'm looking for it. Believe me, that is like my number one job. I get I wake up thinking about that in the middle of the night, because it is true when we're approaching very serious occupations, like the iron workers in the trades, or buildings and architects and whatnot. And you use the word gamification people do kind of turn back, they're like, this isn't a game, you know, like, this is business. We're serious. But I want it's so important to think about the skills that we're trying to train for in terms of like hiring and pre screening and testing and, and trying to determine what is the best way to teach a certain set of skills? And Jane McGonigal has a whole field of research built up around this, right? But our task is to try to translate the notion of gamification without saying the word and believe me, I'm working on it every day. I think we can start to call it skills transfer. For what we're doing, we're not going to replace the actual experience of, you know, welding for in the trades or, you know, being in an architectural environment and looking at safety issues, what we can do is we can prepare people to recognize those issues in a really immersive environment, which I would compare as superior to watching like a video about safety. Right? So we're taking it to the next level.

Well, you know, it's it's so funny because safety's Oh, I mean, if you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, right, safety is number one. And safety is always the place where companies have to focus on right. And yet, in the application for learning safety very often is through repetitiveness because you don't have an earthquake that happens enough, you don't have a fire. That happens enough. So what's the methodology that people can have it in terms of, you know, having like an involuntary reaction because they know what to do? Because they've been trained so much. And it could be Diane, that in a couple of years, it's not going to be that big headset, right, that we're wearing, we think is pretty cool. And that maybe it's just a piece in our eyeglasses, are there something that totally changes? And then we're really going to know, right?

I do think that augmented reality, which is like the optical piece that you're referring to, and virtual reality are going to converge, I can see that really clearly, technologically and the way that we're building these two things, is starting to converge now, amongst the early adopters, and the researchers and so on and so forth. Apple is going to come out with some AR glass tool, and that's kind of push things forward again, just like the iPhone did. So I do think they will converge. I think we need to focus on immersive learning. Right, Audrey, you mentioned repetition and getting enough repetitions in right for emergency training situations. I think that's the key. And I think that's where we can make a big corporate contribution. Those are the kinds of skills we're trying to develop, as restaurants reopen, we'd love to work with the food service industry to stop practices, I thought would be huge. That is probably a good, you know, a good area. I mean, the question is, is our restaurants really going to come back in the same way? You know, I think so. I was down in Morgantown, this past weekend, and people were very eager to get back into restaurants. That's good to know, your business was really good. So I think as more people get vaccinated and more people feel safe going out again, I think restaurants will come back, I think these industries will come back. But we've learned a lot in the pandemic. And we can teach a lot more and train a lot more through this technology. Also, for HR, this is going to be a great hiring tool. Crawl and remote work. Oh, interesting, too, right? When for architects and engineers, it's irreplaceable. They're already fully immersed. Now. They want to bring it to their clients. And we're working with a number of architects to do just that.

Wow, way cool that see what I'm saying? Jonathan, this is amazing.

Absolutely. I mean, it blows my mind. I want to continue having this conversation. So I want everyone to go to code and check out their site. And Diane, we need to have you stopped by on a regular basis to give us regular VR AR updates because we just love this type of conversation.

I would love that. I would love anytime. Thank you both for having us today. And again, I think we're just on the cusp. We're heading toward an AR VR convergence future. And and I hope everyone tries the new Oculus and all of the AR tools to see what they can provide.

Absolutely great stuff. We take a quick break. We're coming back with more tech five radio we have ca and their autism to Work program modry near and dear to our hearts great stuff. This is Jonathan Kersting

This is Audrey Russo. We're in the Pittsburgh Technology Council learn more PGH tech org.

I think one of the coolest stories ever told a couple of years ago, we talked to see CAI in their Autism 2Work program.

Right, right. I mean, I don't know what the population is, in terms of the number of people who are diagnosed somewhere on the autism spectrum. But it's fairly significant. Communicative Disorders. So it's not an intellectual capacity disorder, yet very cool because the workforce is and should continue to be filled with people who have, quote, unquote, autism are on the spectrum. Exactly. I want to talk to them because of their success rate in being able to do this work.

Yeah. So we got an update with CAI. I had to grab it, I was like, I'm grabbing the story, because we knew we think it's pretty important to tech council to tell these kinds of stories. So I talked to Sherri Bersic of ci u leads up their autism to Work program. And I also talked to Jesse Torisky, who's at the Pittsburgh Autism Society, the how they work together. And they've, I think, almost 200 people have gone through their program so far. And the demand is through the roof, because they're lining them with really cool tech skills. I mean, there's programming, code development, things like that are happening. And I think it's just fantastic that there really is catching on this thing. And so let's play this cool podcast, I grabbed with them. So you can learn more about this really awesome program, because they're looking for more people to participate, whether you know, talent, that can be part of it, or if you're a company looking to employ, you can be a part of it as well, too. So how about we say we give it a spin and see what it's all about?

Sounds great. Sure.

I work with the AI. I'm a client executive here in the Pittsburgh area, I work with a lot of clients on various needs. But we've had a real drive towards our autism to Work program. And our company's been around a long time. We were founded in 1981 as a business technology service company, but we've grown and grown over the years and 2013, we started up a really great autism to Work program. It was the first of its time we partner with a client in Delaware that said, Hey, I have this idea. Are you willing to take this challenge with us. And then we started to learn more and more about individuals with ASD and their employment challenges. And it has grown and taken off all over the country. So our program matches individuals with ASD very specifically for roles that we have with clients, the client side, we work with them to make a very individualized approach and techniques for bringing in teams of people that they would need to do a specific job functions.

Absolutely. It's uh, Jesse, I'm so excited to get your input on what's going on. Cuz I know you've been crucial to kind of lining up your folks to be part of this program and helping them and so forth. So Jesse, what's your background and your passion? Hi, leaving behind leading up everything going on with the Autism Society.

Jonathan, thank you very much for inviting me. And it is an honor and a privilege to be here and to and to talk about this extremely important program. By way of background, I'm an attorney by trade. My parents and 70 other parents started the Autism Society of America back in 1966.  Very cool. It's in 1967. They started the Pittsburgh chapter. So I'm the president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Autism Society of America. And I took over that role in 2016. We are the longest running autism advocacy organization in the United States. We do a lot of information referral. That's our crucial thing. We field calls on a weekly basis for people. We also do training considerable amount of training to all different audiences. As a prior as a former prosecutor, my passion is the criminal justice system. So we have trained all magisterial district judges in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, twice now on autism in juvenile justice and autism in the courtroom, effective methods of communication and de escalation techniques. We also train first responders, police officers, probation officers, the medical profession, and various other programs that try to help the autism community.

Fantastic. And now you're bringing tech into the fold which I think it's just so amazing and to know that you guys have been doing this for as long as you have. I mean, that's just a great story. Once again, think only in Pittsburgh, right? Something like that. What happens though, very cool. We met and became good Friends right away, and that immediately we had to bring on in collaboration, Jesse's able to help send us some really good referrals, either from parents or are interested in our program. And we've been working together well, he also helps us with a lot of our training, we do an autism awareness training that they help us with.

Very cool. And one thing I did not know that See, I, we started way back in 1981. So you guys have definitely been the foundational tech companies here in the Pittsburgh area. I just love that. So let's just jump into the conversations, make sure you tell us a bit more about you how this program works, and maybe give us some some quick impact numbers, number of people have kind of gone through this and you talk a little bit about some of the jobs that you're able to prepare these people for. Yeah, I have some really interesting numbers for you, too. So over 85% of individuals with ASD are either unemployed or underemployed. And when you think about those numbers, that'sbad numbers. That'sastounding.

That's very, that's not that's not good. Smart, and how talented these people are, we do a better job of modifying our interview process. And really, that's the foundation of our program where we mandate the interview process. And instead, we have what we call a job readiness training. And what we do is we have, it's almost like a class setting, and everything's virtual right now, of course, and we spent over 80 hours with individuals, and they were observing various tasks, assignments, technology, like scenarios that they'll be working on. And they work not only individually, but in groups, and they do presentations, and it helps us observe the right people for the right roles.

Oh, very cool. So you're actually getting to see what they're good at where their strengths are. And then based on that, you can start aligning them to various types of positions that you know, you can get them jobs for.

We do and as people come through our training, if certain ones aren't a right fit for the certain position we're looking for at that time, we hold people in our pipeline, and then when the next job comes up, that's how we find the exact right people for the jobs that we're doing.

Very cool.

We've put over 190 people through our program.

That's a lot of That's amazing. 190 people. Wow.

Yes. So our, each year, we're growing and growing. And it's very exciting. We have about 10 teams locally that I work on.

Now. That's amazing. So 190, folks getting skills and being plugged into the workforce that normally play would not get that opportunity. And especially so many of our tech companies, they need talented people, they need folks that are with different mindsets, they're solving problems in different ways. And now this is a new a new talent pool for many of our companies to be to be drawing from I find that really incredible.

And Jesse and I talk about this all the time, but it's a matter of adjusting our way of thinking of how we interview. Normally, as an employer, you have 30 minutes, 60 minutes set aside where you want to interview somebody, and you're looking them in the eye or back when we meet person shake hands. But those really aren't going to give you a good what someone with ASD can do. Oh, absolutely. And to maybe maybe Jesse can weigh in on this. Because I mean, it seems like autism has really come to the forefront. I think maybe in the past decade where we realize that as you said, there's a spectrum, right? There's people with all different types of abilities that are on the spectrum. Maybe you can tell us a bit about that. And how like often some of this town's been overlooked because someone doesn't, you kind of seem to have the right personality to fit into the workplace because they got this brilliant mind that can solve really tough problems.

Yes, that's actually at the heart of the autism to Work program. See AI has tapped into this resource. And it has led to very strong results in terms of the the employers actually finding that their best workers tend to be the persons on the spectrum. Very interesting. Yes, historically, autism was just simply called autism. It was like one thing they didn't take into account levels and things right. Yeah, everybody was lumped together. Autism comes from the word auto meaning self. And, and the typical, if you want to say that right on this on the spectrum was withdrawn, they didn't make eye contact, mostly were nonverbal, things like that. They're very severely autistic, but there are also very high functioning persons on the spectrum. The autism generally speaking is a developmental disorder, which affects the person's ability later on, in the developmental stages, to pick up the necessary cues to interact socially to communicate and and so on and so forth. persons who are higher functioning used to be called Asperger's right? Now, the DSM five, which is the diagnostic Bible, for all the various disorders, changed it to autism spectrum disorder, and so you have Literally persons that fall anywhere on that spectrum. And the persons that are focusing on are the higher functioning persons who have generally a very high ability to focus on tasks, very task oriented. There they are. They, they enjoy routines, they enjoy following specific instructions, all of which are fantastic attributes for, you know, an employee. Well, I think about coding and some of the tech jobs out there, they require extreme focus. I mean, these are things where, like in, in a level of brilliance, you don't often find in people and doing that they had this combination, being able to sit there and do something that's kind of repetitive, but very important, I think, get if you can see where these alignments happen. And all of a sudden, like, wait, these are some great folks. Can you maybe talk about what are some of the more common types of positions that you're able to kind of get these these folks into?

oOr jobs are various, and we have a lot of them now. So we have everything from insurance testers, we have release management positions, we have security, access management, okay. That's like setting up your user IDs, your roles, and those teams are some of our best success stories they were operating to you. And they never wanted to leave the queue with any overperformed off spectrum peers. And we we have this funny thing between some of the managers we work with our clients, like, was our bar not high enough? Did we? Oh, my goodness, are you serious? Wow, that's impressive. When someone comes back and says that that's, that's saying something.

So we have all types of jobs. And what's going to be exciting over the next few years is that we've started to branch out a little bit from the T space where we're the most comfortable, but we've started some general data entry roles. And we're all getting into some customer service, client support, roles.

Care, that is just cool stuff. It really warms my heart. When I see technology coming together with folks that need employment, they have great skills in bringing them into the workplace.

Yeah, I mean, listen, let's face it. I mean, the kind of work and the demand that we have for a lot of these kind of job opportunities align with a lot of the skill sets that people have. So why would we want to limit? You know, the talent that's coming into the workforce? It's just about being inclusive and giving everyone a chance? Absolutely.

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