Why Now is a Cool Time to Be Different: A Q&A with Steph Johnson

In honor of Autism Awareness month in April, our Diversity and Inclusion team led a session for our employees called “Decoding Inclusion” to discuss neurodiversity. During the session, Steph Johnson, VP Corporate Comms, shared her experiences of living with Tourette Syndrome. After the event, I sat down with Steph to learn more about her career path and how Tourette’s has impacted her life.

Steph Johnson, VP Corporate Communications
Steph Johnson, VP Corporate Communications

Jess Katz: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and sharing your story. Let’s dive in and start with your childhood, what was it like growing up with Tourette syndrome?

Steph Johnson: I am pretty sure growing up with Tourette’s is the reason I am funny. I felt as a kid like I had to make people like me and/or “get there first’ with a joke in case they were going to make fun of me.

I think this relates to something I heard the headmaster at my very fancy private school in Detroit say to my father once. My dad asked, “How will my daughter do in life - and at school - having Tourette’s?” The headmaster said, “If people like her, she will be fine.” So, I think that drove me from a young age to try and make sure that everyone I encountered liked me - and my way of doing that was by making them laugh.

Over time I realized there were many other challenges in life that were so much tougher to deal with, like struggling with cancer or dealing with depression, and I began to put my neurological disorder into perspective.

JK: Did you ever feel like it held you back at any point in your career?

SJ: I do not think it ever held me back because I worked it solidly into my routine and it became just another facet of my personality. However, I have had some very hilarious and bizarre work situations, where I’ve had to work very hard to make sure a tic was not stressful or incomprehensibly weird for the people around me. I once threw a pen across the room during a very tense moment at a serious board meeting and I had to suddenly pretend I was throwing it at my boss’s head for saying something stupid because that was more socially acceptable and palatable than giving the room a quickie discourse on Tourette’s.

Being in the agency world for so long, I think Tourette’s actually helped me in my career. When you are tasked with coming up with great taglines, talking the media into covering your not always super interesting clients or defending why a launch didn’t go as well as it could have, you definitely need a quick wit and verbal alacrity. I think my fast firing neurons made it easy for me to always have something to say to assuage concerns, “big up” launch results or convince someone the account team was doing a good job.

I think one of the biggest moments in my career was when I realized I could run an agency by myself and I didn’t need a “grey beard” (as someone over 45 of either gender was called at the time) to guide me. That, however, is something I would like to own as a human, not a “Touretter.”

JK: How has being neurodivergent impacted you as a person or as a professional/mentor?

SJ: I don’t know that I can qualify its impact on me as a person but I do feel like I draw a very specific line around how I want to be described. My mother, who was a special ed teacher, drilled into me that people are not their disabilities. For example, you are not a “depressed person,” you are a person with depression or you are not a “Touretter,” you are a person with Tourette’s. Unfortunately, I do call myself a “Touretter,” so I’m sorry mom, but I really did appreciate this context when I was younger.

I think as a mentor and a professional it’s made me very nosy. I find people with challenges, struggles, or any kind of difference really interesting. I recognize that sounds narrow-minded and ridiculous but I always find myself asking my colleagues if they have any secret challenges, hobbies, or personality traits — like a wooden leg or a tic or an obsession with juggling. It doesn’t even have to be a neurological disorder like mine, it could literally just be the fact that they can yodle. I am fascinated by the human condition.

JK: What would you like others with neuro conditions or any disability to know? What would you like those without disabilities to know?

SJ: I really believe now is a cool time to be different. It’s kind of a “revenge of the nerds”-type of moment where people with neurological, mental and emotional challenges, in particular, have a voice and are sought after for what their particular neurological make-up allows them to do. There are valuable perspectives to be gained by listening to people who aren’t neurotypical.

Also, it’s important to ask people about their situation before assuming you know something about them or defaulting to the most popular public example of their specific challenge and characterizing them as such. Even if you fumble with the words, it is better to empathetically explore than make an assumption. Most people I meet immediately equate Tourette’s with yelling out obscenities and they are sometimes palpably disappointed to learn that I don’t. I generally make a joke about how funny it would actually be if I could curse out my boss from time to time and blame it on Tourette’s, but in actuality it is a traumatic and debilitating form of the disease and there is no humor in it.

JK: Let’s switch gears a bit — can you tell me about your career path and how you got to where you are today?

SJ: I originally went to Michigan State University to study radio, television, and film and I was not quite ready to buckle down and study so I dropped out. At the time my father was the minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Florida and the President of the University of Florida was one of his parishioners. My dad jokingly told the guy if he wanted to get into heaven he should let his daughter (me) into the journalism school. He let me in and I enrolled in the communications program and immediately found my calling.

I recognize that with all of the college admissions scams a la Felicity Huffman and Laurie Loughlin this story is no longer cute or fair, but this was 1992, and a different time.

After 20 years of working in communications firms and consulting for mainly open source, financial technology and database companies, I went in-house at a company called DigitalOcean, where I built their communications function. Then I came here to MongoDB about 18 months ago because we were looking for a communications person with my exact background and the opportunity was too good to pass up!

JK: What is something you do outside of work that you are passionate about?

SJ: Unrelated to Tourette’s, I have been involved with the Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline for more than two decades — first taking calls on the hotline, then as an offsite supervisor, and finally on its Board of Directors. I know that I have helped people who were struggling with suicidal thoughts by giving them an outlet to discuss their feelings. I actually learned one of the most valuable lessons in life from my work with them — silence is to be shared, not broken. Sadly, as a communications person with a big mouth, I don’t practice it as much as I should, but I do think of it often.

JK: What are you most proud of?

SJ: I am proud that I have created teams where people feel they can bring their true selves to work. I try to craft an environment where everyone can be relaxed and unselfconscious about whatever makes them different or unusual and they know they will be respected for it and valued.

JK: Well, I used to be on your team and I can tell you that you definitely did that for me and you are an amazing leader. Thank you, Steph!

Interested in pursuing a career at MongoDB? We have several open roles on our teams across the globe, and would love for you to build your career with us!