An engineer’s dream job blooms into reality

Two years after Philip Jarvis landed his dream job on the HoloLens team, he reflects on what it's like to work at Microsoft as an engineer who has Asperger's syndrome

Recently, Philip Jarvis was in the Portland Art Museum checking out an exhibit on contemporary Native American fashion. As he finished in one gallery and prepared to move on to the next, he reflexively pressed his fingertips together and then opened up his hand like a flower blooming.

He realized that he had just tried to use Bloom—the gesture that Microsoft HoloLens users make to dismiss one activity and bring up new content—as if to get to the next museum gallery.

hand opening and closing gesture

Not only was Jarvis delighted at how ingrained his work as a software engineer on HoloLens had become into his everyday life, but he also felt that the moment was “profoundly magical.”

“This particular gesture unconsciously became physical punctuation to my train of thought; it really demonstrates just how viscerally satisfying gesture can be as an input method if it makes the user feel like a wizard,” said the software engineer.

Jarvis never thought that he’d get to work on HoloLens—a job developing for the device seemed too awesome to become reality. But the Purdue University computer science graduate applied to work at Microsoft anyway, as well as various other places. His outreach landed him interviews for various companies—interviews that “weren’t particularly bad, but weren’t excitingly good,” he said. Jarvis had the skills, but he didn’t seem to be communicating them like he wanted to in the time constraints of a typical interview.

That’s when Jarvis heard about Microsoft’s program to recruit and hire people with autism, which helps give job candidates an opportunity to show their unique talents in a nontraditional interview setting.

“The program relieved time pressures and the anxiety of supposedly having only one chance to impress,” he said.

It wasn’t until after he applied and went through the program that he found out the position he was being considered for was his dream job: a software engineer on the HoloLens team.

It’s been two years since Jarvis was hired through the program, and he is every bit as enamored with his work as he’d hoped.

Learning the ropes

While Jarvis thrived during the interview and hiring process, he still wondered what working on the team would be like.

He didn’t worry too much about his technical skills. But Jarvis, who has Asperger’s syndrome, did have anxiety about the social aspect of work. Would he find ways to reach out and have good communication? How would an open-concept, collaborative work environment support the social anxiety that he faces?

It turns out that his team has been welcoming and helpful, Jarvis said. He gets the solo time he needs to concentrate on solving problems, but he also takes opportunities to connect with his teammates when he hits a snag so that he doesn’t stay blocked for long.

The [Autism Hiring] program relieved time pressures and the anxiety of supposedly having only one chance to impress.

Like other new hires in the program, Jarvis was matched with a community mentor who helped him settle into life at Microsoft. Microsoft has worked to create an onboarding model for employers that hire people who have autism. New employees are introduced to their own support circle, which includes a community mentor, the new employee’s manager, a team mentor, and an external job coach.

Jarvis said that his friendship with his community mentor—Tobias Brick, who has two sons with autism—has supported his social well-being and has eased some of his anxiety, which stemmed in part from his move to the Seattle area two years ago from Indiana.

“I’ve found it hard to upgrade teammates from coworkers to extracurricular friends, in a go-for-drinks, see-a-show, help-you-move sort of way. So, having a few fixed points has been nice,” said Jarvis.

Brick invited Jarvis to a Friday night “nerd gaming night,” and now he’s become an important part of the group, said Brick. Brick said that he appreciates Jarvis’s dry, cynical sense of humor. He also appreciates how Jarvis grabs onto a problem and just keeps picking at it, a skill critical in engineering, Brick said.

That skill happens to be one of Jarvis’s favorite parts of his job creating tools that simplify the process of gathering data on HoloLens features—a project where he gets to dig for bugs or other negative experiences in early builds.

Phillip Jarvis
Philip Jarvis performs one half of the Bloom gesture that Microsoft HoloLens users make to dismiss one activity and bring up new content.

“HoloLens and the immersive mixed-reality headsets can be really fun to test,” Jarvis said. “I look at fictional technologies depicted in recent sci-fi or superhero blockbuster movies and think, ‘we could do something like that someday soon.’ Like in the movie ‘Doctor Strange,’ the way that the characters step through portals to other environments—there are apps that evoke the walk-through-a-portal experience on HoloLens already.”

Working at Microsoft has shown Jarvis that things that were formerly the stuff of science fiction are “absolutely possible.”

While Jarvis is thrilled to be on the inside of HoloLens, he makes it a point to remember his perspective on Microsoft products from before he became a Microsoft employee.

“It’s terrific fun as an engineer, but as a former consumer, I now see how and why some of the things that annoyed me came to be,” he said. His goal, he said, is to eliminate annoyances for users so that they can fully immerse themselves in the same delight that caused him to try to Bloom his way into a museum gallery.

“I don’t want to forget how it feels to be a customer.”