Unique hiring approach leads to “awesome” HoloLens job

Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program matches talented people with great tech roles — and has openings now

Philip Jarvis showed up at Microsoft’s Redmond campus wearing his Microsoft Band and toting his Surface Pro 2 and HTC 8xT Windows Phone. He’d been a “Microsoft fanboy” since the first Windows Phone came out in 2010, he explains, and he really wanted to work for the company.

In the past, job interviews at various places hadn’t gone very well. He says having Asperger’s syndrome has brought a degree of social anxiety and made it difficult for him to sell himself. The computer science grad would describe his accomplishments — and then find himself offering up reasons why they weren’t that impressive.

But his interview last fall was different. He landed a job as a software engineer for Microsoft HoloLens — a position he says he initially thought was too awesome to even think about pursuing. If you ask him what’s so great about the mixed-reality holographic device now, he’ll tell you quite simply: “Everything.”

Philip Jarvis on the Microsoft Redmond campus

In the year and a half since it was first announced, the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program has helped engineers and other tech-minded people with autism spectrum disorder land jobs that are well-suited to their skills through its unique approach to evaluating candidates and supporting them through the interview process.

The program is now seeking candidates for hiring academies that are held throughout the year, and its success has led to its continued expansion: What began as a pilot program in the spring of 2015 for Washington state candidates is now bringing in applicants from around the United States.

“There’s an incredible pool of skilled and talented people who also happen to have autism,” says Jen Guadagno, program manager for Inclusive Hiring at Microsoft. “We’re hiring people with amazing technical skills to come in and work on product teams such as HoloLens.”

As part of the company’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, “different perspectives or styles really help us build richer products that are going to be better for the market,” she says.

Seeking a job at Microsoft typically involves meeting with multiple managers in back-to-back interviews that can take a full day, a process that can be very stressful. The Microsoft Autism Hiring Program spans multiple days that include team projects, informal discussions with managers, mock interviews, coaching and final round interviews.

The hiring managers also receive training about autism as a culture and within the workplace, which Guadagno says not only helps facilitate better interviews, but also leads to stronger communication within the teams after candidates are hired.

The benefits of the program are evident in the satisfaction of those who have landed jobs through it.

“They’re now in a field they want to be in, working on a team and in an environment that values different ways of working and communicating, and they feel supported in that,” Guadagno says.

Jarvis, who graduated from Purdue University in 2011, had applied at Microsoft many times through campus recruiters and online job listings. He did a few phone interviews and an in-person interview on his university campus, and “they weren’t particularly bad, but not excitingly good,” he says.

Getting Hired

When he learned about the Autism Hiring Program, he wasn’t immediately sure it was the right fit. He says having Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism, had been only a background problem at school but began to become more of an impediment in job interviews after he graduated, despite the on-campus career counseling that had been available.

“I function well enough that going into it came with a certain degree of impostor syndrome,” he recalls.

Eventually, he decided to apply. As part of the preliminary process, he was asked to recreate an app from the Windows Store. He’d done a fair amount of Windows app development on his own, so he was familiar with the platform. He chose an app that organizes a person’s to-do list and imitated it, then added a few features of his own.

In his first “real” interview during his academy in October, he says he bungled an answer but had the chance to revisit it because of the program’s unusual format. “It was a matching problem of some type that I didn’t realize until later could have been solved with a dynamic programming algorithm,” he recalls.

From his hotel room that night, he emailed the interviewer and explained his better way to work through the problem.

“Unlike in the conventional hiring process, I had a couple of days left in the program,” Jarvis says. “Possibly that contributed to a second interview and getting hired.”

When he learned that he was being considered for a job at HoloLens, a product he’d been following closely since it had been announced, he says he was “absolutely delighted.”

Philip Jarvis on the Microsoft Redmond campus

Now Jarvis collects data about input methods used to control HoloLens, which responds to gestures, voices, a mouse and a clicker. His work helps the team understand how to make the product better through data.

His team’s work is kept under close wraps in an area of the company where access is obtained through high-level badge screening and, in some areas, fingerprint scanners.

The “cloak and dagger” part is kind of fun, he says, but his favorite part of his job is “knowing that this is the future, and we’re working to make sure it’s as good as it can be.”

Flavia Amaral, who is now Jarvis’ manager, says she was impressed by the app he created when he was seeking a job; it was one of the main reasons she wanted to interview him. The principal software engineering lead also recalls his reaction to hearing what team he was being considered for.

“The moment I said the team was HoloLens, I saw the smile on his face,” she says. “He had read about it and was asking a lot questions. He clearly had done his homework.”

Amaral says Jarvis fits in well with the team, which is clustered in an open office area where colleagues can turn to each other for help or conversation. Many of them go out to one of the nearby Microsoft cafés for lunch nearly every day.

One of the things Amaral likes best about Jarvis’ work is how when she explains a problem that needs to be investigated with data, he’ll quickly come back with an initial report — and then do a deep-dive into the issue to learn more about what is happening.

“It’s his ability to pay attention to details,” she says. “He is very detail-oriented and can see things other people cannot see.”

Jarvis now sees a future wide open to him at Microsoft. At some point, he might explore other teams and ideas he’s had over the years for features on various products, but he says he’ll probably stick with HoloLens as long as he can, simply “because it’s awesome.”

He doesn’t feel like he’s treated any differently by his teammates now, but he’s glad the company offered an alternate route through the hiring process that allowed him to be upfront about why he might not be as good at presenting himself in interviews as other candidates.

He’s not sure whether he would be working at Microsoft without that opportunity.

“Maybe someday; I certainly intended to keep applying on a regular basis,” he says. He then adds, with a wry smile, “but sooner is better.”