Unique Microsoft hiring program opens more doors to people with autism
Kyle Schwaneke’s bank account was approaching empty.
He’d been unemployed for a year and a half, since the indie game studio he’d been working for shut its doors. His parents, looking for ways to help while he job hunted, had paid the remainder of his apartment lease, but he’d reached the end of that, too.
“I interviewed at a bunch of companies, but really didn’t have any luck. Sometimes, I would send in my resume and hear nothing. Other times, I’d go to an interview, and I’d think I did well, and then hear back I hadn’t done well – but they also couldn’t give me any feedback about it,” Schwaneke said. “I eventually started applying at places like Target and Radio Shack for the chance to interview for a minimum wage retail job. I was pretty much out of options.”
A promising young developer, Schwaneke graduated from a world-renowned university for computer interactive technologies. He also has Asperger's syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum.
His situation is far from an anomaly. An estimated 80 percent of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are unemployed, though many are fully capable of holding down a job, and some possess exceptional skills in areas such as science, mathematics or technology. The 80 percent unemployment rate becomes even more significant considering an estimated one percent of the world’s population has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
On April 1, about the same time Schwaneke was wondering whether he’d soon need to move back in with his parents, Microsoft’s Mary Ellen Smith stepped before the representatives of 193 countries at United Nations (U.N.) Headquarters in New York City. It was World Autism Day and Smith, corporate vice president of worldwide operations, announced that Microsoft was about to launch a pilot program to hire people with autism. In the months since the program began, Microsoft has hired 11 new employees who have autism and is actively seeking candidates for an ever-expanding list of opportunities, including roles in software engineering, data science, customer service and operations, and for teams like Windows, Xbox and HoloLens. The company plans to continue its growth of the program as well as its support for the autism community, Smith said.Xbox Software Engineer Kyle Schwaneke’s work at Microsoft has included bringing digital personal assistant Cortana to the gaming console.
“These are people who may not be able to pass an initial interview or screen because their social skills might not be 100 percent in line with what’s expected in a typical interview, but what amazing talent are we missing as a result?” Smith said, after recounting her memorable day at the U.N. “There are unique minds being underused and overlooked.”
Announcing the launch of Microsoft’s new pilot program to the United Nations was especially meaningful for Smith, whose 19-year-old son Shawn has autism. She recalled a heart-wrenching moment from when he was diagnosed 15 years ago.
“I think they understand,” she overheard one doctor say to another on her way out of the medical center. It was the same two doctors who had just told Smith and her husband they needed to seriously limit their expectations for their toddler and what he could achieve, because he had autism.
The young family drove the 15 miles home in complete silence.
“We didn’t know what to say,” said Smith. “But we do now.”
Like many parents who have children with autism, Smith has become a tireless advocate. Smith’s son Shawn, the 4-year-old boy who doctors warned would struggle with basic skills his entire life, is now a 19-year-old college student. He wants to be a marine biologist.
“It took us time to learn how to bring out the best of what he has to offer. That’s the reason I’m so passionate about this,” Smith said. “My son has blown past all of whatever their definitions were of his capabilities, and so do a lot of kids. I think the more support someone is given, and the more we listen to what’s required to help them be successful, the more they’re going to blossom, grow and contribute. I’ve seen it time and time again.”
Smith and the rest of the Microsoft team returned from the U.N. announcement to a surprising response. “We were inundated,” said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, chief accessibility officer at Microsoft and head of the company’s disAbility employee group.
“We got more than a thousand emails and more than 700 resumes. We were getting flooded with phone calls and requests on LinkedIn, and being invited to speak in schools and given awards,” Lay-Flurrie said. “We were being thanked for thinking of doing something in the space. That was our bigger epiphany, it really was. While that’s beautiful, what it said to us is that there’s a bigger need here than we even realized.”
Though Microsoft has been committed to enabling people with disabilities for a long time, news of the pilot program to hire people with autism generated tremendous internal support, Lay-Flurrie said. She heard from employees, managers, people with autism already working at Microsoft and parents who have children with autism, including Eric Brechner and Dean Betz, leaders in the Microsoft autism community, who jumped in to help advise and network as the pilot program was being designed. Lay-Flurrie said the consensus from everyone who reached out was, “It’s about time. What can we do to help?”
“By adjusting our hiring practices, we are able to recruit from a new talent pool – a talent pool that is rich with mad skills,” Lay-Flurrie said. “We’re hiring these folks because they’re amazingly talented individuals who are going to help us do amazing things at Microsoft.” In that pile of resumes from people with “mad skills” was one from Schwaneke, who heard about the Microsoft pilot program from his mom. “Nothing else has worked, so why don’t we give this a shot,” he remembers thinking.
By adjusting our hiring practices, we are able to recruit from a new talent pool – a talent pool that is rich with mad skills. We’re hiring these folks because they’re amazingly talented individuals who are going to help us do amazing things at Microsoft.
Schwaneke was one of 10 people invited to participate in Microsoft’s first-ever interview process especially for candidates with autism. The jobs selected for potential hires with autism are full-time and offer a competitive salary, just like any other entry-level job listed on the Microsoft Careers website, but the interview process is unique. It’s not a do-or-die phone screen or a several-hour, in-person interview, but rather an academy of sorts – a combination workshop and interview to help put job candidates at ease (and therefore let them more fully demonstrate their skills).
During the four-week interview process (which would eventually be shortened to two weeks for the second round of new hires), organizers said Schwaneke quickly emerged as a leader, someone with a strong skillset who remained cool and calm under pressure.
Still, the interview process was difficult for him at times, especially the parts that involved working in groups. Schwaneke said he was sustained and encouraged by all the direct and positive feedback he received. Two weeks into the interview process, Schwaneke was thrilled to hear his work was being closely followed by at least a couple of hiring managers, including Zach Johnson, principal software engineering lead for Xbox.
“Kyle’s approach to programming was creative, and he was pushing limits,” Johnson said. “It was very clear he was both well-educated and able to apply what he’d learned in school to try new things. He moved to the top of my list early on, and as the interview continued, I kept a close eye on him.”
In June, after working with Schwaneke for four weeks in the interview “academy,” Johnson offered him a job as a software engineer. The day he found out he’d been offered a job, his parents were coming over to his apartment to celebrate his dad’s birthday.
“During dinner I was able to drop the bomb on them,” he said. “We were all really excited. For me it was stability, and for them it was stability and also relief. We had been gearing up for the worst, financially.”
Schwaneke now works as a software engineer on a small team bringing Cortana, Microsoft’s voice-activated digital personal assistant, to Xbox. “The team I’m on is incredibly supportive, and even though we have deadlines and things change, it’s a very relaxed work environment,” Schwaneke said. “I haven’t felt the extreme stress I felt at college or in other jobs.”
The bespectacled, bearded Schwaneke is soft-spoken and lean, his shaggy hair usually topped with a ball cap from DigiPen, the university where he earned his bachelor’s degree in computer programming. He dresses in the comfy-casual style made ubiquitous by decades of developers before him – New Balance sneakers, a black hoodie embroidered with his gamer tag, and a T-shirt emblazoned with some sort of a stylized lobster, which he explains is actually a replica of a shirt worn by the hero Link in the game “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.”
Schwaneke said his parents knew from the beginning their son was different, but were incredibly supportive at every step along the way.
“It took me a while to start speaking. Then, when I did, I was speaking in full sentences saying very eloquent things,” he said. “My brain is just wired up very differently. I can remember instantly the lyrics to a song I like, but sometimes can’t remember something I did yesterday.”
He was the kind of kid who brought cupcakes to kindergarten, but made each and every kid say thank you as he passed them out. “I was always the little police officer,” he said. “At first we thought I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, because I always had to carry around an even number of matchbox cars.”A shelf full of wooden puzzles sits outside Zach Johnson’s office door.
Eventually a psychologist proposed Schwaneke might have Asperger’s syndrome, and at that moment everything – his quirks, his fixations, his difficulties – started to make sense. Having a diagnosis made high school both harder and easier, he said. It was a tool in that it allowed him to work with a disabled-student coordinator to hand-pick his classes, but he continued to be ostracized by his fellow students for small tics – things he didn’t even know he was doing.
“Even though the other students were a problem in high school – my peers were still teasing me for being different – I at least had the support of my parents and some very good and understanding teachers,” Schwaneke said. “I’m afraid to think of what would have happened if I hadn’t had that. I might have decided I didn’t like learning or didn’t like reading, and that would have been horrible.”
High school is also where Schwaneke “instantly fell in love” with programming after taking his first computer science class.
“That’s pretty much the point when I decided programming is where I needed to end up,” Schwaneke said. When he started his program at DigiPen, he finally felt surrounded by people with similar interests and outlooks.
“For the first time, I felt like I was in place where I understood other people, and they understood me,” Schwaneke said. That feeling also applies to his new job at Microsoft.
He now sits in a large, bright open space. A shelf at his side holds some of his favorite anime figurines, and on the corner of his desk there’s a garden of brightly colored sticky note origami shapes – technically, they are polyhedrons – adjacent to a handwritten note: “Want one? I can make you one or teach you how! Just ask!”
“Because of this job, I went from essentially having to move back in with my parents to looking into the future and thinking, ‘OK, in a year or two years maybe I can put a down payment on a house.’ That’s a radical shift. My brain is still trying to catch up to that,” Schwaneke said, looking around his new digs in Microsoft’s Studio X.
Johnson, an amiable Seth Rogen lookalike with a shelf full of wooden puzzles outside his office door, laughed. “I bet.”
“The funny thing is,” Schwaneke continued, “the interview I had with Zach was probably the most successful interview I had in the year and a half I was looking.”
Johnson considered this. “It was probably a balance of your comfort and my comfort.”
He continues. “There were some really talented individuals in the program including Kyle, who has continued to demonstrate that in his work. It pains me to think of individuals who have those kind of coding skills but who aren’t using those skills because they don’t fit a standard interview process or because maybe a phone call was awkward. Kyle was sitting idle for more than a year, but instead could have been here helping us bring Cortana to every Xbox user in the world.”
On a crisp, autumn Friday morning at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters – the kind where only street lamps and fiery leaves are visible through the fog – 12 eager, young computer scientists had already reduced the contents of a large, pink box of donuts to crumbs.
It was the last morning of the fall interview process for candidates with autism, but to the unaware, it looked like any other gathering of employees on campus – the open laptops, the caffeinated drinks, the hoodies and Star Wars T-shirts, the banter about news headlines and pop culture. A man with a ponytail sat off to the side, wearing headphones and working, while another walked the perimeter of the room as he talked, which he later explained is how he concentrates best – while pacing.
After building apps, or working in groups to make robots out of Legos, or presenting project work to hiring managers from around the company, the two-week interview process was about to culminate in a question-and-answer session with a panel of pioneers – the first five employees hired through Microsoft’s autism pilot program three months earlier.
Though it had only been about 90 days since Schwaneke and his fellow new hires were on the other side of the proverbial table, they were already paying it forward, sharing their experiences and advice with the group. The newly minted mentors projected confidence and ease as they described their day-to-day duties and teams; answered questions on topics ranging from company benefits to the Microsoft code library; and doled out encouragement.
“A lot of you are going to be nervous about your first week and month,” Schwaneke said. “I’m not shy to ask questions of my teammates, and that’s what you want to do. You want to ask questions, you want people to ask questions of you, you want to get more involved. It’s a very supportive place here.”
Along with encouragement, he offered some very practical advice aimed at the out-of-town job candidates.
“Expect to lose power at least once each fall if you live near trees. There’s a lot of wind. We also get a lot of sun every summer,” Schwaneke said. He continued with a wry smile, “But don’t tell anyone – that’s a secret. It rains here all the time. It only rains. That’s all that happens.”
This got chuckles from the room.
A few chairs down was Katie Hart, hired at the same time as Schwaneke, who told the job candidates she’d been out of work for 10 months before getting the opportunity to interview at Microsoft. She said she appreciated the way the extended interview helped her prove herself, and loves her new role in Customer Service and Support. During her first month on the job, Hart worked with a cross-company team during Microsoft’s annual week-long summer hackathon to create Neuroversity, a game to help people with autism develop career skills.
Cody Takayoshi, another hire from the first round of the pilot program, extolled the friendliness of his new team of fellow Xbox Live network testers. “There are lots of Nerf wars, so prepare yourself,” he deadpanned.
Takayoshi also mentioned the importance of being patient during the first weeks at Microsoft. “For the first while, not having much work due was giving me a lot of panic. I was sitting around reading and studying all day thinking, ‘When are they going to realize this and fire me?’ As far as any struggles, there’s a lot of support. Almost too much support at times,” he said looking right at his employment coach Blake Konrady with a mischievous grin.
Konrady, standing at the back of the room, smiled and shook his head as Schwaneke quickly clarified for those in the room who may not have picked up on Takayoshi’s Sahara-dry sarcasm: “If there are problems, just basically know there is a network there. You’re not going into this blind. If you need it, it’s there. If you don’t need it, it’s not intrusive.”
Takayoshi, 22, explained later that he developed his sense of humor as a way of coping with the more awkward parts of himself.
“Humor has always been there for me, especially as soon as I started learning more than ‘Guess what? Chicken butt’ jokes,” he said. “It lessens the tension in the room if everyone’s having a laugh. It breaks the ice. Sprinkle anything with jokes and you’ve got some stew going on.”
He listens to a podcast by Ricky Gervais on his drive to and from Microsoft, and it’s not hard to imagine Takayoshi’s self-effacing, off-beat banter must be a bit like talking to the irreverent British comedian. He had recently taken some time off of college programming classes when his father told him about Microsoft’s pilot program. He thought, “What’s the worst they could do, hire me?”
“I realized I needed get out of my comfort zone, because nothing life-changing ever happens in your parents’ basement,” Takayoshi said.
Takayoshi said he was worried the extended interview would feel like “autism boot camp” but was pleasantly surprised, both by the interview process, and when he was offered a great job on a team he quickly came to love. They even eat and play foosball together at lunchtime.
“It only took a couple of days to integrate. It was a pretty good fit,” he said.
Teasing aside, Takayoshi and some of the other new employees say they appreciate the deep level of support and patience offered throughout the process, whether from their new teams and managers or from Konrady, who helps the new hires with autism inside and outside of work.
“I’m somewhat of a life coach,” Konrady said, and it’s true. He works with Microsoft partner PROVAIL, and his role includes helping support candidates and new hires through all kinds of situations. Apart from logistics, he also provides moral support and advice on everything from work-life balance to ergonomics to professional appearance in the corporate environment.
After working with Schwaneke and the other new employees in the pilot program’s first two rounds of hiring, Konrady said he has a newfound respect for companies that take the time to really get to know job candidates before making a decision.
“We have individuals with talent who have been hidden, who have not been able to find their voices or show what they can do. These individuals are breaking down the stereotypes of what it means to be autistic,” Konrady said. “This is showing that one of the most influential companies in the world is taking this seriously – is saying that this is something our society should be aware of.”
Microsoft has more job openings, and is actively recruiting candidates with autism to join the 11 new employees hired during the pilot program’s first eight months.
“We started small by design so we can learn and make adjustments as we go,” Smith said. “We want to be deliberate in everything we do – to make sure it’s a great experience for the job candidates, the new employees, and the teams and managers at Microsoft. We also want to continue to expand our partnerships inside and outside of Microsoft, all while remaining focused on the business benefit as well.”
The business benefits she has in mind? Diversifying the company’s workforce, which will in turn help the company gain a wider reach.
“Our effort goes beyond autism,” Smith said. “We are passionate about hiring individuals of all disabilities and we believe with them, we can create, support and build great products and services. Our customers are diverse and we need to be as well.”
Smith and Lay-Flurrie said it’s taken a village to help create and run the new pilot program. In addition to invaluable internal support, Microsoft turned to two external partners, PROVAIL and Specialisterne, both of which are well-versed in helping companies hire, train and support employees with neurodiversity (a term many now use to describe people who differ from the cognitive norm, including those with autism).
Specialisterne helped connect Lay-Flurrie with other companies with autism employment programs for advice, businesses such as HP, Capitol One and SAP. Though Microsoft and SAP are technically competitors, Jose Velasco, the head of SAP’s Autism at Work program, was glad to assist.
“Like all big companies, SAP and Microsoft compete in some areas and we partner in so many others,” Velasco said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to cooperate.”
Few people understand the advantages of hiring people who think differently better than Thorkil Sonne. In late 2003, Sonne founded Specialisterne (Danish for “the specialists”) after being blown away by the unexpected intellectual abilities of his son Lars, who has autism. Sonne had the notion that with a little extra support and guidance, many people with autism – people like his son – could not only hold down a full-time job, but use their particular talents as a competitive advantage.
Microsoft leveraged Sonne’s experience working with other companies to help craft its own pilot program for hiring people with autism. Sonne said it’s remarkable to see a major global technology company so dedicated to pursuing neurodiversity; he hopes other major technology companies will follow suit.
“We started small by design so we can learn and make adjustments as we go. We want to be deliberate in everything we do – to make sure it’s a great experience for the job candidates, the new employees, and the teams and managers at Microsoft.”
“I think we’re really moving the needle,” Sonne said. “We’re spreading the message that different can be good – different is important. You really have to look at the growing population of people who have a disability or disorder as your potential next resource for different, innovative ideas that can help you become more innovative. I think at Microsoft, they really get that. They’re used to people who are innovative and high performing, but who are not mainstream.”
Along with widening the corporate front door for potential talent, the pilot program offers new hires a more immersive onboarding process, making sure they feel supported in their new endeavor by offering a wide circle of services and support.
One such service is a training session to help the teams and managers of the incoming new hires to better understand autism. For Schwaneke and his new manager Johnson, this “rolled into one of the few awkward points we’ve had,” Johnson said.
“We had to decide whether or not we introduce Kyle to the team by saying he came through the autism pilot program,” Johnson said. “My biggest concern is that it was going to set everyone up with specific ideas and expectations. Kyle said he doesn’t mind people knowing, but he doesn’t want it to change the dynamic.”
The training covers the goals of the pilot program and provides a brief primer on autism, a group of complex cognitive disorders often referred to as a “spectrum.” It shares some generalized strengths of people on the autism spectrum (focus, honesty, ability to recognize patterns, attention to detail) as well as common challenges (low self-confidence, communication, social skills).
Johnson and Schwaneke decided to mention the autism pilot program when Schwaneke first joined the team, but it hasn’t come up since.
“I’m just here to work, just like everyone else,” Schwaneke said. “I just want to be treated like everyone else whenever possible.”
Smith and Lay-Flurrie love hearing this from one of Microsoft’s new hires. Attracting, recruiting and retaining a diverse group of talented employees will ultimately help the company better serve its diverse range of customers.
“It really illustrates why we choose to have a program like this,” Lay-Flurrie said. “It's about giving everyone the opportunity to be successful here at Microsoft, which will only make us stronger.”
If you are interested in applying to the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program, please send your resume to [email protected].Originally published on 2/9/2016 / Photos by Brian Smale and Scott Eklund / © Microsoft