Autistic Microsoft employees tell Bellevue crowd hiring program changed their lives

Multiple degrees in sought-after areas don’t always lead to gainful employment, especially when you have autism.

Max Goldstein learned this the hard way. After earning his masters degree, he was having trouble finding a fulfilling full-time job. Meanwhile, Joey Chemis found himself adrift after earning degrees in mathematics, statistics and applied mathematics.

“After college, I was very afraid to take that next step and get a real job… I had all of these fears and anxieties, so I just ended up working at jobs like Pizza Hut and Yogurtland… I ended up reaching out on Facebook to a bunch of autism groups and said, ‘Hey, I’m a really great guy, I have these degrees, somebody just needs to give me a chance,” Chemis said.

The pair are not alone — an estimated 80 percent of autistic people in their 20s are underemployed or unemployed, according to a 2015 Drexel University report.

Now, they are just a few of the dozens of Microsoft employees with autism who have been hired through a pilot program the company launched last year. They joined other autistic employees at a special autism symposium at Bellevue College on Oct. 22 talked about their experiences.

In the pilot program launched in April 2015, Microsoft works with local disability organization PROVAIL to hire people with autistim in full-time roles at its Redmond campus. “Neurotypical” supervisors and employees are also educated about autism and its characteristics.

They’re not the first to create an autism hiring program. Microsoft got the idea from the German software company SAP, which has hired 100 people through its Autism at Work program. But Microsoft is advocating for other companies to adopt the practice.

“It’s simple, Microsoft is stronger when we expand opportunity and we have a diverse workforce that represents our customers. People with autism bring strengths that we need at Microsoft, each individual is different, some have amazing ability to retain information, think at a level of detail and depth or excel in math or code,” Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of worldwide operations, said at the launch.

The program is doubly important for Smith, as she is the mother of an adult son about to enter the workforce with autism, she added.

There are unique minds being underused and overlooked because people 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, Smith said.

In fact, Eastside psychologist Max Fines said that he has observed what he calls a “fascinating phenomenom” where large amounts of his clients autism or asperberger syndrome are being employed by companies like Microsoft or Boeing because the way their minds work.

“The technology industry works off of that which is binary. It’s on or off, it’s black or white. It’s fundamentally the left hemisphere stuff,” Fines said.

One of the most significant parts of the program for job-seekers and new employees like Chemis, Hart and Goldstein was a change in the typical interview process. Technology and engineering interview processes can be “hardcore” and weed out people with communication issues, employees have said.

Interviewees spend two weeks socializing and talking with hiring managers in an informal setting. The formal interviews come at the end, and PROVAIL staff members act as a job coach during the process.

“With the traditional interview process, I felt like I was needing to hide the fact that I have a disability because I was afraid that they were going to discriminate against me for it,” Microsoft employee Katherine Hart said.

Not everyone who interviews is hired — only about half of the candidates ultimately become employees. Chemis had been turned down and was working with PROVAIL to find another job when Microsoft later contacted him about an open position.

Even those who are able to get jobs can struggle within a more traditional work environment, like former Houston Chronicle content director and current MSN Executive Producer Dean Betz. Before being diagnosed six years ago and joining Microsoft, he had what he called “some great successes and flameouts” at various jobs.

“As a matter of fact, I was on layoff from a job because of behavioral issues that I learned later were because of autism when I heard from a Microsoft recruiter,” Betz said.

There is still a lot of work to be done, Betz said. There’s no compiled data available on how programs like this do at retaining autistic employees, and most of the jobs available are in the engineering and computer science fields.

But, the program has assauged some people’s doubts about having a meaningful career. When asked what they would tell their younger selves, Chemis, Goldstein and Hart all said that they would pass on messages of encouragement and tell themselves that it gets better.

Anyone interested in the autism hiring program can contact msautism@microsoft.com.

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