back to article Microsoft hits the gas in drive to recruit autistic techies

Getting a job if you're on the autistic spectrum can be hard, but Microsoft is keen to hire people with the disorder for its workforce. Last April, Redmond's VP of worldwide operations Mary Ellen Smith announced a plan to seek out IT-savvy autistic workers. In the eight months since it started, nearly a dozen employees have …

  1. fortran

    If only it wasn't M$

    At least some employers are starting. I'm good at computers, but I am good with lots of tools. Computers are just another one. I'm looking for that open minded employer in Materials Science and Engineering. Or that uses Materials Science and Engineering professionals.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: If only it wasn't M$

      There are two aspects to it.

      The first one, which is catering to people with disabilities - that is definitely positive.

      The second one - there is social aspect to software. Somebody needs to understand your code, somebody needs to support it, it needs to be documented and you need to be able to handle bug reports and interact with other links in the software development chain. If we assume that the target is core software development, that means requirements, documentation, testing, QA and release teams. For every severely anti-social developer you need the time of someone with "Special Needs Teaching Assistant" skills to handle the fallout and the fallout quite often is at thermonuclear levels.

      I have a couple of friends who specialize in dealing with that and I have heard quite a few horror stories.

      We have VCs/Entrepreneurs in the area who hire autistic brilliant people because they can abuse their social ineptitude to extract brilliant code while paying them a fraction of their worth. Once these Leeches sell the company, someone needs to come and clean up the mess and the mess is all the same every time: software that nobody can understand besides a couple of people who cannot explain due to being off the scale on the A spectrum; software that cannot be released; complete breakdown between development, QA, release and test, etc.

      That is, of course, if the A spectrum is not dealt with at first and allowing for A in hiring is less that 1% of the resource required. You have to allow for the remaining 99%. If Microsoft is doing that - KUDOS. If not, this experiment will end in tears one day later down the road.+

      1. Roq D. Kasba

        Re: If only it wasn't M$

        I worked for MS for a while, there are actually already a lot of people on the scale already there, most without formal diagnoses but certainly symptomatically in that space. And generally people get on. The atmosphere is already one of the most embracing companies for geekery, and this is a pretty pragmatic view.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: If only it wasn't M$ @ Voland's right hand

        I agree with your post but wish to qualify the nature of the problem with social skills, what you really mean is within the western work place.

        Japan for example has a much higher level of what is seen as "autistic" per head of population and yet they are able to integrate their own "suffers" without having to also recruit "special needs assistants" to interface with the normal world, perhaps the problem is in the western workplace and associated behavioral norms.

        Here the emphasis is very much on being able to replace individual employees at a moments notice and that means little room for anything that is not understandable by what we call normal employees.

        The old idiot/savant idea where what we now call autistic used to be much more tolerant especially when the high level savants were recognised as being a asset rather than sick and having special needs.

        Lets be real for a moment, the "normal" majority of the population actually invent very little, the best "normals" can follow the work of innovators from the past and discover things by accident but true invention comes from people who are not "normal". True invention requires you to see the world in a different way, normal people only see what is normal i.e. already commonplace

        Perhaps if you want invention then the cost of having a different social system in the work place is worth it

  2. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. Crazy Operations Guy

    Um, this is ridiculously illegal

    The Americans With Disabilities Act prevents an employer from asking about disabilities until after the person is hired, and only then, if the disability would prevent them from doing their job. The act also strictly forbids a company from making any hiring decisions based on a person's disability.

    Beside, autism =/= genius. The rate of people with above average intelligence is no different between those with and those without autism. Autism doesn't affect intelligence, it is merely a lack of ability to automatically filter actions based on the social consequence of those actions. An affect that can be replicated with supportive supervisors and bosses.

    What would also allow them to gain better perspectives would be to fix their hiring practices. They seem to prioritize candidates the same way that many, many other companies do:

    1) Americans with Advanced degrees

    2) Foreigners with advanced degrees

    3) Offshore Contractors

    99) People without a degree but are otherwise brilliant

    I ran an experiment a few years back with a local tech company where I applied for two different job postings (Same exact job, but different group). One of my resumes included only my experience and no degree listed; the other was missing a lot of relevant experience but did list a Bachelor's of Arts degree from one of those crap safety schools in the mid-west. Guess which one I got called back for?

    1. JDX Gold badge

      Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

      Yeah, it's awful that they're actively seeking out disabled people to pay them a lot of money.

      1. Crazy Operations Guy

        Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

        There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving jobs to the disabled, but we shouldn't be giving people jobs -because- they are disabled. Especially since doing things like this dehumanizes the person and in the eyes if the employer, the become nothing more than their disability (It becomes 'we hired and autistic!' not 'We hired a person that happens to have autism')

        1. Trigonoceps occipitalis Silver badge

          Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

          " ... but we shouldn't be giving people jobs -because- they are disabled."

          I think the point is that they are trying to recruit better programers and, in this context, they are anything but disabled.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

            I think the point is that they are trying to recruit better programers and, in this context, they are anything but disabled.

            I think you've hit it on the head with "context". While I agree it is a good thing, I'm on the fence here. Anyone remember "affirmative action"? Where perfectly good candidates were ignored because they didn't fit the "affirmative part"? There was no context in finding the "best" only to fill the quota. The ADA law was enacted to counter that on the basis of disability not race... but it doesn't consider the opposite. What if a company needs a specific characteristic? Or that a certain disability can perform the job better? Is this reverse discrimination? I'd like to think not but then, there's a lot of narrowly focused groups who only focus on what the law says and nothing else.

        2. d3vy

          Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

          "There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving jobs to the disabled, but we shouldn't be giving people jobs -because- they are disabled. Especially since doing things like this dehumanizes the person and in the eyes if the employer, the become nothing more than their disability (It becomes 'we hired and autistic!' not 'We hired a person that happens to have autism')"

          Isnt this exactly what they are doing? The article does say that they have a different selection process for people on the spectrum - but there is still a process, people will still be rejected/hired based on their merits.

          This system simply changes the way that people prove themselves able to work - rather than sitting through exams and face to face interviews if you are on the spectrum you can attend a series of events geared to establishing your skills in a more formal environment (better suited to people on the spectrum)

          If you compare people with ASD to people with a more obvious physical disability - say someone who communicates via sign - would you expect them to go through your normal interview process without changing it? No you would make concessions to allow you to asses them based on their skills rather than the way that they communicate.

          1. h4rm0ny

            Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

            Can anyone go on this improved selection process? It sounds like they take extended periods of time to get to know you and assess you. That sounds advantageous.

            1. d3vy

              Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

              "Can anyone go on this improved selection process? It sounds like they take extended periods of time to get to know you and assess you. That sounds advantageous"

              Good question - I would much proffer the ASD process.

    2. fortran

      Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

      As near as I can tell, you are correct. As the laws in most "western" countries stand, this is illegal. Somehow a hodge podge of rules were assembled which seem to do a reasonable job at making it more difficult to discriminate against major and minor elements of society. But it seems that the only way to reduce discrimination against some socially "disabled" people is to have prior knowledge. And as near as I can tell, the characterization of how many people like this are employable, is that they are trace (not major, not minor). And being a trace element of society, they will never have the economic or political power to get attention from government.

      When I've had jobs, I seem able to work with my fellow employees reasonably well. There are some problems, but I don't think that is unusual. My problem is with the hiring process itself. Process and rules of thumb used to process applications make assumptions about me, which do not give me a fair chance.

      Before people think I am just whinging. I didn't know I was on the spectrum until I had already been in the workforce for about 20 years. And I tried for about another 10 years to find employment knowing that I was on the spectrum, but not saying anything to employers. It doesn't work. Potential employers have to know, in order to give me a chance.

      The alternative is a complete rewrite of the hiring API and libraries. Something we've hacked together since the Industrial age began.

      It really should be rewritten anyway, but it would be expensive.

      1. subanark

        Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

        The hiring was done using a workshop sponsored by Microsoft and paid for by the government agency DVR (disability vocational rehabilitation). The workshop then helped place the people in the Microsoft jobs. This I believe got around any of the legal issues.

        I was part of the piolet program who also got a job along with Kyle, Katie, Cody, and Michael. Since then Microsoft has held another such workshop and hired another batch of people (from a wider geographical range) on the autism spectrum.

        For me this workshop was a blessing. I was about a couple of weeks from getting fired from Amazon for lack of leadership skills, and this workshop was perfectly timed to help me get this job. I had previously done 4 other interviews with none of the panning out. The only one who mentioned a reason was: "Hiring manager said you lacked the ability to handle conflict." The others I can only assume were turned off by my weirdness.

    3. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

      I ran an experiment a few years back with a local tech company where I applied for two different job postings

      My dad used to say: "Your university diploma is NOT a document certifying what you have learned. It is a document which certifies your ability to learn in a structured manner and deliver the product of this learning by a specified deadline".

      1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

        Re: My dad used to say

        Your diploma also certifies that in most of the tests you had to pass, you provided the answer the examiner wanted to hear.

        (Seriously, we had two or three profs who were easily 30 years behind the times. In their tests, quite a lot of the "right" answers were actually factually wrong because they were way past the "best before" date. Not that difficult once you've realised this, but certainly a nuisance.)

        P.S.: boils down to what my driving instructor said - "Remember, all the license says is thay you are allowed to drive. It doesn't say that you can drive."

    4. Miles Dyson

      Re: Um, this is ridiculously illegal

      Um, you have no idea what you are talking about. Were they saying, "you must have autism to work here" then they would be in trouble, but they are not doing that. They are not requesting any potential hires to state their disability; they are opening additional, optional interview paths that might be less biased against disabled. Autistic people are welcome to go through the standard hiring procedures and not mention their disability. It's not like existence of a wheelchair ramp forbids you from struggling up the stairs if that's what you really want to do.

      Also, everyone knows that autistic people are not all genius, and you are either being disingenuous (or stupid?) to imply that Microsoft is not aware of this. They are merely broadening their hiring pool by removing some of the arbitrary, and therefore ultimately inefficient, ways that potentially useful hires are eliminated by routine interview procedures.

  4. h4rm0ny

    Stereotypes for the win!

    I have worked in some big companies with many excellent programmers. (Yes, I'm old enough to call them programmers rather than developers). Most of them were very talented, a handful of them were staggeringly so. Of these very gifted people, related to those I would call socially impaired, I saw zero positive correlation. I can recall one person who had noticeable trouble relating to people and was very gifted, I recall more who were equally gifted and well-adjusted and often pretty confident and funny. There are plenty of people with the stereotypical Asperger's personality who are not super gifted. Most of them, in fact, just like everyone else. I've worked with people with average skills at best who thought they were some sort of genius hacker because they had a beard and were rude. And of course there are people with that personality type who aren't very bright at all. You used to be able to find them on the train station platforms taking down the numbers of trains. Though you can't get onto a platform without a ticket these days so they must have gone somewhere else. Probably playing WoW, I would guess as an easy way to fill their need for collecting numbers in a way they can handle.

    I don't know why or how this stereotype propagates so widely. I'm equally torn between blaming American TV and movies where you can't escape socially disadvantaged IT wunderkind and pretty or handsome jocks / cheerleaders who think their mouse is a foot pedal. Or blaming computer games et al. where game balance demands that if you're good at smart stuff, you're bad at physical stuff; or at least something like this idea that human beings are created with X number of points to divide amongst all the things they want to do.

    Reality, and people, don't work that way. If you're unpopular and unhappy, you're probably going to do less well at school and university - that's statistics. Feeling excluded and depressed makes you worse at things. If you're smart and well-educated, well you're probably going take better care of yourself, be fitter, more confident and get on better with people.

    Of COURSE there are people who don't fit the above - because not fitting into categories is what people do. The above isn't a claim that you don't get anti-social geniuses. But unfortunately, trying to fit other people into categories when it's not useful is also something that people do. And thus we get weird stereotypes like this.

    I'm not even convinced Asperger's is really a "thing". We've always had such people and they used to just be socially maladjusted, that's all. And often times, it worked itself out - they were just a little behind the social learning curve for one reason or another. I know people who were like this at school but as adults are normal and socially confident. I think if anything, slapping a label on them and telling them they had a medical diagnosis of a social impairment would have done far more harm than good, imho. But lets create more classifications for people. Because since when was that ever not a great thing to do... :/

    1. Chairo

      Re: Stereotypes for the win!

      @ h4rm0ny

      Yes, I'm old enough to call them programmers rather than developers

      So for you this is a developer and this is a programmer, right?

    2. maffski

      Re: Stereotypes for the win!

      You shouldn't assume that because someone comes across as '... pretty confident and funny' in a business context they aren't 'on the spectrum'.

      When it's necessary for me to interact (especially in something like a business situation) I would probably come over the same. In reality it's because I've analysed previous meeting I've been involved with and have a 'plan of action' - this bit should have a couple of jokes so I look approachable, this bit should be serious, here I need to ask a few questions to show I'm thinking about the issues raised.

      However, in my personal life I will go miles out of the way to always use the same shops/petrol stations as I know the layout. I'll keep paying for services I don't need any more because the only way to cancel is a call centre and I would have to talk to someone.

      A good programmer strips away the superfluous and sees the underlying task for the pattern it takes, and then solves it the same way they solved that issue last time. And the time before. Good code is dull code.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: Stereotypes for the win!

        "and have a 'plan of action' - this bit should have a couple of jokes so I look approachable, this bit should be serious, here I need to ask a few questions to show I'm thinking about the issues raised."

        Errm, that's how it works for most people, I think are often disinterested and are going through the motions. Much social interaction is protocol based. Certainly making sure you have an input at a meeting, even it is pointless, so that the bellend manager types don't make idiot assumptions.

      2. h4rm0ny

        Re: Stereotypes for the win!

        >>"You shouldn't assume that because someone comes across as '... pretty confident and funny' in a business context they aren't 'on the spectrum'."

        I think I should, because if you're that far down the "spectrum", it's meaningless. In fact, this reminds me an old film Donnie Darko where the kid is told they have to place different scenarios on a line between "Fear<======>Love" and him going nuts at the teacher because "it's not a line". This whole notion of a "spectrum" is misleading, like much of science that gets the lay-person treatment. There's an autistic spectrum, certainly. It's a medical thing. It's made up of different components like most medical diagnoses that apply to behaviour. If someone is "well adjusted, pretty confident and funny" (lets NOT change my wording for the sake of your argument, by the way so I've re-added the omitted part), then they've shown they are socially capable in routine circumstances. And you know what? That's how pretty much everyone is.

        You say that you stick to the shops and petrol stations you know because you know the layout - you know what that is? Not Autism! It's at best a hang-up and everyone has some. I've known people who wont use toilets on a particular floor because the door is too far away from them to put their feet against if someone tried to enter, I've known people who wont write on the top line of a page, I've known people who need to check their front door is locked twice before they go out. None of these things place someone on a "spectrum". They're just minor social hang-ups and they're commonplace.

        Autism is a serious condition. People who seem to want to self-apply some label to their minor issues and claim it as a medical issue bother me. When you tell me you continue to pay for services you don't need because you'd have to call someone to cancel it, I honestly just want to tell you to woman up and deal with it. You don't deserve a disability diagnosis for that. Someone who has real autism, or is in a wheelchair, or is deaf - they have a disability.

        But honestly, this is getting off the point. The one I was making is that there isn't a correlation between social inability and being a good programmer. It's just an American TV show stereotype that some people take seriously. And I think part of that is because some people with social issues like it. I've known at least one person who played to it whether they were consciously doing so or otherwise. You think you're a Chinese Room (an old thought experiment you can look up) because you analyse a meeting before you go in and decide you need to tell some jokes at some point. That's basically called being a teenager. People go through that, working out approaches to small talk, etc. Eventually people naturalize it the same way they naturalize driving a car. It's not some special case that applies to you. It's what nearly everyone went through or is going through. The only people who never did that are children because they haven't reached the stage of externalizing their social behaviour, yet.

        >>"A good programmer strips away the superfluous and sees the underlying task for the pattern it takes, and then solves it the same way they solved that issue last time. And the time before. Good code is dull code."

        No. A good programmer learns to abstract, you got that part right. It's called requirements analysis. But good code is elegant not dull, and solving something the same you did before, and the time before that... This is not a sign of being a good programmer, it's a sign of lazy thinking. You solve it in the way that is appropriate to the current requirements with the latest best approaches and tools. Both requirements and tools are changing all the time. Your statement is one of the things I loathe about brining in personality issues to engineering. It's sticking a label on something and then bringing in baggage to an unrelated area based on that label. Imagination and rigour - these are the core elements of a good programmer and neither is related to social impairment.

    3. bailey86

      Re: Stereotypes for the win!

      It's a blight of our industry that others think that all socially inept A types are geniuses.

      I've come across a few A types who were incompetent - but used the obscurity of the tech to cover up their inadequacies as techies and who deliberately deceived management. Don't underestimate the willingness of some A types to be devious and disingenuous.

      I think there's an easy way to distinguish between any good programmers and poor ones - are they good at documentation? If you hear the 'self-documenting' nonsense then run a mile - if someone considers documentation as part of doing a good job then that's someone who can be part of a team.

      Of course, sometimes, management don't care about long term maintainability. In that case it's fine to have one person working on a project in any way they want. As long as management are prepared to pay for replacing the whole system if that one person leaves. I've been called into that sort of situation as well - and the options I presented were to replace whole system - or offer stupendous pay to get the one person back.

  5. g00se

    What about management?

    OTOH, they're looking for people high on the sociopathic spectrum for management. Qualities sought include:

    a. no empathy with customers or regard for their best interests and wishes

    b. a complete lack of conscience/remorse

    c. ability to view humans as merely potential profit centres and datamines


    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: What about management?

      no empathy with customers or staff


    2. Anonymous Coward

      Re: What about management?

      d. ability to throw chairs and sweat/swear profusely.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: What about management?

        d. ability to throw chairs and sweat/swear profusely

        A, b and c are quire typical of a person with issues in the social "department". That in most cases is a a requirement for management in a large company nowdays. If you are not a sociopath, you are not going to get very far.

        (D) is just someone having a bad day. We 've all done it one way or another.

    3. LDS Silver badge

      Re: What about management?

      No, these are a different kind of sociopathic you usually find in law and business schoolss. And they are fully capable of social interactions - to be able to exploit them.

  6. martinusher Silver badge

    Its not just MSFT

    I've got a friend who has an adult kid who's listed on this spectrum. He was recruited by a large software house in the Bay Area. It took a bit of time and testing to get the offer but the company treats him royally (they even have retained a service company to manage psychological and social issues -- its the next concierge thing after gourmet coffee and getting your dry cleaning done).

    I think the payback is more than just being about to check the 'diversity' boxes in whatever it is you check those boxes in. These people -- we used to know them as nerds -- are actually pretty good at the kind of focused work that software companies require.

    My gripe with this is that there was nothing remotely like this available "when I were a lad". I'm jealous. Its Not Fair. Etc. I don't know whether I'd be listed on the autism scale by today's standards but I certain was a bit nerdy when I was his age -- not really nerdy, just socially awkward -- but you learned to cope somehow, especially if you needed that job. (Now all that's left for me is to shuffle off stage muttering something under my breath about 'young whippersnappers'.....)

  7. x 7

    I think the bigger problem is not in finding the kids to hire, but rather in stopping them from crashing and burning due to internal office politics and relationships. Offices are bitchy places to work, and someone who has limited relationship skills is going to become an outcast very very quickly.

    1. MrDamage

      If you know one of these people

      Then simply direct them to the various BOFH stories, and provide them with links to places they can buy cattle prods, shovels, carpet rolls, and bags of quicklime.

      1. Roq D. Kasba

        Re: If you know one of these people

        As above, MS for all their faults, has quite a high spectrum count already, and bitchiness is corresponding lower than many companies as it's all about the tech.

  8. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    Better Idea

    Slurp would do better to hire competent programmers instead of blunderers. Having medical issues that fall under the ADA I am actually somewhat insulted that Slurp seems to care more about labels and categories than competence, but unfortunately not surprised. Competent people can be found with and without medical issues if you bother to look. I want to be judged on my competence and skills rather than making some PHB in HR have a feel good moment at my expense.

  9. tempemeaty

    Defective hiring practices by corporations in general?

    IMHO This just goes to show how the interview process in most companies is defective in the first place.

  10. JeffyPoooh

    Some evidence that they're already in charge of Windows 10

    10 PRINT "Please upgrade to Windows 10"

    20 PRINT "This machine isn't compatible."

    30 GOTO 10

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Some evidence that they're already in charge of Windows 10

      Actually, if they were W10 would the OS that everyone would be clamoring for and Slurp would be overwhelmed with the positive response. The problem with Slurp has to do with a lack of ethics and morals at the top. That is something that can not be fixed by this type of hiring program.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What about Tourette's?

    I'd like to work for those mother*&ˆ(**&ˆ*#%&#&*%ˆ*(&*(&(*!@#$Yˆ*(**

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm very surprised

    Autists would want to work at Microsoft. Some of the defining traits of this "disability" are that they can have a very rigid, linear and logical way of thinking.

    Anyone who has ever worked with a Microsoft product knows that they get most stuff completely backwards. I can only assume how hellish it must be to use for someone with autism.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Somebody at microsoft just watched Mr Robot on Netflix?

  14. Esme

    Get me a butterfly net, I want to go hunting bacon!

    Well, I never thought I'd say this of a company I loathe so much, but kudos to MS for that!

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Asset to the team

    Nearly 15 years ago we gave a chap with Aspergers a short term contract as part of the firms diversity drive. The day before he started HR gave us a talk about Aspergers and what to expect. When he joined we were amazed: he was great. A little obsessive about completing his programming tasks but that was no bad thing. After a short time it became apparent that he was more "normal" than most of us (well we were an InfoSec engineering team!). He was a good fit with good skills.

    Sadly when the his contract finished the firm chose not to renew it despite all of us technical people wanting him to stay. Senior management gave more weight to the Aspergers label attached to him than our opinion based on the experience of having worked with him for a few months.

  16. sandman

    It's a broad spectrum

    I was once asked by the father of an autistic university student if I could assist him with some work. The lad was very bright, cynical and had an evil sense of humour. His explanations of the social awkwardness, desire for routine and exactitude were fascinating. I felt almost flattered, albeit slightly worried, when he said to me. "I like you, you think like one of us". Well, as I said, it's a broad spectrum ;-)

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "HP has a specific system for hiring the autistic too"

    You could have fooled me. I told them I had Asperger's at the interview. For the next two years they treated me really badly. I couldn't do a thing right, got slapped down every time I applied for an internal vacancy and was told I wasn't competent. Two years of my life wasted - I achieved nothing and learnt nothing.

    Then I left.

  18. phil harris

    Well this is something that Honeywell will never do - they mindlessly pursue the goal of forcing one size/type of everything to fit all circumstances. As someone with some autistic tendencies (like a lot of engineers) I have a lot of trouble fitting into their very square holes.

    Whatever anyone posting thinks, this publicity is really good.

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