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Microsoft Autism Hiring Program aims to attract diverse talent

A company can easily overlook the needs of a minority population in a quest to serve the majority. Sadly, that's the course many companies have taken over the years. When external or internal pressures reach a certain point, however, companies sometimes begin to bend to the will of an underserved population.

This is sometimes seen in how accessibility options are tacked onto a "finished" product to accommodate a particular population for whom the product was initially unusable. Or how hiring practices shift to become more inclusive. Microsoft isn't exempt from this experience. But under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, inclusivity is a priority for Microsoft's product development and hiring practices. Nadella said as much during Microsoft's Ignite conference:

We want technology to provide new levels of inclusiveness, in fact, I'm most excited about accessibility.

Microsoft is pursuing this goal by aggressively seeking to include individuals with disabilities in its workforce, particularly in the area of autism. This inclusion allows the company to bring a depth of empathy to its products that it might not otherwise be able to achieve. In 2015, one year after Nadella became CEO, Microsoft initiated the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program (opens in new tab). Nadella's personal experiences with raising a son with severe Cerebral Palsy, has no doubt influenced his empathy for the employment and accessibility challenges people with disabilities face.

The challenges of Autism

Joe Chemis shares his experience as a person with autism working for Microsoft.

Autism Spectrum Disorder includes a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social interactions, speech, repetitive behaviors, and non-verbal communication. Individuals with autism also have unique strengths and differences in specific areas where they may excel in a given discipline.

Sadly, the skills these people possess, which could make them an asset to a company, are often overlooked. Their particular talents are sometimes not seen as valuable enough to offset the social awkwardness they may also present.

This is a challenge companies that hope to incorporate a more diverse workforce must proactively work to overcome. The transforming of traditional interviewing models, which hold social skills in high regard, must occur so the unique abilities of people with autism can shine. Microsoft has taken the initiative to address this challenge by creating the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program.

What is the Microsoft Autism Hiring Program?

The Microsoft Autism Hiring Program started in 2015 and "is a multiple-day hands-on academy that focuses on workability, team projects, and skills assessment." During the event, individuals showcase their abilities, meet hiring managers and teams, and learn about Microsoft.

The program is unique in that it allows candidates with autism to circumvent the social skills barriers that would otherwise overshadow their talents. Microsoft has succeeded in hiring software, service, build and lab engineers as well as data analysts and scientists, through the program. Though there are many positions within Microsoft where a person with autism could thrive, the company has found most have found success in those areas.

This year's Autism Hiring Cohort will be October 23 through October 27.

Microsoft is serious about hiring people with autism and other disabilities. It's an integral part of its mission of inclusion from employment, product creation and accessibility. To that end, the company is hosting an Autism Hiring Cohort from October 23 through October 27 this year and January 22 through January 26 in 2018.

Normalizing inclusion

Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide operations.

Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide operations.

We've made progress as a society in that we're moving away from institutionalizing people with certain disabilities and including them in mainstream society. Microsoft's push to include people with autism and other disabilities as a part of the teams that create the products we all use is commendable. Still, there is more work to do.

Mary Ellen Smith, Microsoft's corporate vice president of worldwide operations, stressed the benefits of having people with disabilities as part of the company. She noted that people are looking for a company that reflects humanity.

Of the one billion people with disabilities, one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls in the U.S have autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nadella said in a company email{.nofollow}:

By hiring people of all abilities into Microsoft, we will build an employee base that reflects the external customer base where 1 billion+ have disabilities.

Initiatives like Microsoft's Autism Hiring Program are a big step toward making that a reality. The ultimate goal, however, is to encourage a systemic change that will negate the need for a "program" to promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities. I think Smith put it best:

My hope for the future is that we won't see this as a program, but instead a natural way of recruiting key talent in our organizations.

Perhaps we should all have this hope.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

33 Comments
  • 10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000  Thumbs up for microsoft!!!!!!!! My son has autism.  Never know..he may be working at MS in the future!  thank you MS for this!
  • I applied to the MS Autism program last year. I made it past the phone interview, and then there was an online assessment test. After that, the next step is that if you're selected, you spend a week in Redmond doing the "interviews" that most people do all in one day, along with other activities. The "interviews" are much less formal, and there are activities that you do with the other candidates. I didn't make it past the assessment test. Having a couple friends who work at MS, and one who is an autist who used to work at MS, I've since learned that they pretty much don't hire anyone without a bachelor's degree. That may be why they passed me over. They continue to send me information, including the fact that there is an upcoming virtual job fair for people who are in their pool.  I didn't apply this year, because I'm still 7 classes away from my BS in CS, so I'll start looking again at applying next spring when I'm closer to graduating (which should be at the end of the summer). I wish your son well!
  • My little princess has autism. MS should offer her a position to improve their Maps app because she's a human GPS. Thank you Microsoft for the CHANCE.
  • Absolutely love this story! Likewise my son has Autism and who knows, he could be working side-by-side with other wonderful people with disabilities!
  • This is great, I'm sure they can find tons for them to do....cleaning, re-arranging and setting up computers, keeping inventory.....you know easy stuff. Its not like they will be doing programming, or application design of any kind....
  • Wow, you have absolutely no idea how autism works, do you? I know a few young adults with Autism that are excellent programmers. To clear the air, ASD does not necessarily =/= low IQ. In fact, a lot of people on ASD tend to have a near genius apititude in at least one of the STEM fields.
  • Why not? It has been suspected for years that Bill Gates may have Asperger's, a form of Autism. And yet, he was part of development, application design, etc. If a person is able to do the job and do it well, then should they be disqualified because they have Autism?
  • That's a completely inappropriate DSR11 comment. And if you bothered to read the text you would see that most of them are hired as "software, service, build and lab engineers as well as data analysts and scientists."
    The embedded videos along with the text might help to enlighten you to the scope of the contributions people are capable of making. Please take the time to read the text and watch the videos.
  • It's sad that someone who wrote such a forward thinking article is backward enough to be unable to comprehend an obvious joke. The commentor that you replied to was clearly making a social commentary on the average view of an uneducated person. Not everything is meant to be taken literally, especially by the ones portraying themselves as the intelligent.
  • And that was so funny though. Haha lets laugh !!!
  • I think that kind of manual work is best left to the more mundane neurotypicals, such as yourself.
  • @DSR11,  you are a *******...my son is a million times smarter than you...and a much better human being as well you peice of ****.
  • DSR - You're a complete idiot.
  • I'm autistic. Only two percent of the population has a higher IQ than I do. If you read the article and watched the videos, you might actually learn something about those of us that you just tried your best to insult. We have a lot more to offer than cleaning bathrooms and setting up computers. Sadly, despite this, 80% of us are unemployed or underemployed, because we can't get a chance to prove it.
  • Oh look, here come the anti-PC troll police to protect and defend his right to be an *******. Cool. 🙄 How's life as an involuntary celibate treating you, jackass?
  • Great as this is on the face, and MS are generally one of the better tech companies when it comes to accessibility, getting people with autism into the information technology field strikes me as somewhat akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
  • Long time MS fan here.  Having finally given up on WP and switched to Android, I'm a little down on MS right now.  However, this earns a whole lot of redemption.  I have no doubt that Microsoft and their employees will benefit greatly by providing disabled people with opportunities to show what they can do.  Kudos to MS and Satya!
  • My son also has autism. It's great to see companies that provide opportunities for individuals who have plenty to offer.
  • My nephew also has autism and this is definitely great news if they really end up implementing the program.👍
  • Hi Mantrix thanks for the response. I hope you had a chance to read the piece. The program was implemented in 2015 and is in full swing!😃 The company has already hired many people with autism serving in primarily positions as engineers and analysts! The next Autism Cohort that is Oct 23 -Oct 27 (or if not) spread the word. There are proven opportunities available!
  • Thanks for spreading the word, Jason. BTW, it is undoubtedly too late for the October cohort, as last year I was testing more than a month in advance of it, and this one is next week - but the article stated that there is one coming up in January. It's great to see them expanding it!
  • Thanks for the article Jason! Have a great weekend 😊
  • Mantrix, they have definitely implemented it. I went through the screening process last year, and while I didn't make it to the cohort, I suspect that is because I don't yet have my bachelor's degree (7 more classes). I have several friends who do or have worked at Microsoft, and they all agree that you pretty much can't get in without a bachelor's. But yes - definitely tell your nephew about the program!
  • Thanks guys! I'm glad to hear from first-hand sources that the program is in full swing!
  • Go Microsoft! This is incredible!!
  • As someone with autism I do have slight reservations as it appears to focus on a stereotype of autism which is quite discriminatory. I like tech, I wouldn't be here if I didnt but I have very little affinity or natural talent in the field. I also wasn't diagnosed until a few years ago. A lot of people with autism lack the tools to navigate social settings and interactions. This causes considerable anxiety and distress and leads many autistics to exclude themselves from social activities. Technology provides a safe space with easier understood rules. Also because autistics tend to fixate on one hobby we dedicate more time and energy into mastering it. These conditions led to my parents, teachers and everyone else deciding I should go into IT. I actually got accepted into university to do a journalism degree but my father convinced me to get an IT apprenticeship and I ended up on an apprenticeship in a PC store. Throughout my career I've always been going between customer service (because I love helping people) and IT/Finance (because I'm good at it). What I noticed was that people always pushed me to IT and Finance or any job that I worked on my own. Yes I was good at it but I never enjoyed it and I never gained that job satisfaction. I earned three times as much processing invoices than I did when I was doing bar work but if I could afford to I'd happily go back to bar work. Since getting diagnosed I was able to spend more time on self awareness courses and understanding me and my condition better. A little over a year later I got promoted to a team leader position. During my application I scored the highest marks for developing others. It's not been an easy ride and I'm still honing my empathy skills but I finally have job satisfaction. I'm helping people develop and I've helped "normal" people get promoted. I have finally gained job satisfaction. I understand Microsoft is primarily a software and digital services company but it has a wealth of departments that aren't software or hardware based. Focusing the scheme on just the engineering side is pigeon holeing regardless of how well intentioned it is. In fact its not dissimilar to pushing young black men into sports or rap music, women into reception work or gay people into fashion. It's limiting the choice offered to a person based on your perception of their traits and not on that person's skillset.   
  • Well said.
  • Good job Microsoft. :D 
  • I think it's great that Microsoft openly recongnizes that different people with different thought processes and perspectives are not only useful but even required to succeed in different areas,  And along with that, an individuals particular characteristics/needs/behaviors should be evaulated in the context of their roles.  Great. That said... if we're going to define "autism" as "characterized by challenges with social interactions, speech, repetitive behaviors, and non-verbal communication" then Microsoft already (anthropomorphically) has just about the most "autistic" corporate culture I can think of. I've always thought of Microsoft as a company that has really brilliant people coming up with great ideas, constantly resetting/refreshing, that never quite translates into widespread success.  Maybe Microsoft also needs a program to hire "normies" into positions where they can guide dev efforts and products into end results that resonate with end users.
  • This is awesome news, however there are many forms of handicable abilities that Microsoft must keep an open mind, I hope other companies follow suit. I refuse to call them disabilities because that pigeon holes handicapable people, who in my opinion are the most strong willed and most resiliant people you will ever come across. They deserve all the opportunities and chances that are enjoyed by people that do not have to contend with the stigma associated handicability. These are the trends Microsoft should be setting.
  • Or you know... Just hire based on merit.
  • Why is autism considered a disability?
  • It impedes one's ability to live a normal day to day life without some additional support or strategies. For example: one person with autism may not b able to go certain places or join into certain activities because it may cause them sensory overload. This could be helped with noise cancelling headphones or sunglasses in some people, others may not even be able to leave the house without severe emotional stress or losing complete control of their emotions.
    Some people with autism may find it impossible to do things that aren't part of their own routine. Some have motor skill problems, they may not even be able to write or dress as easily as others. Some have memory problems and may struggle with simple maths or taking medication at the right times and not overdosing. They may also need support communicating certain things if they are to work or if they want to, for example, see their GP.