A few months into joining Microsoft I started volunteering with the Neurodiversity Hiring Program (previously Autism Hiring Program) as a community mentor. I grew up with a lot of family & friends on the autism spectrum and I thought this was a unique part of Microsoft I could make an impact on.
Since joining the community mentor program I've worked with two software engineers that work in the Office 365 and Dynamics 365. My favorite part about these relationships is getting to learn more about different technologies and product groups within Microsoft.
I'm a firm believer that all mentor/mentee relationships should be bidirectional. As good as it makes me feel to help someone along in the early parts of their career, I learn a lot about technology & leadership by forming connections with people I'd otherwise probably never meet.
Interviewing & Hiring is Broken
When a candidate comes through the Neurodiveristy Hiring Program, they don't go through the same hiring steps that most folks go through. This program is more accommodating of various disabilities and is designed to be more inclusive. Interviewers are given specific training and the interviews themselves are longer and spread out.
When I was in college, I was diagnosed with ADHD and was provided with testing accommodations. I was given twice as long to complete my exams, and I quickly went from failing grades to passing grades! I also struggle with the 45-minute technical interview format. After you're hired, the 45-minute format really means nothing; it tests a narrow set of skills that neurodiverse people tend to struggle with.
If your interview & hiring loops depend on this subset of skills, you're only ever going to get a subset of the qualified population. A lot of people I talk to have said they feel like "[they] tricked Microsoft into hiring [them]." There's a guilt associated with the fact they came in via a non-conventional path. My answer to that is: hiring is broken, and companies are starting to realize it.
Microsoft and many other companies have overlooked thousands of qualified individuals because they failed to meet an arbitrary objective. Good companies are starting to make progress towards inclusive hiring, and I think that we will start to see that trickle down to smaller companies as well.
It's Not About the Diagnosis
Before 2021 I was in a bowling league with some friends, and I was talking to them about the NDHP. One, who also works at Microsoft, mentioned being in the office one day and being introduced to an engineer with "Hey! This is [engineer], our Autism Hiring Program hire." He and I both exchanged the same cringe as he told the story.
When most people hear the word "autism" they have a lot of preconceived notions about what someone with autism is like. In my first mentorship, I realized we never actually said the word "autism" until... maybe 8 or 9 months in?
Our conversations around the first few months were centered around:
- understanding the rhythm of a delivery team (code reviews, etc.)
- not accidentally making committments to stakeholders
- diving into the existing codebases & changing team culture
Sometimes they would mention that they thought they might've irritated a coworker or had questions about what conversations should be brought to a manager. None of these topics are unique to someone hired through the NDHP, they're all endemic of someone who is early in their career at Microsoft.
When I met my second mentee, they'd just joined from a previous company and because of the pandemic the job transition was remote-work to remote-work. They also joined around the holidays so there weren't many people in the office to support the onboarding.
Most of our early conversations were about:
- struggling to onboard in a fully remote environment
- feeling unproductive for weeks after starting the job
- whether Microsoft would support full-time remote work
- buying real estate outside of the Redmond area where it's cheaper
Again, none of these conversations are unique to someone being hired via the NDHP. I always tell my mentees that my job is to make them a good Microsoft citizen. I'll breakdown some of the jargon, talk about leveling & promotions, and advise on conversations they can have with their team and leadership.
As a mentor, I'm fully removed from their day-to-day lives. I have 0 contact with people on their teams or their managers. In fact, once introductions are made I don't talk to anyone else but them. I'm a sounding board for different ideas and a pillar of support they don't get on their teams.
The NDHP is just the catalyst for our relationship, and depending on the person it's a useful piece of context; but the diagnosis really takes a back seat to the rest of their day-to-day experience as a Microsoft employee, and being my mentee.
Mentorship Goes Both Ways
I've learned a lot being a mentor. Every time I meet with one of my mentees I learn something new. I always ask about the work they're doing and how their teams operate; it's great for me to learn about the different tools and technologies that exist within the company as well as the engineering methodologies teams use to ship products.
I consider myself a fairly technical person, but one of my mentees never strays away from diving really deep into technical discussions. One conversation I distinctly remember was learning more about some of the struggles engineers in the Office team had because of Visual Studio's 32-bit limitation. This was useful information to have when I saw the update about Visual Studio 2022's announcement that there will be a 64-bit executable.
I will continue to find different avenues to meet folks, but I've really enjoyed working with the folks at the Neurodiversity Hiring Program and plan to support them and the hires that come through this amazing program.