By Maitane Sardon 

Before landing his dream job as a data scientist at Microsoft Corp., Joey Chemis, who holds degrees in comprehensive math, discrete math and algorithms and statistics, had a hard time finding a job.

"I worked in mostly minimum-wage jobs postcollege like Yogurtland and Pizza Hut, and while they were paying the bills, I didn't feel fulfilled, " says the 32-year-old Mr. Chemis.

Out of the hundreds of applications Mr. Chemis submitted online, some led to phone interviews. But he would never get past the initial phone screening despite his academic pedigree.

Mr. Chemis has autism spectrum disorder, a condition that tends to affect a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. During interviews, people with autism can experience anxiety, which may lead them to freeze up and struggle to share ideas and communicate their knowledge.

"Autism gives me superpowers where I can be hyperfocused on something and, for example, get three degrees in math, but I find certain interview processes nerve-racking," says Mr. Chemis.

Feeling discouraged, Mr. Chemis turned to the autism pages on Facebook to ask if anyone knew of companies that had special hiring programs for people with the condition. Most of the responses pointed to the same company: Microsoft.

"We realized candidates with autism don't get through the initial phone screen because they may have yes or no answers or they may not elaborate on other skills," says Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring at the Redmond, Wash.-based company. So in 2015 Microsoft decided to launch an autism hiring program that included adapting its hiring process to the specific needs of people with the condition.

The changes include allowing candidates with autism to apply via a special email and skip the initial phone screening. The company also gives such candidates a chance to do a practice interview and get feedback from recruiters before doing the official one. And finally, Microsoft allows them to code using their own laptops instead of doing it on a whiteboard in front of recruiters and other candidates, which people with autism have said makes them feel very nervous.

"The process allowed me to showcase some of my skills and abilities in a way that I don't think would have been well-received in a technical interview where, for example, I have to whiteboard," says Mr. Chemis, who has been at Microsoft for almost four years now and recently got promoted to data scientist II.

Experts say individuals with autism tend to have strong skills in specific areas and, when they develop an interest in a subject, can become so knowledgeable about it that they may end up outperforming their peers.

"People with autism are good at problem solving, coding, they have strong attention to detail," says Mr. Barnett. "Those problem-solving skills are very important at Microsoft."

Since the launch of the autism hiring program, Mr. Barnett says some of the procedures -- such as allowing candidates to code on their own laptops -- have been adapted by hiring managers in other parts of the company and outside Microsoft too, thanks to Autism @ Work, a coalition Microsoft co-founded with SAP SE, Ernst & Young and JP Morgan Chase & Co. to help other employers put similar programs in place.

Microsoft has hired over 100 employees with autism across different teams through its program. They hold various positions including software engineer, data scientist, content writer and finance-team member.

Mr. Chemis says once people with autism are given the opportunity to shine in an interview process that is tailored to their needs and hired, they aren't treated differently from other employees. That, he says, is one of the reasons he loves working at Microsoft.

"My colleagues have realized I am a normal guy. I am quirky and nerdy like the rest of them and, while I am happy to disclose the fact that I have autism, I don't want to let the autism define me," Mr. Chemis says.

Ms. Sardon is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Barcelona. Email her at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 26, 2019 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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