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How Can Defective Coders Produce Better Work
[Image: 3062835-poster-p-1-microsoft-you-belong-here.jpg]

The day before Blake Adickman was scheduled to start interviewing at Microsoft last spring, he called his parents and kept them on the phone as he walked from his hotel to the building where his meetings were set to take place. His parents, back in Boca Raton, Florida, zoomed in on Redmond, Washington, on Google Maps and followed along. When he arrived at the building, he took a photo of its entrance and texted it to them. Then he turned around and retraced his steps to his hotel.
Adickman is autistic. He is 26 years old, with a full beard and a broad-shouldered build, but his affect—chatty, guileless, and eager to please—makes him seem younger than his age. One of the features of his autism is that he gets frazzled by unfamiliar experiences, and the practice walk to Microsoft was meant to try to diminish the newness of his surroundings. This was one of the most important moments of his life, and he didn’t want to mess it up.
In the past, Adickman had never disclosed his autism when he applied for jobs. Once, a manager had berated him for making a list of tasks on his phone instead of in handwriting, and he’d wanted to explain why he preferred typing to writing: a quirk in fine motor skills, associated with autism, that made for messy penmanship. "I have hypermobility," he’d blurted. "I don’t care what you have," his manager had replied. He would soon quit.
Adickman and millions of adults with autism often find themselves in a difficult bind. They struggle to get and keep jobs because of the disability, but if they disclose it so they can seek accommodations while applying or working—just as someone in a wheelchair, for instance, might request a ramp—they risk facing discrimination from managers or colleagues who mistakenly believe autism, because it affects the brain, must make them less able workers.
This time, though, was supposed to be different.
Normally, when someone applies for a job at Microsoft and gets through the early stages of consideration—the resume screening, the phone interview, maybe a homework assignment to assess their skills—they’re brought on campus for a day of intense back-to-back interviews with managers, where they’re quizzed about their experience and, if they’re applying for a technical position, asked to work out problems on the fly. But Microsoft had brought Adickman and 16 others to join the third cohort in a year-old program crafted especially for autistic applicants.
The program, which began in May 2015, does away with the typical interview approach, instead inviting candidates to hang out on campus for two weeks and work on projects while being observed and casually meeting managers who might be interested in hiring them. Only at the end of this stage do more formal interviews take place.
The goal is to create a situation that is better suited to autistic people’s styles of communicating and thinking. Microsoft isn’t the first to attempt something like this: The German software firm SAP, among a handful of others, have similar programs—but Microsoft is the highest-profile company to have gone public with its efforts, and autistic adults are hoping it will spark a broader movement.
What’s unorthodox about this, of course, isn’t just its setup. It also represents a novel, and potentially fraught, expansion of the idea of diversity. The impulse to hire more autistic employees is based on the same premise as hiring, say, women and people of color: Doing so not only welcomes in a wider range of creative and analytical talent, but brings more varied perspectives into an organization, and makes for a workforce that better reflects the general population of customers.
And yet, being autistic is considered a brain disorder, and it affects the way people process and communicate information—skills that are at the core of many white-collar professions. Adickman and his cohort were, in a sense, subjects in the third iteration of an ambitious experiment. Could the third-largest corporation in the world make the case that hiring and employing autistic people, with all their social and intellectual quirks, was good, not bad, for business?

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