Making Autism work in the workplace
Steve Andrews is leveraging his personal and professional experience to create a workplace where Autistic people can thrive.
Single-minded. Likes routine. Avoids social situations. Candid.
These are just a few of the characteristics attributed to Autism. Now consider this: What if the qualities of Autistic people aren’t challenges to overcome but rather untapped opportunities? What if the very things that define Autism are actually superpowers that are in demand and scarce in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry?
That’s the out-of the-box thinking that led Steve Andrews to found Platinum Bay Technologies, a software products and services company created to successfully employ Autistic adults in software engineering careers at market salary and benefits.
Knowledge is power…and relief
Steve himself only discovered his Autism at the age of 33 after a lifetime spent feeling like a failure, despite being a successful software engineer and four-time Microsoft MVP Award recipient. Autism was a welcome answer to an unspoken question Steve had asked all his life, “What’s wrong with me?” Come to find out, nothing. His wiring is just different.
The relief was immense.
“It was profoundly transformational. I lived 33 years of my life feeling fundamentally broken. Despite my career and what I achieved, I always felt different. I had trouble making friends, I had trouble in the traditional workplace,” Steve says.
A few years before he was diagnosed, he started hearing more and more about Asperger’s and Autism. He read up on it and found that the characteristics described him to a T. He consistently scored high on online AQ (Autism Quotient) tests so he got professionally checked out. He walked in with a two-page list of his struggles. His self-diagnosis was confirmed.
It changed Steve’s whole perspective from feeling defective to having a brain that just worked differently. He learned that he was not alone, that there are others like him. His diagnosis helped with self-awareness, such as sensory issues, social struggles, and office politics. With a better understanding of his challenges, he could take steps to help mitigate them. Not only that, he could learn to leverage Autism’s considerable strengths, gifts and passions.
“I lived with crippling anxiety and, at times, severe depression and my diagnosis brought a level of self-kindness.”
Steve says that the four-and-a-half years since have been the best of his life.
Redefining the workplace so the neurodivergent can excel
Like the pre-flight instructions to put on your oxygen mask first, once he was able to take care of himself, Steve turned his attention toward assisting others. He did a deep dive into Autism research, reading books, articles and scientific publications.
One statistic stuck out. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 68 people today are Autistic. Of those, 80–85 percent are unemployed or underemployed.
Steve wondered, “What if I could combine my years of software engineering experience, a lifetime of being Autistic, and my extensive research to create a workplace where Autistic people can be successful?”
Turns out, he could and he did. In 2014, he created Platinum Bay Technologies.
“The tech industry talks about having trouble finding qualified tech people. This isn’t my problem. Through word of mouth, resumes are pouring in. I have a long list of people ready and excited to have an opportunity in a redesigned workplace with support systems in place explicitly and implicitly to support them.”
He’s not just hiring high-functioning people with Asperger’s. He’s looking at the entire range of Autism, including non-speaking individuals. Autistic people tend to have incredible cognitive abilities, such as high intelligence, attention to detail, intense focus, creative out-of-the-box problem-solving skills, honesty and loyalty. These are people companies should be hiring.
Revolutionizing the hiring process
With millions of neurodivergent people out there, Platinum Bay can’t hire every qualified Autistic coder. To that end, he’s committed to helping businesses change their own workplaces, starting with the hiring process.
He cites research that demonstrates that white board interviews don’t work. Applicants can often rock a resume or ace an interview but fall short when it comes to delivering high-quality code. And companies are ultimately looking for great employees, not great applicants.
“Autistic people may take longer to process questions or don’t look you in the eye but that doesn’t mean they aren’t highly capable.”
Steve has identified four areas where Autistic people struggle: sensory issues, social dynamics, office politics and executive function. To address these challenges, there are no physical offices at Platinum Bay. Everyone works remotely and there are no formal resumes or traditional interviews.
“I care about three things: Are you smart? Can you get things done? Do you have a passion for the thing you’re doing?” he says. “I don’t ask rudimentary questions you can look up online. I ask questions like ‘What makes really great code?’”
Finding community through Microsoft
It was at Microsoft where Steve finally found community and his voice after a lifetime of isolation.
“It wasn’t until I found the Microsoft developer community – first online and then offline – that I found my first friends.”
Now, every year for the MVP Summit, he makes the drive from Orange County to Redmond because it’s essentially a family reunion.
“Not only has Microsoft given me a career for 17 years, but it’s where I found my first friends,” Steve says. “So many Autistic people struggle with making friends and finding rich and fulfilling careers. My passion and strength is computers and I found my career and friends through that.”
Steve is a seasoned and popular public speaker with more than 125 events on his CV. He uses his experience to evangelize on behalf of Autistic people, educating families, educators, executives and businesses on the untapped potential of the Autistic workforce and the business benefits of modifying the hiring process and workplace environment. He’s also writing a book that redefines Autism, creating more understanding of Autism’s neurophysiological differences.
“My personal life mission is to create understanding, acceptance, inclusion and opportunity for Autistic people everywhere.”
Success in business, success in life
To Microsoft alumni who have businesses or are in a position to hire, Steve wants you to realize that Autistic people can change the way we do business. And if you or your child is Autistic, focus on individual strengths, talents, passions and gifts. That’s where we all find success, friends and a rich fulfilling life.
“Hiring Autistic people is a really simple and easy answer where everyone benefits.”
Learn more about Platinum Bay Technologies and the work that they do on their website.
Learn more about Steve on his website or blog. If you are interested in seeing him speak, you can view upcoming dates here.