Autism Awareness Day: How to Improve the Software Engineering Interview

For Autism Awareness Day — April 2, I wanted to bring awareness to the challenges software engineers with autism face (myself included) during common interview practices and how this may be improved.

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Introduction

In my experience, an engineer who classifies as someone with a hidden disability (e.g., Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia, etc.) is sometimes the most qualified for the position. However, due to the disability, this person is unlikely to pass the interview despite having the ability to not just excel in the role, but to benefit the company once hired.

In response to common interview practices that cause this issue, the major tech companies justify this action as they would rather lose a great candidate than make the mistake in hiring the wrong one.

“From the company’s perspective, it’s actually acceptable that some good candidates are rejected.” — (Page 5; McDowell, Gayle Laakmann; “Cracking the Coding Interview: 6th Edition”; Palo Alto, CA; CareerCup, LLC; Feb 10, 2016)

When applying or interviewing, companies even include the line “federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities.” Unfortunately, accommodations are rarely available for people with Autism when interviewing for positions as an engineer.

The interview process consists of both technical and behavioral assessments. I have summarized below the current practice and recommended solutions for each.

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Background

Sales people are trained to never approach someone from behind to initiate a conversation. The same applies to never blocking someone against a wall or in a corner without an exit while talking. Similarly, some interrogation techniques involve staring into a person’s eyes while asking ‘what and why’ questions to cause discomfort as the person thinks more deeply.

As common sense as it may sound, the reason for this training in sales is to avoid situations where the potential client will feel uncomfortable and lose trust. For interrogation and negotiation, this is to cause discomfort. This is a universal rule that applies to all human interaction, not just sales or interrogation.

Regardless if a candidate has any of the aforementioned hidden disabilities, many engineers perform poorly and are unable to concentrate in situations where they are facing a wall, when someone is standing behind asking questions, when staring into their eyes, or with random interruptions.

This applies to all professions causing any person to feel uncomfortable and be unproductive, regardless of having any disability. These instincts are primal and once vital to survival.

Interview Assessments

The four common standards in interviewing engineers are Whiteboard Challenges, Code Tests, Remote Assignments, and Behavioral Assessments.

For a candidate with Autism, Anxiety, Asperger’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyslexia, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (i.e. disabilities protected by federal law), certain interview practices cause the engineer to be unable to think clearly. This is in addition to the normal response of discomfort previously described.

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Whiteboard Challenge

During a Whiteboard Challenge, a candidate is asked to stand in front of a group of interviewers (from two to sixteen in my experience) while solving complex algorithms on a whiteboard. This is an experience the engineer will both never encounter nor will ever need to solve once hired for the actual job.

When someone with Autism is in front of a group of people while facing a wall trying to focus, that person is unable to concentrate even on simple questions. Having Anxiety, PTSD, or Dyslexia further exacerbates this feeling causing the mind to go blank in the situation.

A better interview practice for people with disabilities would be to solve something practical related to the position, not a complex algorithm that is based on previous memorization and irrelevant to the role.

If the person identifies with a disability and a Whiteboard Challenge is required, allow the candidate to write code on the board alone. Once the interviewer returns, a walkthrough of questions can be asked (e.g. how can it be improved, what happens when this changes, what is the Big O, etc.)

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Code Tests

During a Code Test, a candidate is given a computer and asked to solve similar code challenges and algorithms. The same recommendation applies as with Whiteboard Challenges with the addition of staring into the candidate’s eyes.

In this practice, normally one to ten interviewers stare at the candidate while he or she is trying to concentrate. The only time this practice should be used is if the teamwork is being assessed. Otherwise, a person with disabilities will be unable to focus in this situation.

A better interview practice for someone who identifies with disabilities is to have that person bring up code of a recent project on screen while giving a walkthrough. Throughout the code walkthrough and explanation, the interviewer can make the candidate more comfortable by allowing pseudo code for improvements. Reviewing the excellence of past projects related to the current position are a great way to determine ability.

If a code test is required for the position, the optimal accommodation is to allow the candidate the opportunity to work in isolation without pressure. Only if teamwork ability is being assessed is it absolutely necessary for a group to be in the room. If so, this should be a separate interview session where individual coding ability is not being judged. A Remote Assignment may be an option as well.

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Remote Assignments

A Remote Assignment is a great way to assess a candidate’s abilities. Overall, the ideal time needed to assess an engineer’s ability is with assignments totaling 4 hours to complete.

However, this should not be abused with excessive projects requiring more that 72 hours of unpaid work. There should be laws against employers who require an unpaid two-week coding project as an interview round.

If a person identifies with a disability, allow the candidate the option of not feeling pressure during a remote code assignment. This can be easily accomplished by not timing the assignment or deducting points for time. Timed projects cause unnecessary stress and anxiety for some engineers with disabilities.

Behavioral Assessments

Behavioral Assessments are questions and examinations to determine if a candidate is a good fit for the role.

A candidate with a disability can learn how to correctly answer these questions; however, accommodations in the behavioral assessment is where improvement is needed from the interviewers.

Instead of asking questions that require a person to read between the lines or saying the internet can be used but cannot, be direct and honest with the candidate. People with Autism can have a hard time in identifying subtle hints or messages that are not direct.

Instead of judging a candidate’s response to a question based on body language, please be understanding that people with Autism exhibit signs of lying with their eye movement, hand gestures, nervousness, etc.

Instead of saying “this person is weird,” learn to accept differences. If a person’s behavior is weird or unusual, go by the ability to perform the job. There is not a magic pill to take to change race, height, or age; just as there is none that can change a candidate’s social abilities during times of interview.

There are many more examples with more detail than can be provided here. Please be understanding of engineers with Autism because the simple aspects of behavior assessment can result in a pass for a great candidate that will benefit the company.

Conclusion

The average engineering interview ranges from one month to sometimes more than a half year. During this time, a candidate goes through anywhere from five to twenty interviews for one position.

Regardless of federal law, most tech companies do not offer accommodations for candidates with hidden disabilities during the interview or once hired. When two candidates are similarly qualified, it is very easy for a company to dismiss the one with a disability.

In summary, this article is to bring awareness of better ways to accommodate for candidates with disabilities. By accepting those who are different, we are not only giving opportunity to great engineers, we are helping companies grow with the benefits of diversity.

The contents of this article represent my personal view and do not imply the advocacy or belief of any company. Copyright 2020 Michael Kureth — TX #1–8690724351 filed with United States Library of Congress on March 25, 2020. All rights reserved.

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