I wrote a piece a couple years ago about my experiences with Aspergers and how it has affected my work. But what I didn’t go into much detail about was the process of getting a job in the first place. This article is to address that deficit.
I’m going to start by saying that I wasn’t diagnosed at the time I attended the interviews mentioned here — I’d not even heard of Aspergers Syndrome — but as far as I’m concerned the only effect of that was that I had no reason to ask for or expect any accommodations. I’m pretty much the same now as I was back then — more experienced certainly but not really any more comfortable with certain situations — except that I now have a reason that explains the way I’ve always been.
After dropping out of university in 1994 I finally had an idea of a direction in my life. Up to then I had always been rather passive and had gone along with my parents and teachers when they suggested what my next steps ought to be… which was how I ended up studying Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Once I got over the idea that I needed a degree and realized that my special interest would suit me to a career in programming the next step seemed straightforward: get a job in that field.
Well, it wasn’t straightforward at all. I bought copies of the computer press such as Computer Weekly to search the recruitment pages. I was looking for an entry level position as a C programmer — I knew I could program but had hardly anything to put on my resumé to demonstrate experience. I was self-taught, having learned Basic first and then C, and in my degree course we had been taught the rudiments of Fortran. I had written a C program during a summer work placement to drive lab equipment and capture data, but that was only 8 weeks and not exactly commercial development.
I was persistent. I sent off application letter after letter and got back acknowledgment slips and occasionally refusal letters, month after month. I took a part-time unpaid voluntary job with a local charity doing editing and layout for publishing to keep my hand in with some kind of computer work — it was a new startup and there was just the guy running it and one other volunteer. The guy had posted an ad in a local shop and I phoned him; he came to see me for an informal interview, which was nerve-wracking. I felt incredibly nervous despite being in the familiar environment of my own home but it seemed he was desperate for any help and was more interested in selling the job to me than treating me as a candidate. Despite my nervous stuttering and poor interpersonal skills I got the job: it wasn’t something I was interested in pursuing career-wise but it did give me a taste of what an interview felt like.
I realized I had been totally unprepared this time around and would have to work on the impression I made if I was ever to get started in my chosen career. Finally after about four months of fruitless applications I was offered an interview. This time I did my homework: I asked my dad, who worked as a Chief Executive, for advice to learn as much about the structure of interviews as I could. The last time I’d been involved in any kind of competitive interview was after I applied to university and although I’d been successful that time I suspected that my academic record played a large part. Well, it turned out that it was my academic record that had given me my chance this time too — being gifted academically did have some practical benefit.
I dressed carefully in suit and tie despite ties and buttoned collars having always made me feel physically uncomfortable. Luckily as long as the collar’s not tight I can stand it for a few hours and that mode of dress is expected at interviews, at least for professional positions in the UK. It’s about first impressions: the interviewer expects that the candidate will demonstrate a smartness of appearance so you have to meet those expectations the first time they lay eyes on you.
I borrowed my mum’s car and drove myself to the interview. This was in the days before sat-nav or Google Maps so I’d gotten a street map of the city and plotted my route on the map, studying it in detail so that I felt comfortable about navigating the 50 or so miles. I managed to find the place with little difficulty, which surprised me a little given my previous experiences with navigation, parked in one of their visitor’s bays and followed the signs to Reception. I was a little early because I’d given myself a good margin in case of delays. I approached the desk feeling intensely nervous but my desire to finally get a job allowed me to overcome my fear and I introduced myself to the receptionist, stating that I was there for an interview with a certain person. The receptionist was entirely friendly and professional which helped (they must see any number of nervous candidates so I guess with hindsight I didn’t seem unusual). I was told to take a seat and wait for the person who would come an meet me before we went for the interview.
After what seemed like ages because I was so keyed up, but was in reality no more than ten minutes, the manager arrived and introduced himself. I remembered to stand up to meet him and to shake hands, and then he led me into the offices to the interview room. He asked me to sit and offered me a tea or coffee: I declined. I figured that no offense would be taken from my refusal and I really didn’t want to contend with a pressing bladder in my nervous state. He was relaxed but professional in his manner: he must have been experienced at conducting interviews as it all felt very fluent.
He started by asking about my education and I responded, consciously reminding myself to speak clearly, not too fast, and to make eye contact (or at least a point above his shoulder). I seemed to get away with it and as far as I could tell I didn’t come across as either staring intensely or avoiding his gaze entirely. I couldn’t hide my nerves and was aware that I was fidgeting with my hands but I guess it wasn’t excessive because it didn’t appear to attract his attention. Without ever touching on any technical aspects the interview wound to a close, having been mostly about my educational experiences, why I had left university, and what I had been doing since then. He offered me a tour of the offices and then led me back to Reception where he bid me goodbye and said that they had other candidates to interview and they would be in touch.
I left, walking back to the car, thinking about what had just happened and wondering how it had gone: with my lack of interview experience I didn’t know whether it had gone well or badly. I took off my tie and unbuttoned my collar to much relief before driving back home where my parents asked me how it went. What could I say? I didn’t know. I settled down to wait for a response which arrived in the mail a couple of days later: they thanked me for my time but I had not been successful. I was disappointed but not excessively so: I had resigned myself to a long battle before I would be successful but never had any doubt that I would succeed.
Over the next two months I had another three or four interviews dotted around the country that went the same way before I encountered something a little different. This one was a small software company based in Surrey, some 200 miles from my home in Lancashire. I traveled down by rail, taking a window seat so I could spend the journey watching the scenery pass by instead of having to avoid the gazes of my fellow passengers — I don’t enjoy public transportation but there wasn’t another option. Arriving at my destination I realized that I didn’t know how to get to the street where the office was located but I had the presence of mind to ask a cab driver for directions. I walked along as directed and although it turned out to be further than expected making me a little warm and uncomfortable in my suit and tie I persevered and found the place.
I was used to the routine at Reception by now and it all went as expected, taking the offered seat gratefully as a chance to rest before my ordeal. I didn’t have long to wait before my interviewer arrived and escorted me to his office. In a change from my previous experiences there was another person present already; he was introduced as a Project Manager, my interviewer also being a Project Manager. After briefly covering the familiar ground of my education I was pleasantly surprised to be asked to complete a short written programming test, and was shown to another room where I could complete it in private. I was told that they would return in 15 minutes and see how I had managed with it.
I say I was pleasantly surprised; in fact I was overjoyed to have finally been given a chance to demonstrate my skills. I don’t remember the details but there were a number of short questions about the C programming language and an algorithmic problem to solve. I had completed the test several minutes earlier than the 15 minute deadline and when the first Project Manager entered to see how I was doing I told him that I’d finished and handed him the completed answers. That concluded the interview process for the day and after a brief, conventional wrapping up it was over and I left on my long journey home.
I had a positive feeling this time around which turned out to be justified as I received a phone call shortly after arriving home offering me a second interview! Well, I was overjoyed even though I reminded myself that I still had to pass the second stage and it was likely to be tougher. I had known that if I was just given a chance to show my skills I could get there. It was two weeks before my second interview date and my dad offered to drive me down there — I guess with hindsight he had more confidence about the outcome than even I did: lucky again to have been adopted by such supportive people.
I needn’t have worried. After lunch together I left my dad to head off to the second interview: I knew where I was headed this time and arrived in a much better state. The same Project Manager met me in Reception and we moved on to his office where I was introduced to the Operations Director. Apparently I had aced the test — the best (and quickest) result they had ever had on it — and had decided to make me the offer of a job there and then based on that showing. In my relief I think I forgot to feel my usual nervousness as it was replaced by pleasure and excitement. I didn’t accept immediately: I said I’d like time to consider which I thought was rather brave of me. What if they’d withdrawn the offer? But I didn’t think about any of that — I didn’t want to appear desperate and I wanted to talk it over with my dad first. They were perfectly accepting of that — and I think it was a wise decision of mine given my lack of experience in that kind of situation.
Well, I hooked up with my dad and told him my good news… and then found out he had been looking at ads for rental places. One step ahead of me as usual: I would never have even thought about that. We returned home and I phoned to accept the offer. We then discussed when I could start: having no current job where I had to give notice I told them I could start as soon as I had somewhere to live down there. Just like that I was about to up sticks and leave home for what would be the last time. My dad took care of all the rental arrangements — I wouldn’t have known where to start — and also helped me buy my first car. And that was that: I had finally reached my goal and gotten my first job in programming.
I recognize now that I faced a number of obstacles in getting that first job.
- No degree. I know for a fact that some firms do not even consider candidates without a degree or equivalent, and it is nearly always listed as a requirement in the ad. The fact that I had gained a place at Cambridge counted in my favor here even though I never graduated: just getting into a prestigious university makes you stand out.
- No experience. This one’s a biggie — recruiters look at previous positions held in order to match candidates to openings. No previous jobs means no matches. It’s not so much of an issue for entry-level jobs but there aren’t too many of those, and then the lack of a degree comes into play.
- Poor interpersonal skills. This is the ASD-related obstacle on my list and its effect is variable. It won’t stop you getting that first contact or interview but then it can have a detrimental effect on the interviewer’s impression of you as a person. The unfortunate fact here is that these people are looking for somebody to work with them, and — skills aside — they will favor the candidate whose personality fits best into the existing team.
And now for the good news: it gets easier over time. Once you’ve got that first job in a particular field subsequent interviews will give you the opportunity to talk about it. That’s where you can demonstrate your passion for the work, your deep interest in it, and give them an insight into your technical skills. By the time I was on my third job I had recruiters approaching me with offers — it still happens on a regular basis even though it has been over six years since I last put my details out there on the web as looking for a job. Finding openings has also become much easier with the rise of the internet and recruitment- and business networking-oriented sites such as Linked-In. Email means that the phone is much less necessary which is great if, like me, you have anxiety issues making calls. In short, it is that first step that is by far the hardest. But if you’ve got belief in yourself, patience and persistence will eventually pay off.