When employees everywhere suddenly stayed home to work remotely as a result of COVID-19, Erik Andrup, software engineer with AT&T, knew the switch would require a thoughtful approach.
“While one might think that working from home – free from the distractions of the office – would be an overall positive for someone on the spectrum like me, it comes with its own challenges,” he said.
Erik has autism. For him, working virtually – and suddenly relying on tools like Webex and Microsoft Teams to replace face-to-face conversations – demands patience and persistence. Until March, Erik preferred to work in the office, present and ready to build relationships, but his approach to teamwork shifted by necessity when he went remote.
“It was already challenging for me to get a good picture of whether I’m on the same page with everyone else. Now, with so many different projects and team members, and fewer interactions to provide cues, it can be even more difficult to read people,” he said. “I may not understand what others are saying at first and that means I might take longer to respond. It’s not because I can’t understand, but I have to think about it and ask, ‘What was the intent behind that email?’”
AT&T first hired Erik as part of an internship pilot cohort with LaunchAbility Career Services at MyPossibilities, a program developed specifically for neurodiverse individuals. As part of this hiring pilot, Erik was assigned to AT&T’s Technology Development Program where he received support from a job coach and first worked with his now-supervisor, Brian Bell, associate director of technology. As part of a team of five interns, he also earned accolades, winning Best Presentation/Video in a Coding Challenge.
Erik credits this specialized internship program with launching his career by allowing him to get to know the team outside a traditional interview. “When you’re on the spectrum, you might display anti-patterns (for example, not making eye contact) during interviews, and that can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. The opportunity to work with the team first allowed me to shine,” he said.
In 2019, Erik started full-time after graduating from the University of Texas at Arlington. He recently completed a nine-month rotation as part of a scrum team focused on automation enhancements –project work that benefitted from his attention to detail and unique perspective on what makes a good user experience.
As AT&T considers ways to expand its outreach to neurodiverse candidates, Erik’s success provides useful insights into what works ― and a great example of what is possible.
“As we take this recruiting program forward, our learnings from the LaunchAbility pilot will help us be methodical and strategic, so we can attract and retain neurodiverse people and also help them be successful long-term,” said Rick Wilson, director of Diversity & Inclusion. “We’ve done our homework. We’ve taken time to learn what it means to create an inclusive workplace for people with autism and foster an appreciation for neurodiversity. Now we feel prepared to execute on these strategies.”
Erik agrees that success starts in a supportive environment. He especially appreciates his everyday contacts, such as his teammates, whom he has recognized over time for their willingness to listen and give feedback. And he praises his manager, Brian, for pushing him to grow and working with him to set the concrete tasks and structured schedule he relies on to thrive.
“It’s important to have a supervisor you feel comfortable talking to,” Erik said. “Brian provides good insights, offers helpful feedback about my strengths and weaknesses and thinks logically.”
Erik also credits Ability – AT&T’s Employee Resource Group dedicated to creating a culture of understanding, awareness, advancement and advocacy for individuals with disabilities – with providing him the opportunity to further develop his leadership skills and expand his network.
In the long-run, AT&T’s Diversity & Inclusion team anticipates that the company’s investment in neurodiversity will pay off in terms of speed, creativity, technical competency and much, much more.
“If the internship pilot showed us anything, it’s the value neurodiverse people bring to our company,” said Rick. “Inclusion is at our heart and soul at AT&T, and employees who approach ideas and challenges from a variety of perspectives are critical to be competitive in a fast-paced, ever changing market.”
“Erik’s time with AT&T offers a testament to the idea that diversity makes us better. While he quickly picks up technical concepts and drives them to implementation, his biggest contributions are actually cultural,” Brian said. “Erik is always willing to get involved and help others solve problems. He carries an aura of positivity around him that uplifts others.”
As for Erik, the number one benefit of his job with AT&T is far simpler, “I enjoy the people I work with,” he said. “And I believe that they enjoy me as well.”
What does it take to be inclusive?
As AT&T and other organizations look to expand neurodiversity on their teams, Erik offers the following advice to individuals and managers:
- Be open: “I think accommodating individual needs starts with good people who are willing to get input from a diverse set of opinions and act accordingly.”
- Be patient: “Recognize that conversations may take longer at first and be patient. Certain tasks that may seem simple to you, I may need more clarification or time to complete. Once I get to know someone, I have a much easier time interacting with them.”
- Be a good listener: “As with any relationship, constant, honest communication, listening and feeling comfortable talking about problems and future goals are key.”