Exiting “Quarantine”

I have been incredibly fortunate throughout this pandemic. I have had a job that was more than willing to let me work from home, the transition to working from home was pretty simple – I had already been working remotely two days a week prior to Covid. And, on top of that, I have been incredibly fortunate that my company continued to have business success during the pandemic, this wasn’t true for all workers who were able to shift to remote.

But, now, a year and a half later, with vaccines rolling out and the reduced spread, it is becoming quite apparent that we are now going to be expected to “return to normal”. Whatever that is.

Outside of traffic hours, I live 25 minutes from my office. During traffic hours.. I live between an hour to an hour and a half away (and have had times where that commute took 2 hours thanks to accidents). I find it odd that people would even remotely be willing to put up with these kinds of commutes again as we return to “normalcy”.

Personally, I have thrived with working from home. Even when I am struggling to exist because I’m getting burnouts (commonish for me, unfortunately, I’m someone that is kind of a workaholic and really good at not listening to my own self telling me that I’ve pushed myself too far) I can still do some work at home. In the office I’d also have to deal with those social shenanigans and I would typically just call in sick for my own sanity.

I’m dealing with a pretty pervasively awful burnout at the moment, it comes from doing honestly insane amounts of work with no time off since October (other than company holidays, and again, my own choices there). I know that if I take time off I’m just offloading my work onto my small team and/or I’ll have a ton of work when I come back, so it usually seems far less stressful to just overwork myself than to try and take time off.

And now, I’m trying to imagine a world in which I go back into an office.

There are benefits, for sure. It’s nice to be able to overhear conversations and learn thing that I wouldn’t otherwise learn just by hearing people talk about interesting problems or predicaments. It’s nice to occasionally get invited out for a drink after work, you know, the typical things that happen.

But generally I’m just thinking about how I don’t get to wear my comfy clothes, I put up with horrific traffic, have to deal with the constant buzz of conversation and keyboards as people get their work done, fluorescent lights, random noises, people bringing in their “emotional support” animals, and just so many conflicting sensory activities and I already don’t want to deal with it.

I enjoy being able to shut my door to my home office and just focus on the work I need to get done until it’s done. Not getting people making dumb jokes about how I was lost to the world because I didn’t hear them call my name because I was in my work. Not having people make fun of one of my most common self-stimming behaviors (running my hair across my lips) because let me tell you about how funny the joke/question/statement of “are you eating your hair?!” is after the 300th time.

After a year and a half of not dealing with a surplus of stimuli, it seems overwhelming to even think about going back. This whole rush to return to “the before times” seems like some people are caught up in a nostalgia trip instead of realizing what we gained from the pandemic. And, a quick rush to go back to ableism and exclusionary behaviors.

Questions to ask in an Interview

The interview is wrapping up, you’ve (hopefully) dazzled them with your thorough knowledge of your subject matter. Maybe cracked an appropriate joke or two and built up a nice rapport with the interviewer, this has been going great, right? Now we’re in the last little bit and we’re down to the last leg. Here comes the dreaded last mile of the interview “Do you have any questions for me?”

This is one of those things that is autism adjacent, but can really help anybody. While autistic individuals are more likely to not understand this entire song and dance, it’s definitely a challenging experience for anybody out there.

I used to really hate this section of the interview when I was younger. It seemed so silly and pointless. I read your job posting, I generally have a high enough IQ to read between the lines of a job posting to understand what a day to day role in this position will look like (especially as a young adult when most of my jobs were retail or barista related, are you serious?). I don’t have any burning desire or strong opinions on companies so long as you keep up your end of the bargain, why am I supposed to really have questions for you?

Honestly, I don’t really know if my lack of questions here ever necessarily cost me a position, but over the years I have come up with a few good ones that I have gotten good responses from, both in the way of hearing hiring managers say “Oh, that’s a good one, let me think about it” and also because they help me continue to interview the company to decide if it is some place I’d really like to work.

I have read so many different versions of questions to ask in an interview and honestly hate most of them. They sound so trivial and cliche. “What’s the day to day look like in this position?” Well, it’s a chat help desk position, so you sit at the desk and wait for a chat to come in, then you ask the person what’s going on, and solve their issue or escalate.. etc. It just seems kind of absurd to ask that question for a wide variety of positions out there, I’d honestly expect that most people can use critical thinking skills to extrapolate the day to day expectations of the position if they have done something similar before.

So here’s a list of some questions that I feel aren’t quite as cliche and obvious and might actually be somewhat useful while not taking up a whole heap of time at the end of an interview. There will usually only be time for one or two at the end of an interview, so I usually recommend just preparing a few that speak to you personally, or asking any that naturally come up during the interview itself.

“What is your favorite thing about working for {Company}?”

I ask this question to everyone, starting from the recruiter call all the way through any interview I have with the company. As many people as I can get to answer it as I can. Red flag answers to this question is if multiple people answer some variant of “the people I work with”. Not necessarily a hard stop, but it can definitely suggest that the company is generally not a great place to work, if the best thing about working for them is that the coworkers are pretty okay.

Things I generally look for as an answer is a broad array of answers. In a recent bout of interviews I did, I had one person tell me that they liked that they felt like there was a lot of transparency involved and they felt like their opinions were actually listened to by the C suite for development and improvements. Another person I spoke to loved that there were a lot of product changes and that as a result there were so many challenges that would come into play from it. Yet another person I spoke to mentioned that they loved that it was easy to move between a variety of departments in the company because they had so many products so they could switch things up as they felt they needed.

Super different answers that really showcased that the company was meeting a broad variety of needs for different people. If everyone that I ask gives me the exact same answer, I find that worrisome.

“What do you find the most challenging about working for {Company}?”

Similar basic concept as above, honestly. Except it’s a little bit harder for people to effectively sugarcoat issues. This is the one that I’ve had a lot of good feedback from hiring managers about when I ask them it. I think it’s a really good way to get sneak peek into the real company culture without all of the sugar coating they try to sell you on during the interview process.

I have asked a few variants on this question, sometimes its about the current role, sometimes its on the company itself. Red flags will be generally people trying to say that there are no issues whatsoever, because, well, we all know that’s generally not true.

I love the answers that I get for this question. It generally has helped me decide on what kind of roles I want to take. I have had interviewers be very transparent with me that a certain position would be incredibly narrow and would become incredibly boring (and they wouldn’t enjoy doing it) and imply that I likely wouldn’t enjoy doing it for very long. I have had interviewers tell me that the most challenging thing in their environment is that things change so much and that while it can be stressful, they love the challenge and how much it pushes them to grow.

Are there opportunities for professional development?  If so, what do those look like?

I am personally someone always looking for opportunities to learn more and grow new skills, so I love finding companies that are enthusiastic about empowering their employees with the opportunity to develop new skills.

Even better if they aren’t caught in only the old-school versions of “development”. New things like development funds that aren’t tied solely to tuition reimbursement (e.g. can be used for classes that aren’t solely provided by universities/colleges, online classes, books, boot camps, etc). Companies that provide stuff like PluralSight and LinkedIn Learning. Opportunities to shadow and mentor with other departments are also fantastic opportunities.

Basically you want to hear that the company is willing to invest in employee growth and understands that existing employees are assets that can be developed.

What type of employee tends to succeed here? What qualities are the most important for doing well and advancing?

This one is just kind of an idea to help you know if you are the kind of employee that would be able to succeed at the company. It will also help to see if they give you a super general answer or if they seem to give you a pretty well tailored answer that sounds like they are describing some specific individuals that were recently promoted.

I think it can be helpful to kind of hear what kind of qualities a team likes and views as successful. It’s always important to remember that you are interviewing them as much as you are being interviewed. If they aren’t a great fit for you based on any of these answers, it may be wiser to opt out of the company.

Things I personally don’t ask:

I will almost never ask any of the standard stereotypical questions about “anything on my resume you need me to clarify” as, in my experience, this usually gets addressed during the interview process. I’ve had quite a few interviews where they’ve had my resume in front of them and actually said “I see that this is on here and I actually had a few questions about that” so I just didn’t feel like it was worth wasting any air or time on a question that seems to have mostly already been covered.

I have tried the often mentioned “Is there anything that we covered in this interview that perhaps I didn’t answer as well as I could have that I could perhaps clarify for you now” on a few occasions and haven’t ever really had any stellar results from it, so I personally don’t recommend it above any of the questions listed above. It might require a certain personality trait that I don’t exhibit while I’m interviewing.

I have also seen so many recommendations to ask about “when will I hear back” or “what are the next steps” but, in my experience, this is pretty much all covered through a recruiter for pretty much all positions that aren’t retail, so I just don’t waste the time on them at all anymore.

Behavioral and Cultural Fit Interview Questions

Cultural fit questions are so much tougher for autistic individuals than the knowledge based questions, am I right? So much more anxiety-inducing and if you’re anything like me, you probably lose way more sleep over wondering if you messed these up than you ever did on your actual field-relevant questions.

I definitely know that I nailed my cybersecurity related questions on my recent interviews, but the vagueness of culture fit and behavior related questions can be so thoroughly nerve-wracking. The worst part about it, at least for me, is that I leave the interview feeling fantastic about how I did. And then everything starts to sink in and by about an hour, maybe two hours later, I’m convinced that I didn’t even resemble a human.

So, let’s get to it and tackle some of the questions that stress us out the most, shall we?

Do you prefer to work alone, or with a team?

Now, I always will tell you to answer questions honestly. And, if you love teamwork, good for you, definitely go ahead and answer that honestly. If you’re like me and definitely prefer working solo, this can be a harder question to answer, as it can come across negatively.

My personal favorite wording that I’ve come up with that sounds better is “While I do prefer to do my actual work independently, I like to have a team available to lean on and ask questions and bounce ideas off of”. Basically “I do like to work alone, but play well with others”.

What we’re trying to avoid is trying to sound like you’re too arrogant to like working with others or that you can’t handle any criticism or just generally can’t play well with others. This one can definitely be a struggle for autistic individuals, since we typically aren’t the greatest at first impressions, so we might seem a bit standoffish or short. If you prefer individualized working styles, come up with a phrasing that highlights that you still value your team in some fashion.

What about this role do you think will challenge you?

This is typically looking into how much you really investigated the position, make sure you still have the posting available and have assessed it compared to your skills and have a good idea of where your weaknesses are compared to your strengths. Don’t be too afraid to be honest about it, just don’t simultaneously undersell yourself at the same time!

I don’t honestly come across this question too often, but it stumped me really badly when I was asked it the first time because it was super unexpected for me, so I wanted to throw it in here. My personal opinion on this question aside, it’s a great opportunity to showcase how you want to continue to grow your skills in the position that you want. If it’s a chance to increase your coding skills? Highlight that. Chance to increase your public speaking skills? Perfect opportunity to mention that. Leadership? You get the gist of it now. This shouldn’t be anything that is at the core responsibilities of the position as you don’t want the interviewer to start to wonder if you’re really capable of doing the job after all.

Questions about the company’s core values/How you identify with the core values.

A big part of this is going to be about proving that you researched the company a bit and are interested in the company itself. For instance, some of Amazon’s leadership principles include frugality and always learning and remaining curious, so you’d want to point out that you have a thirst for knowledge and prove it through the fact that you are always looking for new courses on Udemy to pick up new skills while they are sale.

How do you handle when you have multiple situations come in at the same time that all need to be handled?

I am in mostly ticket-related type situations due to the types of positions I have had, however this can relate to a variety of positions as well. It’s typically somewhat related to basically determining how you’ll prioritize in a moment of stress. My typical answer for this is to basically always get an idea of what each situation needs and then do a quick triage assessment and go from there: anything of total urgency comes up first, or anything that can be resolved in a few seconds might take the lead just because we can get it out of the “queue” immediately before moving on. Perhaps there is a customer that is of more importance with a super important issue that we can delegate, etc. Basically the concept of get a triage assessment going so that we can properly assess a proper order to handle all of these situations.

Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult customer/client/coworker.

The main purpose of this question is to get an understanding of how you de-escalate an angry customer or situation. The best method is to say that you’ll hear the person out and attempt to resolve the problem and mitigate any issues that you can. It is important for the other person to feel listened to and reassured that they are heard, otherwise you will never be able to make any progress toward resolving whatever the issue is.

It’s pretty easy to shoot yourself in the foot with this issue, if you say that you’ve never dealt with any difficult people ever it’ll sound like you’re lying. If you pick a situation where there was absolutely no fault on your end and communicate it poorly, it could sound like you place all blame on the other party and accept no potential fault and you may not take criticism very well.

As an example, very early on my career, I had a very bad secret shop done on me while I was working in a coffee shop in an airport, way before I even knew I was autistic. The secret shopper walked in, high energy, practically yelling hello and waving. This behavior was entirely out of line for normal behavior in an airport so my assumption was that he either knew someone in the shop or he knew my coworker and was addressing them. And then.. Nobody responded to him. My coworker and I looked back and forth between him and each other clearly confused. The secret shopper, perturbed at not being replied to, quite excitedly addressed us again. I basically lost the draw between myself and my coworker, so I went and took his order (and was the lucky one to get the score from this secret shop).

Needless to say, this secret shop was poorly scored because of this first impression. A couple years later, I used this situation in an interview for another coffee shop as a time I had messed up and what I had learned from it. I also did not stop talking when I saw the interviewers eyes go wide as soon as I told her the score I got. I did not stop talking as I continued to watch all of the negative body language as she watched me continue on to explain how he had completely caught me off guard because I didn’t know how to react to this situation that was so entirely unexpected.

At that point, she had basically entirely stopped listening to me and already decided not to hire me. Yet, I was thinking if I just got to the actual apex of this story, the entire point here that I could actually save myself. I had learned from this situation and never scored lower than a 95 on a secret shop again. No luck. I did not get hired at the coffee shop. I don’t think I even got a actual rejection from said coffee shop, just the application black hole. Don’t be me. Don’t pick literally your worst example with a redemption story arc.

Tell me about a time that you made a mistake at work and how you resolved it.

This is a big one, for quite a few reasons. They are looking for you to obviously tell how you handle making a mistake and how you go about fixing it. This is a very straightforward question for me, because I have no issue whatsoever with admitting that I make a mistake and owning it. My general process is to immediately admit that I make a mistake and let’s get this fixed.

My advice for this particular question is to start keeping a situation in mind for it, should it come up. It’s started becoming common especially in tech companies, I don’t know about how common it is outside of tech companies, but just keep a couple of good situations ready to fire away. Nothing over the top bad, but nothing too minor. A typing error does not count as a mistake at work. Be willing to admit that you, too, are in the category of human and, unlike many others, you are willing to admit that you make mistakes, even semi-big ones.

At least it’s kinda hard to kill important documents with coffee now that everything is in the cloud now, eh?

How could a manager best support you?

This is one of those questions where I’d like to remind you that an interview is going both ways. This is a very good question to answer honestly. For me, personally, I am highly intrinsically motivated. I work best when I’m allowed the opportunity to set my own goals and know what my expectations are for my role. I will perform pretty dang well when I’m left to my own devices and allowed the freedom to figure out how to meet all of the requirements of the in and outs of my role. Feel free to give me nudges back to those if I start to veer off to one side, but generally let me have the freedom and I’ll be a happy worker. I personally don’t thrive very well under a manager who wants to manage the nuance of all of my individual goals as well as the fine-tuning of my daily schedule and effectively micro managing my day.

So, again, you are also interviewing the company and team at the same time as you are being interviewed. If the manager that you would thrive under is not the type of manager that is interviewing you and not the type of team that is interviewing you based on your answer, so this opportunity doesn’t work out. That’s perfectly okay! It wouldn’t have been a situation you would have wanted to stay in long.

How do you deal with a disagreement with your boss?

This is similar to the earlier question about the difficult customer/coworker situation, where it’s basically about making sure that you can handle it in a reasonable method. Pretty much everyone has had some kind of disagreement with their boss in some fashion. For me, my example for this question and the next are effectively the same, so I’ll give it with the next and just a general answer here.

Basically you’ll want to provide an example of what the situation was, and how you handled it. Ideally with a conversation with your boss where you spoke it out and how you compromised and reached the agreement.

Have you ever disagreed with a company policy? What did you do?

Again, basically to see what kind of behavior you’ll do and how you’ll approach the policy and what kind of action you’ll take. My example that hits both of these questions was when I was working at a chat center, we had a new head honcho who came in and wanted us to change our process for starting up and closing chats and every single agent using the exact same entrance and closing script so that no matter who the customer was talking to, it looked exactly the same.

So, y’know, the policy was now that the customer should expect a robotic response and closing rather than a personalized greeting and closing from individual agents. My boss expected me to fully back this horse to our team since I was the team lead. Problem? I whole-heartedly disagreed with the entire policy. I thoroughly believed that utilizing the robotic scripts would harm our agents stats because they had personalized opening and closing scripts (the last things that the customers saw before they received surveys) that added some additional flair that seemed (in the past) to have dramatically increased the positive survey totals.

Handy dandy robot chat agent, reporting for duty!

Boss-man wanted me to be positive about it and jazz it up a bit to the team because he knew the team would follow my lead. If I wasn’t so hot on it, then the team would be even less likely to want to follow this new policy. Turns out that was just the right amount of fluffing up my ego, so I agreed to test it out when I would take chats to help out and would jazz it up to our team in spite of my personal feelings.

It turned out that using the required scripts had no real impact on my personal stats and didn’t seem to alter the frequency of my surveys. As a result of my willingness to work with the boss-man through my disagreement with the policy, our team were the earliest adopters of this new policy when compared to other teams on the floor. And it turns out that it did not negatively impact our team’s overall stats, which was my main concern with this policy.

Other good examples for this question would be where you approached a policy and found that the policy was lacking so you found evidence the policy was lacking and got the policy changed or revoked. Basically anything other than “I pretended the policy didn’t exist and repeatedly broke it”.

Handling Job Interviews

One of the most common questions I have seen come up with autistic folks is how to handle job interviews. It’s pretty obvious that it’s one that we’d struggle with, we know that first impressions aren’t always things that we excel at. And sometimes we aren’t the best at answering the questions that people are actually asking instead of the question that they asked.

Yeah, I’ve totally bombed some interviews myself. I’ve stimmed so hard in spinning chairs that I’m pretty sure that the interviewer thought I was on drugs. Or showed up massively under dressed because I didn’t realize that the slacks and a polo shirt was absurdly casual for a mall department store women’s clothing section. Despite the fact that my mother used to work in one, I’d somehow never really picked up on the fact that those ladies are usually dressed up pretty damned nice?

Once I found “my” field, I’ve typically done much better. I fit in pretty well in the tech world and I definitely answer questions about my knowledge well enough to make up for the fact that I am always fidgety and questionable in a lot of the skills that everyone is told not to do in interviews because it makes you look awkward and everything else. I also gave up on a lot of the advice giving to neurotypical individuals for job interviews because I can never fake it well enough to make it work for me. I can mask pretty damned well, but I can’t do it super well in a highly anxiety inducing environment, and I’m willing to bet many other autistic individuals also struggle with this as well.

General advice:

  • Make jokes when you can
  • Be honest
  • Ask questions to be sure you understand their questions

To expand that a little bit further and clarify. I deal with stress by trying to make myself laugh, which translates to I usually crack some kind of joke during an interview, which will usually make my interviewer laugh. Everybody likes to laugh, so it kinda warms them up to me. If this isn’t your nature, don’t try to force it, but if it is, this can definitely work in your favor. Don’t try to stifle it just because you think it might not work for you. I’ve definitely made some jokes that your traditional career help office probably wouldn’t recommend in interviews that I’ve landed jobs from (self-deprecating jokes, Big Brother jokes, etc) but it generally works for me. General standard caveats of nothing off color.

Honesty definitely needs a clarification. During a job search, pretty much everyone and their mother’s dog will tell you that you need to embellish your resume and skills in order to land a job. I don’t and I won’t. Embellishment is a waste of mine and everyone else’s time. I do list skills on my resume that I am working on, usually in a section clearly stating that I am learning/in classes for and during interviews, when asked about these skills or what I have done with these skills, I always answer with “I have limited experience in a working environment, however, in my personal lab/in this project at school/etc I did XYZ”.

The worst thing about misunderstanding a question is that you may not even realize that you answered a totally different question and didn’t even answer what was asked and have a grey cloud hovering around you now. I can’t even tell you how many times I have had an HR/initial phone screen wherein I was asked a yes or no question which I answered in the affirmative and had nothing else said and they moved on to the next question and I’d then be black holed and I’d never hear anything again.

I was entirely confused until I saw an internal documentation at a company for a posting that we had with a similar question for the recruiters to ask potential candidates and what to look for and it was looking for examples. A yes or no question. And they were supposed to provide examples. Why ask a yes or no question and then expect a full answer with examples?

It seems obvious in retrospect, but it still kind of blows my mind because a yes or no question has a short answer of yes or no, not “Yes, examples a, b, c” especially in a short screening. So never worry about asking for clarification to be sure that you are actually answering the question that the interviewer is expecting you to answer. No need to sell yourself short because you answered the wrong question.