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Mary Mazzoni headshot

SAP's 'Autism at Work' Initiative: An Insatiable Appetite for Improvement


In May of last year, SAP announced the launch of Autism at Work -- a unique global initiative to employ people with autism.  The ultimate goal of the program is to have 1 percent of the company's total work force, or about 650 people in today's numbers, represent people on the autism spectrum by 2020. Beyond these hard figures, the software solutions giant hopes to achieve what it calls "on-boarding equivalency," meaning that the company has reached a point that it takes the same amount of effort to hire and train a candidate with autism as someone who is not on the spectrum, Jose Velasco, who heads up the program for SAP in the U.S., told Triple Pundit.

"Our idea is that we want to reach that level of maturity within the organization by 2020 -- hopefully before that," Velasco explained.

To achieve its goal, the company embarked on several pilot programs around the globe and has already hired seven candidates on the spectrum in Germany, as well as three candidates in Ireland. This year, the pilot will extend to two of the company's facilities in Canada, as well as two locations here in the U.S. -- comprising seven to nine candidates who are starting work at the company's Palo Alto, Calif. and Newtown Square, Pa. facilities. All totaled, the company will hire 14 candidates on the autism spectrum by the end of April, with plans to extend the pilot to Brazil later this year.

"We very strongly believe that in order for us to get better at employing people in the spectrum we have to start by walking first," Velasco said. "Throughout the year of 2014, we'll continue to learn. We'll design our processes, fortify our processes …. And towards the beginning of next year, we'll start hiring more people on a larger scale."

This is all fantastic news, but you may be wondering: Why is SAP doing this in the first place? Surely the company's status allows it to take its pick from top candidates in the IT field, so why rock the boat? Velasco boils it down to one central corporate philosophy: "An insatiable appetite for improvement".

"We have a tremendous appetite for talent at SAP, and we really need to procure the talent in the communities where we operate," he explained. "If you look at the situation that we have … In the Bay Area, there are approximately 50,000 science, technology, engineering and math job openings that are on full-field.

"On the other side, we have people who have the qualifications, people who are on the spectrum," he continued. "It's kind of sad to be quite honest to have people who have the qualifications and that number of job openings. So, what we're trying to do is look past the disability -- if you call it this from a social perspective, the challenges they have or they may encounter because of autism -- and look to the skills that they bring to the table."

How it works

Although people on the autism spectrum have the skills and knowledge to get the job done, SAP recognizes that it must employ different tactics when it comes to hiring and training these candidates. For this, it turns to a wide network of experienced partners that set the groundwork for its pilot projects around the globe.

For example, SAP partners with the Department of Rehabilitation Services in California to select appropriate candidates from a pool of thousands of individuals on the spectrum. After choosing people with the right credentials, the department conducted first-round interviews in a comfortable and familiar environment and came up with 18 candidates for SAP's four-week training program in Palo Alto.

This four-week training session has been a constant in SAPs pilots around the globe and takes place before candidates become a part of the company. In partnership with organizations like Specialisterne, a group that helps people with autism get training and support for technical jobs, the company takes the candidates through training sessions that not only focus on software development, but also teach crucial skills like teamwork and finding a personal comfort zone in the workplace.

At the end of the training, rather than conducting standard interviews, candidates meet with their potential managers in an informal setting -- a change that can be vital in helping candidates on the spectrum shine.

"People in the spectrum do not interview very well typically," explained Velasco, whose son and daughter are both on the spectrum. Velasco went on to tell a story of a friend of his who is on the spectrum (not affiliated with SAP's program), who told him the single biggest barrier to obtaining employment is the interview process.

"He says, 'If I can get past the interview, I know that I have a chance.' This guy has an MBA from Purdue, and he cannot get past that first level of interviews because he interviews differently -- he might express himself differently than other people."

By breaking down the barriers that standard interviews often present to people on the spectrum, Velasco said SAP is able to get a glimpse of a candidate's true potential. With 14 people already brought on board and another round in the works, the program is already starting to pay off for the company.

Paying dividends

"We believe that in order for us to innovate, in order for us to move our products forward, we need to look at the perspectives of people who look at things differently than the majority of us -- and of course that includes now the perspective of people in the autism spectrum," Velasco told us.

In only the first year of the program, he said that company executives have seen candidates on the spectrum ask questions and present positions no one else in the room had even considered -- to the significant benefit of the company.

"At the end of the day, what we believe is that by having these new colleagues it will enrich not only the workplace for us, because it will make us more cohesive and more comprehensive as an organization, but also from a product perspective we believe that this is going to have a very dramatic, positive impact on the solutions that we offer our customers."

What's next?

Last month, SAP announced a new internship program with the University of Cambridge in the U.K. to support Autism at Work. The internship represents a five-year agreement between the university and SAP to identify talented students for the initiative. As part of the internship, the students will join the program in one of five SAP locations -- India, U.S., Canada, Ireland or Germany -- with the goal of being selected to become SAP employees at the end of their internships.

The company will select about 10 students that accelerate in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and math) courses. The first round of Cambridge interns will begin the program later this year, and the company expects to have approximately 80 people on the spectrum from around the world brought on board by the end of 2014, Velasco said.

Did you miss our Twitter chat with SAP on corporate sustainability and economic growth? Catch a recap here.

Image courtesy of SAP

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is an editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared on the Huffington PostSustainable BrandsEarth911 and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit and director of TriplePundit's Brand Studio. She is based in Philadelphia and loves to travel, spend time outdoors and experiment with vegetarian recipes in the kitchen. Along with TriplePundit, her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard.

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