One tech start-up's quest to build careers for people with autism

One tech start-up's quest to build careers for the autistic
One tech start-up's quest to build careers for the autistic

Evan Rochte graduated from college in 2011 with a degree in film production. He spent the next three years uncomfortably and unsuccessfully interviewing for one job after another.

Then he stumbled upon a fledgling Southern California start-up called MindSpark. Since 2014, he's been thriving as a software tester.

Like most of MindSpark's 35 employees, Rochte is autistic. And like almost all of his co-workers and the 3.5 million Americans on the autism spectrum, Rochte has found the job market particularly uninviting. Up to 90 percent of autistic adults in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

"Getting an interview might not be the hard part," said Rochte, 32, who lives in Torrance, just south of Los Angeles. "I get really nervous during interviews. Sometimes I talk too much, and it's hard for me to be put on the spot."

Rochte was exactly the type of person Chad Hahn was targeting when he started MindSpark in 2013.

Hahn, 40, had spent his career in technology and consulting, and his wife worked with the developmentally disabled community. From his experience, Hahn knew what types of skills were useful in particular areas of the tech sector, and he found many of those very capabilities in the autistic people he met through his wife.

Autism facts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • 1 in 68 children identified with autism spectrum disorder
  • 4.5 times more common in boys than girls
  • 44 percent have average to above average intellectual ability

As a consultant, Hahn had also seen much of the professional services industry move offshore, creating time-zone problems, language issues and cultural challenges for businesses.

So Hahn started MindSpark as a software testing firm, designed to provide quality testing and analysis for websites and applications. It's a market that research firm IBISWorld sizes at $3 billion a year.

"The talent needed to be a good software tester is strong pattern recognition, strong attention to detail and the ability to have strong focus," Hahn said from his office in Santa Monica, a short walk from the beach. "Those are three traits we look for and traits that members of the autistic community have in numbers."

MindSpark is set up as a benefit corporation, a for-profit enterprise that balances social good with shareholder value. Pay for analysts starts at $16 to $22 an hour, and senior analysts make up to $30 an hour.

The company has grown 50 percent a year in each of the past three years, and Hahn is now looking for outside investment to double the size of his staff in the next 18 months.

Fox Networks in Los Angeles signed on with MindSpark two years ago and counts on its testers for multiple projects.

The media conglomerate has a complex and changing programming schedule. When features are added or updates are made to the schedule for Fox Broadcast Network, FX, National Geographic and the company's 23 regional sports networks, MindSpark analysts test for software bugs and offer feedback.

MindSpark also provides quality assurance testing on Fox's TV production side, where contracts for videographers and lighting technicians are changing and new vendors and freelancers are being added.

The biggest hurdle to overcome is social anxieties and the desire to be accepted.
Chad Hahn
MindSpark co-founder

"We've gotten great service from a great vendor who is located right in Southern California with us," said Ben Hope, chief information officer of Fox Networks. "It's really providing an opportunity for some bright individuals who might not otherwise have it."

Other clients include Liberty Mutual. Rochte works for the insurer, testing to make sure that documents are updated to include the proper wording as laws change.

For most of Hahn's employees, MindSpark is their first real office job. Prior to getting started, they attend the MindSpark Training Academy, an eight-week program that includes classroom time, testing exercises and on-the-job training. The academy is set up as a nonprofit and funded by outside partners.

After finishing, graduates start a three-month paid apprenticeship and can then move on to permanent roles as analysts.

One of the primary characteristics of autism is difficulty with social interactions. That makes the job search particularly challenging because one-on-one interviews with unfamiliar faces carry so much weight.

With every candidate on a level playing field, MindSpark eliminates that problem.

"The interview is a major hurdle," said Lisa Meeks, an assistant professor at the University of California at San Francisco's school of medicine and an expert on developmental disabilities. "MindSpark walks them through the process and gets to know them in more dynamic and holistic ways," said Meeks, who's also a MindSpark board member.

Hahn focused on creating an office with various types of working spaces. Some employees function better in collaborative environments similar to a typical tech start-up, while others need private, quiet rooms.

More importantly, Hahn said, MindSpark has built a comfortable workplace by removing the pressure that comes with being different.

"The biggest hurdle to overcome is social anxieties and the desire to be accepted," he said. "When our employees come into the MindSpark office, there's no judgment."