September 7, 2018 was a fabulous day in Chicago. The wind was cool but not yet cold, kids had started school, and I had wrapped up three hours of interviewing with the world’s best software company—and I crushed it! I sat outside Union Station with a celebratory pretzel and called my wife to share the good news.
“How’d they react to your blindness?” she asked.
My heart leapt and I dropped my pretzel. “OMG!” I exclaimed. “I don’t think the interviewers knew I’m blind!”
Pigeons flocked to my now-forgotten snack. My mind raced. I felt like I was looking in on the final scene in The Usual Suspects, when the key moments replay in slow motion and reveal that the mild-mannered person being interviewed had a secret. In the movie, the secret (spoiler alert!) was that he ran the world’s largest criminal gang. In my case, I realized I may have accidentally slipped past my future boss the fact that I have a major disability. Score one for the blind, I guess?
Let me take you, dear reader, back to my interview. I’d had a month to prepare. Read: I’d had a month to become gradually more terrified and filled with self-doubt. Did I have the skills to work at Microsoft? I thought to myself. How would the team at Microsoft feel about being represented by a blind person?
As I spiraled, my mind crept back to when I first went blind. I was 30, had just been through cataract surgery, and had a steroid response to some eye drops. Back then, I was worried I’d be fired from my job. No matter how much the internet lawyers said, “That’s illegal!” my anxiety persisted.
The last thing I needed was to relieve those days. I’d been working while blind for six years. I needed to stay in the present and focus on managing my anxiety to get this new job I wanted so badly. I needed a way to quell these thoughts and focus on technology and digital transformation—the main themes of the role—and not my blindness. Instead of worrying about all the ways things could awry, I focused on organizing my thoughts. And to me, preparing for a meeting meant creating a fantastic PowerPoint.
I popped open the program, which I can use by zooming in very close, thanks to an extremely narrow field of vision through one eye. With no help from Clippy—OK, Clippy may have helped a bit—I drafted a six-slide presentation showcasing my experience with Microsoft’s cloud services and laying out how I’d accelerate others’ journeys into the Microsoft cloud. It highlighted how I’d do the job and I wanted to make sure—no matter how the conversation got started or what tangents it went on—that I could drive the discussion to my qualifications and endless enthusiasm for the work I’d be doing if I got hired.
Over the next few weeks, I was on a mission to memorize the presentation. I felt like I needed to know it so well that I could pull up any slide and point to any specific point on said slide on demand. I ran through them so often in my shower that I promise you if my Irish Spring could talk, it would advise you on how to digitally transform your workplace (hopefully with a fresh scent from the Emerald Isle)! This was a technical presentation with lots of diagrams—so I also memorized the positions of all the key components in each illustration. I felt comfortable mentally projecting the images onto a sidewalk, the wall of my shower, or even the door of a bathroom stall (I really was practicing every free moment I had). By the day of the interview I knew the thing forwards, backwards, and sideways.
I wanted to make sure—no matter how the conversation got started or what tangents it went on—that I could drive the discussion to my qualifications and endless enthusiasm for the work I’d be doing if I got hired.
Prepping the room
I was so nervous that morning that I arrived two hours early. (Being blind, I’m always early because if I’m on time I’m probably anxious about being late or about having to navigate a new environment in a time crunch.) The receptionist offered to let me hang out in a break room, but I needed to be in the interview room. I explained that because I was blind I wanted to understand the layout of the room. Luckily, it was free.
As I settled in, I made a mental map of the arrangement of tables and other furniture in the room. I found an outlet and plugged in my laptop, careful to not let the cord look messy. I figured out how the projector worked and confirmed with a quick FaceTime to my wife that I was, in fact, projecting my PowerPoint onto the screen.
I checked my phone and realized I still had an hour and a half until the interview was scheduled to start. So, like a kid playing Animal Crossing, I rearranged the chairs in the room to direct my interviewers to specific seats so that I knew exactly where to look. I folded my cane up, put it in my backpack, and tucked my backpack into the far corner of the room. I practiced walking from my chair to the projector several times, making sure not to trip on the cables on the floor. By the fifth time, I could pop up and be at the projector without bumping into anything. Then I spent the rest of the time reading my interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles.
Crushing the interviews
My first interviewer—who would be my boss if I got the job—was tasked with assessing my “visionary acumen” (I know, it’s poor wording). He walked in and said, “Please, don’t get up” and took the seat I had arranged for him. We had an enthusiastic conversation about the role of tech in transforming the world and did a few rounds of standard interview LARP (live action role play) before he said, “OK, I’m convinced.” I was on cloud nine!
But I didn’t have time to celebrate because as soon as he left, my mind turned to the second interviewer, who was going to assess my technical acumen. I got my PowerPoint ready. When he walked in, I was standing at the screen, ready to go. Within a few minutes he had joined me there, and we had an animated discussion about my diagram, the CAP theorem, and a bunch of other nerdy tech topics. My memorization had paid off because I kept referring—and gesturing—to the relevant components on the slides.
We only paused when his alarm went off—neither of us realized that the entire hour had slipped by and now he was late for his next interview. “This was a great conversation and I want to talk to you about this some more, but I need to go,” he said. “Let’s talk when you join Microsoft.” If I were a Disney princess, this would be the point when my animal familiar would say, in a thick Chicago accent of course, “Yah nailed it, son!”
I had one more interview to get through and when that ended, the receptionist came to find me. “You did really well. I’ve never heard people that excited.” I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m a savant. I’ve met plenty of people who are smarter, stronger communicators, and in general just, well, better than me. But I think that day, luck and over-preparation were on my side.
I kept telling myself, I’m sure they knew. How could they not know?!
Spilling the “secret”
I still didn’t have time to celebrate because I had to concentrate on getting to Union Station. To reiterate: I’m blind and use a cane to supplement the tiny remaining sight I have. Even basic navigation requires my attention and I don’t allow myself to get distracted when walking.
On the long train ride home, I couldn’t get my wife’s question out of my head. I kept telling myself, I’m sure they knew. How could they not know?! After all, one of my eyes is practically flat because of the five surgeries I had to—unsuccessfully—save it.
But a month later, on my way to new employee orientation, my boss called me and began to describe another one of his employees who was starting with me and who he thought I should meet. “He’s about six feet tall, has gray hair…” And it was then that I confirmed my boss had no idea. “Jeff, I’m blind.” There was a stunned bit of silence before he replied, “Wow! That’s OK, man. I’ll just tell Steve to look out for you.”
Later in my first week, I would tell him I needed accessibility software and he approved it without hesitation. At that moment, I knew I’d be supported by my sighted colleagues. In my first year, I’d also meet many other visually impaired employees at Microsoft, each one more impressive than the last. All of them would provide tips, answer questions, and offer support as I navigated a new start at a new company.
As I reflect back four years later, I realize there was nothing to be anxious about—and also that accidentally neglecting to tell my interviewers about my blindness wasn’t such a big deal. I’d like to think a quick mention at the start of each interview—“By the way I’m blind…”—wouldn’t have changed the outcome. In fact, it probably would’ve been forgotten as soon as we started talking shop.
But to be clear: People shouldn’t have to mask their disabilities. Having their perspectives makes their teams, their companies, and our society stronger. In the workplace, as in life, it’s not our physical characteristics that define us but our ability to learn, grow, and connect. Even I can see that and I’m blind!