Why thinking outside the box makes me a valuable employee

By Zach Horst | May 14, 2020


Zach horst

My experience of working as a systems engineer for Fortune 500 companies was stressful. Not because it included setting up hardware and software and building databases – though that required years of IT experience. The companies I worked for required what they call “five nines,” which means 99.999 percent uptime – or less than seven minutes of system downtime a year. But even that wasn’t why it was so stressful. It was stressful because I just couldn’t thrive in an inflexible work environment.

When I quit that work, things became bleak for a while. I found it easier to isolate myself at home rather than expose myself to the job market. It was several years before I found the determination to reassert myself into society and restart the job search.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a teenager – which was tough to accept at first, though I have to say, over time the diagnosis made a certain sense to me. When I was younger, I was a data sponge. I could quote The Guinness Book of World Records from memory and easily put broken things back together. I did well academically, but I’d always had trouble reading people. It’s like my brain wasn’t built for it. I just didn’t understand all the unspoken things that happen between people when they engage with each other. It is difficult and exhausting to always be trying to process social cues and discern other people’s intentions.

But, after a period of unemployment and depression, I decided I had to get back out there. Thankfully, I found a local vocational rehabilitation resource center where I could get involved and meet people. I started teaching programming and computer-related skills to community members, who were grateful to learn. That’s where I heard about CAI’s Autism2Work (A2W) Job Readiness Training program.

A2W’s Job Readiness Training was an usually good fit for me. It gave me 60 hours of workforce development training and competency assessment to help me prepare to re-enter the workforce. The training helped me acclimate to the expectations of the job, so I could get my gears going again. And learning to work as a team with people who have similar talents and skill levels was really valuable. I made new friends and engaged in intellectually stimulating work, which I had been missing.

Almost immediately after the training, CAI offered me a position as a Quality Assurance Analyst for a large pharmaceutical firm. When I started the job, one of the first things I did was automate the repetitive parts of my work. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again, so I showed my manager several different tools that could automate the keystrokes I was using to move data from one application to another. Then, I created a database and a template to do the parts of my work that would have otherwise taken me two to three days to complete.

My managers quickly learned that I like to think outside the box. I don’t do things a certain way just because they’ve always been done that way. If I’m given a task that requires repetitive action, I will automate it. I would say this is just part of how I think: if something’s not working, I find a way to make it work. I see possibilities others may not see, and I love solving problems because every one is an opportunity to figure out a way to do something more efficiently.

I suppose the people I worked for in those earlier work experiences were trying to support me, but it felt as if they were outsiders looking in. A2W knows my weaknesses and my strengths and they look ahead to take care of me. They reach out in unique ways and solve problems in unique ways. In other places, nothing is done until there’s a problem. Here, they are clearing the road for you.

With A2W, I can be myself at work and stress less about hiding the circumstances of my diagnosis from my coworkers. There is an understanding in this environment that we all have gifts, and that really makes work much more enjoyable.

Discover how you can join CAI’s Job Readiness Training here.


Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.

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