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Quants and techies get social, autistic hires fall by the wayside

Quantitative hedge funds, derivatives desks and the programming teams of investment banks have supposedly long provided happy homes to people with autism, which are able to put their systematic mindsets to good use.

However, the announcement from SAP that it intends to hire 640 people with autism to programme and test its products highlights an important fact – unemployment among autistic people is still incredibly high. Just 15% of adults with the condition in the UK are in full-time employment, according to statistics from the National Autism Society (NAS), and instances of positive discrimination like this are essential, it told us.

One example of an autistic person in finance who was credited as being the genius that outsmarted Wall Street during the 2008 financial crisis is Michael Burry, the founder of hedge fund Scion Capital famously profiled in Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short. Less positively, Jerome Drean, the former head of equity derivatives at Credit Suisse, who has Asperger’s syndrome, received a suspended prison sentence for attempting to defraud the University of York by sitting an exam on behalf of one of its students in 2008.

Quants have not come out of the financial crisis well, with some pointing the finger at those with Asperger's syndrome helping exacerbate the situation. More recently, therefore, firms have been demanding social and empathic qualities from their quants.

However, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, said that many people with autism would make ideal recruits for technical and quantitative roles: “They have excellent attention to detail, and love to understand how things work. They also have a drive to analyse information systematically and deeply, staying on one topic for hundreds of hours until they have explored all the links in the system, carrying out observations through repetition, over and over again, to derive rules that are solid and predictable.”

There are, however, few banks who actively offer opportunities to people with autism. Goldman Sachs in London has been running an eight-week internship for people with autism since 2003 through the NAS’s Prospects programme, which has led to full-time employment at the bank.

Nick Finlay, head of investment management at Hays Financial Technology, said that hedge funds are still willing to recruit candidates based purely on technical know-how: “Hedge funds want gifted technical programmers who are all about problem solving and complex programming. Softer skills are secondary.”

Autism is a condition that impairs social interaction and communication. Therefore, many people with autism were considered ideal fits for quant and technology teams staffed by science and maths lovers.

One long-time investment banking technologist, tells us that he's encountered a number of people with autism working in the quant teams during his career: "One guy used to get incredibly annoyed if you ended a sentence with an odd number of syllables. He was slightly difficult to work with, but you couldn't deny that he got the results we wanted."

However, banks are becoming more demanding with their technology recruits. Increasingly, as well as strong product knowledge and technical skills, investment banks are expecting their IT professionals to have good social and communication skills to be able to handle and lead meetings with other parts of the business, said Ben Cowan, director of recruiters Astbury Marsden.

“We still place a number of people with autism into primarily programming roles in investment banks. It always pays to flag the condition before interview in order for the bank to manage the process better,” he said.

Baron-Cohen said that people with autism can “add value to any organisation” providing that they’re given the right support and management. “They have much to offer an employer, including rigour, thoroughness, seeing a project through to completion, working long hours, total honesty, and precision. And employment often means improved self-esteem, which in turn often means lower levels of depression. So it's good for everyone.”

AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • Sc
    22 May 2013

    The more important and unmentioned statistic is what percentage of people working for banks are autistic and is this statistically low against the overall population. The number of senior people cited in the article suggests that they may not be the discriminated minority the headline provocatively infers.

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