Chris Schlechty remembers a high school friend struggling to use his computer the way most other kids did, typing away at a conventional keyboard to chat with other teens. Like Schlechty, the friend had a disability that limited the dexterity of his hands.
Schlechty showed him how to access his computer’s onscreen keyboard and operate it with a mouse, a simple revelation that made a huge difference in the way the teen could use his PC to communicate.
Now more than ever, Schlechty thinks it’s “fascinating and wonderful” that technology can empower people of all abilities to accomplish what they want to do — and that he’s able to help advance something so important as part of his job on Microsoft’s SharePoint Experiences team.
“Technology provides that avenue to compensate in areas where something might be more difficult,” Schlechty says. “It’s really cool to be able to help to enable people.”
The software development engineer, who has muscular dystrophy and uses the onscreen keyboard and other assistive technology, and his team are modernizing SharePoint. In his core role, Schlechty is creating new pages that can be quickly updated and deployed to customers as part of a broad effort to make an even better and faster experience for users.
But as his team’s “accessibility driver” for engineering, he’s also the expert his colleagues turn to for guidance on how to design features that work well for people with various disabilities, working from the outset with other developers to build user interfaces with accessibility in mind.
“If there’s an engineering question around accessibility, Chris is the first person you go to,” says Melissa Torres, who focuses on accessibility from a program management perspective for the team. “He is very knowledgeable in this space.”
Schlechty works with designers to get them up to speed on accessibility standards such as making sure features have enough contrast for users with low vision, or ensuring document structure works well with a screen reader, which conveys what’s on the screen audibly for people who can’t see.
He also joins code reviews to provide insight and guidance on the accessibility of new SharePoint features. In one recent instance, he noticed that a newly designed pane was being used a different way in another part of the software, an issue the team quickly fixed. Consistency is key for screen readers and their users, who should be able to use a certain interface the same way each time they encounter it.
Schlechty and Torres field customers’ accessibility-related ideas and propose ways to make SharePoint even better. Schlechty, who’s been on the team for seven years, is “an excellent resource for historical knowledge around why we decided to build or design a feature a certain way, and how it should work,” Torres says.
But his knowledge is only part of his impact; the other part is his keen understanding of just how important the finer details can be to people who rely on assistive technology to accomplish various tasks. He has a knack for articulating how specific changes can “really improve the experience,” Torres says.
Schlechty and his family learned he had muscular dystrophy when he was 8. His soccer coach, who also happened to be a pediatrician, noticed he had an unusual gait and seemed prone to falling, and suggested that he see a specialist.
The degenerative disorder made it increasingly difficult for Schlechty to play sports. He began using a wheelchair in fourth grade and, even in elementary school, could see the diagnosis would factor into what he decided to do with his future.
“I definitely knew then that physical labor jobs were out of the question, and my dream of becoming Tom Cruise in ‘Top Gun’ probably wasn’t very likely,” he says, grinning. “That would have been the coolest job, to be a fighter pilot with an awesome motorcycle.”
He loved math and truly had a knack for it. He says he has fond memories of playing “around the world” with his classmates, a “nerdy childhood game” that has students trying to answer math problems more quickly than their peers. He was good at it and says he’s “always been very math-oriented.”
Schlechty feels like he was always meant to work at Microsoft. In his freshman year of high school, he attended an event the company hosted for students with disabilities. He spent the day learning about opportunities in the tech industry and found out about the University of Washington’s DO-IT Scholars program.
Schlechty joined the program, which helps kids with disabilities learn about everything from self-advocacy — such as making sure future employers understand what accommodations they might need — to building strong résumés. It also encourages students to pursue internships.
Schlechty says his love of math, science and computer games made Microsoft seem like “a natural fit.” He landed a summer internship there after his senior year and a second one while he was in college. When he earned his computer science degree, he was excited to return to Microsoft for a full-time job.
Since he started in 2008, he says, he’s enjoyed working with “a super nice and ridiculously smart bunch of people” and having the chance to work on very “front and center” features that have an impact on the many people who use them.
Cyrus Balsara, group engineering manager for the team, says Schlechty’s expertise and sense of humor make him “an inspiration to everyone on the team.” But even though he codes with a mouse instead of a keyboard and needs to do some things a bit differently, Balsara says, “he’s just another one of the devs.”
“Chris is a core member of our dev team who is versatile enough to work on the full stack,” Balsara says. “His judgement and expertise with SharePoint is an invaluable asset to the team.”
In his focus on accessibility, Schlechty “can empathize, but it’s really just his personality. He’s gone deep into it, and he loves to mentor,” Balsara says. “Chris certainly has the expertise and the ability to guide a whole bunch of people.”
Schlechty helps encourage students with disabilities to go to college and pursue challenging careers. He’s mentored teens through the U.S. Business Leadership Network and is an advisory board member for DO-IT Scholars, helping host its students when they visit Microsoft each year.
Schlechty says Microsoft is a great place to be an engineer because of the people, the chance to do something meaningful and the incredible variety of opportunities it has to offer.
“You’re working on real problems or projects, and there are so many things Microsoft is doing that if you want to specifically work on one thing, or your interests change over time, you have opportunities to move around,” he says.
For Schlechty, it’s rewarding to help ensure people can use Microsoft products and “be successful in what they’re trying to do,” he says. “If a user is able to, say, use OneDrive for Business well, they’ll be able to effectively do their job — which is definitely important for both them and us.”
He’s also glad to work for a company that has made it a priority to help people of all abilities achieve more.
“It’s really exciting to see the push for accessibility coming from the very top levels at Microsoft,” he says. “And it’s great to be a part of the progress.”