Why the "Airport Test" for interviews has always been terrible idea

I generally like to wrap posts up - to complete a thought - and since this is a topic I hadn't really completely made my mind up about, I've avoided writing about it.

But this post from Hunter Walk reminded me about something a good friend told me Richard Thaler said to him in class about the kind of comments he wanted to hear: (paraphrasing a lot since its been ~8 years) "completed thoughts are uninteresting. The best discussions are around ideas still in progress and the act of discussing the idea helps it come to fruition".

This week I was thinking about interviews quite a bit. I interviewed more candidates for Google than I usually do, and I ran into friends interviewing at different places who were discussing their experiences. At the end of one of these conversations, someone brought up the Airport Test and how important he believed it was to his process.

For the last year, I've been interviewing about 1 to 2 candidates every week for Google, mostly Product Managers. I look for many things while interviewing, but the one thing I explicitly avoid trying to think about is the "Airport Test" - i.e. evaluating if I'd be comfortable and enjoy spending time with this person if we were stuck at an airport for an extended period of time.

I first heard about the Airport Test in the while in business school - mainly around interviews for consulting firms and investment banks - where we were told repeatedly that interviewers would be looking for people that could pass this test. After all the argument went, in these professions there was a very real chance you'd be stuck at the airport with this person and it really was a good way to gauge a person's "fit" with the company. I thought, even then, that the airport test was symptomatic of everything that was wrong with interview processes, and some of these companies.

The test, or at least the the way most people interpreted it, suggested that  - more or less - we should hire people that we thought we'd enjoy spending time with. The natural extension of that, for most people, is that they hire people like them - that share their interests, their ambitions, their philosophy, perhaps even their backgrounds. Thinking of the interview process in this way leads to all sort of sub-optimal decisions. It makes it that much easier to disregard someone of different race, background, gender or even lower proficiency in a language. It makes one, on the margin, favor compatibility over talent, which is incredibly dangerous to any company in the long run.

So this seems pretty black-and-white. Why my ambivalence about the "Airport Test"? Well, most of my favorite colleagues pass the Airport Test with flying colors, and many of the ones I haven't enjoyed working with would fail it.

Most great colleagues have turned into good friends, and we have indeed occasionally had good conversations at an airport. I do end up caring about them, their families and their happiness - not just the project we're working on at the time. Similarly, colleagues that have a lot of talent, but for whatever reason aren't a good cultural fit for the team have ended up making themselves and everyone else around them unhappy.

So while fit is important, I do think the Airport Test is the wrong way to think about fit. Instead, if gauging fit it important to your process, I think is for more valuable to try and understand
  • how does this person treat his/her colleagues?
  • or their reports?
  • do they seem kind and considerate? 
  • are they respectful towards others?
  • are they the right kind of ambitious?
These questions are more likely to find great people, while not biasing one's outlook. These traits are far more important that if you share an interest in the same sport, books or movies, or can have sparkling conversation on demand.

And what do I do if I'm actually stuck at an airport with a great colleague, but find we don't have too much to talk about? 

I'm sure we'll both be savvy enough to carry enough videos to watch or books to read, or just have good ol email to catch up on. :-) 


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