Heather Lord Knight
Senior Engineering Manager
Job Title: Chief Operating Officer, Psychologist
Company: Psych Press
Pronouns: She / Her / Hers / Herself
Quiz Results: Developing Policy (Exploring, Coordinating, Communicating, Providing a Service)
I initially pursued a career in medicine, leaving Kuwait to study in the USA. As I worked more and more in emergency rooms, I could see that a lot of the problems that brought people in to us were actually manifestations of mental health issues. I had taken a few psychology courses along the way, as part of the whole mind-body connection. I was really interested in those, as well as some of the neuroscience / neuro behavioural. But in that emergency room, I was told "treat the body, not the mind." That was a turning point for me. I couldn't focus in class anymore, so I started to shift my degree to psychology. I moved to Australia, to finish my study at Deakin University. They were one of the first universities to offer an applied sciences degree in psychology, rather than a social sciences or humanities course.
During my postgraduate study, I applied for an internship with Psych Press. Their utilization of IT to solve psychological problems really appealed to me. I had actually done an IT degree before I started medicine. I found the material in that course was wonderful.
Sixteen years after choosing Psych Press, I haven't looked back. I have had many opportunities to work with other organisations, which has probably been what has kept me here. The main application of our algorithm has been to improve upon the traditional hiring process (which is subject to a high level of bias) but we have been able to extend our research to other applications. For example, predicting student success at school, aged care planning and even working with AFL teams. My role has evolved within the business, from consultant psychologist to Chief Operating Officer. My role now as COO requires me to have oversight over both the psychology and IT side of the business, as well as the financials and the human resources element. It's moved away from just working in the business to working on the business.
I also do a lot of volunteer work, particularly around women in leadership and tech and the issues of racism and gender identity that many women of colour face in this industry. I do a lot of research in that space, looking at the algorithms that exist within different programs that enhance and perpetuate bias. I teach, at university level, looking at career development. We particularly focus on increasing STEM exposure to psychology students, for them to develop an appreciation of how technology can enhance what they're learning.
My partner is a writer and currently studying for his teaching degree. As a consequence of being around screenwriters, I often get to use my psychology hat to help them with character development for TV shows. It's been interesting to be able to listen to the writers' ideas and attempt to put principles of psychology in movies and TV. I never thought I would do that kind of consultation before! I also love to garden, paint, read and I spend a lot of time trying to get my godchildren interested in STEM. I'm a big cook - I love the chaos of cooking because I don't like to follow recipes. That little scientist in me loves messing about with chemistry and testing those basic principles of physics (which I've never forgotten)!
Traditional interview processes are very inaccurate. All the research points to the fact that you make up your mind about someone in the first three minutes of the interview. After that, you spend the rest of that time basically disproving or proving why that might be the case. We are not without biases, and so there are a lot of internal biases that we bring into human interaction. How is this perpetuated? A lot of interviews that exist right now are unstructured interviews by people who don't necessarily understand how the interview process works. There is some validity if the interview is performed by an experienced interviewer, using a structured format, recording and measuring it numerically. However most organizations don't do this.
So having an objective measure of what someone's abilities and behavioural characteristics might be in the workplace can actually give you that one point of objective data, rather than just guessing. At Psych Press, the metrics that we look at are specific to not only the field, but also the culture of the organization. We need to understand the strategy of the organization and what they hope to achieve. We look at the role and the expectations of the individual in that role. Then we look at existing employees, both high and low performers, from this we can derive a bandwidth. The predictive analytics start kicking in there. The algorithm improves over time as the organization puts people through the system and we get performance data back.
We extend our research to other applications as well. Currently, we are working on an algorithm that predicts success in school. We know that the ATAR alone does not make effective predictions, yet that's the single measure utilised by all educational institutions because there is no other way to do it. We are looking at students at a much earlier stage, year 7, and measuring their objective abilities, personality and wellbeing across the spectrum as they progress through the schooling system. We distinguish between learned behaviours as opposed to the intrinsic abilities of the individual. From that, we are able to predict an ATAR within a 7% error rate. So, we can say 'here's the ATAR score we can anticipate, all things being equal.' If they're not achieving the scores to build that ATAR, then it is clearly a function of wellbeing because all their intrinsic abilities indicate they should be there. Demonstrating whether those skills are being scaffolded properly allows for better prediction of future success. We don't want those children to be negatively impacted because they didn't get the appropriate educational attainment. So the objective is to try and give not only teachers, but also parents and the students themselves, data that can empower that conversation as well.
We are also doing research in aged care. I'm working on an algorithm that looks at the decisions that need to be made in time to ensure someone that enters the aged care system has all the resources available to them. Intuitive planning that shifts and changes as the persons' circumstances shift and change. We are also in the process of publishing our predictive computer testing approach to assess the early onset of dementia. We've just started our first protocol in the UK, since the UK has had the most instances of COVID impacting upon memory.
Finally, we also work with some of the AFL teams. We look at hundreds of players and derive trends, look at potential issues and challenges that players have, and what they might look like in periods of stress. This behavioural and ability data drives the recommendations of who should be the number one pick, who will perform. At that elite status, everyone is physically impressive, what makes an athlete stand out is their psychology. Being able to kind of give that kind of predictive data back in a fast time frame, within a week, is really powerful because it means immediate interventions can be put in place. Rather than waiting for problems to exacerbate and fall apart later down the road. It's been really interesting working with the teams and understanding what the motivation is of each team and how they deal with their data and players, especially the rookies. Helping the teams make the decision as to when the rookie player gets a chance to first be on the field is really important. We need to consider if the player is psychologically ready to go. They might think they're ready, but one bad game for somebody that has previously been the star of their high school will make the difference as to whether or not they'll continue to thrive. We call this "above the shoulder fitness." Considering whether they are psychologically ready to be in the spotlight, to have everything that they're doing scrutinized and managed.
As a student, looking at yourself in terms of personality characteristics and competencies is really valuable. When I was in high school, we didn't have specific careers counsellors, but a few months before I finished up we had a psychologist come in to work with us. She made us do a self-directed search, of which my results indicated psychology, not medicine! Listening to that would have saved me about seven years of pain and unhappiness. I do a lot of career development with young interns that work with us. At the end of the day, knowing your strengths, values and interests, is really powerful. It doesn't mean that you can't follow a career path that you are in love with. It's about understanding how you can make that career work for you. Understanding what the things are that you like and dislike. I genuinely believe everyone has something unique they can bring into the workforce, it's about taking the time to understand what that is. In that sense, assessment is really valuable. I'd love for young people to know early on that they could be an innovator, an entrepreneur.
I think the earlier we start that conversation the better. All the pressure comes in year 10, which is unrealistic because you don't know anything about yourself! All of a sudden, you have to pick these subjects and decide who you're going to be for the rest of your life. We need to change and shift, give young people more data about themselves so that they are making more informed decisions. It's important to remember that the data is not driving you to exactly one career. The reality is we're all going to change our careers at least, you know, three to five times. But it's about knowing what the possibilities are and composing the central set of characteristics that lets you be all of these things.
My role now as COO, as opposed to a consultant psychologist, requires me to have oversight over both the psychology and IT side of the business, as well as the financials and the human resources element. It's moved away from just working in the business to working on the business. In the last two or three years this has meant taking a hard look at the business and deciding that we need to change to stay relevant. Then identifying the stakeholders who we could bring into the organization to assist us with that change. In the past 18 months, we have overhauled the entire IT infrastructure of Psych Press to look at what parts of the infrastructure are assets to the business. There's now nothing inside at any level in the business that couldn't potentially be sold as an asset. We've shifted from being just a psychometric assessment, to being a technology firm that uses psychology to solve problems.
In terms of the human element, this has allowed me to have more strategic conversations with staff, asking what they particularly want to get out of their career. As a result we've changed the training model. Now we have training based on need versus what we think is important. Everyone gets a career plan and mentors. We've gotten away from the traditional, static kind of responsibilities and moved towards responsibilities that can shift among team members. One of the team could be head of something this week, but then they could move to head of something else in a few months down the line because they've now gotten a new area of competence. People are fluidly working with the organization based on their career path and what they're interested in, while still meeting the organization's objectives. Those are some examples of how my role has significantly changed as COO.