Talk to a Tykling: Agata Witkowska, Product Owner

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Talk to a Tykling – getting to know Agata Witkowska, Product Owner

Tyk is making a name for itself as an innovative organisation offering a successful API management solution. Tyk serves a global client based, with a team of employees scattered across the world. But how does that work in practice? Who are these dedicated Tyklings making everything work behind the scenes?

This week, we beam our spotlight over to Gdańsk and ask Agata Witkowska how her first two months as Product Owner at Tyk have gone. We cover everything from her love of learning to how she’s adjusting to Tyk’s policy of ‘unlimited vacation’. She also shares how learning Portuguese, inspired by sibling rivalry, set her off on a path that ultimately led to Tyk.

What do you do at Tyk?

My official title is Product Owner. I work with two teams, which is exciting but means a lot of meetings! A Product Owner sits between business and engineering. The engineers are so involved with the technical side of the product, so sometimes it’s hard for them to understand how it actually answers the needs of the market or the customer. I’m the person that tries to translate the business needs into a tangible workable thing that the engineers can pick up.

There are a lot of meetings, a lot of talking. I like that! I enjoy creating a rapport with people and engaging with them. It involves on the one hand understanding the business and the business needs and what our customers are actually doing with the product. And on the other hand it requires understanding some of the technical terms and how our software works – and Tyk is a really technical product.

It’s fun because I get to talk to a lot of people and I get to find out a lot of interesting ideas people have about how they want to use our software. And it’s also a lot of learning for me, just to be able to talk to the engineers in a way that they understand me. Sometimes I have to ask them to explain something to me as if I was their grandmother! It’s fun to find a language among ourselves where we understand what each other is talking about.

I am very busy and I haven’t even been here for two months yet. I’ve been excited to join Tyk but I was initially a little bit anxious about how it would work, as I have two squads. The other Product Owners have one, so I’ve been thrown in at the deep end! But everyone’s been so supportive. This is the thing that has delighted me the most. I think even though it’s one of the more responsible positions I’ve had in my career, it’s been one of the easiest starts I’ve had in any company, so that helps calm me down!

What else do you love about working at Tyk?

I’ve been working with dev teams for years. There is this misconception outside of engineering that dev engineers are nerds and I’ve always said that I love watching the engineers because they are so creative. Right now, for example, I’ve just switched from a meeting where we have encountered an issue we need to fix. My team has just jumped on a call and started brainstorming how to work around the issue. I was there for 15 minutes and there were 10 different ideas already. There’s been a lot of discussion and people are really eager to chip in. So, one person encountered the problem but then the whole team comes together and tries to think of the solution. This is something I really like.

Before, I worked for companies that didn’t really create their own product but were outsourcing things to clients instead. I was really missing the accountability and responsibility that you have when you work for a company that’s developing and selling its own products. That was one of my motivations to change – you can see the different mindsets in people when they are working on a product that they believe in. They’re much more prepared to go the extra mile to make sure that what they deliver is amazing. I love this part, so far.

Also, I come from Poland and we have a slightly different culture being in the Eastern side of Europe. One of my friends who already worked for Tyk reached out to me about the position. He was telling me about the unlimited vacation policy and I asked him, ‘What does that mean?!’. He said that you can take time off whenever you like. It’s still a mystery to me and I’m still not completely sure how it works but I’ve just had a long weekend. I took Thursday and Friday off and went to Warsaw with my niece and had lots of fun! Now I’m back and energised.

Where do you prefer to work?

I’ve always worked in the office. I did have a lot of freedom to work from home in my previous role, but because my team was in one place it was much easier to work at the site with them. When the pandemic came, we all had to work from home. At the beginning I was a little worried, but it turns out that if you have people who are enthusiastic about their work and proud of what they’re doing, it doesn’t matter if they’re sitting at the next desk or not. The pandemic gave me a neat segue into what’s happening now.

I do like working from my own home. I think it’s because I have this comfortable situation where I live alone, I don’t have to take care of any kids, so I can create a calm space. I fixed up my work setup here last year. I have a bigger desk, a nice view of greenery out of my window and new plants. So I am still in this phase of liking working from home.

I decided to take advantage of what Tyk offers though and I‘m going to realize one of my dreams later this year. I’m going to live and work in Portugal in September for a month, close to Lisbon. Portugal has stolen my heart. I spend two weeks there every year. And one of things I am planning towards is moving to Portugal permanently. Working for Tyk means I have the perfect opportunity to try it out for a month.

I can already speak Portuguese. My sister went to study in Portugal years ago. I went to visit her, and was impressed she could speak a little Portuguese – she could order coffee and things like that. I thought to myself, my younger sister can speak a language that I can’t! So, my driver to learn was sibling rivalry! When I got back home, I found myself a teacher and had some private lessons.

Do you speak any other languages?

My native language is Polish. I used to speak a lot of German. I’ve been using English at work for years now but whenever I go to Germany it takes me two to three days to switch. And because Portuguese is similar to Spanish, the more port I have, the better Spanish I speak!

Thinking about the tech sector, what problem would you fix if you had a magic wand?

My view is probably influenced by the Eastern European way of working. I am a woman in a very masculine industry. If there’s one thing I could get rid of, it’s this misconception that many people have that tech is a man’s industry and you can’t be as good as men are.

This is one of the things that has delighted me here at Tyk because I haven’t felt any sort of apprehension or different treatment. I’ve met with that a lot in the past though. I can deal with it; I learned to deal with it. I can hold my ground but if we could just stop losing time on this passive aggressive kind of stuff that women get, that would be great.

I do think we’re entering the age of women – there is no other way but to give women more power and to listen to them. We’re starting to see things slightly differently, like global and society issues.

At Tyk I’ve been pleasantly surprised. My previous company was in Belarus. When I worked with clients in the UK, they were so progressive and celebrated my knowledge and professionalism, so that my previous employer was left behind. It was so different. I realised I didn’t want to deal with that attitude anymore – I wanted to work on the other side.

Then I came to Tyk in June, Pride month. I like to consider myself an ally to the LGBTQ community. I saw that people talk openly about it and there are lots of activities being organised, and I thought, this is where I want to be. It’s a complicated issue but I’m really delighted to be here.

I went through so many cultural shocks for work when I first joined Tyk because you get so much freedom in how you work and what you work on. People are willing to listen to your ideas, no matter what they are. You don’t have to have a big title for the management to listen to you. That really took me aback in the beginning. I’ve been going through a lot of work-related cultural shocks here. So far, they’ve all been positive!

Could you give me a two-minute history of your life up until Tyk?

I’m from Poland and I’ve lived here almost all my life. I first started working in retail. It was long hours and it was horrible, dealing with hundreds of people in customer service. I decided I couldn’t live like that, so that was when I learnt Portuguese. There was a company here in Gdańsk that was looking for Portuguese speaking people. It allowed me to switch sectors. I got interested in their core business, which was financial data, and because I’ve always been good at maths it made sense to me. From there I went to work more closely on supporting customers with financial market data.

Then they closed my department, so I got myself a job with the competition at Bloomberg in London. It was a completely different world – switching from an Eastern European country to working with UK clients. I lived in London for a year, and I went into a very specialised field – derivatives. But I was missing family and friends a lot and found myself coming back to Gdańsk every weekend. It made no sense, so I decided to go back to Poland.

Then I got a job that was half financial engineering and half business analysis and this was my step into the IT world. I got interested in the business development field and I got the opportunity to do some project management stuff. It all led me to a Product Owner role – that’s a natural transition for a lot of business analysts.

So, learning Portuguese started me on this path. My mum always says that jealousy is not a good trait, but she was glad I was jealous of my sister! Otherwise, it would have been hard to make that transition. I had a little bit of luck.

What would your tips be for someone coming into a remote-first company like Tyk?

I try to plan my work around my life instead of planning my life around my work. I do have meetings I have to attend but if I feel there’s great weather outside and I want to go biking and I see there are a couple of hours free in my calendar, I’ll go biking. So, my advice is to just let go a little bit. I’ve been in jobs where you work 10-12 hours a day and it burns you out.

Before I joined Tyk I told myself I need to let go, and with remote working that’s easier to do. You have time during the day. You’re not sitting in the office. You can switch and it’s much easier. So, my advice would be to learn to let go and learn to intertwine your daily life with your work, instead of building your life around what you do.

In your earlier career, is there a mistake you made that you learned something valuable from?

I’ve made a lot of mistakes! When I came back from London, I started working for a French company – my first step into the IT world. I had a lot of theoretical knowledge from the financial market, but I didn’t have a lot of practice working with dev teams.

Being an ambitious person, I decided I had to learn everything and threw myself into the job. I worked 10-12 hours a day, catching up at home, and after several months I found myself so burnt out that I was actually diagnosed with depression. I went to therapy, and it’s all good now, but I remember back then, I asked myself why I was doing this? The world is not going to stop if I don’t know what a retrospective is!

I realised that I don’t have to know everything. I am ambitious and I like to be good at things – but bringing me to a new environment and industry created this explosive mixture where it really led me to a dark place. Since then, every time I started a new project or new job, I always ask myself what I want to get from the experience, from a personal perspective. With Tyk, it’s learning to let go. And with previous jobs I had other personal goals. So that helped me not get to that dark place again.

What I love at Tyk is that I’m really not afraid to ask questions. I’ve never met with a reaction of ‘you should know that by now’. Nobody takes anything for granted – we all have different experiences. I’m happy to explain and help out anyone and it’s nice to get the same back.

What are the values that drive you personally?

It’s a whole range of things that have evolved from when I was in my twenties to now. I like to learn stuff. I like to know stuff. That not only influences my career path but also my daily life. This has been a little bit of a problem for me sometimes. I would start a university course, for example, and if it wasn’t interesting enough, I would just drop out. So, I had to learn that if I start something I need to finish it.

I really thrive in an environment where people are curious, and it influences my choices in life. I’m always thinking, can I learn something from that? This helps me have self-motivation, which I think is great for my employers! Because to be honest there’s a lot of people in the IT world where the only thing they’re looking at is how much money they are going to make. For me that has always been somewhere further down the list. I’m more interested in what other values a company represents.

With Tyk, one of the things that brought me here was that Tyk had a webpage about diversity commitment. That really touched my heart. I want to work for a company that thinks like that. So, I want to learn something new, but I also want the values of the people I work with to be similar to mine – respect and acceptance of different people, cultures and minorities.

What are your three favourite books and/or podcasts?

This is a Polish book – Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher. It’s a game too. I love the book, it’s the best ever. I always cry when I read it – I’ve read it around 20 times. Every time, I find something new in it, depending on where I am in my life – and how mature I am!

One of my favourite podcasts is in Portuguese. I don’t have much opportunity to speak Portuguese in Poland, so I listen to Portuguese podcasts. One of the best is Eixo do Mal. It’s about the issues of the week. So, I get my weekly ‘what’s happening in the world’ in Portuguese.

It’s really hard to choose another book – there are so many that I love! Because I do a lot of complicated things at work, with lots of analysis and numbers, I like to read books that don’t require too much thinking – it’s a good balance. There’s a Polish author called Joanna Chmielewska who’s like a celebrity who writes crime novels. She used to work as an architect and would come up with stories based on everyday life.  She was a writer in the 70s and 80s so you can still feel the older reality that we had here in Poland, like you had to stand in line to buy a sausage and have coupons to buy meat. The plots are always fun and interesting and her way of writing is really light and she makes a lot of jokes. She uses words that people don’t use anymore, and I love that. I like any book by her. I’ve read some of them 50 times. It’s a great way to relax.

What do you like doing when you’re not working?

I do weightlifting, though because of the pandemic, I’ve had a little break. I started with Olympic weightlifting, then I moved to classic lifting. I really like it; it’s like therapy. When you have your workout, you have to count how many reps you’ve done, how many rounds you’ve done, what the weights should be on your bar… It’s just like therapy because for 1.5 hours, as I have to count all the time. I have no time to think about anything that’s stressful or dwell on things. I’m slowly coming back to it now that the gyms have opened again. 

In the meantime, when I wasn’t doing weightlifting, I took up playing piano. I used to play when I was younger, so I bought myself a little electronic piano and picked it up again. My mum is really touched when she listens to me play.