Talk to a Tykling: Alok Singh, DevOps Engineer

Talk to a Tykling – getting to know Alok Singh, DevOps Engineer

Tyk was born out of a desire to make things better. From a tiny initial team to a global organisation that is bursting with talent, we’ve expanded rapidly as our product has caught the attention of clients around the world.

But who are the people behind the product? To answer that question, we’re running our Talk to a Tykling interview series, giving you a glimpse of the smart cookies who make the magic happen.

This week, we caught up with Alok Singh, a key member of the Tyk DevOps team, chatting about everything from small form computers to philosophy.

What do you do at Tyk?

I work in the DevOps team. We’re the team that’s responsible for keeping Tyk Cloud running and for building and distributing the code. We maintain the form in which Tyk is consumed by our customers – packages, docker images, AMIs and whatnot. We build those artefacts out of the source for every release.

I take it you have a technical background… What was the path that led you to Tyk?

I’m one of those people who fell into the computer field at a young age. I’ve been fooling around with computers since I was 9 or 10. I’m about 40 now, so it’s been a long time!

Did you study something IT-related?

Actually, no. My degree is in electronics and communication engineering. It was enjoyable but with computers the work is a lot easier and the money is almost as good! You really have to be on top of your game when it comes to electronics.

I imagine you have to be fairly on top of your game to do what you do at Tyk too, speaking as a non-technical person!

Ha ha! I think familiarity breeds contempt. I’m very comfortable and confident with what I’m doing now.

Where do you live and where did you grow up?

I’m currently in India and largely grew up here. Up to high school I grew up in Bangalore, in the south. It’s reasonably well known as an IT location now and when I was growing up you could see that it was on track to become an IT hub.

We had BBSs way back in the 1980s. It was really fun. I knew everyone in the city who had a computer and was my age – all five of us!

Can you tell us a bit about your early career?

I went away to study in Kozhikode (Calicut) for university, then came back to Bangalore afterwards. My first job was at IBM, as a corporate gig felt like the right move after uni. It was reasonably fun for three years, right up to the point where I became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole industry!

My next move was to start with a friend. We were into peer to peer lending, back in 2006. That was my first remote job. My partner lived in New York and I lived in Bangalore and we’d been running the company for two years before we actually met face to face. This was back in the day when Webex was still a dot on the horizon! This crashed and burned within about three years or so, leaving me quite depressed and disillusioned once more.

After that I spent about three years working for a non-profit – an NGO that was doing work in government primary schools. I still did tech, more or less, managing a lot of the data and that sort of thing, but it was tech with a purpose.

Then I started Idea Device with a larger group of friends. We raised money – and spent quite a lot of it as well! The company was going places but we still all shared a bit of a sense of disillusionment with the whole industry. Thankfully, having been funded by Sequoia, there was an acqui-hire on the horizon; the company was bought by Nutanix, which does hyper-converged stacks.

After that I took a break for a year to decompress, as the second company was pretty intense. Then I moved to set up Wobe, an agent-based network selling digital products in Indonesia, funded by MercyCorp. It was fun but more of a social entrepreneurship – our focus was on supporting women in Indonesia and we mapped out a long-term structure and strategy.

It was a fantastic experience to meet so many committed and interesting individuals. I fell in love with Indonesia completely. We ended up parting ways amicably when I went to work for Canonical for a year or so, with their BootStack team. The work was very cumbersome and when I had to move to China, VPNs became a problem and  that came to an end.

And now here I am at Tyk, where I’ve worked for nearly a year!

Have you met many members of the Tyk team in person?

I’ve met a couple of colleagues who have been passing through Bangalore, but I interact with most of the team remotely. I was looking forward to meeting everyone at the company retreat this year, but we’ve had to postpone that due to coronavirus. I was also planning to visit Singapore to catch up with old friends and eat some of my favourite foods, but it looks like I’ll have to wait a while to do that too!

What is it that you enjoy about working at Tyk?

Number one, the culture. And numbers two and three, the culture! It’s a really, really good environment. I’ve tried to build teams, I’ve worked for corporates, I’ve worked for non-profits and this is one of the best environments that I’ve ever been in.

It’s the people who make it so good. They’ve got their heads screwed on right and don’t get worked up over things that aren’t worth getting worked up over! The communication is better than average – people really take care about how they interact with each other and that’s really important when you interact by typing a lot.

My team is also really great – my boss is really cool and calm about things.

Considering the IT industry as a whole, what pain point would you like to be able to address?

Two of the companies I started were primarily related to connecting people. I think it’s more of a general problem than an IT industry one but finding ways to connect folks is important to me. It’s a problem that I like to work on.

What are your tips for getting the best out of a remote-first organisation?

It’s a personal experience for everyone – you come up with tweaks that work for you but that might not work for others. There are certainly a few things that took me a while to learn when I first worked remotely.

First is that you still have to have a routine. Without that, things don’t work. You also have to find a place that is conducive for you to work. Working remotely is very different to sitting in an office that you don’t like – at least you still go there and have colleagues around and know that things get done. If you work remotely somewhere that’s not conducive to work, nothing will get done!

For me, I very rarely work from home. I have an office space that’s about a 20-minute bike ride from my home. I go there, work, then come home. I have a desktop there that I mainly use, plus a laptop for emergencies! It’s about separating work and home life.

Please can you share details of a mistake that you made early on in your career and what you learned from it?

Certainly. I think that the mistake that I made, if you can characterise it as that, was not knowing any better – and not knowing that I didn’t know any better! I thought I knew better.

Then, the realisation at the end of all of this was, I’m still not sure if I know better! For all I know, right now while I’m thinking, “Yeah, I’ve got a handle on things,” maybe I haven’t. Maybe in 20 years I’ll be looking back on myself and laughing!

I think that lack of perspective if just the way things are – I’m not sure if it’s a mistake or not! I’m not sure at what age doubt started creeping into my life. Up until that point, life was very simple!

What are the values that drive you personally and how do they fit with the work that you do at Tyk?

To me, software – and IT itself – is just a tool to do something else. And sometimes not a very good tool, depending on the problem you’re trying to solve! It’s important to me to focus on solving problems and to be invested in the effort to do so.

Openness is also important – transparency. Aligning that with what I do is a good motivator to get out of bed every morning!

What are your three favourite books and/or podcasts?

My favourite podcast is Philosophize This! It’s run by a US professor, I think, and covers almost every single philosophical point, starting from Aristotle, Plato, all of that. It couches them in accessible terms that you can use in building your theories.

I also follow Echoes of India, which is a podcast that takes a more rigorous look into Indian history. Indian history is full of myths and fables. This looks at it from a more historical perspective.

My third favourite is a book: The Decline of Nair Dominance. Nairs are a caste in India. This is a book written by an American who lived in Kerala for a while. He wrote about the changing society in structural terms. Caste is a touchy subject in India, like racism and colour and things like that. Seeing it in structural terms really opened my eyes to how society operates.

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

I like to cook and to travel. Scotland is the place I would go back to if I could pick only one location. It’s like Ireland but with rough edges!

I also like tinkering with small form computers – computers that are about the size of two cigarette packets. I have a bunch of them at home. My blog, my code, my repositories are all hosted from there – it all runs from my house.