Talk to a Tykling: Chris Fewtrell, Support Agent

Talk to a Tykling – getting to know Chris Fewtrell, Support Agent

Tyk works with clients of all shapes and sizes. We support them to make things better. One way we do that is through our tech. The other is through our talented team.

That team hails from across the globe. At last count, Tyk’s workers lived in 25 different countries. National borders are no obstacle when it comes to finding the best people to be part of the Tyk team!

Take Chris Fewtrell, one of the newest members of our support team. Based in the UK, Chris is supporting our clients across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. We caught up with him to discuss the joys of problem-solving, the beauty of data and the enduring appeal of the Camel Book.

What do you do at Tyk?

I joined Tyk in January 2020, so I’m still quite a newbie! I’m a Support Agent, primarily focusing on the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. I’m first line support, picking up tickets from customers when they have issues or questions or just want to make the Tyk software do something that they’re unsure how to achieve.

I’m also involved in the community forums and I try to answer questions there. It’s a great way to see what people are using the software for and to build up my experience here at Tyk. My role is all about problem solving and helping people achieve what they want to achieve.

Is there a big difference between the support that commercial clients need from you and the problems that the community need solved?

There’s a difference in focus. Obviously, we’re exceptionally attentive to those paying for reactive support! That can mean using the ticket system or else jumping on a call to get to the heart of the issue and understand what it is that the client needs to do. We can then either make changes to the software or find a suitable workaround that achieves what they need – the emphasis is on finding a workable solution.

The community is also very solution-focussed, but in a way that encourages more discussion. The range of people involved is very broad and there are some exceptionally clever individuals among them! So discussions with the community can lead to some pretty amazing developments.

Plenty of other Tyk staff get involved in the community, from sales staff to engineers. If somebody has an answer that they think might be helpful, they can jump in and share their idea.

In terms of responsibility, the community forums fall under the remit of the support department, so we tend to lend a hand and offer insights into how the gateway works and how people can use it, especially as it’s an open source project and everyone has access to the source code. In fact, one of the first questions I ever responded to was someone asking how to build the gateway from source!

What led you to Tyk in the first place – what’s your background?

It’s been a long journey! I grew up in Essex in southeast England. I’ve always had a fascination with computers in one form or another. By age 14 I was convinced I wanted to be a systems analyst, which was highly specific!

I studied computer science at degree level then bounced around a few jobs after leaving university. I’ve worked in professional computing roles for 20 years now, including 16 years at my previous employer.

My background is in software development, software design and architecture, all the way up to enterprise architecture. I’ve worked to promote the adoption of new technologies and methodologies, working to apply them in a context that’s suitable for business use.

My previous role was going in a direction I didn’t agree with, so it was time for a change. Tyk popped up on my radar looking for experienced people to fulfil a support role. I like the problem-solving aspect of what I do and I had plenty of experience. The potential to support people to achieve as part of the Tyk role really resonated with me and with what I enjoy doing. And so here I am!

Where are you usually based (lockdown restrictions aside)?

I usually work from home. I’m a consummate geek, in many ways, and my home setup is my castle. It’s a very comfortable setup. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years building it up, so I work most comfortably from here.

I have popped into Tyk’s London office, but I’m generally based at home with my two machine/five monitor setup! It’s nice to have this much desktop real estate and to have reference materials open all the time. The trouble is, once you get used to having five monitors, there’s no going back!

What do you like about working at Tyk?

Tyk is very friendly. Everybody’s always reaching out and checking how you’re doing and willing to chip in to reach goals and achieve things. There’s always someone who will respond if I reach out with a question. Tyk is a 24/7 company as it’s fully remote working, so people are globally distributed, with expertise available at any time of day or night.

It’s quite intimidating to come in on the ground floor of such a complicated product and to get to understand all of the nuances in order to support it, so it’s nice to know that everyone is there to help. Whenever I’ve reached out (which isn’t something I’m great at!), I’ve got an answer which has directly helped me to progress.

The company feels very much ‘on’ all the time as a result of the way it’s organised and distributed around the globe. I’m constantly feeling that I’m a part of a greater whole.

In terms of the tech sector more widely, is there a particular problem that you wish you could fix?

One thing I’ve sat with for the past few years is how much raw data is floating around the planet. There are companies accruing vast amounts of data without actually knowing why or what it means.

There are some magnificent things that you can do with data (as well as some quite nefarious things). You can use data analysis to provide people with better services and better automated responses and to more proactively ensure that they’re getting what they need, when they need it.

The biggest problem is usually access to the data, including understanding and managing that access. Many years ago, I realised that most people don’t really want specialist software to access the data, they just want to pull it out to an Excel spreadsheet where they can play around with it and see what falls out. They want fast, dynamic access rather than narrow queries that take a long time to fulfil.

The problem is ensuring that you manage access to the data in a sensible and controlled way. There tends to be a disconnect between the people managing the data from a functional perspective and those managing its security. That tends to slow things down.

This is why microservices for accessing data keep popping up and then dying. You need a binding element of management to ensure that everything is secure and that you can manage it confident, consistently and in a way that’s auditable. API gateways provide that managing element! They can integrate with security policies and setups while also letting those who need to process the data to do just that.

API gateways enable companies to try things quickly to see what works. By lifting out all of the elements that used to slow down data access, that management layer can rapidly ramp up a company’s ability to react, without sacrificing security. It enables better collaboration between developers and security officers.

A lot of people want to be able to access data and act upon it. They don’t want an application to access it – just the data itself. Tyk is part of the solution to that.

Could you take Tyk and build that solution?

Absolutely. A lot of companies use directory management like that to represent roles and permissions. Tyk can integrate with that sort of thing – it’s a gateway through to all the different clusters or functionalities behind it, with a standardised form of access.

You can set data access permissions by role, then use the gateway to track and monitor that access. The security team carry on as usual and so do the developers.

It sounds like Tyk is a very versatile product. How varied is the support that you provide to the company’s commercial users?

When people come to the product initially, they tend to focus on one particular purpose for it. They want to use Tyk to expose and manage their APIs. It’s when you sit down and talk with them that the possibilities start expanding outwards.

Tyk can let requests pass straight through if needed, but it can do so much more, transforming requests on the journey inward and on the way out again. It can log it and do plenty more on top too – Tyk has a lot of tools built in to help users achieve what they want to achieve. That versatility means that you can always find a workaround, even if Tyk doesn’t perform a particular function.

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

Decide a schedule that’s comfortable for you; decide what your comfortable working day looks like. A lot of people at Tyk break their day up in different ways. They still provide the results they need to, but they structure their day around what makes them comfortable.

Communication is key too. And this is something that I have to work on personally! Everyone is there to help – all you have to do is reach out and chat. The Tyk Cafés, where everyone jumps on a video call for a chat twice a week, are a great communication tool. Sometimes it’s about a work query but often it’s just people catching up – the equivalent of water cooler chats. It’s a good way to get to know people and build up camaraderie.

There are some very clever people working at Tyk and it’s great to be able to get to know them through the Cafés. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere, which encourages you to join in even when you’re an introvert like me. It’s really friendly and inclusive.

The founders join in too. James, our COO, drops into the Cafés regularly, and our CEO, Martin, pops up joining in conversations all over the place. He produces regular video updates too – they’re like company TV episodes!

In terms of your career, what is a mistake that you made and what did you learn from it?

Thinking I could do everything! My boss at the time had to explain that there were only so many hours in the day and that I couldn’t do everything on my own. This was when my role was taking on aspects of managing people, meaning I had to delegate and help train other people up.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than seeing others succeed and helping them to push forward. But I needed to realise that, while I can be a one-person army, I’m never going to reach the finish line that way! I had to learn to delegate appropriately and ensure that everyone had the tools they needed.

That was a big turning point that had a radical impact on my career. It opened up whole new routes of styles of collaboration and people management, including different ways of working as part of a team, for example through technical mentoring in order to help others achieve. That makes me happy – I feel like I have achieved because they have achieved.

What are the values that drive you?

Transparency. I like to be upfront and open about things – I don’t have the time or inclination to disseminate and disassemble things, so I don’t! And I like it when others are the same with me. I don’t care if a situation is good or bad – I just want to know the reality of it so that I can understand it. I want people to freely express themselves without having to dress anything up for me. Just to be honest and upfront.

I like to know how things work. I tend to take things apart and reassemble then or reuse the components elsewhere. I think this is part of the whole transparency thing too, but it’s also about clarity and about explanations. I like to have all the information and to understand it. It ties in with me liking access to data in order to be able to do my job. I like to be overloaded with information. Although that’s one of my faults, actually – I tend to overload people a bit, so I’ve learned to hold back sometimes!

Does your emphasis on openness fit well within Tyk?

It does, particularly with how open they are with offers of help and support. Everyone is encouraged to try and make things work and to ask questions all the time. There really is no such thing as a stupid question at Tyk! And you can ask them of whoever you want.

The whole community setup is really supportive. You even have a non-management colleague assigned when you start at Tyk – someone outside of your hierarchy who you can talk to, who helps you to get a feel for the company and how things work.

What are your three favourite books?

My favourite book is Information is Beautiful by David McCandless – it was a gift from a client of one of the companies I worked for a few years ago. I’m not artistic in the slightest, but it’s a wonderful book to flick through to see just how beautifully information can be rendered. I sometimes sit and flick through it when I’m trying to work out how to deliver information.

One thing I’m working on at Tyk, for example, is a knowledge map of issues, to help narrow down support options faster. I’ve been considering diagrammatic ways of representing that bullet point information, so that others find it useful. I like to keep the book to hand for inspiration.

My second book probably reveals too much about how long I’ve been in the IT industry – it’s for a programming language called Perl, which I don’t think anybody wants to write anything in anymore! It has a reference book (Programming Perl) called the ‘Camel Book’ because of the picture of the camel on the front. It’s been through about five editions and I own four of them!

It’s a wonderful introduction to the programming language and I always go back to it for reference. I use Perl to very quickly mock things up – things like integrating with datasets and APIs. These days, I wouldn’t use it as the final form, because I don’t think anybody wants to support Perl anymore – and I don’t blame them in some ways! I wouldn’t recommend anybody pick up the language these days, but it is the basis of the creation of the functionality that exists in a lot of other languages.

There’s a thing called regular expressions – which are horrendously long strings of random characters to most people but they’re actually matching patterns of data. I love working with them! And Perl’s way of working with them has morphed into other programming languages.

There are other books by the same editor, Tim O’Reilly, that are also really useful. More recently I’ve been using a Python one. It’s much more commonplace than Perl these days, so I’m trying to replace my Perl knowledge with Python.

A lot of my technical books are focused around lots of little example scenarios, although I do have a raft of reference manuals kicking around as well. I really should get rid of some of them!

I do like reading in my spare time, everything from reference manuals to articles and forums.

In terms of fiction, I’m a fantasy fan and the series that I’ve read most recently that I enjoyed is the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, who unfortunately passed way a couple of years ago. I accidentally tripped over the series many years ago while at university and then spent three days non-stop reading everything he had written – I forgot to eat! It was a really good series and I enjoyed it so much.

I’m a sucker for big, long series with large casts. The Wheel of Time series was 13 or 14 books in the end. He sadly didn’t live to see the last book published, which was a shame, but he got somebody suitable to finish the last book for him, which was done well. I took the day off when it was published and just sat at home with a mug of tea, reading all day.

Do you listen to podcasts?

I generally have something playing in the background while I work but there’s nothing in particular that I tend to focus on. It’s just a case of things that pop up in news feeds and random subjects that might interest me. I keep an eye on the API market, obviously, but also data processing and data representation, plus just random odds and ends!

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

I like to take things apart and understand how they work. My whole tech setup is based around me wanting to understand things. Take streaming, for example. I wondered how it worked and then ended up with a larger mixer sitting off to one side of me, along with a camera that’s far too much for video calls, proper microphones and all sorts. I don’t stream… but I could!

I have a small server room with various projects and bits and pieces in. I have 3D printed mount points for Raspberry Pis and I have them rack mounted for various things. These are my little array of machines to toy with in my spare time.

I’m probably like a lot of computer geeks. I play the odd game here and there. I read technical articles. I toy with programming languages. I’m also very intrigued by the whole voice assistant trend. I have five of them here listening to me at the moment (I turned the Google one off as it was annoying me)! I like the idea of technology that supports daily life but without being intrusive – technology to achieve convenience. I like tinkering with it to bend it to my will and get it to achieve what I want it to!