Talk to a Tykling – getting to know James Hirst, COO

Talk to a Tykling – getting to know James Hirst, COO

Tyk these days is a global company working across all sectors and with staff spread across 31 countries, but it wasn’t always that way. Just a few short years ago, two friends – Martin and James – were wondering if the idea they had for an open source API management platform might be useful to anyone else. Turns out it was!

So how did that seed of an idea turn into Tyk – a remote-first organisation with a culture that numerous Tyklings have described as having changed their lives?

We sat down with COO James Hirst to find out, catching up over a virtual coffee to grill him on everything from radical responsibility to managing a team across 31 countries.

What does being in charge of Tyk involve?

It comes down to how we founded the business. Martin and I had already built up a fantastic working relationship when we worked together previously. We had a huge amount of trust in each other’s capabilities and had become friends outside of work. My role within Tyk reflects that – my role as COO complements Martin’s as CEO. My skillset tends towards the operational side of things – things like taking complex strategies and tactics and turning them into reality, leading the business in executing those and making sure we’re on track.

What that means day-to-day is that Martin and I collaborate over decisions with the board, then my role is to take those decisions and ensure that each team in the business understands where we’re going and that they’re working effectively towards those objectives. I spend a lot of time working with teams and team leads to ensure that activity is on track and in sync. That means huge amounts of documents, reports, emails and talking with the teams. It’s very operational in that respect.

How do you and Martin know each other?

Martin and I joined the same digital consultancy on the same day, several years back. We were recruited by a lady called Amanda, who actually went on to marry Martin!

We worked together for two or three years doing interesting projects – things like supporting the United Nations around digital communications in disaster relief zones, all sorts of interesting projects. Martin’s role tended more towards the creative technology and strategy side; mine tended towards delivery, project and commercials.

I think that’s why, when Martin developed the open source aspect of Tyk and saw that he needed some complementary skills around delivery, commercials and building a team, it was a very natural discussion for us around restarting that relationship, even though we hadn’t worked together for a good few years at that point.

At what point in the process of founding Tyk did you and Martin decide to live on different sides of the world?

By the time Tyk had turned from a side project into something more, Martin and I had talked in detail about whether there was a commercial model that could turn the product into a business. We thought we’d found a way forward, but Martin then said that one complication would be that he was planning to move to New Zealand, where his wife is from.

We looked at whether it was possible to build a business in those circumstances. We worked out that being in different regions and time zones actually didn’t matter as long as we planned carefully. So, we went ahead!

Why and how did you build Tyk on the principles of radical responsibility and being remote by default?

When Martin and I first started, we knew we would need to be careful about the way we communicated and made decisions. We realised we would need to make decisions asynchronously – so doing things like sharing information in the knowledge that one of us would be reading it while the other one was asleep.

Once that was in place, it meant that others could join the business from remote locations and plug into that same way of working.

Before we founded the business, we’d both seen ways of working that didn’t fit with the way we wanted to live our lives. The whole start-up culture of working all hours and sleeping under the desk while living off ramen noodles didn’t fit for us – we had families, young kids, mortgages…

We needed to find a way that Tyk could support remote working from different time zones as well as working around our other commitments, so that those commitments didn’t become stressful. We figured that if we did it well, there would be others like us who would flourish in that environment. So, we sought to build an organisation that recognised that and prized it.

That meant that there was a lot of focus on the organisation, as well as the product, right from the start. We felt that a good quality product and a good quality service would come out of having a high-performing organisation. I think that’s something that sets us apart from other start-ups, which can often focus relentlessly on the product. We wanted something more – an organisation that’s sustainable and that out-performs the competition.

Radical responsibility came out of that. If you work on the basis that each individual can best decide when and where they work, and also to a degree how they work, then that provides a huge amount of flexibility, but also a huge amount of responsibility. The two go hand in hand. We have this mantra of radical responsibility that recognises that people are best placed to make these decisions.

If working out at the gym is important to you, for example, and you feel that the most efficient way of doing that is to go at 11 am each day, then fine. You’re the best person to know whether or not the rest of your work can be done around that commitment, so make it happen! But remember that you need to take responsibility for it – you need to communicate that to others and to own it.

That’s a central aspect of the business for us – we’re not interested in managing people’s time or trying to dictate 9-5 schedules. What we’re interested in is giving people the chance to make the best of having that flexibility and responsibility. And it seems to work.

How have you recruited such an intelligent and empathetic workforce?

We do have a really empathetic and intelligent team and we spend a LOT of time on hiring the right people – it can take us months and months to find the right person. And that’s time well invested. We would rather not have a person working for us to try and meet some arbitrary recruitment deadline than bring the wrong person in.

We don’t believe in psychometric testing or anything like that. But there are certain attributes that we look for in people that mean that they are likely to thrive in this environment of radical responsibility. If they don’t have those attributes, they may well struggle, because not everybody wants radical responsibility – some people find it horrifically stressful! So we spend time digging into that.

I actually believe that most businesses have really intelligent and empathetic teams, but just don’t recognise the importance of bringing that to the fore and prioritising it. There are fantastic individuals in most organisations who could have a really open, empathetic and communicative relationship with their colleagues and with the organisation. It baffles me that businesses don’t focus on that more.

We invest quite heavily in communication training. That ranges from training for everyone in the business from an actress who shares the kind of training you get before you go on stage, though to dispute resolution training and how to handle conflict. We spend a lot of time looking at that in a formal way and also thinking about how communications happen on a day-to-day basis, keeping a strong focus on things like how our team are flagging up issues to each other and handling problems.

If you look at most technology businesses’ P&L sheets, the biggest cost is the team – hiring them, onboarding them, paying them… To do that and then not to invest in ensuring that the relationships between those people are working smoothly is madness! You wouldn’t neglect any other investment in that way.

So, yes, we spend a lot of time on hiring the right people and finding people who will thrive in this environment, then once they’ve come into the business, we keep the focus on things like empathy and communication. We’re big believers in this – it occupies a huge amount of time for the founders and the board and will continue to do so. It’s the best investment of time that we can make.

Your staff retention rates must be superb…

They are! And the starting point for that is to spend time thinking about who will thrive with the way that we work. Additional skills can always be built, but some people are more responsive to this kind of environment than others. Getting the right people into the business makes everything else easier.

Ignoring the whole global pandemic issue, where do you like to be based during the working day?

I typically split my time fairly evenly between the London office and home – I’m only a 10-minute cycle away, which is great. I have three young kids running around at home, so I quite like the peace and quiet when I do a full day or a part day in the office – it gives me some headspace.

Outside of the pandemic, I would typically be in a different time zone for one week out of every four. I’ll be either in our sales offices in Singapore or Atlanta, or if there’s a sales or marketing conference somewhere I’ll be at that.

Although we are a remote-first company and work asynchronously, for my particular role it really helps to have an extended amount of time working in the same time zone and working closely with the regional leads. So travel has traditionally been a big part of my working life, though obviously less so this year, given the pandemic.

Can you give a two-minute history of your life before Tyk?

I’ve always lived in the UK. I ended up studying law at UCL in London but dropped out before the end of my first year, as I wasn’t enjoying it. I went and worked in a bar in Camden for a while and thought about studying something else. But I eventually found myself working as a very junior member of a technical support team at an internet start-up. It was at that point that I realised that the dotcom space was much more exciting than the law!

I left that role and co-founded a web design agency, which I ran for about seven years, building websites for everyone from property companies to music festivals and pop artists. After that I joined a digital consultancy in Soho, which is where I met Martin. I worked there for six years, becoming the commercial director, then Martin and I founded Tyk. I’ve basically been wrangling digital projects fulltime since the days of dial-up internet, back in the 90s.

How big did you imagine Tyk would become when you first founded it?

We have a mission to connect every system in the world and we have a ten-year plan to do it. We’re a few years in now and on track so far but there’s still a long way to go! So we’re going to get even bigger and make more of an impact as we grow.

Our engineers tell us that technically it’s not possible to connect every system but the context around it is that our software is often enabling the platforms that enable other systems. So we form central parts of banking platforms, of telco products, of web conferencing systems… It means that at some point the data that goes from one system to another will have gone through Tyk. Our mission is ambitious but we’re on track.

What do you do to ensure that Tyk operates in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible? And what future plans do you have in this respect?

There are two aspects to this. The first is that we are a default remote organisation. We employ 120 people in 31 countries. Almost none of them drive to work. A few might commute on public transport, but most work from home. Those people aren’t sitting in traffic and clogging up cities with cars. Nor are they taking up desk and real estate space that could be otherwise used. They’re also spending their time and their money in their local economies.

Our creed of radical responsibility works well from a sustainability perspective. It means people can work in ways that are logical. I feel that a 9-5, with people crowding into trains for a two-hour period twice a day, then the trains sitting empty for the rest of the day, is neither logical nor sustainable. As an organisation, we’ve been leading in that way for a long time. Notwithstanding the fact that I personally make a number of long-haul flights to gel all the different regions together, our travel footprint is really pretty low.

The other side of things is the product itself. Tyk exists to connect systems to systems. The more connected systems are, the better the potential outcome is from a sustainability perspective.

Where we’re seeing lockdowns and so many people working from home, that’s often only viable because people have access to things like Zoom conferences, shared documents and all of these remote working capabilities. Big businesses that used to have to bring you into the office to give you access to their systems or their data can now do that securely from a laptop wherever you are. Tyk is a part of that shift – we’ve been advocating that digital transformation. Tyk is a core part of enabling organisations to digitally transform.

So quite apart from the 120 or so people who work for Tyk, the bigger impact is the thousands and thousands of employees who work for the businesses that Tyk helps connect up. The banks across the globe who can now have engineers working from home, who don’t need to commute, for example. I think that’s where we can have the biggest impact in terms of sustainability.

We’re mindful about how we behave ourselves, but we’re also very excited about what a world where every system can be easily connected looks like. It can revolutionise how businesses transact and operate, and even how individuals do that. Tyk’s becoming part of the fabric of the internet and the quicker we get there, the greater the potential for our sustainability impact becomes.

What happens once you’ve achieved the ten-year plan?

I have absolutely no idea! I’m sure over the next few years we’ll see other things that could be improved or changed. And who knows where Tyk will be at that point? We want to connect every system in the world, but I don’t know what those systems will look like in the next decade, so there could be all sorts of challenges for us to tackle with Tyk.

Where does quantum computing fit with the mission to connect all systems?

We’re in the business of connecting systems, rather than in the business of the systems themselves. The usual use case for Tyk is that we help people build better products and better services by connecting things together. Whether it’s something like quantum computing or machine learning or artificial intelligence doesn’t really matter. Those things still need to connect to the rest of the world. Our role is to make those systems and services available to businesses, to other teams and to individuals through the products that they support.

We’re perhaps in the less glamorous part – we’re not the people creating artificial intelligence, which is a very cool and sexy thing to be doing. But once you’ve created it, you need to make sure that people can access it and get their information in and out. And that’s where we come in.

Every technical advance drives the need for that connectivity. When we founded Tyk we were seeing almost exponential growth in the number of devices that were connecting. At that time, ideas like Apple Watch and connectivity in vehicles were still really bleeding edge, but now every car you buy is internet-connected, with ever sensor connected to your insurance provider. Every device you have in the house can connect to every other device. All of that is done through APIs. With more and more devices, you get this huge mesh of connectivity with huge potential to derive value from that and to make incremental improvements.

Whether it’s something as exciting as artificial intelligence or quantum computing, or simply a connected thermostat on a radiator, all of these things drive massive potential for value for the end user. We deal with connecting the systems; domain specialists figure out what those systems should be.

How do you make the COO/CEO relationship work when you’re half a world away from each other?

Mindful communication is really important. Martin and I are almost always 12 hours apart body clock-wise, which means one of us will just be having morning coffee while the other will be having a red wine. That means that your energy levels are different and that your aspirations of what you’re going to get done in the next couple of hours are very different. Being mindful and considerate of that is important. Something might be incredibly important right now for one of us, but it will be an issue for tomorrow for the other one.

Using asynchronous long-form communication is really important because it allows us to provide lots of context and considered review. That means that when we do get those overlaps of time, we can use them efficiently, because we both know the background and the detail – so when we’re talking about something, we’re focused on clarifying viewpoints as all the rest of the process has already been done asynchronously.

The other piece is to find time for non-agenda items. It’s very easy to have the time you spend talking dominated by a particular task or objective, but actually a lot of what makes our business tick comes out of those unstructured conversations – asking about the kids or renovating the garden. Making time for that is important and something that you need to do, otherwise it gets pushed to the bottom of the pile and every interaction becomes transactional. And that’s not healthy in the long-term.

You employ staff in 31 countries. Do you speak any languages other than English?

No. I’m very embarrassed about it, but other than enough holiday-level French that I can order a beer at the beach or when skiing, I’ve always been quite poor with languages. It’s not an area of strength or comfort for me. I have tried a few times but have found language learning very complex. I’m aware of my privilege of being born with English as my natural language and the access that gives me to the rest of the world!

We have some phenomenal polyglot colleagues at Tyk, who between them speak a massive range of languages. I’m in awe of their ability to do so – not just their technical capability, but the way they can use language like that is fantastic. I have to confess I’m fairly jealous of it!

How do you manage the differing cultural expectations and experiences of such a diverse team?

It’s a really interesting point for us. Often, when a company is looking at how you manage cultural expectations and cultural differences between people, the stance is that as an organisation based in London (say), you have people joining from other cultures and these are some things everyone needs to be aware of. It’s about aligning things with the culture already in place. And if you look at a lot of the resources online, they’re often based on how you bring other cultures into your ‘home’ culture.

Now, Tyk by its nature doesn’t really have that ‘home’ culture based in one region. We launched in London but the majority of our first five or six employees weren’t UK nationals. We started with a very diverse culture and with a lot of our people working remotely.

I think Tyk’s culture is emergent from the wide number of different cultures that have come into the business. It’s not a case of us trying to maintain a UK or a US culture and then apply that to people working in other regions. It’s more a case of our culture being built through Slack and our Google documents and our Wiki. It reflects all the people who contribute to those.

This is something that we’re very aware of and quite proud of but it’s also an area that we need to keep the focus on. It would be easy, if you scaled up a team in a particular region, for that culture to become unbalanced and start to take on a homogeneity that is based on where that gravity of hires is. It’s something we need to be very alert to, as the lack of one dominant culture means we have an almost constantly shifting cultural landscape.

Is there a pain point in the tech sector that you would love to be able to solve?

The problem with the tech sector is not technology, per se, but the fact that the sector’s culture is quite exclusionary. The thing I would love to change is to strip away some of the jargon and the clichés around the sector. Sometimes there’s this perception that the tech sector is for a certain type of person – someone who’s comfortable dealing with maths and wants to work with their head down at their computer all day. Someone who’s not very communicative, is probably a guy, probably a university graduate…

I think there’s a real issue there. Although it is a fast-growing sector and many businesses in our space like to think of themselves as being quite progressive, the stuff that sits around what we do can exclude people. It’s as simple as the jargon and acronyms and insider terms. There’s a requirement for precision in language in a technical discipline, of course, but sometimes it feels as though that is almost built up as a way of preventing others from participating. And that’s not helpful.

That extends all the way down to who we see applying for roles. At Tyk we’re quite proud of the diversity of our workforce. However, I went and did a careers day at a local secondary school in Hackney. I was there representing a whole group of technology start-ups, explaining how young people could get into that space. It was very depressing that during the 90 minutes of open table sessions where pupils could come up and ask about how to get involved, I met with maybe ten or 12 groups of guys but just one single girl. Every other girl in that school saw the word ‘technology,’ shook their heads and walked past. They saw it as not being for them.

That’s quite depressing to see and is something that the industry as a whole needs to address. We need to look at the language we use and how we can portray what we do as being much more inclusive. Otherwise we’re missing out on huge numbers of very talented people who could thrive in this sector. It’s a creative sector that has space for people of all interests and disciplines, yet many find themselves excluded. That is the pain point that I would love to shift. I’d love to see equal numbers of applicants from every gender and every background. That’s not happening right now. It’s very frustrating.

What has been the single biggest highlight of your work at Tyk so far? Or your proudest moment?

The thing I’m proudest of really is that the idea that we had all those years ago has not only become so tangible but has happened the way we wanted it to happen. But it’s hard to find a single moment that’s representative of that!

What’s been the hardest challenge so far?

The thing I find hard is letting go of things and letting others run with them. There are so many exciting opportunities in what we’re doing and we’re building a great team around us. That means I have to practice what I preach in terms of delegating and letting things go. That can be really hard sometimes. There are things that I really want to be involved in, but I know that the people handling them can do them far better than me. That’s the hardest challenge ongoing.

What are your three favourite podcasts? Are they all work-related?

I do listen to some work-related podcasts but they’re not that exciting! I love This American Life and Radiolab, which are fantastic. And, of course, Desert Island Discs, which is just brilliant interviewing. You get some astonishing insights from people. Those three are my perennials – they’ve been on my phone for a decade now.

And your three favourite books?

Wow, that’s a tricky one. There’s a sci-fi series by Iain M. Banks called the Culture series. They’re fantastic sci-fi books. For a serious literature choice, I’ve loved The Great Gatsby since I was a kid. And For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – that’s one I’ve obsessively re-read since I was a teenager.

Actually, can I have one more? I read Exhalation by Ted Chiang at the start of last year and I’ve read it twice since. I’d be amazed if all of the stories in it don’t get made into movies.

How do you switch off? What do you do when you’re not working?

The main thing is spending time with my three young kids. That encompasses everything from hanging out at home to taking them camping. That’s where most of my spare time goes.

If I’m not looking after the kids, I love all kinds of water sports – sailing, windsurfing, scuba diving. And I love to travel. I never did it much as a kid or had a gap year or anything like that, but my wife and I have been all over the world in the last ten years. I’ve loved doing that. Obviously, the pandemic means a bit less of that, as does having young kids!