Talk to a Tykling: getting to know Leonid Bugaev, Head of Engineering

Talk to a Tykling – getting to know Leonid Bugaev, Head of Engineering

Tyk’s engineers spend their days doing some pretty cool things with code. Thanks to their work, the product continues to thrive and to evolve. But who are these engineers who are tucked away behind the scenes, making the magic happen for Tyk’s users around the globe?

Well, one of them is Leonid Bugaev. In fact, Leonid is Tyk’s Head of Engineering. As such, we felt it was high time to sit him down and find out a bit more about the people behind the product.

Over to you, Leonid…

What do you do at Tyk?

I joined Tyk almost five years ago. I was employee number six or seven. The company has grown hugely in that time and so my role has changed a lot. I’ve worked as a senior engineer and then a leader of the team. Now, I’m like a manager of managers!

The higher you get, the wider your role is. At Tyk, you’re not told what do to all the time, so I shape my role for myself. I try to delegate what I’m not good at and work on the things I’m good at and that I enjoy.

A typical day will see me doing a wide range of things. Much of my time is spent supporting customers who are dealing with emergency problems. I have to organise people and resources and help to investigate the issue.

A lot of my time is also taken up with people management. My team – the product team – I think is the biggest team at Tyk. I’ve lost count of how many we are now, there are new starters every week! I stopped counting when we got to 20 people. So, my time could be spent on things like giving someone a promotion or handling a request for a salary bump. Sometimes there are performance issues to address as well, so I talk with people and work with them to solve those issues.

I deal with issues that arise in terms of scheduling, as well. If someone needs leave at short notice, for example, or is off sick, I make sure everything is rescheduled and covered, to keep things running smoothly.

And then part of my job is the actual engineering process –ensuring that the engineers are happy, ensuring that the processes are all in place for them to follow so that the product will be healthy and well maintained.

There is always a balance between tasks where you have to speed up and build some new feature and those where you have to slow down and focus on quality. Personally, I never end up in a situation when I’m 100% happy with everything – there’s always more that I feel I can improve or change.

What is your favourite part of your role?

My role has changed significantly while I’ve been at Tyk and I do sometimes miss the good old days when I was just an engineer. Things were very simple then! But at the same time, I had already fulfilled my ambitions as an engineer – I’ve built complex software, interesting software… I still get satisfaction from doing it, but I don’t feel that I can do anything new as an engineer anymore. It’s still fun but no longer challenging.

The change from being an engineer to a more managerial role still feels very new so I feel I’m learning a lot. If you’d asked me two years ago, I was very confused about this role – I didn’t know what to do and I really missed my engineering tasks. These days, I doubt I spend even 10% of my time on actual engineering!

So, I’ve had to learn how to get job satisfaction from this kind of role. I’ve looked to other people’s success to see how to do that – it’s a team effort now. When we complete a project, do a successful release or promote an engineer, for example, that makes me happy. I’ve learned to exchange my own ego and my own ambitions in favour of the team approach and team ambitions.

It’s still in progress – my role is constantly changing. I’m not a serial Head of Engineering who has built a string of companies, so it’s all new for me. I don’t have any prior experience of managing such big teams.

I look at this from the positive side, as even if I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t have any previous baggage. I can look at any problems from a fresh angle.

With your team spread around the world, which languages do you communicate in at work?

We use English for our meetings, but if I have a one-to-one meeting with a Russian speaker then we talk in Russian, as that’s my native language.

My role involves a lot of talking with people, which is fun. I live by my calendar – it gets filled very quickly and I jump from meeting to meeting to meeting. I think I spend more time talking in English, which is a non-native language for me, than I spend talking with my family. Sometimes when I talk with my family, I forget some words in Russian! So one-to-ones in Russian are a good chance for me and my Russian-speaking team members to practice our native language.

I think it’s the same for our team around the world. I believe our developers in South America often communicate in Spanish for internal calls, for example.

Whereabouts do you like to work from, pandemic aside?

My perfect location is my home. I’ve worked from home for the last 10 years, so I can definitely say that I will never, ever go back to the office.

I’m a family man – I have boys who are six and nine. They are fun and they are loud, so I’m used to working in a very noisy environment!

I guess we can call ourselves digital nomads, too. Before the pandemic, we travelled a lot. Two years ago, for example, we had a year where we visited 12 different towns, going to Spain, to Cyprus, to Turkey, to Greece…

Is it working at Tyk that gives you the freedom to do that?

Definitely. I’ve had ‘remote-friendly’ jobs before but not ‘remote-first’. Previously, I’ve always had to be in sync with my team in terms of time zones. With Tyk, we have a distributed company with an asynchronous setup, so you never expect someone to do something immediately – and no one expects that from you.

That gives you a lot of flexibility and independence. It’s a fair trade – Tyk gives me flexibility and I try to use that flexibility and work as efficiently as I can.

It doesn’t really matter how I work or where work, provided I deliver what’s required for my job and communicate with my colleagues. It allows me to build my day the way I want.

As part of my job I need to connect with all the teams across the globe – I need to chat with Singapore, New Zealand, Asia, South America, Europe… But I can’t be available 24 hours a day. It’s a balance.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to keep that work/life balance but it also gives me the flexibility to choose how I work. For example, I schedule an hour in the morning to catch up with someone in the early time zone, then I spend time with my family until the afternoon. We might go for a walk or go to the cinema – something like that. Then in the afternoon I do some work. In the evening I can read to the kids and put them to bed, then work for another hour or so after that. That’s what my typical day looks like.

And when I travel and move between time zones, I can easily rearrange my working day to suit that too.

What tips would you give to someone who’s never worked remotely before to really make the best of a remote-first environment like Tyk?

First, forget everything you used to know! Just think about how you want to live your life.

I see some people who join Tyk from corporate environments and they keep asking if they’re doing things right, if things are ok, if they can go to the toilet! You just need to forget about having to work like that. Instead, think about how you would like to work and what the most efficient way to use your time will be.

Some people will be more efficient in the mornings, while others will be at their best late at night. You just need to ensure that you synchronise with your team, and that you are available for required meetings. Nobody will force you to follow a schedule.

If you had a magic wand that let you fix one problem within the engineering industry, what would it be?

I would fix engineering interviews and the process of how people get hired. It is changing slowly, but if you look at how the majority of companies hire people they go through, like, five rounds of interviews. They give them quizzes with weird questions that they will never use in real life and make them solve puzzles or write things on a whiteboard.

I’ll be frank: I would never pass this kind of interview. It seems crazy to me – you miss so much talent by adding these steps.

What I’ve found working at Tyk, and interviewing to hire people here, is that you really need to trust people and give them a chance. The main thing that I look for in people is that spark inside – that they’re really interested in what they’re doing. That they are passionate and independent. I never give them quizzes!

Instead, I use interviews to talk to people about the problems that they are interested in and that they’ve solved. I try digging into details to discover how deep their knowledge is. That gives some great insights. You can still do multiple rounds of interviews to increase the discovery and to speak about life in general. To get to know them.

Obviously, we do have some specific questions, but the focus is on looking for good people – for super smart people who are also good at collaborating and who engage.

Could you give us a two-minute history of your life pre-Tyk?

I had a bit of a non-standard career path. I joined university quite early – when I was 16. And I started working during my first year of university as well. My first job was a start-up with my friends, providing web consultancy. I was the engineer and my friend was responsible for selling our services. His girlfriend was the designer. It was a nice company.

That was my first real life working experience. Then, on the third course at university, I joined a local start-up as one of their first engineers. I didn’t have any experience of leading a team, but the team started growing and I became the lead engineer. I had no idea what I was doing! That role gave me some invaluable experience. I was 24 and leading a team of five people.

Then I hit some difficulties in my personal life – romantic issues – and it made me rethink things. I felt I maybe wasn’t ready to lead the team and it was consuming a lot of my time, so I decided to completely change the course of my life.

I took everything I had and I just upped and moved to another city. I went without a job so decided to start freelancing. A week later, I met a woman and two weeks after that we started living together. Within six months we were married and then we had a baby. My life completely changed course. I found my family – my love.

After that, I moved to remote work. I didn’t find the freelance market that easy at first but I started building up my experience. At that time, there was no real notion of a full-time remote job. It was a question of doing tasks here and there.

After two years of working like that, I came across a start-up in Canada. I did some freelancing and they asked me if I wanted to join the full-time team. I did and worked there for four or five years.

Then, due to internal re-organisation, the company decided to stop being remote-friendly and killed the remote environment and culture in the process, so I left and started working on my own side project instead.

I tried to earn money from my own project for a year, trying to turn it into a start-up and monetise it. It was an open source project and became quite popular – it got traction. I learned a lot during the journey, but unfortunately ran out of money. So, I had to find a job, although I’ve continued working on my side project to this day.

At the same time I was looking for a new job, Tyk was looking for a lead engineer. I responded to the job posting and explained that I had good experience of open source projects and of monetising them and growing the community. It felt like a good exchange of skills and experience – I knew I had a lot to give to the role and that I could get a lot from it too. Being able to work in the same area that I already love meant it was the perfect match for me.

I still love it now. Martin, James and Andrew are exceptional in the way they lead the company. The company mission hasn’t changed since I joined. Even though we’re always finding something new, it’s a very consistent vision. It’s fascinating; I learn a lot from it.

What else do you love about working at Tyk?

The people, first of all. We’ve been able to build a really nice team, especially now that we’ve achieved the growth we have. I have confidence that, no matter if I’m working or not, I have the right people in the right places doing things the right way. I don’t need to hold their hands and guide them – it’s a really good team.

The flexibility Tyk provides is also amazing and the product is great. As mentioned, I also really like the vision. It’s not changed, just got better and more detailed. It’s ambitious, it’s interesting and it’s very realistic. I love it.

I also like the feeling of not needing a Plan B. I had experience working in start-ups, where nobody (except maybe the founder) had confidence in the future, and everyone tried to have a Plan B. While being relatively small, Tyk is a solid business, and I’m very confident about its future. I’ve been approached quite a few times by HR firms, asking if I want to work at other companies. I don’t even think about changing my job for a moment. I have real confidence that Tyk will still be here in two years’ time! I still have fun working here. I think it’s really powerful for a company to achieve that.

Tyk is very honest. All the employees have access to detailed company statistics, with all the successes and failures. So you always know what state things are in and what’s going on. We’ve always hired and grown at a pace we can afford. That gives me real confidence.

Would you be happy to share an example of a mistake that you made and what you learned from it?

I think one of the biggest mistakes I learned from is connected to my experience of trying to bootstrap my business. I got too engineering-minded. I was thinking about the problems as an engineer, so thinking I could write some code to solve things. Instead, I needed to think like the customers, to understand their pain points and how to deliver value. Marketing, documentation and scalable customer support are as important as engineering – I needed to think about the business as a business. That’s probably the main lesson for me.

What are the values that drive you?

I’m a pretty direct person. I always give direct feedback and I like to receive direct feedback – it’s hard to upset me! So I really value when people are direct with me. I’m always happy to discuss any kind of situation.

Being responsible is important to me too. When someone tells me that they want to do something, and they take that responsibility, if they don’t get it done multiple times and don’t try to improve, that doesn’t look good to me. I like responsible people.

I also like it when people look outside of their comfort zone. When they move out of their bubble to try new things and take on new responsibilities. For example, if someone wants to start managing people or to take responsibility for a new project, or if they want to join another team and learn from them. Anything like that. I really value this.

I like it when people have side projects too. I’ve always had side projects – the business that I tried to build previously wasn’t my one. I had applied to various incubators previously – I always had libraries and projects, I had a Google Chrome extension that was used by three million people… I always had something on the go. I love it, for me it’s a quality that shows you’re engaged and that you really love what you’re doing. When I hire people, if they have a side project, that’s like a bonus for me.

When I was looking for work, I didn’t just apply to Tyk but to quite a few popular remote businesses. I got quite far with one of them – I had the technical call and so forth – and they were a well-known company. But at the final stage, I saw that the contract had a clause saying that staff couldn’t have side projects. Any code you wrote while working there, even in your own time, would belong to the company. When I realised that I wouldn’t be able to continue with my side projects, I walked away from the contract. I don’t want to work for a company like that. Sadly, it’s a very common clause these days.

At Tyk, it’s very different. We even have our own side project fund.

What are your top three books or podcasts?

When I was in school and university, I enjoyed reading non-fiction books – programming books and that kind of thing. But it’s really hard to say that The Beginner’s Guide to C++ is my favourite book. No-one can say that!

I’m more of a movie guy. If I can pick a top movie which most influenced me instead, it would be Amélie. I also grew up on VHS movies with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and I still love them!

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

When I’m not working, I’m working on my side projects! But I mostly spend time with my family. It’s really thanks to my wife – she is my guardian. I’m the kind of person who, if you ignore me, could spend time in a dark cave, with no food and no human contact for days. My wife is the person who brought me out of the cave. She brought me to life and I really started enjoying it! I love spending time with her and my kids.

Can you share a fun fact with us?

I realised that I wanted to be an engineer and work in programming at the age of seven. I had my first experience of programming then. In Russia, there were these Chinese clones of the NES console that came with a keyboard. The keyboard came with a cartridge, which contained the programming language G Basic, which is essentially like Game Basic. It helps you write some simple games – Mario-like games. I would spend hours sitting and writing code, reading a code guide and writing simple games. The mum would come in and tell me to shut down, but there was no save functionality on the console. So I would wake up the next day, open my notes and then type all the code to continue.

Over the years, I continued to work on projects like that. Although at school when we did computer courses, I spent the majority of my time playing Counter Strike! It was a very fun time. I’m lucky that I always knew what I wanted to do.