Interview with Chris Evans
Co-founder, incident.io - Manage incidents in Slack.
What is incident.io and why did you build it?
Incident.io is an incident management platform. We sit within your Slack workspace and make it easier for you to respond to your incidents right from where you are already communicating.
We believe that great incidents are founded on good communication. Because you’re using us to declare incidents of all types we become a sort of observability platform for your entire organization. You get to have insight into all the different corners and pockets of your business. How things are working and when they’re not working, why, who’s involved, and how many customers are impacted. It gives you a view of your organization you wouldn’t otherwise see if you didn’t have that kind of process and system in place.
Before starting this company I worked at Monzo. When I joined in 2017, I was tasked with looking after and building the on-call team, which at the time was four people supporting a bank, which was quite a big task for them! It was very hard for folks to get onto on-call rotations because there was so much knowledge and it wasn’t clear what to do when things went wrong.
I built a very simple system which created a chat channel and gave a few rails to run an incident with the intention of making it easy to learn what was going on in a nice way. That took a life of its own and became a big system that we later open-sourced at Monzo called Monzo Response. It got a great reception.
What does a “day in the life” look like for you?
In the early days, there was a lot of coding. Early mornings, late evenings. These days, it’s a blend for me as a founder. I spend probably a third of my time talking to customers either doing sales calls or understanding their pain points or working in a more consultative fashion to help them with incidents.
Part of my time is also spent on the company building. Hiring, legal, ops and things like that. Lastly, I spend about a third of my time working on the product. I’ve been an engineer my whole career and spent a lot of time being that bridge between customers and product teams. Sadly, I don’t spend much time writing code these days. Occasionally, I’ll do some late-night code bashing to add a feature, which I’m increasingly being told not to do. As a senior person, you should just step away from the code!
Starting a company is all-consuming, and I have two kids. I try to structure my time that my Monday to Friday is just absolute carnage and accept that I will see them a couple of days a week for bedtime and bath time, but it’s full-on. Weekends are very much down tools for me and I try to step away from the laptop. I’m adopting a hard line on this.
What is the team structure around incident.io?
We’re a team of 24 at incident.io. Eight in product engineering. We’re probably an engineer or two away from splitting that into two product teams and we’ll start them working on things in parallel. We’ve got three people in sales, the three founders, three people in talent, a customer success person and then a biz ops generalist.
How did you first get into software development?
My dad was a structural engineer, which is a weird tangent, but he ended up writing in BASIC a bunch of tools for structural engineering. It was pre-Excel being very powerful. They had a thing that worked out the amount of deflection that would happen on a beam. He wrote all this in BASIC and he wanted someone to make some changes to it because he was busy doing structural engineering. I was in primary school at the time and I had sort of been dabbling in BBC BASIC - I think it was just print statements, and asking for inputs. Anyway, I ended up doing some work for him.
My progression was basic stuff around a terminal, then I found Visual Basic. I remember when Visual Basic 6 came out and it was incredible. Infinite possibilities to do things with graphical interfaces. I ended up writing a bunch of terrible games in it with a friend at school, then I sort of ended up not doing anything with computers or engineering at university. I went into pure math for my undergraduate, then back into it for a master’s in computer science. I really got into computer vision and spent seven years doing a bunch of low-level algorithms, and embedded type coding in C and C++. From there, I ended up working in platform teams, running SRE platform type teams at various companies, which led me right up to Monzo.
If I look at my pure progression, it would’ve been Basic, Visual Basic, C, C++, Python, and then Go. Go is my default these days, which I learned on the job at Monzo. I learned it from my coding interview there and really enjoyed it. It felt really familiar as someone coming from C++. It was like C++, but with all of the rough edges smoothed over a little bit.
What’s the tech tech stack for incident.io?
The bottom layer we run on is Heroku. We have Heroku Postgres. Our tech stack is relatively ordinary, which is pragmatically based on speed and familiarity. The backend is written in Go.
We use React and TypeScript for our front end. It’s a very simple setup. We use some GCP managed services such as Pub/Sub for asynchronous messages, BigQuery, and Cloud Storage. The direction of travel for us is to not have to run a platform. I come from a world at Monzo where I ran very big Kubernetes clusters that were completely hand-rolled. I want to steer clear of that!
What would you say has been the most interesting development challenge building incident.io?
At the tail end of last year, we built part of the product called Workflow. We had customers paying us using the product and alongside the product they always had a companion document that we’d written which was about how you run an incident with incident.io.
For example, critical incidents might need to be escalated to senior management. Incident.io was making things easier, but not really taking the process off their plate. The customer problem was: how do we build a lightweight automation engine on top of our product? We built a workflow engine that allows you to connect triggers. From things happening within the platform to arbitrary downstream steps. When an incident was declared as critical, it could escalate to a person, send an email or an SMS.
Behind the scenes, this was challenging because we decided to write it in a way in which it would be usable, not just for this sort of workflow product, but as a foundational building block of the entire product.
We built part of it called the Engine, which is a small programming language that lets us represent resources that we might want to interact with. That could be a severity or a custom field, or even an external thing like a GitHub repo or PagerDuty. It would have conditions on those resources, and we would expose them primarily through workflows. We’re using them now to build other parts of our product quickly. When we go back in and change the engine to add some new functionality, the entire product levels up as a result.
As a startup, we’ve gone further than typical to invest in some very strong technical foundations. This is one of those investments where we spent a lot longer than that to get it right and it is paying off dividends.
What thought have you given to that and the resilience and reliability of the platform?
We are in the enviable position right now that we are dealing with very low transaction volumes. If you look at PagerDuty, they’re ingesting thousands and thousands of events per second with people firing alerts. They’ve got to figure out what to do there. Our primary source entry point is Slack and that’s driven by people doing things.
We have some guarantees with Slack around this. Slack will do all sorts of nice redelivery and we have mechanisms internally to make sure that we are handling those things. When we need a guarantee that things are happening, we are using Pub/Sub as our intermediary to make sure that work is done.
A PagerDuty type product is something that we’re thinking about for the future. How do we build it in the cloud and how do we convince people it’s reliable enough and as good as PagerDuty? Does that mean multi-region? Does it mean multi-cloud multi-region? There are all sorts of fun challenges to come.
What’s your take on ChatOps as a philosophy?
We’re very pro ChatOps. I think ChatOps is moving work to where people are rather than asking people to come away and use a separate platform to do what they want to do. It seems very en vogue right now, but it genuinely works. If I’m in an incident, every time that I step away from a channel where people are talking and communicating, that’s an opportunity for me to lose context. If you’ve got 20 people in there and there are messages flying by, that can be really harmful. Augmenting that process and being part of that is a big deal.
When I was at Monzo running platform we were being pitched some products such as rebooting your server from within Slack. That I literally would never want to do! I will use the tool that is closer to where that is, and I can get better feedback from it. When you’re dealing with things that are much more straightforward and simple and I just want to put some data here or update a thing, I think it’s a really powerful paradigm.
What interesting tools and products are you playing around with at the moment?
It’s a tricky question because I’m not coding much anymore. One thing that’s constantly blowing my mind is Copilot from GitHub. I used GoLand as my IDE and I’d installed Copilot, then forgotten about it. I came back to it and was writing some code, and I didn’t even know what was happening. This thing has read my mind somehow. It was amazing. Hit and miss a little bit, but I can see the future there, removing a whole bunch of low-value work.
My life sadly has moved a lot towards email and I use Superhuman for that. It is genuinely the best experience for email that I’ve ever had in my life. It’s just amazing. It’s not wildly different to Gmail, but I think it highlights the importance of UX. The net result is I actually feel on top of an inbox that was previously completely unwieldy.
The final thing I’d like to recommend is an app called Detail. I have a very nice camera rig at home. I spend a lot of time on calls and I want to have good lighting and everything else. Detail is OBS, but for non-nerds. You can have multiple scenes set up and you can do all sorts of nice things and it just works. It can do things like face tracking if you want it to keep the focus on you.
Describe your computer hardware setup
I use an M1 MacBook Pro. I absolutely love it. I use it with a Logitech MX Master 3 mouse, which is a glorious mouse. I have a FILCO Convertible 2 mechanical keyboard. I have two Elgato Key Light Airs, which do nice lighting. I have a Fuji XT30 mirrorless camera, which I did not buy specifically as a web camera. It’s my camera for doing stuff and it’s connected via an Elgato Cam Link 4K. For sound I use a Wave Link microphone.
Describe your computer software setup
Chat: Zoom and Slack.
IDE: GoLand and VSCode
Source control: GitHub.
Describe your desk setup
I have a Fully Jarvis Bamboo standing desk with a Humanscale Freedom chair, which I bought primarily because I wanted something not too big that I can push underneath my desk when not in use.
Daytime or nighttime? Nighttime.
Tea or coffee? Coffee.
Silence or music? Music.
What non-tech activities do you like to do?
Anything with my kids. They are nine and seven, so they’re sort of at peak fun age and want to spend all the time in the world with me. It typically involves football at the park or other sort of fun outdoorsy things. If I’m not doing that, I’m running or playing the guitar.
Find out more
incident.io is an automatic incident management tool. It was featured as an “Interesting Tool” in the Console newsletter on 26 May 2022. This interview was conducted on 12 May 2022.
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