The Software Agents - Episode 14: GitHub - Dana Lawson, VP Engineering - GitHub is the Hub of a World Going All Digital

GitHub is the go-to site for many of the software developers and supporters adapting to working without shared office space. Vice President of Engineering Dana Lawson explains how GitHub itself is adapting to a distributed remote work world along with the company’s customers.

Announcer: Welcome to The Software Agents. Meet the people who bring software to every aspect of life, society, and business, to handle the challenges of a transforming world.

Christina Noren: Welcome to The Software Agents, a new podcast on how software is helping the world survive and evolve right now, as told by the people making it happen. I'm Christina Noren, and my co-host is Paul Boutin.

Paul Boutin: Hello. Thanks for tuning in.

Christina Noren: The Software Agents is sponsored by CloudBees, the enterprise software delivery company. CloudBees provides the industry’s leading DevOps technology platform that enables developers to focus on what they do best—build stuff that matters.

So, today, we have Dana Lawson, who is the VP of Engineering of GitHub, one of our favorite sister companies, a behemoth in the DevOps space, and I've been pretty curious about how GitHub is being impacted by all of the companies whose developers have accounts on GitHub are trying to adapt to this crisis. So, it’s kind of, or me, kind of a meta Software Agents episode.

So, Dana, tell us a little bit about yourself and tell us about what you do.

Dana Lawson: Well, thanks for having me today, Paul and Christina. As you said, I'm Dana Lawson, VP of Engineering at GitHub. I've been in technology—oh, I don’t even like to admit it—21 years now. And so, I've run the gamut from being an engineer, sys admin, DevOps engineer, SRE—whatever flavor of the month we want to call putting the operational focus on development practices, but a leader for over a decade.

And so, I run teams at GitHub that we like to call, I did a code, which is really that first stop at GitHub when you join the platform as a maker and a builder, it’s about doing a pull request and sharing your code with the world, so that’s what I'm up to.

Christina Noren: I'm gonna start with just in the moment, GitHub probably has more developers relying on it than any infrastructure in the world right now. How has GitHub been impacted by the physical world going away and the virtual world becoming the only world?

Dana Lawson: GitHub’s kinda known as a leader in, like, a remote first culture already, but that doesn’t mean we were not impacted by just everything happening, from COVID to social unrest to just everything. And so, we took a look and said, “Well, how are we gonna enable the world’s open source softwares and the—we really believe in the advancement of human progress through sharing code. And how do we keep so aligned to that mission, given that our own GitHub employees are now challenged with, like many people, I'm sure everybody listening, the differences within the locality of things happening, we have Hubbers on almost every continent in the world, and every continent and every just localized government, not even continent, is approaching the response to the virus in a unique way.

And so, it’s made it an interesting challenge on trying to stay ahead and really take care of your team while you're trying to produce features and maintain your platform. So, I mean, one of the things we did is, we slowed down. You know, you could see the reports coming out, the DevOps State of Report that productivity hasn’t been totally crushed by COVID, but you know, ruthless prioritization has become more important than ever. Really deciding what you're gonna work on and how you're gonna work on it more so than ever.

I think all software development teams fall into the feature trap where you're just like, “I wanna pump out features!” I think it’s time to take a breath and say—what are the right features, and what is the right balance of taking care of the live site? Because people are stressed. There’s this low level of stress that everybody has right now, even if it’s not manifesting. And when you have stress, that makes human error go up.

And so, having a development tool chain is more important than ever. And so, you know, we're feeling it like everybody else, but we had a leg up in some sense. We were already pretty remote friendly, but we have Hubbers that were used to offices. We have offices in North Carolina, in Seattle, in San Francisco. So, we did have some of our Hubber base really kinda thrown into how the rest of us operate. So, it’s been interesting.

Christina Noren: So, it’s interesting, your answer, because I hadn’t heard that term Hubber before. You know, we at CloudBees refer to ourselves as Bees, which a few other bee themed companies I'm associated with do as well. But I think it’s the same sort of situation. Your answer was more focused on—you know, which I think is interesting—was more focused on how you at GitHub are getting the job done and how that’s changed. And I think it’s kinda similar for us, because we also, you know, are a remote first company. You know, when I was running product at CloudBees for a couple years, you know, I was managing a few hundred people from my living room in San Francisco, which was an odd experience, across 17 countries, and 60 percent of us are all remote and not attached to an office, 40 percent of us are attached to offices—you know, North Carolina is a big hub for us, Switzerland is a big hub for us.

And it has been an adjustment for companies like ours, but I think the interesting commonality between our two companies is, we're serving software development organizations that, some of them are remote first like we are, some of them are not. Our own teams are adapting and realizing we're not as completely remote first as we might imagine, and our tools are being used by organizations that are making this adjustment.

So, you know, I'm curious for you to elaborate a little bit more for customers of GitHub. Like, you know, there’s GitHub enterprise and there’s GitHub cloud. Is there—are you seeing different patterns of use, and is that impacting the features that are priorities while we're being more strict about prioritization.

Dana Lawson: Yeah, I think some of the differences that we're seeing is, you know, people doubling down on that automation really taking the time to balance out their Dev work chains and say, “Okay, we may have had some of this already done, this development of our operational landscape from CI to CD, or maybe it was just how you really provision services, no matter what end of the spectrum or where you're beginning.”

What we see is really more people going, “Okay, before we thought it was a nice to have, right? We thought, we wanna be a part of modern engineering practices and really have a cleaner way to lower the friction.” Because now, the playing field is—everybody’s remote, everybody’s a random person, and things are becoming somewhat transactional.

And so, before, when you had that opportunity to walk down the hall or maybe even being remote first, you would ping somebody to get something done. But people’s time and their day to day schedules are really wild right now. A lot of people have fallen back into some consistency on how they get up in the morning and they start writing code or whatever part of the workflow they're in. But with the new no boundaries of everybody’s working at home, what you're seeing is people wanting to work more in some sense.

And so, having that automation, I think, is becoming more and more prevalent, and people thinking about, “Well, this task that I used to do that I used to ping that person or Slack this person” or however you got ahold of them, maybe there’s a new way to approach it. Because once again, I think that we're trying to ensure—and everybody else, and we're seeing this within the user base—is, you know, continue on with the practices that we've already implemented.

But I see security being more important than ever as well. It’s kinda this natural inclination for humans in some cases to be like, “Okay, I need to go and make sure that this has been code reviewed and it’s done this kind of analysis and scan.” Now, it’s more important than ever, because we're not gonna have those in persons, we're not gonna have that in the moment talk. So, we have to have the tool sets around to really build that walled garden and those safety rails so that people can move fast and that we're not impeding anybody. Because now they're working from home and the how we work boundaries and the time frames are becoming even more wide and open. And I think in some cases, we've got to, I don't know, ratchet back in and get to some semblance of normalcy, because people are stressed out.

But that’s what I see is more of this view into not just pushing out products and using modern practices, but the work flow behind it, you know? That’s what DevOps and open source is, is a work flow more than is just, you know, a way to share code, it’s how you share code and how it goes from your laptop into you're in consumers’ hands.

Christina Noren: Yeah, so, there’s a lot to unpack there, because I think it’s what I'm seeing as well with us. You know, so, we were remote first, but we were very synchronous, and there were, you know, and there was a lot of angst, just to be perfectly transparent, around CloudBees. There was a lot of angst about how much synchronous meetings there were and how that conflicted with writing code and building product and getting work done. And that was before all this crisis.

And for us, it’s kind of accelerated, and ironically, it’s forced us to walk our talk more than we maybe did before, which is, for me, a lot of the DevOps tool chain and culture and process is around allowing teams to be more asynch. And whether it’s time zone or people’s personal preference as to whether they're a morning person or an evening person, they get to be productive and they get to be in communication with their coworkers no matter what their particular time zone of the 24 hour clock they're in.

So, I'm hearing echoes of that with what you're saying, and I think that the tool sets we both provide are facilitating that, but maybe weren’t leveraged enough and we were still stuck in work patterns that predated our kinds of distributed companies.

Dana Lawson: Oh, definitely. I mean, it’s kinda the same. I mean, it feels like we're going through the same kind of re-pains. I don't know if—they're still growing pains, right? We're always growing. But it’s really about doubling down on those principals’ promises and that vision that you have and really instituting it internally. And I don't know, I think in the end, we're gonna even build even better software in our little space in the place.

Because we're thinking about it not only of how other people are using it, but really coming in and saying, “Well, how are we using this? How are we communicating? Where are we bringing the friction down and analyzing it?” because we were pretty synchronous in some cases, too. I mean, you just fall into those patterns.

Christina Noren: Mm-hmm. You know, we're all of a generation on this call where we had offices at one point, we sat in the same room. And I find it kind of funny, because a lot of the early agile practices even mock the Post-it notes on the wall. But we don’t have Post-it notes on the wall, you know, and virtual Kondon boards just are not the same thing, you know? [Laughter]

Dana Lawson: That’s true.

Christina Noren: So, let’s switch gears a little bit. So, Dana, tell us about you and your journey and how you got to the position you're in now.

Dana Lawson: You know, I never thought I was gonna be in this industry. I don't know. Back when I was a kid, there wasn’t even an industry, really, to be a part of, in some ways. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, this little town called Eunice, New Mexico that’s on the border of Texas. It’s more Texas than New Mexico, so, I kinda think of myself as a Texican, because Northern New Mexicans, they would not claim me.

But, you know, I always thought I was gonna be George O’Keefe. I was a daydreamer painter. And I remember the conversation of telling my oil field working parents, you know, when I was going to college, I was gonna go for art, and my mom’s like, “What are you gonna do all day, paint?” And I was like, “And draw.”

Christina Noren: I know. I'm laughing right now and Paul probably is, too, so, I have a BFA, I did get my degree in art. I've also got a business degree, and regarding Georgia O’Keefe, one of the things that I did—so, I did study under an art teacher who had worked with Georgia. And I learned to do the technique of painting from the top corner of the painting all the way to the ________ corner the way that Georgia did it, so—you are my soul mate.

Dana Lawson: Wow! Wow, that’s incredible. I thought I was the only one that, you know, got into this. But I'm gonna tell you, you know, building digital products, it’s so artistic, and being an engineer, it really, really, really is an artistic job.

And so, you know, I went to college, I realized that being a poor, starving artist wasn’t good enough, wasn’t really something that I wanted to do, and on a whim, I joined the military. Here’s this weirdo hippie artist that suddenly has joined the military, so I don't know. I felt like I needed some discipline.

Well, I got that discipline. There was an emerging field, and this was back in the mid ‘90s, and honestly, I chose my MOS because I was like, “Computers have air conditioning.” It was all for the comfort creatures of air conditioning. But I went through a 12 month, immensely deep school for learning about network engineering all the way to C programming.

And the military is really where I started my career, and I was just—I loved it, you know? It was SaaS before SaaS, working on some of those systems that we use to facilitate troops around the world. And so, taking that, you know, background with automation and Unix back in the day and then continuing this journey and a lot like many leaders, you know, you just kinda fell naturally in some sense where I think the discipline the military gave me and then the skills that were put on top of that—because I've always been a math nerd. I still love math and science and physics to this day. It just really helped drive, you know, when teams would say, “Hey, let’s do this,” I was always that engineer going, “What if we did it this way?” and they're like, “Why don’t you just be the boss?” I'm like, “Okay.”

But I really love humans, and so, I've had the opportunity from that journey to be a part of product, work in support, try a lot of roles. But, you know, I started out as an engineer in the field and some I'm always engineer first, but I kinda always have been drawn to—well, humans are the ones producing it and it just comes back down to that arts background of, you know, bringing joy and expressing yourself and having people be delighted with what we build and make.

Christina Noren: Software made by humans. That’s a fascinating background. So, how did you get from the military to GitHub?

Dana Lawson: Trying a lot of roles in the software development life cycle and about 10 years ago, you know, I made that shift, really, into management. I joined New Relic. New Relic, when they were really beginning out and thinking about, you know, “Well, how can we bring the operations closer?” You know, I was a sys admin at one point, and we were at the end of that baton handoff when you wanted to go from your code repository into production, we were the ones handling that.

And having the opportunity to join New Relic, I was like, “Whoa, look at this!” You know, because we had Nagios and other, you know, tried and true monitoring systems back in the day, but approaching it at the development beginning was so compelling to me. Because people like to think of DevOps at the end of the cycle, but it really is about the culture and doing it all the way through as you create.

And so, yeah, you know, I fell in love with building tools for developers. So, I went to New Relic and I helped build performance monitoring and analytics for developers. After that, I went to Envision and started to help developing a collaboration platform for the designers and development teams to come closer, and the product groups, and really form that engineering design product triad.

And then, you know, fast forward, here I am at GitHub, and it’s like, the mecca. It’s like, you know, this is where the world’s open source and development and makers come to share their ideas and collaborate together on what’s gonna be next for us.

Christina Noren: We've been so close to each other, but orbiting in slightly neighboring orbits for this whole time. Because I was employee 12 at Splunk and Paul was with me, too. And we lost one early sales engineer, you might know Steve Henson, to New Relic.

But I kinda sense that—you know, it’s funny, because Splunk came about, I got the job at the Splunk because most of my friends were sys admins and anybody else who qualified for the job hung out with developers, you know? [Laughter] So, there was this transitional time, and the earlier APM companies were focused on developers—instrumenting the developers more than users, which is an inherent conflict. So, you know, at Splunk, we dealt with whatever data exhausts the developers logged with contempt we would deal with. And then there’s another generation of companies where developers actually care about instrumentation. So [Laughter]—so, it’s funny, that whole shift at that time and Envision, you know, I think the trend of front end and design being more technical and being more, you know, self-implementation is interesting.

So, let’s get back to the current time. So, you know—so, how much contact are you having with customers and end users of GitHub right now, and how have you seen their worlds changing, and has it impacted what you're doing at all?

Dana Lawson: I mean, we try to stay really close, you know? Not only to the customers, but to the maintainers out there and understand the challenges that they're faced with now, especially the maintainers, you know, they've already worked with this global group of people that are coming together. They haven’t been as impacted, but it’s great to get their feedback on how they are building now, because it’s kinda like we mentioned earlier—you may have had a leg up, but you're still, like, now really thinking about all the things that you had, I don't know, polished over the years and months.

But our customers, you know, it’s those listening tours. We're trying to do things like this, get just the message out there and talk through their problems and also share how we're working through those same problems. But it’s through, you know, some of the same tactics we had in the past where there it’s meet ups, now they're virtual meet ups. Whether it’s conferences, now they're virtual conferences. Whether it’s customer advisory boards where you did get in a room and a wipe board and talk through their problems, now you're doing a customer advisory Zoom call.

And then also, you know, just continuing to curate the data and the information through our platform, you know, our customers are very good at tweeting us. Developers let us know what they love and hate, and you can see that in the GitHub issues. [Laughter]

Christina Noren: Can you be concrete at all about, you know about one or two things that have been a shift in what customers need from GitHub in the last few months?

Dana Lawson: Yeah, I think customers need more of that security focus, right? SecOps is pretty new. I think everybody hates it when we say DevSecOps. I think that’s gonna be the next buzzword—DevSecOps, why not, it’s happening. But I think the SecOps is really something that I'm hearing customers say, “Okay, cool. We're all out of office, we want to automate some of these practices, these security policies, some of the things that we may have walked down the hall or had at the end of our chain, we want to practice it just like we do development operations.

Once again, instead of thinking about it at the end of your development life cycle, we're hearing customers think about it all throughout this life cycle and they want the tools to be able to do so. Maybe your teams are working four day work weeks, right? Maybe you have flexible work schedules. Maybe you can’t, because of the fiscal landscape that’s out there, really afford another engineer, but you want to have security be just as high.

I think a lot of customers are looking at the creative ways that they continue to keep the bar high, but do it in a way with less, right? And not less at the expense of the team and what they're producing, but more in the less of human capital. Do you want your engineering team worrying about some of these things, or do you need them to worry about only the important things? And we're seeing customers really focus in on that. It’s something that I think we've been trying to do in this industry since I've been in the developer tool space. But now, it’s like, the try is gone, there’s a have to—I have to do this.

Christina Noren: Yeah, it is funny how a lot of what’s happened in the last five months is forcing people to do things that they should've been doing all along. And when it comes to, you know, GitHub, my own experience is, you know, people keep shared secrets in a public hub repo. It’s just such a simple thing. Git versus SCMs as I remember them is a much more social experience and it facilitates humans collaborating asynchronously, which is not what we saw 10, 15 years ago.

Dana Lawson: Yeah. I mean, we wanted to see the actual, I guess, tactical cadence of, “Okay, the change goes from A to B to B to C,” but now, we've blended that so well, but we want to still have the compliance and the artifact trail. And so, I think that’s really where the change is happening. It was synchronous. How can we make it asynchronous but still keep up all of the good practices that we had when we were working synchronously?

Because it’s not good or bad one way or the other. You know, depending on what you build, maybe that works for you. But I think that everybody out there, at least the companies I work with and the companies I've been at, the barrier to technology is becoming lower. The ability to produce products is becoming easier and faster. And so, how do you stay relevant with what you're producing? Well, hopefully, it’s by getting good ideas out there sooner and experimenting, iterating, measuring, and then going all through it again.

You know, really, clichéd as it is, it’s at the speed of light. Because there’s gonna be 100 other people, thousands of other people, millions of other people that have the same idea, and because we're doing a good job, I think, you know, us, practitioners of development operation tool sets, we're empowering people to be able to do this. Even novices, people that—I mean, you look at some of the tools that have come out just for creating websites, and you don’t need to know a bit of software development to do that, or to create services and applications. You can literally watch a YouTube video and go and do this, and it’s amazing.

So, it means people that have practiced it for a long time in their industries, they've got to continue to modernize, because it’s humans, right? We want a good experience, and that’s all that really matters. Not as much as the cool tech as I love it, but really, the human experience of what you're producing.

Christina Noren: One of the things that we picked up in these interviews—and again, most of them, unlike you, have been people who were taking software into corners of the world we don’t think of as software. But a theme we're picking up on that we just heard from you, you know, is the actual coding is not as hard as it used to be. The building blocks are there, it’s more about the tools as you're making as a human as to how to apply them to the world, and that’s kind of what we're after with this.

So, any comments you have on that topic of GitHub and CloudBees and all of us? You know, we've kinda made it not so hard to develop software any more, but our customers are doing things that weren’t done in software previously.

Dana Lawson: Yeah. I mean, you look at some of these frameworks that are coming out that just make it so much easier to do what you're producing. I mean, I think that Rails was kind of one of the really beginnings of, if you think of just a programming language of saying, “Okay, we're gonna build in this system called Active Record what has all of these tools that come within it.” And so, you see a lot of ease of use in some ways when you have startups choose that as their technology. And then all of these new things like Python’s Django framework, it’s super, super easy to use if you've never developed in the sense of it’s human readable, you can get in there, and you can learn your way.

And so, really, what we're seeing and what I believe is just, you know, that innovation happening. Because that’s really what you want to advance human progress is to innovate in the markets and the areas that we haven’t traditionally thought as being software driven, but we all know everything is, in some sense, software driven. And so, the title of developer is really gonna become wide and broad as we continue on into the future, because of the ease of some of the practices and things that are built.

You know, I think of technologies like Heroku that change the way that you think about creating your cloud environment, you know, you have this toolbox where you can be like, “I need a SQL server. I need—I don't know, I need a web server” and you just go and pick and choose. And that took out a software developer where they may not have operations as a background—cool, now they can do it themselves. And now, going even further, you just see that happening across an industry of people that may have never even thought of this, but “I have an idea” and they can do a little research and they can start producing.

And I think what we're gonna see is new innovation and new ways of approaching projects and problems that humans are faced with. And I think you saw this a few years ago when all these industries were getting disrupted, as we say, and I think that’s gonna just even reach further. In 2030, there’s gonna be over 40,000,000 developers or in some sense, what we consider developers. And so, what are they gonna be producing? And it’s just gonna continue to increase, because now that you've made it so easy, like—anybody can write code.

Christina Noren: Yeah. I mean, that’s the funny part is, you know, I think we're all of a closely related generation, and the idea of being a developer is like, we want to sort of break through this idea that that is some, you know, specialized, you know, special magic priesthood, which I think also plays into the diversity issues as well. Like, we have this idea that being a developer is something that you kind of, you have to be tinkering with Assembly at age 12, you know, as a young boy—and always a young boy—in a garage. And we kinda need to get the message out that the industry has made development software. Like, you have to have a logical brain, you have to have a certain kinda mindset, but it’s not that specialized any more and for me, I think that a big part of the shift that we're seeing happening in an accelerated pace in the last few months is, the world is going from face to face to digital at an accelerated pace. And that means that physical jobs are being eroded and it’s horrific economic carnage. But digital jobs are being created, and we have to help people realize that they can do those digital jobs, you know?

And so, part of the reason I was excited to have you on the show is that I do feel like GitHub is one of the most democratic platforms for getting people to figure out, you know, how do I actually become a developer if I was pushing paper two months ago?

Dana Lawson: Oh, definitely. And it’s kinda interesting if you think about even where it’s shifting now beyond that, right? Because machine learning and artificial intelligence, I know I haven’t talked about that, but that is now the next step into some of these now development tasks that we did.

So, when we thought about lowering the barrier of entry for development, we've done that. But now, we're lowering, I guess, the barrier of entry for some of the repeatable tasks that were happening and how we're gonna expand and grow, leveraging new capabilities and technology. I see machine learning and AI also coming into the field even more so into the development life cycle as new developers come and as things are learned. It’s gonna be an incredible time to see, really, some of those things that we've done in the past. Because not only, it’s like, moving away from paper, now you're moving into software, and now software is generating itself. It’s such a Jetsons—I don't know, do people still watch The Jetsons? It’s still on reruns, right? Such a Jetsons type fantasy world that’s becoming reality every day, right?

Christina Noren: It’s funny, but with an art degree and a business degree, I took an accounting job 27 years ago and I found myself using 4GL tools to build a pseudo-CRM for my company as it was going public. You know, it feels like it’s a new generation. Like, 25 years ago, you could get into technology through the back door like I did, and it feels like we're creating new back doors, which I think is a huge path for creating a new equity in our society.

I'm gonna pause there, and Paul usually does the takeaway wrap up because he’s good at that synthesis, so Paul—what’s your takeaway from today’s conversation?

Paul Boutin: Well, I have two. The first is that there is a notable pattern among our software agents to date. None of them, when they were a child or a teenager or even in college said, “You know, one day, I'm gonna be the VP of Engineering for GitHub.” And they've all come in from different directions, and they're all much more connected to a variety of experiences and the people and the processes and the cultures into which they can bring software.

The other thing I hear is that a lot of what we've talked about right now is making it easier to develop software, and I don’t want people to think that that just means getting started or inventing it. It’s also about maintaining it. Some of the companies I worked, including a startup I had—the beauty of it is, is that we can build on all these platforms that are on GitHub. The application I use to write what little code I write automatically gets all the updates from GitHub that have been checked in and then looked over and they're all good, and I don’t have to know what’s new. If there’s a vulnerability, it gets fixed before I even get around to it.

That means that I can just do the little part that I wanna do and that I can see helping a lot of people who, before, would've said, “Oh, my gosh, we're gonna have to hire engineers, we're gonna have to hire some contractor, it’s gonna be a huge project.” No, it’s actually like—what’s your vision, what’s the thing you want that doesn’t exist? And GitHub is becoming a big part, especially, as you said, with the automation through machine learning, of just letting you not care about that stuff the way that you don’t think about what runs your Internet connection, including where does the electricity come from.

Christina Noren: So, Dana, as we close off, is there anything you would want to say to our audience that we haven’t allowed you to get to yet?

Dana Lawson: Just that we're all in it together. I think now is the time, as leaders and technologists, to take a step back and look at what’s most important and hopefully really, you know, share our learnings together. Because this is uncharted territory, right? Just because we have had some opportunity to have Dev tool chains or to be remote or whatever, I think it’s more important than ever to continue to share not only how we're doing it, but also what we're not able to do and just be a little bit real about it.

And so, I just want to encourage everybody listening to be kind to each other and, you know, get out there and continue to build cool stuff.

Paul Boutin: I need to throw in two things I wouldn’t normally. One is, if you think that your company thought they were distributed and remote and you're finding they're not really, you're not alone. And the other is, you said something at the front that’s so important—even people who don’t seem stressed out right now might be, and the manifestation is, people right now are making more mistakes and you have to understand, that’s how it is and that’s okay, because software comes from people, who are human beings.

Christina Noren: And that’s what automation is all about is to protect us from ourselves.

Dana Lawson: Thank you, Christina and Paul. It’s so cool to meet another person with a journey so similar—it’s crazy. We'll have to get coffee some day.

Christina Noren

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