Art school to the U.S. Army to New Relic Engineering may sound like an unusual career path, but it’s one that Dana Lawson is pleased she took. Early on, Lawson had the intention of becoming a professional artist but soon realized that the “starving” part of the starving artist lifestyle was not for her. “On a whim,” as she puts it, she joined the Army; having developed a taste for computers in her digital graphic arts classes, and figuring that computers needed air conditioning so they’d keep her out of the field, she signed up to become an information systems operator and analyst.

After the Army, Lawson worked as a government contractor for General Dynamics and then as the lead systems administration and operation manager at the National Enrichment Facility in New Mexico. After moving to Oregon, she joined a private financial software business in the Portland suburbs before finally moving to “the big city” to join New Relic.

We talked with Dana about her background and what she’ll be discussing in her talk at FutureStack15, entitled “If It Touches Production, It Is Production.” FutureStack15 will be held in San Francisco, November 11-13, 2015.

New Relic: What were your duties in the Army, and how do they compare to your role at New Relic?

dana lawson - futurestack15Dana Lawson: After training at the Army Computer School in Fort Gordon, Ga., I was stationed at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. There I was the only enlisted person working with an all-female systems administration team of contractors. We managed the Army’s proprietary Java applications that handled everything from medical treatment to the transportation of troops. We took care of more than 200 servers worldwide, and that was very similar to what I do today. Only now, instead of writing Perl scripts to automate everything, I use applications and create other tools to do the heavy lifting and monitoring.

New Relic: Are there things you want to monitor that you aren’t monitoring yet?

Dana: I want to monitor all the things, seriously. I want to see anomaly detection driven by machine learning with dynamic alerting that you can apply to any data point and any piece of the stack, from byte to packet.

New Relic: What’s your interest in the “future stack” architecture underpinning modern software, and how do you see the stack evolving?

Dana: I believe we at New Relic are helping define the “future stack” not only with our products but with how we handle all aspects of our software from design to production. The amount of data that our customers send us is crazytime! There aren’t many companies that have our use case for scaling infrastructure to support this volume of data, and because of that we have to look into the future and be the future. I think everyone’s data footprint is just going to get larger and larger, and we are one of the pioneers in discovering how that data can be stored and organized.

We are using a lot of greenfield technology in our site engineering team, which I believe is the future of cloud-based applications. We are building out a highly elastic and scalable environment using new technologies like Apache Kafka, Docker, and Mesosphere as well as young languages like Google’s Go. With such new technologies, the challenge is really using trial and error to find the right balance of performance, availability, and scalability.

New Relic: What topics do you plan to address in your talk at FutureStack15?

Dana: I’m planning to talk about how we’ve operationalized our development teams—how we handle all of our processes, procedures, and operations like we do our (products) software. By following the mantra of “automate everything,” we treat all tasks, tools, and processes the same way we do our products, with a well-defined lifecycle. We have learned a lot by fully integrating our DevOps team with our engineering teams, and I thought FutureStack would be the best platform to share that with other like-minded technologists.

New Relic: And what do you hope to get out of FutureStack15 yourself?

Dana: Connecting with the other thought leaders in our industry and learning about their future stacks. I see this conference as just another way to pay it forward by sharing our stories and making software better, which in turn makes the world better, because today the world is driven by software.

New Relic: Do you see any connection between art school and your current job? 

Dana: I still paint regularly, and painting is like software development. You can paint a picture of an apple and I can as well, but the tools and media to get there are the desire of the artist. With art you create and inspire, and I believe you can do that with good software.

Don’t miss Dana Lawson and the rest of our stellar lineup of speakers at FutureStack15 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, taking place November 11 through 13. Register by November 5 and save $600!

FutureStack15 promo


See also: FutureStack15 Speaker Spotlight: Capital One’s Gill Haus


Note: Event dates, speakers, and schedules are subject to change without notice.

San Francisco image courtesy of'

Jake Widman is a San Francisco-based freelance technology and science writer, covering everything from big data to quantum physics. He's a regular contributor to Computerworld,, and Photoshop User. View posts by .

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