The Main Thread

Episode 08-2 Transcript

Episode 8, Part 2Transcript

Welcome back to the main thread.
This episode is part two of our discussion on empathy and inclusion with Lee mckeeman from Google.
If you missed part one,
I definitely recommend you going back and starting there.
I think you'll get more out of this as a whole.
Part two will focus on why companies tend to struggle to prioritize efforts for building better inclusivity and accessibility and what we as technical leaders can do about it.
Let's get right to it.
The topic that I really want to talk about because it kind of gets to the core of all of this because all of this is great in theory,
lots of people are well intentioned,
but it still doesn't get done.
And why is that?
And sometimes I wonder because we're such a metrics focused industry.
Um Brian raised this earlier.
I came to this thought independently when I was thinking about this,
we are creatures,
especially in a competitive environment like software engineering,
we're all competitive people to some degree or another.
I mean,
the jobs that we have are desirable and there's competition.
If you're listening to a staff engineering podcast,
it's because you want to grow your career to some degree.
Nobody's probably listening to this because they're,
you know,
just for fun.
Um They're,
they're competitive.
They want to learn that creates pressures and those pressures are,
how am I being evaluated and how you're being evaluated often is not how empathetic you are.
You know,
it's just a hard,
not a hard number.
Whereas how many,
how many lines of code you shipped as bad of a metric as that is,
it's a hard number that's easy to go at the end of the day I did XY and Z and so I'm curious how can we in a competitive environment where we are forced to play to the incentives that are provided by our employers that we're evaluated against?
Because we all want to be promoted,
we all want to get on better projects.
We all want to have more responsibility.
How can we build a system that will evaluate that?
I mean,
obviously there's,
there's a lot of parts to,
to get through on this particular topic.
it's totally fine.
I think,
I think it is super critical to try to understand sort of what you're talking about of how do we align the measurements to,
you know,
what we actually want to see?
Like do we actually want to see change in terms of inclusivity?
If so what's the,
what's the standard?
I just feel like it's gonna be hard to get people at the end of the day in the macro to make it a more inclusive environment if they're not incentivized to make it a more inclusive environment.
So I'll start with some platitudes and then try to get to some more specific.
So like I do actually believe while it is a platitude that like culture is everybody's job.
And you know,
I do again as we talked about earlier,
recognize that there are people in marginalized populations that are not going to push back against the status quo.
If their director comes in and makes an insensitive joke,
they may not be the person to say like,
that's not OK,
at least,
maybe not in that public forum.
But if we're not trying to make it better,
it will get worse.
There's no neutral,
you can't sort of sit back and hope that culture improves.
So then how do we align that to people's progress in their careers?
It's normally a,
a second or third order metric that does end up getting considered in say a promo packet,
but it's very much divorced from the actual behavior.
And what I mean by that is like,
what might be measured is what was your influence?
How were you able to make things change or make things better?
And sometimes that might be culturally,
but sometimes that might just be you,
you know what we've struggled to get this other team to take up this work item for the last three years and then somehow,
like you convince them.
And it's like,
because I needed to understand what their perspective was,
why they didn't want to do it.
What it was keeping them from doing if they did take this work on and find a way not to lend an engineer from my team to work in their code base because that's not always a nightmare,
but it's 95% of the time.
A nightmare.
So how do we instead say,
what can we take off your plate?
Is there something that we can do if we were to,
you know,
if myself and our T PM were to like,
go through your backlog and prioritize things.
Would that free up somebody's time if we were to work on some of these backlog tickets that are really small items that are fairly easy for anyone to tackle versus this big gnarly change we're asking you to make,
that would be much harder for us to do.
Could we sit with your team and for a week everyone does a fix it.
Our team and your team and we pair and like knock out 50% of these outstanding tickets.
would that help?
would that buy you the time that you would need to do this?
If not,
what can we do?
Is it next quarter?
Is it next half?
Is it next year or is this never like?
Are you never ever going to be able to do this and like aligning people.
you acted with empathy.
You understood people's perspective and situation and you affected change.
That's incredible.
Except that what is measured is that change and the impact that it had not the way you did it because you also could have been a jerk and threatened them and like,
made their life miserable and escalated to an SVP and forced it.
You would get the same result,
but you don't have a friend.
Like now you've made an enemy,
you've made the company worse in the long term.
Although I think,
you know,
peer reviews,
at least in big companies like ours tend to be hugely important.
And if you show up with a bunch of peer reviews who say,
you know,
we were blocked on this or a priority,
we just couldn't seem to make time for it.
But Lee and his team came over and helped us get unblocked and we were able to deliver this that goes along with the impact that you say you had.
That goes along with you see the problem with having peer reviews being heavily weighted by a group of peers who are identical to you,
They're going to evaluate you better,
but it's not gonna increase inclusivity if all the people shake their hand and say,
we all did a great job,
but we didn't include anybody with different perspectives.
It doesn't solve that problem.
So that quota or something to get diversity,
I don't think is effective.
But if we're trying to say,
how would we measure the positive impact?
We love it when we can go and pull a metric from a database and put it on a graph and be like,
the line went from the bottom left to the top,
I am successful.
I win.
But like you can gather data other ways like we kind of end up acting like it's impossible.
But like you can,
if you put the effort in,
pull your team once a week or once a month or whatever,
completely anonymously.
And yes,
that requires a base level of trust that they believe you that it is anonymous and it's not hosted on company systems.
So you couldn't crack it if you tried and you created everyone a burner gmail address to use to do the survey.
So it couldn't be tracked back to their account in any way.
And you allocated V MS for everyone to do it from.
So it's not from their machine.
Like at some point,
you hopefully can get the trust from them that legitimate is gonna be there,
But like you want this feedback and again,
that might be,
that might be something you have to work up to.
You might not be able to do that right away,
but you might say I'm leaving the room.
I want everyone to write down like the biggest problem you're experiencing on the team,
put it into a hat,
y'all can tabulate them without me present.
So I don't try to decipher handwriting or whatever and just give me the result and then be like,
everyone's opinion matters.
I'm taking down all of these things,
but everyone hates the frequency of meetings we have like,
let's fix it and like make that change and start showing people that when they give you feedback,
you treat it as a gift and you do something about it.
And if you can't,
you try to find out how and you keep people updated,
you know what,
I couldn't do that.
But I talked to director of HR for North America or I went to,
you know,
this source and I'm escalating in this way and if I can't get it done that way,
I'm going to do X and if people are like,
this isn't just so you can check a box that you got people's feedback,
but you're actually doing something about it if you can start small and it doesn't have to be then based on inclusivity,
it doesn't have to be based on any of those things.
It's just you building trust then saying,
would you recommend this team to a,
you know,
colleague of yours?
That's a woman?
And if it's like,
then you're like,
let's figure out why that is.
And that's some that's good.
and that's something that we can measure because it just seems that we live and die by the metrics a lot of the time for better or worse.
That's the way it is.
And it's hard to put a 10 point scale on empathy or inclusivity,
And if you make a couple of questions of like,
would you ever challenge a director's feedback or edict or whatever?
And people say no,
then it's not as useful of a question to say.
Do you feel comfortable?
Challenging director acts on this because like,
this person never would.
So can we change the denominator so that we actually get useful data here and say like,
I would feel comfortable doing that and I don't hear and then you say,
then we have a psychological safety problem.
We have a trust problem if people will only ask anonymous questions.
at least they're asking the anonymous questions,
but that means there's some level of fear of retribution or fear of looking stupid or being shamed.
So yeah,
keep accepting those.
But then what,
what's next?
how do you evolve the culture?
And that's where I think if 10% of people felt comfortable with that at the beginning of the year and 22% feel comfortable.
it'd be cool if it was 100 but that is moving the needle and people are feeling safer.
I think that it is unsafe to have demographic information attached to that and if you only made it safer for white people,
then you didn't succeed.
And so that's hard.
And that may require difficult conversations or inquiring and not being like,
you're black,
you represent black people.
So tell me why black people don't feel safe in this org like that's not a thing you can do.
But you can say like,
I'm not gonna ever ask for demographic information in these surveys,
but something doesn't feel right.
Like most of the questions being asked in our all hands seem to just come from the white dudes,
something is amiss there.
And so that's all good for evaluating.
But then the the the question becomes.
So I'll lay my cards on the table.
I think diversity is our greatest possible strength.
I was in the Peace Corps.
I spent a lot of time championing that both in my private and in my professional life before I became a software engineer,
I did a lot of work in this space internationally locally,
So I feel this very strongly that this is extremely important for our workplaces.
Long term,
you will always see advantages like the many examples that you gave for why having a different opinions,
different perspectives makes you a better company makes you better overall.
But the problem is the power structures that are put in place,
have these sets of incentives and it's hard to change them,
especially when people are like,
it's my job on the line,
it's hard,
you know,
it's my career on the line and I don't want to rock the boat or I don't want to change the metrics because I spent the past 20 years learning how to get really,
really good at writing like,
RS or whatever,
you know,
and then executing on those and I guess I'm not,
I guess I'm not going to ask you how do we change all of metrics based,
you know,
evaluation for everyone everywhere.
But you do have more experience with this than anybody we've talked to.
So I'm curious what experience you've had and how you've had success,
success with it.
So culture is a pillar,
Like technical deliverables is a pillar and impact is a pillar and culture is a pillar.
it might not always be called culture.
It may be called leadership or,
you know,
people impact or something like that.
But like if that's not a pillar,
then certainly it is going to be difficult to measure and have impact that way.
And sometimes you have to start with essentially,
you know,
if that's not being valued,
adding it,
having an addendum,
like yes,
they did deliver this and did do that.
And also they created a,
a book club for the team that brought a lot of people together and brought some inclusivity where people hadn't participated in other activities with the team.
and that really moved the needle and that is the,
the kind of leadership we're looking for and like adding that to a packet or to a review and saying,
you know what in their impact,
whatever number or score or whatever I increase that by this amount for this reason.
And I really think that should be on the rubric.
If that is a pillar of performance,
then finding out some of these ways to measure it.
But also what are our goals?
Normally the goals aren't,
could we increase the number of women by 10%?
That would be cool.
II I would like that.
But at the same time,
like that's a,
that that could create strange circumstances and situations and quoting.
So instead if it's like what was done to make the team feel more inclusive and that can mean a lot of things,
is it like,
we stopped doing X because this person championed that.
And so we don't drink after work as our only out of office experience because our Muslim colleagues don't drink alcohol and aren't comfortable in that environment.
that is a useful thing.
Let's record that and reward that.
But also like when it happens,
like when positive things happen,
acknowledging it publicly and accepting that feedback,
if you're a leader is key,
if you make a mistake,
and someone says,
whether it's in private or in public that that wasn't the most graceful or sensitive or you,
you really missed it on that one.
If they don't want to be named,
don't name them.
That's not a cool thing.
But say,
you know what,
someone brought it to my attention that in our last meeting,
I really,
missed the mark in,
in this particular joke or the way that I talked about this particular population of users.
And I really appreciate that feedback.
Like I,
they were absolutely right.
And that's that,
you know,
I have to do better on.
So I'm gonna sort of evaluate how I think about these user populations and be a little more rigorous in the future.
Um But you know,
please like this,
this is the only way that we get better and if people have any inkling that they will be retaliated against,
there is no reason for them to act and making it not just neutral or like,
oh yeah,
I'm writing that down cool things but like this is actually a key part of our culture is this kind of dialogue and feedback then that can be really powerful in terms of the positive reinforcement of doing the right thing.
Instead of just telling people I have an open door policy or telling people I really love feedback.
Like no one's gonna be like,
oh yeah,
you love feedback.
It's easy,
it's easy to say,
it's hard to live.
My question to you is everybody knows what you're supposed to say,
you're supposed to say that this stuff is important.
But as somebody who's pushed for it,
have you experienced pushback?
Have you ever,
you know,
from people who want at the end of the day,
the goal is to make money and have you gotten pushback from?
People are saying like,
uh all this diversity inclusive stuff is great,
but it's not actively making me money right now.
So I don't care,
you know,
have you experienced any of that?
Um So I mean,
I've worked for Amazon and Meta and Google the last 10 years.
These companies certainly have their flaws but kind of get it as far as this is concerned.
They're like,
if we do a lot of business in this state that,
you know,
disrespects women's rights,
it's gonna be harder to employ people there or people they think worse of our company or you know what?
We used to have this large client that was funding a lot of things to repress gay people.
We're not gonna do business with them anymore like we value our gay customers,
our gay employees like we celebrate that.
So II I haven't really seen that.
What I would say is there's never been a person that's been like,
we don't want any more focus on inclusion.
What is true is that there is a finite amount of time and energy and there are times that it is not prioritized.
So that's where you can personally find the margins and push in the margins,
but that might not be enough.
So then if the question is we had this like inclusiveness month,
but like,
I'm pushing for half a head count for us to audit our strings and just like,
look for a few of these,
you know,
issues or just reset them to our translators and ask for X or whatever it might be.
I've asked the last couple of quarters and it's not happening.
I really think this matters.
Can we have a budget that's dedicated to this?
If we're really saying that this is important to us,
can we set aside time and effort to make this better?
And if not,
let's not say we care if we don't.
And I mean,
that's very blunt and that might not be the way you sell it.
But at some point like that's what's real is like,
but calling it out for that exact reason,
Because again,
that's where this stuff,
a lot of these biases and a lot of these things live and die in the margins,
These issues tend to live more in the allocation of resources than like out and out like we hate X and Y group.
It's more like we want to make money and X and Y group won't make us as much money.
So we don't develop an iphone that recognizes certain skin tones because there's not as much money in that.
And that obviously,
that's horrifying and terrible,
but that's where it lives.
It's not.
And like people,
like Brian said,
there was no malice towards that example.
It was just that there was,
at some point somebody decided it wasn't worth the money to develop that because I'm sure somebody thought of it.
But they just decided,
I think in that particular case,
I think as soon as they realized it was a problem,
it was very quickly worth the money to develop it.
I just think like before that there was no awareness.
But if they had spent the time to have a commit,
they could have spent a time the time to have a committee and all of that stuff about ahead of time.
At some point,
somebody decided it wasn't a priority to like have the committee that whose job it is to make sure that this works for all skin tones before we release it,
Like that's a money decision that got made.
and also though what happens next?
If you make that mistake and you own it and try to fix it?
That's cool.
Would it have been better not to make it sure if,
if someone did say we aren't prioritizing that?
that's a bad,
that's a bad time.
I I would say people don't have the considerations until they have them.
And then this is where like what I was talking about earlier,
can we share best practices and say here is a data set and it actually has high resolution faces and 3d face maps of very diverse people and people with various injuries and people with,
you know,
various facial deformities.
Let's try not to dehumanize these people when we develop a product.
Like how could we make them still feel like a person?
And obviously,
that's the correct response.
my point was just that it's all about an allocation of resources to some degree.
And if you don't have somebody with those different perspectives,
like we talked about that stuff doesn't get brought up and,
and a champion.
And like,
we've talked about for a lot of things,
an incentive if you say we've got 10 things on our backlog and next quarter,
we're going to do these four.
It's like,
the like um predictive text,
those bubbles,
don't get read by screen readers.
And that's been in our backlog for the last three quarters and it's probably like two weeks of work.
could we please allocate that?
it's rarely like,
uh you know what blind people,
we don't like them.
It's just that it's like,
that seems small to me and it's like,
you can see so,
put a blindfold on and try to use the product and like,
that's sort of a silly thing that's not realistic.
That's not actually gonna do it.
But like,
it's not a small thing if you're disabling a use case for a population and that,
that I think is,
you know,
I'm not trying to put words in your mouth,
but I think what you're talking about is we do vote with how we allocate our time.
That's exactly what I'm saying.
You know,
it's interesting.
Uh because that last example you gave is a little bit more product focused.
you brought up earlier,
the fact that,
you know,
we don't have standards.
Like what would we even make sure people know if we were given the opportunity to make sure everyone entering this industry knew them.
And I was talking with my brother about this a while back.
My brother is the head of accessibility for a tech consultancy.
And he mentioned,
you know,
there actually are standards in technology there.
The HTML is a standard that required a whole lot of people to come together over a long period of time and actually agree on what works and that standard does change and evolve over time.
But it's not impossible for people in tech to arrive at a standard.
It just has to,
as you say,
it has to be prioritized.
It has to,
you know,
it takes a lot of resources to get people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in the same room,
whether it be virtual or not to discuss these things and debate what actually should be considered standard and then to publicize it and have everyone else buy into it.
So it's not impossible but it is a lot of work and it has to be prioritized and that standardization.
The question is,
do we sort of tack that on to an existing standard,
like html already has like all tags on images that ID or used or you know,
descriptive tags on different elements like cool that,
that exists.
But what do we do with that?
And how do we hold people accountable if we can have a score and say these products get this score and people in this group,
some people are only going to buy things with high scores.
On principle,
some people are only going to buy things with high scores because they need that functionality.
Like if there was something like that,
you know,
people will make sure that their sites are,
you know,
their CS S checks out with some,
you know,
standard checker.
If it was like here's a quick test,
put your,
you know,
mobile U I into this or put a page address into here and it says this is what your page looks like to a person who can't see differences in color and we see that 80% of the text is illegible.
So you know,
if only there were some global tech leader who could provide some tooling to make that possible,
like in say the side of a browser or uh in the way that they prioritize search results based on uh certain web standards being followed or not.
Um Again,
I talk with my brother again,
like tooling is great and it's super helpful that we have it.
But of course,
it still requires an ongoing dialogue to understand the way that your user experiences are actually being uh experienced by the people who use your product or your device or whatever.
and we also create walls with certain products.
If we're creating experiences that are only available in VR Well,
if you aren't sighted,
that isn't for you.
If experience is,
if you can only book an Uber on your phone and you don't have hands,
that's gonna be a tricky one and phones,
phones just like didn't exist.
The iphone came out in 2007.
It's been a little over 15 years.
That's nothing in terms of human history and still nothing compared to other technologies.
But like we are locking people out of experiences with some of these choices that we make and can we go back and fix it sometimes we,
we might make it so that you can use an external keyboard with your iphone or something.
Uh But it's rarely baked in because we have this rush to market and that's where the like time is the only resource.
And if you are too slow,
if the iphone launched five years later,
but was completely accessible,
would it have succeeded in the way that it did,
would there have been competitors that would have outdid them?
I don't think it would have been the Windows phone but like something else.
And so plus what's the right thing?
Like I,
I'm not asserting that.
I know I'm just saying that like,
can we balance time to market with accessibility?
Is accessibility,
the requirement?
What level of accessibility?
How do you know?
And yes,
like if we could score it,
that would be awesome.
Maybe there can be chrome extensions or chrome development tools that can help with that.
But like it is so far beyond our web pages,
it's our hardware,
it's our,
you know,
mobile UIs that like we'll get dark mode put in because nerds love dark mode but like will we put in a a more usable high contrast mode?
Like no,
that always ends up way later,
doesn't it?
Like a dark mode is always the first thing and then more practical modes don't get put in until the like to just repeat what you already said,
But yes,
that's a good point.
I think that being the person in your workplace who constantly suggests that these things ought to be prioritized ought to make their way onto the road map is a huge step towards making a difference.
And I think it's incumbent on all of us even when we don't have a title like head of accessibility for us to just bring that into our workplace,
that diversity,
all of these things need to be considered and do need to have resources allocated towards them because quite frankly,
we all want to move fast,
but we're going to move faster together if we,
if we bring more people along on the journey,
and who will we leave behind in moving faster?
And so,
I mean,
and a lot of people in my experience when you bring this stuff up,
they're like,
you know,
I didn't,
I didn't know that or I,
I hadn't ever thought about that.
they can take that with them the rest of their career.
if no one ever brings it up or we're like,
that's the UX designer's job then,
you know,
we don't pass that along and we,
you know,
are stuck with this legacy of relearning these lessons every 10 to 15 years.
There's a few key takeaways I think from that you've at least inspired me is that one?
You shouldn't be afraid to bring these things up that you have worked at a lot of places and you've got a long career and a long history of doing this.
And you've,
like you said,
you've never had somebody come back down and say,
you know,
what are you doing all this,
what are you spending all your time on this inclusivity stuff for?
Get back to grinding out code?
Like people are receptive to it and it's good to,
and that,
and that you should be fearless and,
you know,
at least like being a leader for this sort of thing that it's,
that's where it starts,
I mean,
I would say like,
if you do get pushback,
you've learned something really important.
So we really should move this along here.
we're gonna kick this now over to our picks and plugs section,
which is the time of the show when we can talk about anything that helps you make money outside of work or anything that you think is useful to the listeners.
Um So the floor is yours?
so I,
I haven't quite gotten to the making money outside of work part.
Um I,
I try to do this,
I'm not like a,
a saint or anything but like generally try to sort of share things because I feel like that's the right thing to do and I know I could charge people for 30 minute one on ones and I don't feel good about that,
like where I am at in my career and where that they're at in their career,
telling them to pay me,
feels weird.
But anyway,
with all that said,
um I,
I do write frequently on linkedin.
I've tried to like pres schedule content each week recently.
Um So I'm sure it will be in the show notes,
but first initial,
last name mckeeman,
um There's not a lot of,
you know,
content conflicts and collisions with that name on linkedin.
So you can probably find me there.
Um And then it's my full name with no punctuation,
Lee mckeeman dot substack dot com for my substack,
which you know is I do some roll ups of weekly content from linkedin.
I write some longer form content there because linkedin has a 3000 character limit.
I'm very for both.
So um that can be stifling.
So um yeah,
that's the,
the places people can find me um online and uh yeah,
and I'll chime in uh just on that.
If you're not already following Lee on linkedin,
you should be his content is gold and there's a lot of it.
Um So that's,
it's really,
really good stuff.
So definitely hit that follow button.
Um Alex,
you turn,
you know what?
I'm just gonna say it because I've had Meaty Picks the whole time.
I've been reading,
rereading some old comic books.
So I'm gonna um I'm going to uh plug Alan Moore's Swamp thing.
It's extremely good.
It's old and it's,
but it's really good and everybody should read it if you have any passing interest in,
in comic books.
And then uh you should listen to every episode of the main thread.
That's the other plug strong,
really strong.
Um They can't all be Brian.
I love the comic book pick because I think everyone's like always nervous to pick something that's not in tech and I'm always like,
it could be anything.
It could be anything.
So that was a really good one there.
Um That said,
I'm gonna have the courage to make a tech pick right now.
Uh So this is,
this is something that actually,
I just happened to use this week for the first time.
I'd never used it before and I was really happy with the experience.
So what I'm gonna pick right now is Felt Kit with for a cell.
um a little background here,
we host our podcast on pod bean and uh it's great.
It publishes to everywhere that the podcast needs to go.
Uh But it also has a feature that will like auto share on linkedin when a new episode drops.
So when we release it gets shared out and this feature um has some shortcomings.
So it would post like the entire show notes instead of just a clip or a blurb and it would the link that was there was like to the pod bean streaming page,
which if you did it on your phone,
it would force you to download the app and stuff.
It was just not a great experience to try to generate you like listeners from the posts.
Um So we realized this link this week that we needed a,
just a website,
very simple website that we could link to.
Uh that would just show the episode information and have links to like apple podcasts and Spotify and like little one click things.
So people on their phone could start listening right away.
Um I didn't want to spend a lot of time on it and I didn't want to spend any money on it.
Um So those are my requirements and,
but I actually did need it to be a full stack app.
I needed a server and a front end because the pod being API of course requires an API key that I didn't want to expose on my client.
um using Spelt kit was amazing.
It was super easy.
If you've never used spelt before,
it's like just html,
CS S javascript.
That's what it feels like.
There's no magic.
You don't have to know any paradigms,
you just write it like it's 1999 and it's super great.
And then um it handled the routing for me and uh I didn't have to worry about that.
I didn't have to like create routes in my server.
It was all just like automatically done based on my directory substructure.
And then um deploying this to verse was as easy as pointing it at my github repo and setting up my environment variables.
And I was like,
I had within a couple of hours,
a full stack app.
it was like super great,
but like II I work at meta I use React all day long and I'm happy with React.
But um for,
for this project,
this combo was super amazing.
So if people haven't done it and they need to get something up and out the door really quickly.
Um Can't recommend highly enough.
Um That's it for my pick that's gonna bring us,
that's gonna bring us around to the end here.
So Lee we want to say thanks so much for your time.
Um Really appreciate you spending some extra time with us.
This is gonna be an extra long episode for our listeners,
but I think the content and,
and your insight on all of this is fantastic and I appreciate you spending so much time with us.
Thank you.
It was good meeting with you guys and speaking with you.
I think that this is super useful.
I normally just like talk by myself um on things like that when this one I'm presenting.
So uh good to have like a conversation and appreciate you guys having me on.
That should be our,
our uh come on to our show and talk by yourself,
but with friends,
all right listeners,
we will catch you next time.
Thanks for tuning in.
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