Leanpub Podcast Interview #3: Johanna Rothman

published May 16, 2012

Johanna Rothman is the author of three Leanpub books, including Manage Your Job Search.

Johanna Rothman works with managers and leaders to identify problems and seize opportunities around how they manage their product development. She focuses on removing management and technical staff impediments.

In addition to her management consulting, Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair.

This interview was recorded on March 22, 2012.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or add the following podcast URL directly: https://leanpub.com/blog/podcast.xml.


Peter Armstrong: I’m here with Johanna Rothman, a management consultant who works with managers and leaders to identify problems and seize opportunities on how they manage their product development. In addition to her consulting, Johanna is also a blogger and the author of multiple books, including the 2008 Jolt Productivity Award-winning book, Manage It!: Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management. Johanna is also producing a few Leanpub books right now. None of them are published yet, but I’ve scanned the previews of the two of them which have previews, and they look fantastic. She’s let me know it’s OK to talk about them. We’re going to talk today about her writing, her experiences so far using Leanpub, and also ways we can improve Leanpub for her. Leanpub is a Lean startup after all, and so we’re doing this podcast series as part of our customer development process. So, thanks Johanna for being on the third-ever Lean Publishing podcast!

Johanna Rothman: Well thank you so much Peter, I’m so excited to be here!

A: So, first off, so you’ve been blogging for about a decade and you have a few different blogs, so tell me about them.

R: So, Managing Product Development is really my main blog, because that’s my passion: project management program management, people management, risk management. That’s really the key: how do you actually get stuff done in the organization? But Hiring Technical People is really the predecessor, and that’s why my very first book was all about hiring, because if you don’t hire the right people, you can’t get anything done. So, my very first book was Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies and Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People. And it came out in paper in 2004. And I was having tremendous trouble getting my publisher to come out with it in anything resembling electronic form. It came out in PDF less than a year ago, and I could not get the publisher to come out with it for any electronic reader, aside from PDF.

A: Hmmm.

R: Yeah. So that’s why, that’s the book I’m working on now, for Leanpub, in Leanpub, that’s the one I’m making the most progress on. And I’m actuall doing a bunch of revisions. I’m not just doing a straight translation, if you can call it a translation from print to electronic form. I’m cleaning up the language, I’m streamlining it, I’m trying to make it, I guess I would say more electronic-friendly. So, this is why I just love Leanpub, because I get to work in Markdown, I get to actually see my book as I’m writing it, this is one of the things I love. You didn’t even pay me to say this, right?

A: No! I’m just sitting here smiling.

R: I get to see it as I’m doing it! And this is one of the things, I just love it. And you know I had a question about, how do I do sidebars, I sent an email this morning, you responded a couple of hours later, and this is one of the things I realy love. I get to see my product as I’m developing it. I don’t have to wait three months, I don’t have to wait two weeks, I get an answer the same day as I actually ask the question. Now I may not like the answer, I still think you should put boxes around my sidebars…

A: And we actually might! The answer was, ‘Scott’s on holiday this week, please don’t make me do it!’

R: Yeah, I’m gonna nudge you until you put boxes around the sidebars. But, that, even if you don’t, I still have something that works.

A: The funny thing, the thing I’m actually working on next on my queue is actually parts, which is the other thing that you and someone else both asked for within about one week, and I was like “Yeah, we need parts.” Ironically, we’d actually thought about adding parts, and then we thought, no, minimum viable product, we shouldn’t do it, and also we didn’t want to, we thought originally about making h1 be part and h2 be chapter, but we thought that for everyone who didn’t have parts, that all their HTML with h1s would have parts, so then we’d have to convert h1 to h2, and so we went down the path of no, we shouldn’t have parts. But then we realized some people need parts, at least some people do, and so we need to add that in as some kind of special syntax instead of h1 obviously, h1 has to be chapter.

R: Yeah, and if you just said to us, “a part has to be this, and a sidebar has to be that”, and then when you sent me an email that I could do a tip is this and a warning is that, I thought Oh, how cute! So I get to, right, so I actually really like the fact that you guys monitor the list and you respond right away, even if I don’t like the answer, I have an answer. So I get to see the book as I develop it, I get to work in TextMate, which I really like, I get to work in Markdown, which I really like. I mean, Word is fine if you’re going to do an article. Word is a terrible thing if you’re going to write a book, because you can’t move stuff around, you can’t organize your stuff, you can’t organize your thoughts, you can’t organize the pieces. Word is the wrong program, the wrong application, for writing a book.

A: Oh, totally.

R: I’ve written a few, so, at least for me, I know what I need to do to write a book. So, Word is not the right application for me. So it’s really great. You know, it’s funny, a lot of people come to me and say “So Johanna, you’ve written four or five books, you have a bunch of books in the hopper, what should I do to write a book?” And I always say to them, it doesn’t matter, you can use Scrivener, you can use TextMate, and I always say to them, use Leanpub, do not use Word. And it doesn’t matter what I say to them, they all say “But I know Word, and I like Word!” And I say, “Fine, don’t use it, go to Leanpub, you can start there, you can use Markdown, you know HTML, you’ve been blogging, don’t be afraid of it, there’s a whole community out there, they’ll help you, I’ll help you, there’s even a Markdown syntax page on the web, and I can look at your stuff, and you know people are there to help you”. And they all so, “Oh, but it’s not Word!” And I say, “So what are you afraid of?”

A: Yeah.

R: And they all kind of, it’s like they’re looking at me, and on email, and they’re all saying “Wow, I’ve been a developer for 15 years but I’m afraid of a little Markdown syntax”, and I think to them, you know, you were the one who insulted me, and said “You’re just a management consultant - and you work in Markdown?” And I wanna say ‘expletive deleted’ to you too, buddy! I just don’t understand this. So, I think that Markdown is very easy, it’s almost like working in text, except that it gives you just enough organization to say “Ah! Here’s a heading”, or “Ah! Here’s a little bit of structure.” So, for me, it’s perfect.

A: Yeah, for us, the funny thing is, for us, we used to support HTML and Markdown, because we thought, well, everybody knows HTML, but then people tried to do all kinds of fancy formatting divs and whatnot and we’re like, you know, what we’re really trying to say with HTML, is we’re going to support only the HTML that you need for a book, which happens to be exactly the HTML Markdown makes.

R: Yeah.

A: So we just need to be opinionated about this, and say Markdown is the best way to write a book, every other way is terrible. I’ve written a couple of books, my first time, my first book I tried using Open Office, and after about 200 or 300 pages in size it started crashing all the time. Then I had to use Word, when I made a Manning book out of it, and I had to make a separate file for every chapter, and I just hated life so much, like, when I tried to add index entries, it would crash every sort of fourth index entry, it was just terrible. It’s like when you think about, this is 2012, and like there’s no good way in the world to write a book? We’ve had computers for 50 years, we’ve had like the printing press for 500, and every way to write a book in the world is horrible? Like, so that’s why our attempt at Markdown plus listing text files we think is actually probably one of the best ways, because all of the existing ways suck. And so it’s a low bar.

R: Yeah! And it’s so funny because, the reason I came to you guys, is because The Pragmatic Bookshelf rejected my book Agile Program Management, that’s the working title, I don’t know what the actual title is going to be, and I had looked into Docbook, but if you’re not a programmer, DocBook has a really high bar to get into.

A: Yeah, and you don’t want to write in XML. Because even if you can handle XML, I can handle XML just fine, Scott, my co-founder, he had actually written book in DocBook, but I said to him, I said look, I can write XML just fine, but I can’t think like a writer when I’m writing XML, I think like someone writing an XML document.

R: Yeah, yeah. And so, I was trying to figure out, what’s my environment, how am I going to get an environment so I actually have a shot of putting a book together, because I don’t want to spend all of my time working on an environment, I want to spend my time writing, and that’s really the key. So with Leanpub, I get to spend all of my time writing. I spend a little bit of time saying, Do I want an ordered list, or an unordered list? Well, if that’s all the time I spend with formatting, that’s great! That’s about the right amount of time. I want to think, “Is this a new chapter, or a continuation of this chapter?” That’s the right amount of time, because that means I’m thinking about the logical parts of my book. Is this a new idea, or a continuation of the same idea? And that’s, I fully expect to re-architect my book several times. That’s the way I write. I start writing, and I think, “Oh, this is a really good idea”, and then I think, “Oh, wait a minute, that belongs in this chapter”, or, “Oh, this is getting boring, I need a story! I’d better put a story in fast, because it’s been a while since I had a story.” Because I’m a writer like anyone else. I write and write and write and write, and then I step back and say, When was the last time I had a story? Hmm, must be time I had a story. Must be time for an example. And, because, you know, when we’re writing, we fall into the same traps that every other writer falls into, at least many writers fall into. I forget to put in stories, I find some passive voice and use it a lot. We all do this, because we’re writers, and so the key is, how do you get the feedback, how do you discover this? And when you have an opportunity to see the book unfold, to see the book get created, passive voice, when you have an opportunity to create the book as you write it, then you can get the feedback. So, for the Get Your Next Job Fast, or Take Control of Your Job Search, or Find Your Next Job Using Agile and Lean, whatever I’m going to call that book, I have no idea what I’m going to call that book! I’ve already sent that out to trusted reviewers, and I’m integrating the feedback, so that’s already been through one round of review, and thank goodness it has, because it really needed review. And so as soon as I’m done integrating the feedback, I can send it our for another round of review, and then I can probably take it out of the sort of stealth mode it’s in, and get it out for what I would call limited release, and see what people are willing to pay for it.

A: So the limiited, that’s going to be when you actually publish it on Leanpub?

R: Right, published on Leanpub, but probably not widely. Not released to Amazon, not released to all the other places, and then as I get more feedback and see what people are willing to pay for it, then I can continue integrating feedback, and when I think it’s really done - because I actually think that book probably needs another round or two of feedback after that - then I can say, because I’m not even sure what the real title is, although I probably have to have a real title before I get money for it, right? But, maybe not?

A: The process of getting feedback on Leanpub - so this is one of the, this is really interesting for me because, one thing we want to do with Leanpub is have the whole process of getting feeedback be something that Leanpub really helps with, you know, have Leanpub be a way of publishing that book while it’s in what you consider to be alpha or beta, like, is to have that process, like the process that you have with reviewers, but be something that ideally for us people just click the Publish button. You know, most books, like, a lot earlier than yours. For example, your Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers book, that’s over 400 pages.

R: Oh, God, yeah!

A: And it’s actually really good! And I’m, like, it needs cleanup, there are a couple of little things that need cleanup, like a bug in a table or whatever, but it’s something that could be published on Leanpub today and people would love it! And it’s, the question for us is, so you’re coming from a workflow where you’re used to having a limited set of readers give you feedback first before it’s, sort of, for wider consumption. So my question is, what can Leanpub do to make this process more attractive, and make the process of review easier for you? Is there anything we need to do in that regard to make it, like, make you want to click the Publish button sooner, or make the notion of publishing earlier in the process more attractive? Or is that process just fine for you and you just want to go about it that way?

R: Well, the Hiring book is the one that was originally published in print, so that’s why it’s already pretty darn good.

A: Yeah.

R: And, I’m still not, I haven’t finished even creating all the templates and tables, right, so, until all that’s done, although I’ve been making a lot of, I have a lot of traction on that, I’m actually not going to give you a date, I’m not going to give you a date.

A: And you don’t have to, we’re not your publisher, we’re just a tool.

R: Yeah. But I’m really hoping that in a very short while I’m going to be ready to release that one. And I feel, you know part of it is, I feel as though I have, if I have feedback from my initial reviewers, I feel as if I have an obligation to finish integrating that feedback, before I let the book out for the next round of reviewers, if that makes any sense.

A: Oh yeah, yeah I get it. That makes sense.

R: Because if I have said to them, I really wanted the feedback because I didn’t feel as if it was ready for more people, and I ask my trusted reviewers for feedback, then I really want to integrate that feedback before I put it out to the world.

A: Yeah, that makes sense.

R: Because, yeah, you know I’m a pretty good writer. When I make mistakes, boy, they are doozies! You know, I don’t just go for a small mistake, I go for really big ones, that offend the entire universe. You know I go for broke. So if I really go for broke, I really want to make sure that I haven’t gotten everything wrong. So, I want to cover my tush that much. I’m quite willing to say, “Here’s what I stand for, Here’s my opinion, Here are the facts, Here are my references”

A: Right.

R: But I don’t want to, if I have big mistakes, I want to fix those, so people don’t flip the Bozo Bit on me. So that’s why I want to make sure I’ve integrated my initial reviewers for the Get Your Next Job book, whatever that’s going to be called, and I want to make sure that whatever I have for the Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers book, that already exists in print, and if people want to also buy the electronic book, I feel it’s really important that they also have the templates in electronic form, and right now I don’t have those all done. Right, so, that means that they would feel cheated, and I don’t want them to feel cheated.

A: OK, that makes sense. Is there anything we could do to make your private review process better, or are you happy sending private PDF drafts to people, or is there anything that Leanpub could enable that private process, and improve it somehow?

R: I haven’t thought about it that much. So maybe being able to send it to people’s Kindles, or something, but I think that that’s something that I would have to think about some more. I could always ask people, would you make me a trusted sender to your Kindle, and then, or maybe make Leanpub a trusted sender to your Kindle.

A: Yeah, so when you were talking about that, I was thinking, should we do something with Dropbox possibly, like create Dropbox review folders, that people could use…. I’m just trying to think of ways that we could help this. Dropbox seems to work really well for us lots of the time, except for sometimes when we have minor hiccups, but… OK, cool.

R: Dropbox is great. The nice thing about Dropbox is, remember one of my very first questions to you, which was, How do we back everythinng up? I’m one of those, and I’m going to say this word even though it’s going to get recorded for all time: I’m one of those anal backup people.

A: Me too.

R: Right, so, the fact that you said, Dropbox keeps a backup of everything, and then, I think you also said that you backup everything?

A: Yeah.

R: So, that means, and I think that you said that you use, what backup?

A: We use Git, so here’s how this works now. So, we used to do something kind of badly, and we fixed it now, with one consequence. What we used to do, when you published or previewed, we would do a whole bunch of Git commits, one for every file you changed, which is absolutely terrible. And we did this because, frankly, the way that we were doing things in that regard was bad, and so instead what we do now is, when you publish or preview, and this is as of about a week ago, when you publish or preview, we make one Git commit for this preview or publish. And so then that way, what we want to be able to do later on, is let an author be able to look at a history of their book, at a history of every publish and preview version ever made, so if you had some sentence you wrote really nicely nine months ago and you don’t like your sentence now, you can just drag a slider back nine months and see ok, here it is, kind of like how GitHub works with looking at a repository.

So, whenever you preview or publish, you’re making a Git commit, one Git commit for the whole book, based on this preview or published version. And so, and besides that we also back up our repositories, we’re on Amazon and we have Amazon’s backup service, etc, so we have backups and we have version control, and Dropbox has backups. So even if we’re incompetent idiots, Dropbox is backing you up; and if Dropbox is incompetent, we’re backing you up; and so Dropbox would have to fail, and we’d have to fail, and Amazon would have to fail, and you know, so there’s, at some point along the line, you should have your files somewwhere, right.

R: Right.

A: …and so even if you’re computer or laptop - now that said, Terms Of Service-wise we’re not responsible, yadda yadda yadda, but we’re backing you up. But the point is, just for the record, since this is being recorded, when we made the change to do the Git stuff properly, a few weeks ago, we had the problem of what do we do with all this garbage version history that doesn’t make any sense, from the past, where we had like hundreds of Git commits for every… and so we just nuked that, because, it would mean that all existing Leanpub books had a whole bunch of garbage, and then good content. And since this isn’t a feature, it wasn’t an official feature yet, and in terms of the history, we didn’t want to show you for example your book, and then there’s this stuff that made sense and then a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t make sense. And so we just start everything with like a first new commit as of about a week ago. And so every time you preview or publish you’re making one commit. And so as far as your book is concerned, the beginning of time is about a week ago, that’s your first version, even though there was earlier stuff. That’s what we do.

So we like backups too. I mean, I grew up with computers in the 1980s and so I’m used to saving like every sentence or two, right…

R: Yeah, I’m not going to tell you when I grew up with computers. But let’s just say, it’s really important to me to back up, because it’s just not worth not having the backup.

A: No, totally.

R: It’s just not worth it. Because the cost of not having the backup is too high. So, it’s really, you know when you guys said that to me, I thought, “Ah! I can work with these people.” And so that was really important to me. So the fact that I can see my book as I generate it, and I can get the feedback really fast. Feedback to me, as I preview, in Markdown, feedback to me as I see my book, because I look at it in PDF as I generate it, and feedback to me from my readers, and the backup, you know… You’re not perfect, but you’re darn close.

A: Well thank you. Hey, you said you use TextMate - have you ever used the HTML preview feature in TextMate?

R: I use the Markdown bundle, so I haven’t used the HTML feature in TextMate.

A: So does the Markdown bundle, is that the type of thing that shows you what your HTML looks like, as you write Markdown?

R: It shows me what the Markdown looks like. So I can see, so when I put in images, so for example, I have a bunch of tables, so in the Hiring book I have tables that I converted into images, and so in order to see that the image looks right, I actually have, I created, instead of trying to use tables in the text, my tables are too big, so I created images of the tables in OmniGraffle, and then made JPEGs.

A: OK.

R: And so I put the JPEGs in the text, and previewed them in the Markdown. So I used the Markdown bundle. For people who are confused, who are listening to this, this is actually really easy, and so you create an image, I use OmniGraffle because I’m on a Mac, and I exported to a JPEG, and then if it’s too wide, you just say 75% or 60%, or 50%, because you can’t make it bigger than the width of the page. And Peter and Scott say it can be four inches or five inches or three inches or whatever it is, I can never keep that in my head, so I use the preview in TextMate to actually look at it, and so if it goes over the right margin, I know it’s too big!

A: Nice.

R: So I look at it in the preview mode, and when it goes over the right margin, I say, “Well, 100% is too big, let me see what 75% looks like.” And so, I export it again, saying 75% percent. And so if it looks good in 75%, chances are good that when I preview the PDF in Leanpub it will be correct.

A: Hmm.

R: So, that’s what I’m doing.

A: So for the people who are listening, Leanpub does try to automatically resize things. And we have documentation about how wide an image should be based on what type of book it is, and how wide the book is, and we have other documentaiton about that, but it helps when you make your images a nice size, so that they’re large enough or they’re small enough. Because typically, the program that you use probably does a better job than we do, so then yeah, that makes sense.

OK, so, one question then, around community. So when you launch your books, do you want, like, currently, Leanpub, we sort of think our role is to be a store and let authors to produce new versions whenever they want and have people get them, let a community grow, but don’t provide many explicit community tools. I mean, we have Disqus comments, but we don’t do much more than that. So do you see your blogs and Twitter as filling the role adequately for you around what you want for community-type tools, or do you want, do you see there being something missing that you’d like Leanpub to do in that regard?

R: Well, the fact that you have the ability for people to sign up to be notified about my book is great. But I have a mailing list, and I have a blog, and I have people who subscribe to my blog. So I’ve been really working on building my own platform for a long time.

A: Perfect.

R: And I have a Twitter following, so, I’ve been really working on trying to build my own following for a very long time.

A: Right, so you’re covered then, you don’t need us to do much for you?

R: Well, you know, if I understood marketing, I would love that. Anything else you could do for me is great. But I don’t think it’s, in some sense you’re helping me publish my book, but any publisher is not going to really help me do my marketing.

A: Oh, yeah, they’re just going to tell you, go on Twitter, get loads of Twitter followers. Go sign up for Amazon and write something there.

R: Yeah, I think that any publisher is not going to really help you do the marketing. In fact, both publishers I’ve had, have always said, We will help you publish your book, we will help you do the marketing, but you have got to do your own marketing yourself. That’s what’s going to sell books. So anything you can do to help, great. But, I think that any author who thinks that a publisher is going to do the marketing, is… I think naive is the best word I can use.

A: Yeah, that’s been my experience too. My take on it is, for a publisher, unless you’ve got like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, you really can’t afford to do marketing, because the amount of money you’d have to spend, versus the amount of money a book makes in terms of gross revenue, you can’t really do anything. And for publishers, if you do have Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, then fine, you can go and spend, you can do stuff where you can spend x and you know you’ll get back whatever, but, yeah, for any book that’s like a technical book or a business book, unless it’s a #1 bestseller type thing, you’re basically on your own. And we say that too, you know when people on the list ask, How are you going to help with marketing? We’re like, “We’re not! And no one else is either!”

R: Right, it’s just not going to happen. And so if you’re an author, or a would-be author, the best thing I can suggest to you is, start blogging about your book now, in fact blog your book!

A: Yeah.

R: Because the best thing you can do is attract an audience, and even if you blog every single thing in your book, that’s not what a book is, you can’t just take all of the blog entries and put them together and make a book. You have to weave it together.

A: Yeah, there’s curation, editing. It’s funny, because when Leanpub started with our blog import feature, we had Venture Hacks and Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned, they were imported and produced that way, and so our affectionate term for those is Blog Barfs, right, because there’s literally no curation or editing at all, it’s just like they, the blog just slurped into a PDF. And those have actually done well, because, you know, Eric and Nivi are just so widely known that they’ve done OK, but we’re, that’s not sort of our core business. We think that blogs are starting points for books, but that you need to go ahead and get rid of everything that doesn’t make sense, you know rearrange, curate, edit, and produce a book out of it. And that’s what you’re doing, and so that’s fantastic.

R: Yeah, and at some point I’ll turn my Create an Adaptable Life blog into a book, but, it’s part memoir, and part, here’s how you adapt to change, but it’s nowhere near ready for a book, and I don’t know what the book would be, and I mean, it’s just, it’s way too raw right now, and so I haven’t even created a place for it, because I don’t know what it is yet.

A: Right, that’s great.

R: But in the meantime I’m blogging and building an audience, and when I figure out what that is, then I can figure out what to import, and it won’t be the whole blog. It will be pieces. And when I understand what the pieces are, then I can figure out what it is.

A: It’s funny, what we’ve found is, some people have asked us, Hey, can I have a category to import with a blog, say, and we’re going to add that, we don’t have that now, so our current approach is to say, look, import the whole thing, and look at it, and then you realize, oh, there’s actually two or three books here, and then process that some people have done is just taken the imported Markdown and then just made two or three books and pasted everything in each one, and then selectively deleted. Or else have one book that is the full blog, and then start moving files out, into other folders, and the book sort of emerges, like you have 100 files there, and it’s like oh, 20 of these are memoir-y, and 30 are sort of how-to type stuff.

R: Right

A: So, this has been fantastic for me. While I’m in customer development mode, are there any other missing features you wish Leanpub had? Other than Parts?

R: Well, at some point, I think it would be nice, this is really on the edge of, it would nice if - but, it would be nice if, maybe, and this is something all your authors have to get together and provide, people who edit and people who do cover design. So, and maybe this is something that we collaborate on and provide to you. Because, I have, I am working with… Because I know I need an editor. I am a good writer, but that does not mean I don’t need an editor. And so, how do I find an editor who is good for this kind of a book? And how do I find an editor who is good for that kind of a book? And how do I find someone who helps me with the cover design?

A: Right.

R: Because I need, you know, different covers need different kinds of designs. So, I’m not worried about it this second, but I’m hoping to need a cover design soon. So, I think that that’s, and maybe that’s something that we as the community help provide.

A: Yeah, I’m thinking that we need to create some sort of marketplace, down the road, some sort of marketplace for people who want to provide services to Leanpub authors, like technical editing, or covers.

R: Yeah.

A: And this is something that, we don’t necessarily want to monetize that, we just want to help facilitate. Or maybe that is part of our business model, who knows. But yeah I know, I see what you mean. For us, our hope is that by enabling authors to publish in-progress, like earlier than they normally would, that the community of readers around their book, can kind of provide the function of a development editor, like where you’ll get feedback around a programming book, like I don’t understand this explanation, or how does your code work. But, and so some of the development editor functions, we see happening as, we see sort of functioning as readers providing some of that, if you publish earlier. Now, that said, there’s lots of other editor functions, like copy editor type things, or technical editor, and you know that type of stuff, that we see that there needs to be something else, and we’re just not sure what it is.

R: Yeah.

A: So, this is excellent, thank you very much Johanna! Thanks very much for being on the podcast, and I’m going to post this sometime in the next few days, I have to learn how to add introductions and all that.

R: Well thank you Peter, this is fun.

A: And thank you for being a Leanpub author!

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