In this episode, Rich Mironov joins to discuss the core challenges of product managers and product leaders and how to combat these challenges. Hear from the guru himself on:
The reality of product managers leading with influence and no authority
Balancing the long-term health of your product when so many of your stakeholders are focused on the short-term
product, product manager, sales, customer, problem, leaders, company, people, important, care, engineering team, tickets, roadmap, revenue, salesperson, issue, quarter, big, organization, ceo
Welcome to Product Voices, a podcast where we share valuable insights and useful resources to help us all be great in product management. Visit the show's website to access the resources discussed on the show, find more information on our fabulous guests or to submit your product management question to be answered on our special q&a episodes. That's all at product voices.com. And be sure to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite platform. Now, here's our host, JJ Rorie, CEO of Great Product Management.
Hello, and welcome to Product Voices, I have a very special guest to kick off season two, wow, already Season Two of Product Voices. So Rich Mironov is here to talk about core challenges for product managers and product leaders. Rich, of course, is a product guru, I'm sure you're familiar with his work with his thought leadership, he runs Mironov Consulting, where he's advised hundreds of companies on leadership, organizational development scaling up lots more. He's also the author of The Art of Product Management. Rich, thank you so much for being here.
Oh, it's certainly My pleasure. Thanks, JJ.
You've been in product management a long time I've been in product management a long time, we've seen changes around the way we do things and you know, some schools of thoughts and that sort of thing. But there's always commonalities, right, there's always some core challenges that seem to be mainstays in product. So just set the stage for us, what are some of the core challenges that you see that product managers are facing?
Yeah, really good, hard question, isn't it? So So I think, you know, and I've been doing enterprise product management since the 80s. So not a new thing for me. But, you know, it seems like most of the product managers that, that we've worked with, that we've been, you know, on the one hand, there's great opportunity, you get to nurture some really cool products, you know, I think of this in a very parental sense of, you know, it's my job to help my product grow up to be big and strong, make a lot of revenue, but probably not in the first year, because, you know, your kid doesn't play violin at age one. So, you know, you have a long term plan for your product, you get to work with great teams of developers and designers, makers. You know, ideally, you're building really good relationships with customers that are more than just one release or one by right. But, you know, core challenges, product managers in most companies don't have any response, any authority, right? It's all the responsibility and none of the authority, nobody works for us. And so there's this daily need to push people along and jolly them out of whatever mood they're in and get them to do the things they need to do and smile and be happy about it. Right. And the other, you know, sort of core challenge year to year, decade to decade is, you know, we're trying to think about the long-term health of our product and the aggregate revenue, and the impact of a feature on dozens or hundreds or 1000s of users. But at most companies, almost everybody else outside of engineering and design outside of the maker side is on current quarter, you know, red meat, if we don't bring in stuff this quarter, I'm fired kind of things. And so that tension between what do we need to do to hit our number this month? And all kinds of unnatural things that we agree to? And how do we keep a product, you know, thoughtful and together and, you know, well designed and meeting a real need over the many quarters and years that for me, is is a key tension, especially on the enterprise side?
Yeah, absolutely. So So I'm curious, I've been mulling this over in my head for a long time. And I'm just curious to get your perspective on it. So we all know that product managers, I love how you said that we've got all the responsibility, none of the hats already. So it's it's all influence, right? It's all relationships, communication influence, etc, that that we have to hang our hat on? Well, is there a different way? Is there a way that organizations could set up the product manager role differently? Is it is it you know, kind of some of the product teams that we've been seeing, or Pat, you know, have been seeing over the last decade or so that's, you know, kind of the team, the squad, the whatever you want to call it, you know, goes together? Or what are your thoughts? I mean, is there a way that without necessarily the product manager having all these people reporting to them? Is there a better way, or different way?
So I actually don't think this is a team level individual product manager level problem. I think this is an executive problem. When I when I look at the really good b2c companies, you know, if you've got 25 million users who are paying you $10 a month, there isn't any one of those users who has the CEOs number can call your CEO up and change your roadmap. Right. So in the b2c world, I think we're much more product led growth led to design led, because the numbers support, you know, the aggregate the impact across the segment, I spend most of my time in the enterprise space where the big issues aren't really ones that an individual team or product manager can address, because it's how the executive team thinks about it makes decisions when your biggest customer wants something special. Right? For me, this is this is the fundamental battleground for heads of product CEOs, VPs of product, which is how do we get enough political support or organizational structure such that when sales discovers a customer who wants something that's really not what we built, or we intended? We have a seat at the table. Right? I don't think it matters how you organize your your engineering team at all here, right? If if the answer is that the CEO is going to override products decision about what we had on our plan for the next three years, because JP Morgan Chase just told us that they send us a million dollars if we invented teleportation, right. There's that's a problem at a much higher organizational level, then one product manager can push back on it. So I think that's a leadership problem. That's a product leadership issue. That that is in some way separate from how we how we do our product manager work every day.
Yeah, absolutely. Makes sense. So so when I want to dig in a little bit there. So you know, the CEO, who says, we're going to do this, because I just talked to my friend, this client, you know, there's very little if anything the product manager can do about that. There's maybe something the product leader can do about that. Right, who probably hopefully reports to the CEO. Yes, what how would you advise them? And how do you advise them? Because I know you do have, you know, tackle these challenges with with your clients? How do you advise that product leader to address that?
Yeah, so this is something that comes up, I coach eight or nine or 10 heads a product at a time. And this is this is the number one issue, right? And, and for me, it starts with acknowledging that the go to market side of the executive team doesn't actually care about the inner workings of how we build stuff, right. And so every time we come to the table and talk about agile or roadmaps, or Scrum or tech debt or whatever, right, the eyes are closed right now that we may think the eyes are open, but the brain is closed, right. And so so my, my sort of starting and advice here is, we have to translate the things we care about into money. So if, for instance, the top two things on our current roadmap are a major upgrade, that's going to lead to dramatically more revenue and dramatically lower churn and some hot feature that's required for us to open up the European market, let's say, we, as product leaders have to be able to talk about those in money. And to say, there's $15 million on the line here on this upgrade, new version thing. And sales has told us or our European sales teams told us that there's $40 million worth of opportunity in Europe. Great. So we just got off the phone CEO just got off the phone with somebody at Ford Motor Company, who said whatever they said, I want to compare the size of that deal, which is $600,000, to what we're going to give up when we throw our plan under the bus. Right and to say, we've all agreed as a team as an as an executive team, that the next release of our products worth $15 million plus or minus 10. Right? So tell me again, how 600,000 Is bigger than 15 million? Think, think think right? Or tell me again, how we're going to abandon our plan to go into the healthcare market. Because we're going to do this one special thing for one of our finance customers that's worth again, $500,000. But we've all agreed that the healthcare market is a 20 million or $20 billion market over the next three years. Right. I'm often talking about roadmap amnesia, right? So my, my, my experience, my strong belief here is that anytime somebody on the sales side of an enterprise company, gets off the phone with always talking with a customer about a new thing. Their brain has been wiped clean of everything we talked about this year. Right? What are we doing, what we're not doing what's on the plan, what's not in the plan, and so they're coming fresh with a brand new thing? Can't we just I love the word just I bet it's only 10 lines of code, right? And so so for me to be humble here and recognize the syndrome is to stop and say, let's remind ourselves of the three things we've already He agreed are the most important ones for the company? Oh, yeah, that's right. Okay. And then let's talk about which of those three things we want to cancel or postpone for a whole year for your really cool opportunity. And maybe it's the right thing to do, right. But let's not assume that everybody in the room looks at our plans and roadmaps and sizings and, you know, dependencies and all this stuff every hour the way we do, because that's not their job, right? Their job is to bring forward fresh opportunities, and 80% of the time, our job is to bury them and never look at them again and not do them. Right. And, and recognizing our role there is really important because around the executive table, me bang my shoe on the table and saying it's a bad idea. Turns out, nobody cares. But if I can get the CFO on my side and agree that we had a plan to grow the company $40 million next year. And if we do this thing, we're only going to grow 20. Right. Okay. Now, we're talking about how the big kids play the big kids table.
Yeah, yeah. I love that. It's it's so onpoint. So thinking about the same, the same type of thing, right? Because that's just influence, right? That's influence that's using data that's using stories that's using our strategy to then influence our peers or your leaders. So same same idea with product managers, right, they've got to influence others without this formal authority. So you know, same advice, or what, what kind of advice do you give them for tackling this?
Yeah, I think generally, you know, at the product manager level, you're dealing with your peers, or maybe one up in different departments, who don't by themselves have the authority to overrule you. Right, so they've got to go up the chain, you've got to go up the chain. So So yeah, very similar. I'd start with, really, really think about and understand what each of your key stakeholders cares about. Now, we do this with products all the time, we say, well, this audience, which is in the automobile manufacturing zone, the thing they care about is getting more cars off the assembly line faster without raising costs, right. We understand what they care about, right? When we think about the folks over in marketing, you know, we forget to do that. Oh, yeah, that's right. Marketing is primarily at a lot of companies trying to bring leads in. You know, there's always that fistfight between whether it's a qualified lead or not that sales and marketing have, we don't have to be there, right. But, you know, they're always looking for something interesting or novel or topical to say about our products. Right? Last year was blockchain, whatever it is, right? How do we help them sell our products? How do we help them bring in leads and market our products and be correct? Well, part of it is we have to be creative about messaging sometimes, right? Now, we're not going to anybody on my team, who allows the thing to go out that promises a future we don't have gets fired. So product managers should never ever, ever tell the world that we have a thing that we don't have, or we're publicly commit to a thing we haven't committed. But within those bounds, how do we help marketing market our stuff? Right, instead of just crossing arms and saying no? How do we help sales, close deals, that are the deals we need and want and that fit our product? We do sales calls, and we do training and right we do all these things, we have to be able to help the folks in each of those functional groups fulfill their mission, and understand that it's not the same as the product management problem. Right. So So within that, then again, same advice. I always start with, well, here's the things that are in the the short term plan or the you know, if we go to Janet bass down on this right now, next later, right, and see if maybe this new issue or or item is really more important than something we're doing now. Or soon, maybe it is right. And if it's not, you know, we love the requester even if we hate the request, right? We don't take it personally that somebody's hounding us to put something in the product, which they believe is really important, right? I know that every functional group has its strong bias. My tech support team only talks to paid customers who have problems, right. And so they are 100% going to have a list for me of the top problems that are really bugs and issues with our product. I know that my new account, sales team only talks to folks who haven't bought our product, and they're going to have a different list. Right? I know engineering is passionate about tech debt and architecture, they're gonna have a different list. Right? So so we want to empathize with and love our stakeholders for what they bring, which is different than agreeing. So we meet them halfway where people right we're social, saying no is different from saying I think you're stupid and I don't like you.
Right Absolutely. And you know, I love this, the way you're you're explaining this because it really, if you think about it, the product manager role in so many ways is is an interpreter, right? To take all of these different points of view. And understand that there's a bias in that point of view, that's not a good or bad bias, just a bias, but based on where it's coming from, and then align that back each of those back to the bigger picture, the longer term for the product, right, which is our job. And, yeah, and so I like how you're, you're saying that, and it's really, really important to put yourself in their shoes, right? So I loved how you said, you know, they just don't care about our roadmap, they have amnesia, and you know, all of those things, right? It's just true. They just don't care about the way that we do our work. They care about the overall picture and from their context or point of view. So I think that's really important. Another really important point you I think you made was that we don't always have to say no, if somebody brings us an idea that actually sounds like it could be, you know, potentially valuable or even more valuable than what we've been working on. There's there's nothing wrong with you know, taking some time to examine that and potentially making some pivot if, you know, it's the right, you know, long term intentional business decision, if you will, know that we do that enough, either.
I think it's easy, it's easy to fall into the, the behavior, the repetition here, where, you know, we set our roadmap for the quarter, or the year or the decade, or whatever it is, and I cross my arms, and nothing that's going to come in through slack or email or post it note on my, my monitor, or somebody walking by or customer reading, is going to change that. I mean, that's fundamentally wrong. On the other hand, I've done a whole bunch of, I guess, I would call them audits where we add up all of the requests from all of the stakeholders and all of the customers, we see how big it is. Because it turns out, nobody ever looks at that, right. And on average, what I find is that it's not that we're 10%, short of development energy, it's that we're 20x short, when you add up the really short list of you know, no more than 50 things from each customer, and no more than 20 things from every tech support person, and no more than 11 or 50, from every salesperson, you go around, and you actually add them up. Plus every good idea that our executives had in the shower this morning, before they drove into work, right? We are, we're 20x we're 40x we're 60x away from ever having the bandwidth to do that. And, and which is good, because most of them aren't very good ideas, or they're not important enough. But what that means for somebody in a product role is we're going to spend 95% of our time saying no to new stuff, just do the numbers, right? If if we are 20x short, have the capacity to do all things for all people, you know, world without end amen. We are we are absolutely required to put 95% of these in the ground and not spend any time on them. But we can't let ourselves fall into the 100% rejection thing, because we're going to miss stuff that's really important. So we have to, we have to keep that enthusiasm, we have to stay listening. And we also can't fall into the just say yes, because, well, we've all been there. It's physically impossible to say yes to all the things that come in, in fact, again, the vast majority of them are never ever going to get done. You know, the the phrase I love is sure, let's put that in the backlog in position. 14 172. Right. And at the rate, we're taking things off the backlog at 10. A quarter, you know, by next year, that'll be in position 14 135. By the way, we're never gonna get to it before the sun goes out, right, you know, in the history of the planet, but we have to be comfortable saying no to the thing without insulting people and without, you know, losing face.
Yeah, yeah. And I think one of the things I've experienced and specifically in b2b, I think just because they're, you know, again, nuanced enough. But if we don't attack that problem of, yeah, 95% knows, in a somewhat diplomatic way, then we, we kind of turn off those spigots of, of of ideas, right? And so people will stop coming to us with ideas. If we're, if we just, you know, they hit a hit a wall every time. Or their ideas go into a black hole, and we don't at least tell them we're not doing it right. And so, and then, and then some of those same, sometimes good ideas kind of stopped coming to us and that's not good either.
No, it's not. It's rare for me, I do a lot of assessments of product management teams. And, and to do that I don't just talk to the product managers. I talked to key people throughout the company, right. And it's rare for me to find on the enterprise side, a sales and marketing team that doesn't tell me that product management is unresponsive. Right? They all tell me that it's a black hole, they all tell me that they fill it filled out the ticket, they all tell me that they went through the process, right? And the challenge here is there's this weird idea, which makes perfect sense on the go to market side that if I fill out the forms, if I go to the meeting, if I justify if I complete your steps, you as a product manager will say, Yes, right? There's this idea that a working request process is one that actually leads to Yes, most of the time. Right. And if I have a really good idea, and I just got off the phone with a hot customer or an angry user, or a new market opportunity, it is the most important thing at this moment to me. And this idea that if I go through the steps, you're going to say yes, is I think a fundamental challenge for product, folks, because everybody else in the company wants to believe that if they fill in all six fields on the on the forum, or they send me a Slack message, the answer is yes. Because clearly it's an important thing. Right. And but the numbers tell us that that can't possibly be true. Right, right. By the way, one other variation here is, I often see that the first reaction, the first pushback from from the go to market side is that they want a service level agreement on responding to inputs. Okay. Now, again, if you look at the numbers, what you see is that for every product manager, there's 100 tickets a day coming in. Right? And it seems to make sense, they will, of course, if I put an idea in, I need some response back by two business days, right? But the incoming rate is such that basically, all our product management teams would do nothing else would be to respond to tickets, and therefore we'd always say no. Right? And also notice that doesn't actually meet what they wanted. This was this was their negotiating position to get back to Yes. And if what we do is we set up some little chat bot that whenever you fill out a form cell tells you we're not going to do it. Right, we haven't addressed the core issue that demand is 25x supply, and always will be.
Right, right. And, you know, it's so interesting to hear you talk about that, because if you, if you think about again, their context, even if they're not like in a support, support, role, customer support role, we are conditioned as consumers ourselves out outside of our of our world, that if we put in a request or you know, comment or something contact form, we expect a response. Right? And so, again, completely different scenario, but we're conditioned in many ways as human consumers right to to expect that type of response. And so we in product management and across the organization, need to let them understand or make them understand help them understand that that's not the same scenario. To your point, right? We could never do anything else. That's not our job, per se.
Unfortunately, that's a really unpopular point of view. Yeah, I know. And it's one that's really hard for folks around the company to retain in their heads, right? Because in the moment, I've just gotten off with this big customer who has told me something really cool, that's gonna lead to money that's going to be so valuable to the company, this whole idea that my idea isn't one, you know, the mind is in the 5%, right? You know, everybody's ideas in the top 5%. So, of course, that's the one we're going to approve. And so it's really a human issue as much as anything, but when we mechanize it, we say, Oh, we're gonna put a process together, such that you put things in and then we decide it doesn't it doesn't address the core issue, because it's not really a flow issue. It's a decision making issue. Yeah, and so, and Mother Hubbard's cupboard here there's no, maybe with you have it, I've never had some engineering team hiding in my pocket, doing nothing playing fortnight and eating bonbons waiting for me to come up with more work for them, right, that that engineering team has never existed. And this idea that because I need it, there must be time and resources and people and expertise is I think, a core emotional attachment to how good my idea is. So as often as we say that, you know, I generally expect that when somebody interrupts me in something they believe it is the most important thing in the world for now.
Yeah, yeah, I think I think that's spot on. So, so curious is there and I may be trying to, you know, practically solve a problem that's that's just not not solvable in that way. But is there anything that that other leaders As across the organization, the organization as a whole, and leaders of other other functions and domains can do to help the situation to whether it's an understanding whether it's, you know, it's not a process thing, right to your point, but it's, is there anything else that you've seen? Yeah, organizations do that help.
There's a lot of choices. And and I think of this as sort of decision sharing, or including people in the process a little bit. A favorite thing of mine, and you have to be at the right level is, is I go to the head of sales, the VP sales Chief Revenue, whatever, right? And say, you, Chief Revenue Officer, I'm going to give you one engineer week, every quarter for whatever you want. Right? But because you are the person at the top of the revenue pyramid, you have to choose wisely. And if you spend that on something that doesn't bring much money in, by the way, you make less money this quarter, right. And you get one of those. And then the two provisos for me one is, we have to have a way to keep score, because generally, sales folks and sales execs, as soon as we close a deal, right, that's on the board is wiping their brain, we assume we delivered it, we're moving on, we're on to the next deal. So So when I've done this, we have some physical token, whether that's a, a stuffy toy, or a shell casing or something, right. And they have to give me the thing, they have to give me the token, and I put it in my desk. So that next week, when they reach into their desk to get the token for their their magic bullet, or their special thing, it's not there. And they're reminded, right, and the other, the other thing that that enables is, when each of the salespeople in the company, which is all of them, each come to me every day with the thing they want, which is everybody, I get to say, you know, your boss, the head of revenue, gets to make the call. So if you can convince your boss, that this is the most important thing in the quarter to jam into the roadmap where we made some space, then I'm all in. But of course, your VP of sales is running the weekly pipeline call and knows what everybody's working on and knows which of the two big deals. And so that's a way instead of saying I don't believe you, it's a way to say your organization has to have a priority list with a short with a short leash, right? It's, you get one or two things. And if they're bigger than this, I'm gonna say no. And you guys have to do some settling. Same way, if you're dealing with the tech support organization, which is people I love and have a really hard job and I would never want to do, right. There's somebody who runs that organization who knows what the top five biggest bugs or embarrassments are. And so rather than having every single person in tech support come to me every single day saying, hey, two factor authentication is down, right? Maybe once a month, we get together and we aggregate the numbers and we say, well, what are the top 10 tickets we're getting? And can we fix any of those? Right? So what we're doing is we're forcing some choice, we're forcing some decision making back into the different functional groups, rather than having every single person in the company think that their job is to open up five tickets a day.
I love that idea. Wow, what a again, it puts that puts the ball back in their court, it shows the decision making issues, if you will, and and I love it, I think that's fabulous. And I can definitely see that making some inroads there. So kind of final question for you. I know everybody out there is listening and saying, that's awesome. What amazing, you know, advice and thoughts behind this. But where do I get started? Like, like, I have that issue. This resonates so much with me. Let's start with product managers. They're sitting there saying, Okay, I love it. I'm going to try this. What do I do tomorrow, to start getting better at this?
I think that most product managers everybody can do. First is I always keep a copy of the current plan, print it out. And I'm pretending I'm in pre COVID days, we're actually in an office but you know, printed out in my notebook at all times, right? So that when anybody comes up to me, I can show them what we're doing. Again, whether it's next now later, or we're swim lanes, or I don't care what it is. There's some document that says, here's what we're working on right now. And here's the next set of things. Because that's a, that's a humble and respectful way to say, here's what we're working on. You may not have known this or you forgotten. You know, if we don't do GDPR, we are out of the European market. And that's a third of our revenue. So I love your I love what you're telling me but let me show you what we're working on. Right that that levels us, right. Second thing is, we always joke the definition of a millisecond. You know, it's the time between when an enterprise salesperson gets told by me that they can't have what they want, and they escalate it to the CEO. Right? So, so knowing that that's a behavior at a lot of companies, one of the other things you want to do as a product manager is, when you perceive that there's something across the aisle, that's going to get escalated. Tell your boss right away and deliver your logic, right. So somebody on the, you know, on the Deutsche Bank Account came to me and ask for this thing, we can't do it, I would love to do it. Let me tell you my rationale to your boss or your boss's boss, or up to whoever runs product. And we want to have that run up the chain at the same speed that the sales escalation does. So that the head of product isn't caught flat footed on aware, when this comes up in tomorrow's executive meeting. Yeah, right. And then the third thing, I think, and we touched on it briefly before, but when you're, when you, as a product manager are working with and talking with your development team, your maker team, your design and engineering team. Everybody really cares about the how and the process and the steps and what are we doing tickets or user stories or whatever it is, right. And that's really important to talk about with your team. But I would always avoid lecturing folks in the rest of the company about things that they don't care about. Because what it sounds like to other folks, is an excuse a process excuse for why we won't listen to them. We're agile, we're sprinting, we're scrumming, you gotta write a ticket, we need a cost justification, there's a form to fill out, right? There's, when somebody has something they're trying to get done. Those all sound like excuses instead of explanations. So I'm always coaching product managers and product leaders to have a different set of language you call the translating, right? When we're talking inward to how we build things. And what we're building, we have one set of language. When we're talking outward to employees and customers and partners, we have a different language, we talk about value, we talk about advantage, we talk about benefits, and maybe timelines. Nobody actually cares how we build our stuff, they really don't. And every time we fall into the lecture mode and explain to somebody at great length, why they can't have what they want. It's like trying to explain to your six year old that dessert and cookies happen after the rest of the meal, they're really not interested, they want to get to the cookies, right? And so so that bit of empathy that that lecturing people about in, you know, inside baseball, just isn't, it's not the way to get things done.
I want the cookies first to so...
Well, so do i but you know, and it shows.
Yeah, all right. It's New Year, I gotta, I gotta start my diet now.
So I love that advice. Great leaders... something they can do tomorrow, if they're in a situation where they need to improve their organization and their peer group, if you will.
I think one of the most important things for product leaders is to get out of their own heads to, to, again, really try to understand the personalities and drivers and goals of their peers, how sales being paid, right? I'll give you an example. In some organizations, any dollar that a salesperson brings in is worth the same as any other dollar. And if it turns out that the customer wants a bunch of custom development of something we haven't done, but they're willing to pay us a lot of money, that's worth just as much as selling a license of a product that we've already built and can can deliver for free. Right? When you look at the comp plan of your sales team, you can immediately see how they behave. Because that's the only important thing. I'm a big believer in understanding incentives and goals and, you know, OKRs, and those things, and and that'll lead right to maybe as a as a product leader, you may spend some time helping rearrange the way we score success. So that actually the company is better aligned around doing the right thing. Alright, takes a lot of empathy, it takes a lot of research. The other thing I think is really important, particularly for for somebody new in a product leader job, you want to delegate absolutely as much of the product management work as you possibly can. So you're gonna be in meetings and committees and flying around and on sales calls and right, there's very little time to actually do detailed, thoughtful strategic work as a product leader. So you need to have people you trust, you need to give them the work and coach them through it or mentor them through it the first time but I try to delegate every single piece of actual product work to somebody on my team if I can. And if I can't, that's a that's a hole that I need to fill with a new hire. Right? Because, you know, a product is the x like every other one we all have ADHD. We're thrashing between email and slack and meetings and calls and interrupts and escalations and actually getting real work done that that's, that's thoughtful is either burning your weekends or delegating
Great advice. Rich Mironov, thank you so much for joining me on product voices. This has been an amazing conversation. I've loved our discussion. Thank you again for finding the time and sharing your wisdom.
Oh, it is absolutely my pleasure.
And thank you all for listening to product voices up saying the next episode.
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