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How do you estimate that which you’ve never done?

29/01/2015

Have you heard about #noestimates? No? Well I’m sure you can guess what it is anyway. But reading the debates reminded me of a story.

While at Game Developer’s Conference a few years ago, I was arguing about estimation with a certain project manager, who, despite having no actual development experience, was in charge of development (Icelandic society is notoriously nepotistic).

“So, maybe no estimation works for your small projects, but when you have to do big projects, and you need to ask for budget, and coordinate many departments and offices, and you need to plan all this in advance, what do you do? How would you plan Incarna?”

Incarna was CCP’s expansion that introduced avatar/character-based “gameplay” into EVE Online. What shipped was the ability for your avatar to walk (not run!) around a room. It was massively over budget, behind schedule, and under delivered. A few months later, 20% of the company was laid off. There’s been no active development on Incarna since 2011, and World of Darkness- which continued to use Incarna’s core technology- was cancelled and the team laid off earlier this year. It was, quite simply, the biggest disaster I’ve seen or heard of my career.*

A character-based game is also something CCP had never done before. They are massively- MASSIVELY- more technologically complex than the “marbles in viscous fluid” EVE flight simulator. CCP did not have the in house experience, especially in Iceland, where most of the (very smart) engineering team had never worked on character based games.

So it was pretty hi-larious that a project manager was using Incarna as an example of why estimation is necessary. But cognitive dissonance is nothing new. Anyway, my response was:

“You don’t plan Incarna. You greenlight a month of development. At the end of a month, you see where things are. Do you keep going for another month? If you are happy with the spend and progress, keep going. If not, pull the plug. Once you can make a prediction at the start of a month, and it holds true for that month, and you do this two times in a row, maybe make a prediction for two months and see how it plays out.
You may pass a year this way. Well, a year isn’t a long time for developing a character-based MMO and game engine from scratch. But at the end of the year, you at least have some experience. But you keep going. If your velocity is consistently predictable, you estimate further out. Eventually, if you can get your velocity stable at the same time you’re growing and developing, you have a fighting chance.**
When your velocity isn’t stable, you reign things in and figure out. If you go through a year of missed month-long predictions, you need to change things drastically (or reboot entirely) if you hope to get something predictable.”

Nothing really insightful there of course- I’m just parroting what has worked me me and many, many others, from Lean-inspired methodologies (and this one in particular says traditional yearly budget cycles are responsible for many terrible business decisions).

A couple months ago I was asked if a significant new feature could get done by June. It would build on several months of foundation and other features. I responded that I was pretty confident that if we aim for June we would have it by September. My rationale, simply, was that previous similar projects shipped 3 or more months late, and I didn’t have enough experience with the team to give a more accurate estimate.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. You need to create historical data before you can extrapolate and plan.

The historical data also needs to be “meaningful.” That is a much more nuanced topic, though.


* It should go without saying that disasters the scale of Incarna are 100% at the hands of management.

** On Star Wars: The Old Republic, management took an interesting strategy of driving velocity into the ground so that while it was terrible individually, it was at least stable. They could then increase the number of people resources and predict, pretty reliably, when it could ship. The game ended up costing about $200 million (I suspect much more, actually), but it wouldn’t have shipped otherwise.

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Change should be the ally of quality

26/01/2015

In The Beauty of Testing, Steven Sinofsky writes:

…great testers understand one the cardinal rules of software engineering—- change is the enemy of quality.

This is not a cardinal rule. This is a outdated and obsolete mode of thinking. Change is how you discover great UX. Change is how you refactor and reduce technical debt. Change is how you incrementally improve both your product and code quality.

Maybe that’s too obvious, and clearly Sinofsky isn’t arguing for static software. More nuanced (and the rest of the piece provides that nuance) would be “change inevitably introduces bugs, and bugs reduce quality.”

This too I take issue with. Your codebase should be verifiably better after you fix a bug: you’ve found a shortcoming in your automated tests, so you add a test, and maybe refactor some stuff as well. Or, you’ve identified a bad experience, and can change it to be better in a controlled manner. A bug is an opportunity for improvement. Without bugs, it can be very difficult to improve.*

It can be difficult for anyone who hasn’t worked in a codebase with extensive testing to understand this. In most cases, fixing bugs is playing whack-a-mole. Whack-a-mole is unacceptable to me. Every change we make at Cozy is making the code clearer, simpler, better tested. It’s making the product smoother, faster, and more intuitive.

Change is necessary; it is up to you to determine if it is a friend or foe.


If you’re practicing disciplined development and automated testing and not creating many bugs, good job! This post isn’t for you :)

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Technical debt metaphors get it so wrong

21/01/2015

In my previous post about technical debt, I explained how modern definitions of technical debt are harmful. Now I turn my attention to equally harmful metaphors.

Viktoras Makauskas made the following metaphor in a comment on my last post. This is a pretty perfect stand-in for metaphors I’ve read in other articles that harmfully define technical debt.

Imagine your car gets a strange rattle. You go to your mechanic and he says, “it’s your exhaust pipe holder, you need to replace it, but it’s gonna take a while to order a part and ship it, so just park your car here and come back in a week”. You say “no, I have this weekend trip planned, is there something we can do now?”. They say “yeah, we’ll put a strap on it meanwhile, just drive a little more careful and it should hold, but make sure to come back and do a proper fix”. Mechanic charges you now, and then a bit later.

This seems sensible on first read. But upon closer inspection, it’s quite clear the roles here are totally wrong*:

  • The mechanic is the programmer (the role of the “expert”). Well, a mechanic may or may not see your car ever again. They do not have a vested interest in your choice. A mechanic’s relationship to a car is totally different from a programmer’s relationship to code.
  • “You” are the “business” (the role of the “stakeholder”). The metaphor assumes that if you are irresponsible, it only impacts you (it’s your car, your money, your time). This is a problem. A programmer is impacted by business decisions in a way a mechanic is not impacted by whether you fix your car now or later.

This isn’t a simple language problem. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of roles that is naive to the way software development works. Programmers will be the primary sufferers of technical debt. Eventually the business will suffer with a slower pace of innovation and development and higher turnover. But well before that, programmers will be fixing (and refixing) obscure bugs, will bristle under management that tells them to go faster, will be working extra hours to try to improve things, and will eventually burn out. The business will only suffer once real damage has been done to a programming team, and many have given up.

This is why control of technical debt must be in the hands of programmers. Definitions or metaphors that urge otherwise are actively harmful.

Let me close by pointing out I’m just repeating what Ward Cunningham has already written about the original technical debt metaphor. The article ends with:

A lot of bloggers at least have explained the debt metaphor and confused it, I think, with the idea that you could write code poorly with the intention of doing a good job later and thinking that that was the primary source of debt.
I’m never in favor of writing code poorly, but I am in favor of writing code to reflect your current understanding of a problem even if that understanding is partial.

Thanks Ward.


* There are also a couple other problems with this metaphor. First, if “you” and the mechanic are the same person, and responsible for both business and implementation? In that case, there’s no need for a metaphor at all. Second, what happens if the exhaust fails? Do you become stranded? Does the car catch fire? What’s presented here is a false choice between a “correct” solution (replacement) or a “sloppy” solution (strapping it on). Why not rent a car? If there’s no responsible-but-relatively-cheap decision (there almost always is!), it’s still never acceptable to make an irresponsible decision.

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Holiday (product) shipping

2/01/2015

This was an interesting holiday season, work-wise, for three reasons.

First: My work was closed down from Dec 20th to Jan 4th (except for Customer Support and whichever developer was on firefighting duty, though that is all remote). We shipped two large products on December 17th, which was a bit too close for comfort, but things went OK and it gave us a few days to fix issues.

Second: I was working a couple hours a day while my son napped. I have quite a backlog of pull requests waiting to get in.

Third: On December 31st at about 5pm, we realized our emails hadn’t been going out. Our email service decided to ship 43,000 lines of code the day before, which resulted in a partial outage for some customers (they sent us success responses but things then broke internally).

What lessons did I learn?

First, if you’re going to ship two days before vacation, make sure your work is solid. We had one deployment on Sunday the 21st for some bugs we didn’t want to live with for 2 weeks, but other than that no new work has gone out. We shipped some solid code, thankfully.

Second, if you’re going to work over a holiday, don’t generate work for others. I really want to get the work I’ve been doing out to production, which would require 1) a code review and 2) a deploy of new code. Even if I skipped code review and deployed myself, if shit hit the fan or I introduced some new bug, I’m making work for others. I took a lot of discipline but I’m proud to say that I have fifteen open pull requests and not a single one is reviewed yet. It’ll be a busy Monday and Tuesday but that’s better than messing with peoples’ vacation.

Third, two weeks is a really long time to shut down. In some ways, shutting down is great, as I’ve written about before. But it sucks not having a good way to get fixes and improvements out to customers. There are a lot of considerations here. I’m not sure what we’ll do next year. It’ll largely be up to the team.

Fourth, you should never, ever ship something directly before a holiday or before you go on vacation. It’s immature and unacceptable. You not only screw over your team when something goes wrong, you screw over everyone depending on your product. They need to jump into action and figure out what’s going on, how to mitigate things, respond to customer complaints, etc. I cannot believe I need to tell anyone this. Don’t ship directly before a holiday.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Happy New Year!

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More effective interviews

30/12/2014

David Smith over at baleful.net makes some interesting points about the length of most interviews:

So mathematically, you will most likely get the highest confidence interval with: 1) Resume screen, 2) Phone interview, 3) In-person interviews 1-3. From the above, this should represent about 50% of the total causes, but should produce 91% of the total effect. Adding additional interview steps after that 91% brings only incremental improvement at best and backslide at worst.

He makes an extremely compelling argument, and I encourage you to read the entire piece. That said, I still prefer a full day of interviews as both the interviewer and interviewee.

The interviewee angle is easy. I enjoy interviews. I like to dig into my potential employer. I want to grill your second-string players. I want to hear how junior people feel treated. I want as much information as possible before making my choice. But I know this is just me, and people who are less comfortable with interviews probably prefer shorter ones. I also admit I don’t think I’ve learned anything in the second half of a day of interviewing that would have made me turn down a job. But I have learned things that helped me in my job once hired.

The benefits of full-day interviews for the interviewers is much more complex. There are several factors:

  • We have diverse backgrounds and expertise, and each group brings a unique perspective. Candidate postmortems are not dominated by the same couple interviewers.
  • I want to give as many people experience interviewing as possible. I consider it an important skill. Limiting things to three in-person interviews means the interviewers are all “musts” and I don’t get to experiment at the periphery with groups or combinations.
  • People want to be a part of the process. I’ve personally felt frustrated when left out of the process, and I know I’ve frustrated others when I’ve left them out.

For a developer role, I want them to meet with at least: founders, ops, lead developer, two developers, myself. We’re at an absolute minimum of 7. That is with a narrow set of views, without inexperienced interviewers, and leaving good people out. What am I supposed to do?

  • For starters, the interview process should be more transparent and collaborative. Ask the interviewer if they want a full day, two half days, morning or afternoon, etc.
  • No group lunches. I’ve never gotten useful feedback from a group lunch. Keep it down to one or two people. A candidate just doesn’t want to embarrass themselves, so they just shut up, and side conversations dominate.
  • Avoid solo interviews. I used to hope to solo interview everyone. But over time, I’ve found that pairing on interviews enhances the benefits listed above. There are still times I will want a solo interview, but in general I will pair.
  • Cut the crap. Interviewers should state their name and role. Don’t bother with your history unless asked. Don’t ask questions that are answered by a resume. Instead of “tell us about yourself” how about “tell us what you’re looking for”.
  • Keep a schedule. Some people are very bad at managing time. If someone isn’t done, too bad, keep things moving. They will eventually learn how to keep interviews to their allotted time.

Thanks to David for the insightful post. I’ll continue to keep full-day interviews, but we’ll definitely change some things up.

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We’re not so different, you and I

21/12/2014

Ben Sandofsky wrote a post about why QA departments are still necessary, specifically with regards to mobile app development. He makes a good point: mobile apps create a distribution bottleneck that makes very rapid iteration impossible. I agree, and this is a good angle to think about. I would have been happy with an article focused on this.

Ben is clearly a talented guy but this post was insane. In a literal sense. It is a rant for anti-Agile curmudgeons at best, and would leave me questioning the experiences of anyone that thinks this way at worst.

Websites ship embarrassing bugs all the time. They get away with it because they didn’t ship it to all users. You roll-out everything out to 1% of users, and watch your graphs. If things look good, slowly roll out to 100%.

The idea that this is this sort of incremental rollout is ubiquitous amongst web developers is crazy. It requires infrastructure, code designed to support split testing, experienced operations engineers, robust monitoring, a disciplined process, and more. The institutions with this sort of sophistication all have strong automated testing environments. Which brings me to my next issue:

I think automated testing accelerates development, but I haven’t seen a direct correlation between testing and quality. On projects with massive, high quality test coverage, I’ve seen just as many bugs slip through as projects with zero coverage.

This is the software equivalent to climate change denial. Where does this experience come from? I am not sure I’d be able to find a single developer who would corroborate this. Oh, right:

Tell a game developer you don’t need [QA], they’ll tell you you’re nuts.

The game industry is full of these folks who believe what they are doing is such an untestable snowflake. Unsurprisingly, games have historically been the buggiest software around. Never, ever look at game development as an example of how to do QA right. Not just automated testing, but manual QA too.

…a great QA team is far from a bunch of monkeys clicking buttons all day.

Game development has a hallmark technique of hiring masses of QA people and have massive layoffs at the end of projects. There is an entire website dedicated to tales of horror from QA people. It makes The Daily WTF look like paradise.

Take the unicorn of “two week release cycles.” As you build infrastructure for faster releases, simple code becomes unwieldy. Tasks that should take hours take weeks.

What does this even mean? There are endless apps on two week release cycles. I am confused how building infrastructure for faster iterations ends up adding complexity to simple code or tasks.

Disciplined development is a lost art.

You could make this argument when we moved away from punch cards. But the idea that success in mobile apps is achieved through discipline, but success on the web can be achieved by recklessness, is beyond baseless. It’s downright insulting.

I consider it a tragedy that, when faced with the reality of App Store distribution bottlenecks, Ben’s answer is to go back to the process of yesteryear and throw out the lessons we’ve learned. Why not invent new ways of building in quality? New ways of iterating on apps faster? There are so many interesting problems to solve.

Finally, Ben cautions:

Today, any web developer who wants to stay employed has learned to build apps. If web companies want to remain relevant, they’ll have to do the same.

I have a better warning. Don’t throw away the incredible advances we’ve made over the last decade. Don’t downplay the success and rate of innovation in web development as something that doesn’t apply. Don’t throw away the universal “good idea-edness” of automated testing. Don’t rely on a separate department to enforce quality. Don’t stop looking for ways to make development better.

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The QA Department Mindset

8/12/2014

From this post by Rands, titled “The QA Mindset”:

At the current gig, there’s no QA department. […]

My concern is that the absence of QA is the absence of a champion for aspects of software development that everyone agrees are important, but often no one is willing to own. Unit tests, automation, test plans, bug tracking, and quality metrics. The results of which give QA a unique perspective. Traditionally, they are known as the folks who break things, who find bugs, but QA’s role is far more important. It’s not that QA can discover what is wrong, they intimately understand what is right and they unfailingly strive to push the product in that direction.

I believe these are humans you want in the building.

At my current job, we don’t have a QA department either. And like Rands, I wasn’t comfortable at first. I’ve worked on teams without QA, but an entire company without a QA Department? I’ve certainly had questions about the use of a QA department, but does that mean they are a bad idea?

Yes, and this line in Rands’ defense is why:

Unit tests, automation, test plans, bug tracking, and quality metrics. The results of which give QA a unique perspective.

I am a staunch believer of “building quality in.” Every bug that slips out is a failure of your development process. The way to higher quality is not to find, or fix, more bugs. It’s to avoid them in the first place.

If you rely on QA to champion unit testing, automation, bug tracking, and quality metrics, your development process is lacking its most important tools and measures to improving quality. Quality can’t be imposed by QA, it must grow out of enabled and engaged development teams.

I have a saying: “Don’t hire to fix a problem.” If you have a quality problem, hiring a QA department isn’t going to fix it. You instead hide the systematic problems that cause quality issues in the first place.

This is not to say “the QA mindset” isn’t valuable. It is. One of my best hires was Bjorgvin Reynisson, who was a Test Engineer at Nokia and I hired as a QA Engineer at CCP. He was embedded with the graphics engine team and he helped them develop extensive automated correctness and performance testing systems. He worked with them to recognized holes in their process and test coverage. He helped with tracking issues and increasing quality. This is the “QA Mindset” I treasure, and this type of person is invaluable to development teams. Bjorgvin unlocked a latent “culture of quality” in the team he was a part of.

I contrast this “QA Mindset” with the “QA Department Mindset“. The QA Department Mindset has two damning characteristics. First, it is innately adversarial, as Rands notes.

Yes, there is often professional conflict between the teams. Yes, I often had to gather conflicting parties together and explain[…]

Second, it is by definition a separate department, which creates obstacles to better integrating engineering and QA.

Bjorgvin should be spending time with his teammates and the rest of the developers figuring out how to improve the entire development process. He should not be spending time with other QA personnel focused on QA functions. When I was Technical Director for EVE Online, I made sure there were minimal discussions gated by job title. Talk of a trade went on in Communities of Practice, which were open to all. Sometimes this didn’t happen, and those times were mistakes.

Like Rands says:

Yes, we actually have the same goal: rigorously confirming whether or not the product is great.

If that’s the case, QA should not be broken out into a separate department. QA should be working side by side, reporting into the same people, measured by the same success metrics, contributing to the holistic success of an entire product.

I love the QA Mindset. It’s tragic that having a QA Mindset gets confused with having a QA Department.

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Long live Slack, down with egotistical email

17/11/2014

We use Slack for team communication at Cozy. I struggled with the transition. When I reflected on my struggles, it made me better understand what a destructive format email is for workplace communication.

A quick disclaimer. This is only about work communication and not personal communication. I love email. I think email will be around for a long time and I will lament if and when it goes away. I just don’t think we should be using email for work.

Oration is the highest form of feeding an ego. You craft your message carefully. You research, write, and rehearse. Finally, you take the stage. You command everyone’s attention. And once you’re done, an important topic has been thoroughly addressed and everyone can go on with their lives, better off after hearing what you said.

Email is oratory without the speaking* (or skill). My problems with email stem from when it is used for one-way communication. I suspect that most emails I’ve ever received from anyone in management have been one-way. Generally these emails are meant to, first and foremost, communicate the sender/manager’s self-importance. Often the email contains a nugget of actual information which should be hosted elsewhere. Sometimes the email is an announcement no one understands. And as a rule, you can’t rely on people reading the email you send anyway.

When you craft a long email, like an orator crafts a speech, it is an ego boost. Each one is a masterpiece. You are proud of your fine writing. When you craft a long chat message, on the other hand, you look like a dramatic asshole. It puts in stark perspective how awful the written format is for important or high-bandwidth communication. I’ve never seen someone post a 300-word message to chat. How many 300-word emails do you have in your inbox?

Removing email also levels the playing field for communication. You don’t need to be a manager or orator. Everything you write has a visibility you can’t change. You choose your audience based on topic. Is there a question about a product’s design? Well, it goes into the product or design channel, whether you are Executive Emperor or QA Associate II. Also, no one really wants to read your dramatic flair so please keep it short and to the point.

I used to get frustrated when I’d write an excellent email, send it out, and within a few minutes someone would reply with a message like “Yeah, just to build on what Rob said, it’d be a good idea to do X.” You idiot! You are an Ice Cream Truck driving through the State of the Union. But of course, the problem was mine, playing a manipulative game, focusing too much on this amazing message I’d created. Sometimes these emails would be about the manipulative games people were playing and how we weren’t focused on the employees and customers and things that were actually important.

Email in the workplace is a systematic problem. We take it for granted. We use it constantly. We don’t question it. But email has a cost. It feeds into the already inflated ego of managers. It encourages one-way communication. It is wonderful for grandstanding. We spend a lot of time crafting museum-quality correspondence no one wants to read. And in the end, there are better ways to accomplish what we use it for.


* One of the greatest “speeches” of all time, Pro Milone by Cicero, was written, not spoken. We know great orators by their writing, not their speaking.

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Technical debt takes many forms

23/10/2014

Most people are familiar with “technical debt” in terms of code or architectural problems that slow down development. There are other forms of technical debt, though, that can be overlooked.

Dead Code: There are endless “dead code as debt” scenarios. You have a “live” function that is only used from dead code, hiding the fact that this function is also dead (this situation is cancerous). Every time you grep, you have to wade through code that is dead. Every time someone stumbles across the dead code, they need to figure out if it’s dead or alive. There’s no reason for any of this (especially not “keep it around as reference”). Dead code is a debt, but it’s also easy to pay back. Remove your dead code.

Unused Repos or Branches: Every time a new person starts, they will ponder what code is dead and what is alive. This pondering includes code, issues, and documentation. It is sloppy and unnecessary. Put unused repositories in cold storage. Delete stale branches.

Large Backlog: The larger the backlog, the worse the experience of using it. It’s harder to find, reclassify, and prioritize. Some developers will not even bother. A backlog is not a place for everyone to list anything they think should ever be done. Close stale and low-priority tickets. Close “symptom” tickets that you know won’t be addressed until a system is rewritten. Close everything except 3 months of work (and manage further out work on your roadmap, which should not be in your backlog).

Dirty Wikis/Documentation: Why out of date documentation is harmful should be pretty self-explanatory. Don’t let it get that way (or just delete the documentation). Make documentation someone’s responsibility, or make it part of the “definition of done.”

Every organization has these things. By recognizing them as debt, and thus detrimental to development, it can perhaps simplify any argument about what to do.

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High performance, poor morale, and the Niko-niko calendar

2/10/2014

I was introduced to Niko-niko calendars by Max Webster at Niko Niko. Basically, they are a way of tracking a team’s mood over time. At the end of the day, team members put in a smile/frown/whatever face indicating their mood. You can see when people were happy or sad and coordinate that with other events (what tasks they were working on, what happened at work, etc.).

Initially, I thought this was a pretty useless metric. What good leader or manager wouldn’t always know this information? I can tell if things are going well because I speak to the team regularly as I make changes. But it can be useful to track mood for when things get lost in the cracks or regress. It’s also useful as an outside-facing metric, to show people how their decisions impact the team. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I had known about Niko-niko calendars earlier!

I would only consider Niko-niko effective on an already well-performing and generally happy team. It is a pretty high-level metric, so if people are unhappy for many reasons, I doubt you’ll get much useful data. So, with that, how about some scenarios that I would have used a Niko-niko calendar for, had I known about them?

  • Process tweaks like shortening sprints or requiring more code reviews. People are resistant at first but usually accept it. Is this because they get happier over time? Or because they do not feel empowered to change things back?
  • Changing the branching/integration strategy. At previous jobs we seemed to have a new one every six months. At my current job there are fans and detractors of git flow. Does morale go down or stay the same when integrations happen more often? Is this better or worse depending on the branching/integration strategy?
  • How much do people actually hate planning days, and what can we do to improve them?
  • How painful are releases? People should be happiest, not unhappy, before and after a release!
  • Does a team hate what it’s doing? How much does dumping work on a team impact morale? Do they not believe in the product or are expectations out of whack? What can be done to help the team “own” the project rather than resent it?
  • How does changing team composition cause morale to be affected?

I’m sure there are more, but I thought the idea of using a Niko-niko chart could be interesting. I won’t have a chance to try one out for a while, but will post a followup after I do.


I wrote this draft a couple months ago and finished it recently. Since then I’ve seen a few other apps in a similar space, such as Know Your Company and Know My Team, that focus on tracking morale. I think it’s a good trend. And it’s a reminder that what may appear as a management fad can often have deep, established roots.

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