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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

57: Women in tech: why it matters with Doreen Bogdan-Martin

by Katrine Knudsen on 2021-07-22T11:22:18+02:00 | Comments

Francesco Pisano: Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode of the Next Page Podcast here at the UN Library & Archives Geneva. I'm Francesco Pisano, and today I have the great honour and great pleasure to welcome Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who is director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau here in Geneva with the International Telecommunication Union. Welcome to the podcast Doreen.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: Thank you, excited to be here.

Francesco Pisano: It's a great time to be here because we haven't spoken about tech and women in tech on this podcast yet, so the ground is free. We are opening with this with this new thing for us and it's an important one. So before we go there - you have focused your professional career on technology and international organisations for basically all your professional life, if I understand correctly. And three years ago you have become the first woman elected director of the ITU Technician Development Bureau - we will talk about that as well and how momentous that election is for all women in tech. But before we go into today's topics, tells a little a bit about yourself so our audience can get to know you better

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  Terrific well, very timely topic. Excited to be here to talk about women and tech, so I am as you said, director of the Telecommunications Development Bureau. I started my career 30 plus years ago. Started as an intern in the US Department of Commerce, working in international telecommunications policy. I then became a paid staff member at the Commerce Department and started travelling around the world doing lots of international stuff and my relationship and exposure to ITU issues began then. I then made a jump to the ITU in 1993, way back when and focused on development issues. So, working in the Development Bureau as a staff member leading regulatory reform efforts. And then I moved on to be the Chief of Strategic Planning and membership. I became the first D2 in the history of the ITU, which was an exciting breakthrough and in that position, I led our governance functions. I also created our UN office in New York and it was a great 10-year experience before I went back to my development routes and took up my current function three years ago.

Francesco Pisano: And so here we are, and today we're talking about a couple of important points that I hope our audience will learn from you both as a woman leader, but also as a specialist in telecommunications and technology in general. So, let's take sort of a wide look at the tech landscape today. It seems to me that, you know, we no longer use technology as such, we rather live in technology - it surrounds us, it helps us or even determines whatever we do as humans and as such has got the power to influence the way we interact with other species with the planet with among ourselves. So, technology is really an immersive environment in which we humans now operate basically 20 hours a day or even more for those who monitor their sleep patterns using applications as we know. Now, it seems to me as well that for such an immersive environment and such a high impact system, ecosystem, we have left tech free to develop, free to do whatever it wants or whatever the market dictates and that seems a little bit odd when you look at some of the imbalances that this freedom to develop may or may not have generated. This is where I wanted to ask you the first imbalance that I have come across reading about technology today is the relative position of women in technology. And one of the things I would like to begin with you is, is that true that in the across the technology industry there is a relative lack of women in role model positions and mentorship positions so that women coming to the industry basically lack this mentorship and role modelling by women and what that means overall, in general terms?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: Yeah, that's a great question. Let me first say in terms of technology that yes, there's a problem with women in the tech sector, but there's also a problem in terms of women's use and access to technology. So there's this big digital gender gap, so fewer women having access to a smartphone having access to the Internet, women and girls are less likely to actually have the digital skills that they need, so that if they do have access to connectivity, they can’t actually use it in empowering ways because they don't have those digital skills. So those are other big challenges that we have to tackle. And then of course it comes too representation in our sector, which is a huge problem. As you mentioned, I was the first woman elected. We have five elected positions, so we date back to 1865 and it took until 2018 to get one of the five positions to be held by a woman. So, I was honoured and I'm excited to be in that role, but we have lots of progress to make. And when we look outside the ITU, when I think of women as women ministers in our sector out of 193 Member States, there's about 13 women heads of regulators, about 13-14. So sometimes we get women in the sector, but then they are leaving, or they are not getting to those leadership roles. It's a big problem. And of course, in the private sector, it's a problem as well. When we look at the workforce, I think women represent about 20% of the tech workforce, and so why is that, coming back to your question about role models. Part of the problem is that we're not getting enough girls into STEM studies, so that's an issue. The other problem is if we do get them into STEM studies when they graduate, there's a small percentage that actually enter the tech sector. And then when they get into the tech sector, they often leave. So, we have this leaky pipeline which is not helping us as an industry as a whole and if you don't have women in the sector and you don't have that inclusiveness, and that diversity that you need, what happens? You have products that are being designed and developed by one audience - by men. You don't have women's perspective when it comes to leadership management, internal policies of organisations. It's a big factor and in some ways, it's a vicious circle and so we do need to push for more role models. We need to highlight those role models - there's lots of great women - and men I would add, I've had lots of great role models and mentors that were men - but I think we need to do a better job in highlighting the opportunities that career in the tech sector present for women and girls and to showcase those role models.

Francesco Pisano: Staying for while the role models, you said, you had excellent male role models. That is, that is fine. That is, I think, it's a good thing, but what is the difference, in your opinion, between a male and a female role when it applies to the technology industry. What will make a woman role model different if I'm a young woman or a young man for that matter investing in learning and wanting to work for the tech industry?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  So as a young woman you would think not just about your career and your, let's say, your remuneration - salaries are typically higher in the tech sector, but you would also, I think, want to understand the possibilities for your personal life. And I think that's where women role models can be particularly helpful. I mean, I'm a spouse, I'm a mom, I have four children, and I've often spoken to young girls who asked the question, “If I work in the tech sector, can I get married? Can I have children?” So being able to give tips to explain how you can do that, how you can strike the balance I think is important for young girls and then women to understand.

Francesco Pisano: Is that connected to the other imbalance I came across when reading the literature about tech, which is basically the distinction between getting, there getting that job, landing a good job, even getting promoted as a woman in the tech sector, versus staying in there, which is actually, as you mentioned, many women actually leave. So, is that linked to what you were saying before about this sort of apparent, more greater difficulty in having a personal life when you work in the tech sector?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: So, I think it might be a little bit different in international organisations versus private sector. Many studies talk about women, half of the women that get into this tech sector leave by the age of 35 and the studies demonstrate that that's because of the feeling that they're not in a sort of nurturing environment that the sort of work conditions and practises are not helpful, especially to women that are trying to parent or, you know, have other priorities in their personal life, so you know. And of course, the tech sector has had this bad rep of being quite toxic and so those are issues that we have to deal with and of course, if we don't have women in the boardroom, we don't have women helping to shape the work environment and ambience, it's an issue.

Francesco Pisano: Moving onto the aspect of the design that you mentioned before, that also attracted my attention is one of the imbalances - actually the third imbalance I found in the literature. The fact that most product and services are designed by men, either for men subconsciously or for women. I don't know which one of the two is worse, but is it true that a preponderance of men designers means that products and entire services are mostly male-oriented?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: That's a good question. So I'm going to start with the Melinda Gates quote, which I always think is a good one, where she says that “the percentage of women in AI is so small that it's unbelievable” and it's true, and so when we think about product design or we think about artificial intelligence, we think about machine learning and the algorithms, it's a little bit scary that some estimates say we have about 20% of the workforce is women in the AI space. I think it's a bit less but that's scary when we think about algorithms that will have huge impacts on our life being designed by an unbalanced group - being largely male-dominated, and so I think diversity is critical, inclusion is critical. We advocate for inclusive design and when we say that of course, we take out take account of persons with disabilities, you don't want someone, they need to be at the table to explain what their needs are. Just as women need to be at the table and explain what their needs are. It's very difficult to design something without having an understanding of the needs of different stakeholders. So that inclusive piece is critical.

Francesco Pisano: Would you say that in various parts of the tech industry there is intentional attention for this, that things are being done or of this sing of sort of one of the issues that people love to talk about but not much is done?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: I don't think it's intentional, it's just the reality that we’re designing based on the workforce that we have, and so if we don't find ways to attract women into this sector and we can't retain them in this sector, then it's not going to change.

Francesco Pisano:  What is the best practice you've come across to change just that in the private or in the public sector?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: I think the best practice would be mentoring and networking opportunities. I think that's so important. Of course, some of the efforts in Geneva, The Gender Champions, Peace, The Women At The Table - Work, those are also great ways. We need opportunities to encourage, support and nurture women professionals, especially in the tech sector. And so, if women can feel that they can access other women, share their experiences, their stories get support, encouragement. I think that will go a long way and I guess from the standpoint of the ITU, so some of the efforts that we have been championing - we have our Equals Global Partnership that brings, you know, a hundred partners from around the world together we look at different aspects, including women in tech. We have a big mentoring piece. We started this Women In Cyber Security effort, which is another space where, like artificial intelligence, you don't have a huge pool of women. You do have some great women and so to be able to bring in younger women, match them with more experienced women, I think that's been tremendous. We're running that programme as well. And we just launched a network of women to prepare for our next development conference, and that's also super exciting. So, we have more experienced female delegates that are supporting nurturing mentoring younger delegates.

Francesco Pisano:  Again, these are all very constructive and positive initiatives and I remember just 25 years ago when I was already in the UN, it was much more obscure, much more difficult to comprehend as a sector. So did it's encouraging to hear about that. I hope that our listeners will get, you know, motivated if their young women to come closer to the tech industry. It's all about people. What you're saying is basically we need to mentor people, we need to change the culture of entire, you know, the entire sector so it's all about people, in that sense, it can be done with some, you know, cultural shift and some time. Now, this is a good segue to the next part of our conversation, I wanted to have with you about being a woman leader in your sector. You are certainly a leader, you have been for a while, you have mentioned, you were the first female D2. For our audience who don't know our jargon, D2 is a senior director, and as a matter of fact, there haven't been, for many decades, many women in those positions. Now is getting better and better, but it took a long, long time to do so. So Doreen, we regularly invite to our podcast, women in leadership positions. And we do that because we want their experience and wisdom to be shared with others through the podcast, but also we’re quite intentional about understanding the specific challenges and strong points of women in leadership positions because we hope to inspire other women and we hope to have men understand how diversity is so crucial and important in every industry, every sector of international relations. So, this is the moment that I would like to invite you to share with our audience what these strengths, potentialities, limitations are seen from your standpoint over woman has spent three decades or more in a career that has been very successful. So you're one of the best examples I know.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  Thank you. So maybe I'll start with the strains, some of the sort of strong points that I think I bring to the table as to other women leaders. I think, women tend to be, and I myself, more collaborative. So I'm more of a collaborative leader which can make some feel uncomfortable but eventually I think it works. So collaborative leader and of course linked to that, it's sort of a team-builder, bridge builder, emotional intelligence, I think, is something, empathy is a strong point I would say. Listening, I think that's a critical skill that women often bring to the table, so that's a big one. The ability to manage crises, I think is a is a strength that women leaders in particular throughout this pandemic, we've seen a number of women Heads of State in the way they've managed their respective domestic crises. I think that that's another big one. So, you know, lots of different perspectives, that I think strong points that we bring to the table.

On the challenge side, there's lots of challenges and what I often tell my staff and women, in particular, that, you know, if you find this sort of block in the road, it's okay. There will always be those blocks and those barriers, but you have to find a way to sort of pause, take a deep breath and sometimes you have to recalculate and find another way to get to your overall goal. Sometimes I think there's more challenges for us than there is for men but it's still possible. It just takes perhaps more patience and some recalculation, but I think it's achievable. I think a challenge also for women often, confidences is sometimes lacking and that can be from the difficulty in sometimes having your voice heard at the board table. So, if I'm the only woman with 14 men at the board table, we have different management groups in the ITU and as I was the only D2 when I left to take my position as elected director, there was a gap where there wasn't that D2 anymore. We, fortunately, have another female D2 now. But the board discussions, which were at that level in the elected level I was the only woman. So sometimes having your voice heard can be difficult and what I'd like to tell my team as well, and now-VP Lay once gave this example about the ladder and women when you get to the top of the ladder, don't take the ladder away, leave it in place so that others can climb up the ladder. After an I remember someone in the audience saying, well, if they take it away, make sure you always carry your own ladder. And so, what I say to my staff is, you know, sometimes you need to bring your own chair to the boardroom because there might not be a chair for you. So that need to be assertive and firm and to be heard, and sometimes it can be difficult to really have to find it inside, it takes us often outside of our comfort zone, but we need to have our voices heard. And of course, if you're not the only one at the table, it's easier, but if you are the only one, it takes an effort extra, effort. I think to be heard.

Francesco Pisano:  Yeah, that's fantastic. Thank you for sharing there. Thank you so much. I like the ladder example, for those who don't know, the few who don’t know Lay is, she was High Commissioner for human rights and an excellent professional international organisations and one of the most powerful example of women leadership. I remember from maybe 15 years ago when women in those kind of positions with very, very rare in the UN system.

Now let's shift a little bit the discussion if you don't mind to gender. We spoke a lot about women point of view and women leadership, but there is an underlying gender issue. Well, gender issues are everywhere, but I feel that in tech it comes out quite, quite, visibly -  blatantly, even. And so just to give you an example, a gender imbalance within the tech sector, but also gender imbalances, this is what I want to talk, is gender balance is preserved and even propagated by technology. One of the most astounding things happened to me, maybe a couple of months ago, I was listening to a podcast and there they were commentators from the tech sector and one of them was talking about an academic research done on Google searches by young parents. So these are young parents in the early 30s and basically by aggregating the questions they found out that there was enormous gender bias in the way these parents interrogated knowledge sources on the web. So, if they ask if they asked, fi they searched things related to their boy children, they would ask things like you know, is my son a genius? Is my son more intelligent than the average, et cetera? When it came to girls, it was it was about appearance, mostly about weight. Like is my daughter overweight? And so, the study concluded that not only there is gender biased, but because the web searches get recaptured, and then, of course, that alters your subsequent searches and the way that is served at two others to other customers, they were saying there's a chance that we are propagating and preserving and propagating gender biases through the tech, let's say, you know, ecosystem. I’d like to know your views about this because for me it was like, wow, so the problem is much, much bigger. How are we going to solve these problem of gender inequality, is if even technology becomes implicitly gender imbalanced?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: That's a great question, and indeed it is sort of a vicious circle and it ends up sort of perpetuating itself. What we have to do is tackle it in a multi-pronged way so the industry has a role to play. Parents have a role to play. Educators have a huge role to play, and governments have a role to play as well in terms of their, let's say digital policy, some countries have specific provisions in there in their policies about having women in the tech sector or in government organisations or women's access to technology, so policymakers have a big role to play. I think the media has a huge role to play and can be very helpful in better casting female role models. Geena Davis, who was our special envoy for women's issues, she would say, if you can see it, you can be it. So, you know, if you have this Hollywood star, who is, you know, running a tech company it would likely inspire parents to encourage their girls and girls to be excited about that. So, I think we need to tap into all of those different groups because it is a huge perception issue. It's a bias issue and it needs to be tackled at a young age. We need to start with young girls and excite them about the tech sector. I think taking the angle of not that we want you to be an engineer and it's about wires and hardware and even software but taking the angle, that tech is perhaps the most transformative sector that we have in front of us and the impact of tech on people’s lives, cause that's the other thing and there's lots of studies on this as well, is that women, or girls rather, tend to want to go into fields where they feel they can help people. And we have to explain and do a better job in storytelling about how technology can help people. Right, we've seen that so clearly in COVID, 1,6 billion kids who had their education disrupted an 800 million kids that didn't have access to digital learning. You know, so there's a face there, there's a child there whose life has been disrupted. So, I think we have to do a better job in talking about people and people-centred technology and the impact that technology has. I would argue on each and every SDG, so if its agriculture, healthcare, whatever technology has a huge role and that's why we need women and girls excited about tech.

Francesco Pisano: That's very powerful. I hadn't thought about that, but the link between technology and helping people as a mission in life is an aspiration by human beings, I think that it's so evident now, it appears to me so evident, you right. I wish all of us in international organisations could make it better job of publicising that angle and depicting technology as an ecosystem that is there also to help people live better lives. That brings me to another point which is currently discussed in all left, right and centre is the issue, problem or aspect, as you may want to define it, of ethics in technology or the desperate lack of ethics in technology. You know the way we, you know, we design things, etcetera. You know better than anyone. So, it is increasingly discussed across the industry - that is clear. What I have notice in my small experience, more exposure to discussion of ethics in AI, ethics and technology is that it's very often women who put that on the table, and the impression I got is that those women are considered as, you know, like I wouldn't say troublemakers, but maybe they’re slowing down the development process. And so why we're talking about this when clearly the objective is to develop a new family of algorithms or tech services. So, what is your take on ethics? Where is the tech industry heading on the issue of ethics?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: Yeah, I mean, that's it. That's a great question, and it's something that we have to keep in focus. And as you mentioned, you know, sort of this ethics by design, you know, building it in from the beginning is really an important and important notion. I think the discussion on ethical dimensions is certainly gaining traction in the United Nations. We saw that come out very clearly in the Secretary General's Digital Cooperation Panel. The road map, UNESCO and others are picking up on this and of course, AI is for good because when we talk about technology and AI I think the biggest concerns come when we talk about artificial intelligence machine learning, the algorithms, you know, sort of, where do we draw the lines? So, in our AI For Good summit, we've had lots of exciting sessions. It's been online all year, even last year since COVID hit us. And we need to be learning from each other, sharing experiences and trying to, let's say, ensure as the UN Secretary-general said himself, that tech is a force for good. There are concerns, so we need to pay attention so that the bad and the ugly of connectivity and technology doesn't overtake us.

Francesco Pisano: What is that you think is going to prevail? Sort of, let's say in 2030, just to match the development agenda and SDGs. What will be the view from there? A technology that has developed along the lines of economic growth and consumption is markets etcetera with an ethic in the back burner? Or a technology that is clearly steered itself towards this approach of tech for good with components, large components of ethics by design? Which of the two scenarios are is more probable?

Doreen Bogdan-MartinWell, I hope by the time we get to 2030 that we have bridged the digital divide and those 3.7 billion people that are not connected or actually connected. But I do think that between now and then and as I said before, the ethical issues are gaining traction and the importance of building these principles in from the design phase is clearly understood. So, I think that if we can continue to push it so that it is a tech for good conversation that we're looking at. That would be the right direction.

Francesco Pisano:  And I think this is really where the ITU, the International Telecommunication Union is really focused. So, I would like to now come to your role as a senior leader in the ITU and talk a little bit about ITU, who is known to everyone, you said it yourself, it’s been there since the 1800s, but most people don't have a full understanding of what ITU stands for in terms of values and vision. So, let's start with that. What is the vision of ITU in terms of, you know, this wide, wide world that we call telecommunications technology?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  So, the ITU, as you mentioned, goes back to the 1800s, 1865 where we were created because of The Telegraph. So, it was about ensuring that telegraphic messages could pass. And of course, at this time it was Europe, could pass from one European nation to another and then you Fast forward television, telephone, Internet. And here we are today. And our mission is about connectivity, about ensuring that the whole world has access to connectivity. We do that through development, which is the arm of ITU that I lead, through standards development, so to ensure interoperability of services and equipment. And of course, another key spaces in radio communications spectrum which is absolutely critical in orbital satellite assignments, which is another important piece of our Radio Communications Bureau. So, with those three pillars now we offer a sort of whole package to help countries achieve connectivity. So, our big focus of courses on safe connectivity, affordable connectivity, meaningful connectivity, and I would say inclusive connectivity.

Francesco Pisano:  So great vision, especially when you think that the organisation is being created so long before what we consider today connectivity. But, telegraph was about connecting people and places. So that's yeah, that's quite consistent over 150 years and it took you that long to elect a woman director of the Bureau, that's amazing too. But let's take a mini dive into your bureau. You talked about the three pillars, so they take let's take a mini dive into the contribution of your bureau to this wider vision.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: So, my bureau, the development arm, is where we have impact at the country level. This is the people part. This is the very motivating part, I would say, and we have 13 offices around the world and we focus on supporting governments to create the enabling policy and regulatory frameworks that attract investment that attracts private players. We focus on infrastructure. So the infrastructure rollout pieces. We've got a lot of exciting tools that we offer for those last-mile connectivity challenges. We do capacity development, so helping countries as well as people to develop those digital capacity skills that they need. We have a big focus as I mentioned before, on cybersecurity and a specific focus on gender, the digital divide. As well as youth that's been a big focus for me over the past 2,5 years. We rolled out a youth strategy to ensure that we are not just for youth, but we are also by youth so that we engage youth as creators of the work that we're doing as well as beneficiaries. I think that's a that's a big constituency that we cannot, especially when we talk about digital issues, there are the digital natives, not me, and so that's a big focus for our work in the Development Bureau. We've got some really exciting projects. We work with UNICEF, we have this school connectivity effort called GIGA, where we have this ambitious programme to connect every school in the planet to the Internet and every young person to information opportunity and choice. We have our smart village effort that was born here in the Palais to Niger, which is also super cool - bringing connectivity to villages but then bringing all of those empowering applications to the people in those villages. So those are just two, I think good examples of the great work that we do on the ground.

Francesco Pisano:  And of the focus on people, which I think it's really where technology can show a big difference. As we were saying before, in terms of helping people live better lives. There is one point before we wrap up, I wanted to bring to your attention, which is sort of, when you look at international organisations and international relations in general, what you see is that the average age is rather high and I think personally this detracts quite a bit from systems agility. And I think international organisations need to develop the agility if they want to stay relevant in the era and places where we're going in the world today. So my question to you is, perhaps in the tech sector that mean the median age is lower, except some notable exceptions. But in international organisation, and I suppose in ITU as well, there is this kind of, you know, older people having more power and so my question to you is what space do you think exist or is available in ITU for younger leaders to emerge and make this technology sector more inclusive and also more agile?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: I think you're completely right and this is a space where we have to do better. And I think we can do better. We look at the tech sector, in particular Silicon Valley, lots of young CEOs. When we look at our own organisation and the governments that we engage with, it is traditionally older. There are some exceptions where we're seeing some brilliant ICT ministers and regulators, that are young. When I say young, I mean like late 20s, early 30s, but overall it's very old and I don't think that our practises, our contracts, our structures in the UN system are as engaging as they should be for younger audiences. I think the system as a whole needs to do better. And I think we can. I think we have to, especially when it comes to digital issues. Some of the things that we have tried outside of the formal staffing and hiring processes to bring young ICT policy leaders to some of our governing body events, encourage delegations to bring young people on their delegation, to have special sessions with them, intergenerational discussions, to encourage countries to put their younger people on the microphone. I think that's helpful. We've created this Generation Connect Initiative, that we've created a board of brilliant young people. We’re looking to them to guide us. Not just, as I said before, as youth being beneficiaries, but is being creators because I think that that's so important. We've set up six regional working groups as well with young people all around the world. So, this is the moment and when we look at regions that are least connected like Africa, they have huge right - they have the biggest youth demographic in the world. We need to seize and leverage that talent, help build the digital skills, help build the future CEOs in that region and the potential is tremendous. But I think we as an organisation, as the UN system have to start at home and our own turfs and really enable younger people to have more opportunities within our organisations.

Francesco Pisano: That's very well said and thank you for sharing those good examples like giving access to youth into boards, etcetera. I think there are good examples, I hope that other colleagues in international organisations listening to this may be inspired and may relate to that. Doreen, as we wrap up this episode of our podcast, I wanted to ask you, do you have a final thought or final thoughts that you want our audience to remember from this episode?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  I think technology can be the greatest equaliser that we have ever known but today it's not because we have this huge gap in terms of connectivity, and we have a huge gap in terms of diversity in our sector. I also think that its technology and connectivity that give us the only possible hope to achieve the 2030 agenda and to achieve each of those 17 goals that I mentioned before. But to get there, we need everybody. So, we need diversity, we need all stakeholders to come together so that we can build a digital future for all that gets us to achieving the 20 30 agenda.

Francesco Pisano: Thank you. Just as, before we conclude where can the audience find more about your work, your bureau and ITU? Any advice on web resources? Other knowledge sources?

Doreen Bogdan-Martin: would be the first place I would go. to learn more about our equals partnership is a great one and you'll find everything on those two sources.

Francesco Pisano: So, Doreen Bogdan-Martin director of the ITU Tele Communication Development Bureau. Thank you so much for being big with us today.

Doreen Bogdan-Martin:  Thank you so much. It's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

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