The best part about being tech builders is that we get to collaborate with some super-smart teammates. Every brain is unique, and we need this thought diversity to solve problems, build better products, and be more proud of our individual contributions as a result. But if you talk to a lot of people who self-identify as neurodiverse in tech, you’ll notice that folks tend to share the same experience of feeling a lot of pressure to fit in. In today’s podcast, Matt and Ceora talks with Wesley Faulkner, senior community manager at AWS CIoud, and Mariann Lowery, Product / UX Research Lead here at Stack Overflow about their experience as neurodivergent individuals and how we can all do a better job supporting our teammates while taking steps to feel more empowered in our own differences, too.
Mariann shares how she and her UX research team at Stack Overflow are taking steps to create a more inclusive product experience, while reflecting on her experiences as a mother to a neurodiverse daughter.
Wesley talks about what it’s like to be a developer with dyslexia and why self-empathy and self-compassion have been important to his evolution as a senior leader.
Ceora explains why it’s important to be on a psychologically safe team from her perspective as a Black woman who is also neurodivergent.
We talk about giving people the space necessary to do their best work, implementing more inclusive hiring practices, and everyday routines that help us stay our happiest and most productive.
We conclude with a note about why supporting neurodiversity is good for everyone of all walks of life.
Follow Ceora, Wesley, and Marianne.
[intro music plays]
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Matt Kiernander Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the Stack Overflow Podcast. Today is an especially special one, not only for the guests that we have on. We have a new first time Stack Overflow member, Mariann Lowry joining– hello, Mariann. And we also have Wesley Faulkner talking about neurodiversity in tech. This is something that's been especially evident in my life over the last year, as I got diagnosed with ADHD, and there's a lot of stuff you need to learn how to deal with, like your own neurodiversity in tech let alone how to manage your personal life and work life and interviewing for jobs and all that kind of stuff. So this is hopefully what we're going to be able to cover today, at least in kind of a foundational level. So in terms of introducing everyone, Ceora, if you could introduce yourself, give your experience with neurodiversity or whatever you're comfortable with, and then we can move on to Wesley and Mariann.
Ceora Ford Yeah, I'm super excited about this conversation. I'm also pretty much in the same boat as you, Matt. I'm going through the process of being diagnosed with ADHD officially, and it is very interesting to try to figure out how to work with ADHD and how to work with other people who are also neurodivergent. So I'm excited to jump into this conversation because I feel like it's a topic that's skated around but it would be nice to have more of an in depth, detailed conversation around what that looks like and how anybody with any type of neurodivergence can be successful in tech.
MK Yeah, that's the reason why we did the podcast in the first place, because I feel like we need something to bite on which is why we've got Wesley on today as he's got a plethora of experience talking about this. So Wesley, would you be able to kindly introduce yourself?
Wesley Faulkner Yes. My name is Wesley Faulkner. I've been doing developer relations for about the past five years in various capacities. I was initially diagnosed as an adult, I was a freshman in college when someone recommended that I get tested. And so I've been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia, but I’d kind of been masking for most of my life until the pandemic hit in 2020 where I kind of was forced to go on a journey of self discovery to understand how I work better, where I work better, and the types of skills and alignment to the companies that will actually allow me to lean into those skills and to appreciate how I am different in how I see the world.
MK And Mariann, as our last guest, would you be able to introduce yourself?
Mariann Lowry Yes. Hi, everyone. So my name is Mariann Lowry and I'm a Lead Product Researcher on Stack Overflow for Teams. So my journey with neurodiversity has been a passion topic and neurodiversity inclusion and accessibility, I made it a passion project for me, and this is both because of personal and professional reasons. So as a user experience and product researcher I often get to talk to our users. About a year ago in a user research session, I got to talk to a user who disclosed that they were autistic. This was a very eye opening research session and provided great insight into how neurodiverse individuals may process or interpret some of the language and the design and mockups that we show differently than neurotypical folks. So because of that I started doing research on how do we remove these barriers from UX research participation and how do we make it more accessible and inclusive to neurodiverse folks? So we've been on this journey with the research team and made some accommodations and some changes to the process, and right now I'm looking into how we can apply some of those best practices to the hiring process as well. On the personal front, I have an 11 year old child who's always been a little bit different, and when you’re a parent you just know. And we got her diagnosis very recently and it confirmed that she is neurodiverse. So we've been on this journey together, and as a mom I just want to make sure that she accepts herself for who she is and I can help her build on some of the strength she has and then also work through some of the challenges that come with neurodiversity. So yeah, that is my journey in a nutshell. Happy to be here and be part of this conversation.
MK The journey that I want to take everybody on today will basically follow the path of getting a job. You've got to deal with neurodiversity within yourself, and then how to vet companies, and then once you're in the company, how to kind of be the best advocate you can for yourself and be able to thrive in that environment. So starting off with yourself Wesley, you've had a lot of experience with neurodiverse folks within the industry and that's a journey that you've had to go through yourself. So what kind of ways do you think people can really advocate for themselves or figure out how to work better and be their best as they're working? Is that something you've got experience with?
WF Yes. One part that's a little complicated so will work differently depending on who's listening. In my case especially there is an intersectionality with neurodiversity, where if you're coming from an underrepresented space or person you might feel more reluctant to be authentically yourself because when you are entering the interview process you can feel that there might be already a few strikes against you before even starting to opening your mouth to advocate for how you might be the best person for a role or a job. So depending on your seniority and how comfortable you are, being able to be upfront and embrace exactly the ways where you can lean into the advantages of being different, and in multiple different contexts things that are seen as strengths can be seen as a weakness. So understanding how to cast those things in the way that is more advantageous to what you're good at is very important. For instance, I am dyslexic and I don't like to type a lot, and so whenever I summarize things it could seem fairly dense, meaning I don't use a lot of flowery language, I don't necessarily use a lot of words. Instead of five words that really explain something I might just use one that kind of encapsulates those. And then some people have told me that I don't use enough detail and some people say that sometimes my writing is poetic in the way that things come together and how they work. So in different contexts it's important to find your way where you can just kind of tilt your head and look differently at yourself to be more empathetic and more caring about how you view yourself and how you come off. And then once you're able to embody that, then you're able to say, “This is what I'm good at,” and speak with authority. One misconception that happens for everyone is that there is such a thing as a well rounded employee. There are job descriptions that have all these details and skills and actions and things you have to do. No one can really meet those at the same quality level for all of those things. And so it's okay to kind of speak into that truth and be allowed to say, “These are the things that I will thrive in doing,” and be able to kind of cast yourself, like I said, in this positive light and just know with authority that you are good at these things and show that your neurodiversity can help you actually excel and build those skills and really lean into that. I guess it's always like a selling game when you're in an interview where you're trying to come off as your best self, and so making sure that you don't have that hesitation internally is one thing that I would just really hone in and say is kind of the core to interviewing.
MK That transparency is something that I know I've struggled with a lot. It's kind of that thing of, “Do I need to tell someone that I'm neurodivergent? Do I need to disclose that in a job?” And when you're doing that I kind of feel like as if I'm coming off difficult or I'm saying, “This is me, but in order to work with me you've got to jump through these hoops in order to cater towards my own brain and how I think,” and that's something that I've struggled with, especially as somebody who was diagnosed this year, navigating through that whole thing. I know, Ceora, you're also going through this as well. Is that something that you can speak to? Have you been encountering the same issues?
CF I think the important thing about that is to be on a team where you feel comfortable or you feel safe. Psychological safety is already extremely important for me as a black woman in technology, so I try to aim for teams where that will be a given already. If I don't feel safe as I walk in the door, how can I feel safe being someone who's neurodivergent? I do really like Wesley's point though of kind of changing how you frame your neurodivergence. There are many things that are strengths about being neurodiverse depending on how you are. Some people hyperfixate on certain things, some people are very detail-oriented. Those are all things that you could use as strengths. It all depends on how you frame it, how you talk about it, especially in an interview process. One thing I'm interested in, because yes, I have ADHD so I'm part of the neurodivergent community, but I always wonder about when you're on the other side, when you're the team member who's dealing with someone who has autism or ADHD or whatever, or if you're hiring, what are things you can do to make sure that the process is safe and comfortable for them? Mariann, I know you mentioned in your introduction that that's something that you're working on and thinking about so I wanted to hear if you had any perspective as far as that goes.
ML Yes, absolutely. And it's so interesting because, I may have mentioned this before, there are so many similarities I see between user research sessions and job interviews. And that's why I was thinking when I try to make user research sessions more inclusive, a lot of those best practices, a lot of those techniques can be applied to traditional job interviews as well. I think some of the tips that I could share is first of all, training, training, training for everyone involved in the hiring process. Make sure that they receive training. The interview environment is very important, so both for the user research sessions, but also for job interviews it's best if it's a quiet environment free of interruptions. Even in the remote world just make sure there’s not too much noise interruptions in the background. With neurodiverse individuals it's best to avoid large groups. It's best to make accommodations and some interviews can consist of like three or four interviewers in one interview. That can be a little bit overwhelming, so either try to break that up or try to offer shorter sessions. Yeah, that’s just part of the accommodations you can offer during the interview process. Some folks are not comfortable with cameras or an in-person interview, so maybe it's best to conduct a phone interview first. That can help ease the anxiety level. I think another thing is just how you phrase the questions, being very direct with questions, even no blanket statements, no jargon, no metaphors, no abstract, none of those weird questions like, “Pretend you're in this scenario.” So just be very direct with the questions and be patient because my experience is that some neurodiverse individuals may need more time to process the questions and think through the answers and that is totally fine. So again, don't ask vague or hypothetical questions. And then I think Wesley you touched on this, focus on the skill-based methods and questions. Ask candidates maybe to present examples of past work, so nothing abstract, but focus on skill-based. And then sometimes we have a problem to solve during an interview and often people get stuck on how you get there, but focus on the results, not how you get there and give candidates the flexibility to figure out how they approach certain problems. A couple of other things to keep in mind goes back to patience and the flexibility that some candidates may be overly verbose with the language, some neurodiverse individuals may interpret words or language literally, so just keep that in mind. And I think another thing that’s very important is to be aware of your own biases and just check your social expectations, and I see this with my own daughter. Sometimes she has trouble making eye contact, some folks may be prone to fidgeting or exhibit some different physical traits, and avoid making judgment based on this and don't let this impact your decision making. Don't judge mannerisms or repetitive movements or even the lack of interest in small talk. I personally have a problem with that. Sometimes that can be just talking about the weather or starting the interview with small talk. That is not comfortable for everyone. Again, instead of focusing on how the interviewee performs, consider if they possess the skills and experience that are necessary for the position. So again, I think just having a curious mind and mindset, and I think my first point was training, training, training just to avoid biases. I'm curious if either of you have any advice or any recommendations for some training programs that could be shared with hiring teams.
WF There's this book that I highly recommend by Kim Scott, it's called Just Work. So it's about working in a just environment at work, and she is the author of Radical Candor, if you've heard of that one as well, but she also runs a consultancy about this and so that is a good resource. And one of the things in the book kind of touches on bias, and the book is not centered around neurodiversity at all, but it's made in such a way that it definitely helps with people who are working in those types of environments. And there's a thing called ‘attribution bias’, so when you attach an action to a person, and being able to separate those two is something that'll help with dealing with different populations. So if someone is late to an interview, attribution bias would say, “Oh, that person just doesn't care or they're disorganized,” but being a person who is from an inquisitive kind of source, and if you act from that source, then you would ask, “What are some of the things that happened that put you in this situation?” And so if someone's maybe ADHD like I am and you turn in something late, then don't come from the approach of, “This person is just bad with deadlines or they don't care.” You ask about what was the process that led them to that outcome, rather than saying, “This person is,” and giving that label and associating that label with the person, you really zoom in on the actual activity and the fallout for that. Also if you have this inclusive background, you're able to have more open conversations to help solve these issues and work around them. So instead of just really cementing this person in this way, being able to have that type of dialogue makes it so that you can progress and actually get better at your working relationship. When you were mentioning before just focusing on the skills, that reminds me also about how to focus on the outcome and not how things are done. Sometimes people are focused on the way they approach an issue or a problem or a project and not the success of that project. And the non-typical approach is where innovation actually thrives, where you're able to reexamine and reconfigure something so that you're able to work towards that outcome rather than just be really focused on how you got to that outcome. I once gave a keynote and wrote it the night before, and it was successful, nerve wracking, and some people were like, “That is not the way to do it.” But that's the way that I kind of operate. And what I'll do is I'll just noodle something in my brain forever and just mull over it before I put pen to paper, before I write an outline. And it works for me and that really is not how other people work, but it's the outcome that matters in that case. Just one last point is that if you're in this area and you're looking to work for a company, really learn the ADA and what your rights are. You do not need to disclose during the interview process, but also it's required that the company does reasonable accommodations, and so don't be afraid to ask for those and don't be afraid not to disclose if you don't feel comfortable, because the law requires that if you need just some modifications, please, please don't be afraid to ask for that. You do have some legal protections. And a great source for that is Ask Jan, that's askjan.org, which will list some of the accommodations that have been delineated for people if you don't know where to start or what to ask for. And then there's some little minor stuff like asking for a bulleted list of to-do items at the end of a meeting, so that could be an accommodation. It doesn't need to be so complicated as needing an ergonomic desk or more screens, which also can be included. But simple things like for instance, when I started my new role, I wrote a little thing about, here's my user manual, reach out to me over Slack over email, and that's how I get pinged better. Because if it's over email it can get lost and then more emails will come in. If I'm coming off curt via Slack, realize it's not an attitude problem, it's just that I don't like to type because I'm dyslexic. So those are different ways that you could find to ask for things that aren't going to be putting people off, but actually can just tell them we don't have to get through this awkward thing where you have to figure out how I work and how you work. We can actually have a direct conversation about that.
MK So I went through ADHD coaching recently to try and figure out how it's best that I work, and speaking to that person I very much struggled with going from software development to developer relations. Software development is very rigid, you're going through the Agile process, you do a standup in the morning, you figure out exactly what you're working on. And then transitioning to something a lot more fluid I encountered some issues. And he was basically saying, “I believe the person who developed Agile was ADHD because everything about that process keeps you on track.” And so that's something that I actually had to incorporate into my own day to day, not as a developer anymore, but as a developer relations professional. I still have to do my standup every morning because that's what keeps me focused and something I can refer back to throughout the day because I'll ping pong through several different things and I get a lot of requests, so that kind of keeps me focused and it's something that my manager's been very good at adhering to and keeping me on track with. So I'm curious, considering we've talked more about the company side, what are some of the good questions or some green flags or red flags that might pop up during an interview process that somebody could ask if they are neurodivergent?
WF One of the things before you even get to that point, is the verbosity or the directness or the specificity of the job description. So if you can understand if they're just hiring someone with a title because they need more program managers, more developer advocates, or more community managers, are they just trying to fill a headcount and that the actual role of what the person's going to do is not defined? Knowing the difference between those two in a job description is my first step to see if it's a green or red flag, because if the role is not defined, they don't know what the person's going to do or how they're going to fulfill that role, or what is the definition of done, or how is success measured. All of those things personally can make me spiral and not know if I'm right for the job, and if I'm in the job, know if I'm doing well in the job or not, because I grade myself differently than other people do. Because I could think I'm just knocking it out of the park and then I get put on a pip the next week. Having that stuff defined about what I think should happen and how it should happen and how to measure success and what the milestones are along the way to make sure that you're checking in and you're doing the thing you're supposed to do is one of the things that I look for in a job description before I get started. If there is a little thing at the bottom that says, “Let us know if you need any accommodations for the interview process,” that is a giant green flag that they're willing to make those changes and adapt to make sure that you are successful in your journey. Also the feedback part if that's available, either through the recruiter or whether or not you did or did not get the job. That feedback piece if that's available that really helps with making adjustments. And if they're willing to do that, that means that they're also thinking critically about how they are evaluating you because they know they have to report back. So that is a big green flag or red flag, depending on if they do or not.
CF Yeah, as far as asking questions on the interview process, I think a great thing to ask is, Wesley, you mentioned how is success measured. I think that's a great thing to ask your specific team members and manager during the interview process. And I think also if it's not in the job description, you should definitely try to tackle the one month, three month, six month plan for the role. Because I find for myself, I do need those constraints and those targets to hit as I go through the first few months at a new role. And sometimes, depending on the company, depending on the team, depending on the stage that they're at with everything, the level, the seniority of the position, sometimes those things are expected for you to know walking in the door and sometimes they're not. And I find for myself, I like to make sure that I have that in place before I even come in. Because if you walk in the door and they don't have those things to find it means you have to figure it out yourself. And that can be tough especially for me with ADHD. It can be hard to know what to aim for, know what to prioritize, so I want to be on a team where those things are decided. So I think those are some good questions to ask about how success is defined and also what the outcomes they're expecting for the first three to six months of the role are.
ML I think another good question to ask during the interview is about the onboarding process itself, like what to expect if I were to get this job, what does the first week look like or the first month? What kind of support do I get? How do I learn about processes? All of that. I think that will give a pretty good idea about how organized things are and what kind of support the applicant can expect.
WF Also, fidelity is important. So not just what needs to be done, but how detailed and what are the quality standards that are expected. Because sometimes they just want you to do a quick pass and iterate and sometimes they want something pretty solid in terms of that first delivery of whatever they're looking for. And understanding that is also really important because I will sometimes go deep, deep into something and go far in the wrong direction. And so understanding what their process is and that they understand that you're working on the thing that they expect and setting expectations appropriately is really important.
CF I totally agree. I do want to kind of cover, you get through the interview, you got the job, you walk in the door, now what? I think there are a lot of things about the way we work that are different and there are a lot of accommodations that our team members can make for us and our managers can make for us, and also things we can do to better manage work. And I'm wondering if from the manager perspective or the employee's perspective, whichever one, if either of you have any tips and tricks as far as how you can manage someone who's neurodivergent or how you can manage yourself as someone who's neurodivergent.
WF First, if you're starting at a new job, one thing is to realize who the stakeholders are in terms of who grades your success. It may not be your immediate manager. It might be someone in sales. It might be someone else who is looking for your team to supply them with leads or supply them with collateral or give them support. So understanding who the stakeholders are is very important when you're new to a job. And just because your manager tells you you need to do something, realize all the people or how your work funnels into other people's workflows is really important because you also may disregard people who might ping you on the side and say, “Hey, this is priority and this really is important.” And you're like, “Well, my manager didn't say that so I'm not going to work on it.” And realize that you could be making a critical mistake. So understand who are the actual stakeholders for your job, and also sit back and watch and observe. I'm one of those people that take things literally, and so when I hear a mission statement or leadership principles or all these things that companies say that they stand for, I would believe them and that was a huge mistake. So take a second, look at how people work, how they operate. Look who gets rewarded and what gets recognition in the company to understand how you fit in and what is actually the political system that you're working within. Sometimes it's good to be outspoken, sometimes it's good to really present your ideas. Sometimes people feel that's an offense if you're overstepping them or you saying that this is a better direction might feel like that's an affront and you're telling them their solution is worse. So there are some unintended consequences by moving into a system without observing it first. So make sure you take a step back and look around that. And if you are a manager and you're dealing with someone or you have someone on your team that's neurodiverse or someone you have to work with, I'll go back to what I and Ceora said, that having that psychological safety, having those open conversations, and defaulting to what they might need or how they understand things, and having that growth learning mindset where you are inquisitive more than judgemental is going to be the one tip that I say that is going to help you more than any others.
ML One thing to add, and this might start with the interview process, trying to understand this, but maybe once you get the job, is understanding your place in the company. The larger the company, I feel like the harder it gets to figure out where you can make impact, but having those conversations with your team, your supervisor, understanding the company's strategic goals, maybe your department goals, and then how you can make an impact and how your work can impact some of the key performance indicators, potentially I think could be helpful as well. Building on the psychological safety inquiry, if there are any employee resource groups or support groups for neurodiverse individuals. I know some companies have affinity groups or employee resource groups that also could be really nice.
MK That was actually one of the things that I found most valuable in coming to Stack. There is a very active affinity group where people can go and share their issues and talk about some of the things that they're struggling with in a psychologically safe environment. It's all done over Slack and there's a weekly thing that everyone kind of can catch up on if they want to. And it's not something that I've experienced before, but it's been quite invaluable having that connection within the company and seeing other people work through their issues and be vocal about some of the things that are triggering them or things they're having difficulty working through. You have that support system there which I found, especially with me being newly diagnosed and everything else, that was great to have.
CF I agree. I think that one of the things as someone who's neurodivergent you have to remember to prioritize before you even get the job is psychological safety. That has got to be one of your number one things and which is why we kind of outlined some of the questions you should be asking during the interview process to really make sure that that's going to be a place where you feel safe and supported. Because of course, tech stack is important, the projects that you're working on is important, the work that you're going to do is important, but also being able to be open and free is important too. So if you can, you want to aim for a company or a team that will allow you to be that way. And I think for myself what I'm realizing is that as someone with ADHD it can be very easy to get distracted, and it can be very hard to prioritize and to know what to prioritize, because naturally my brain wants to do the things that feel best, that are the most interesting, but sometimes the things that are the most interesting aren't the most important. And I think it can be easy to feel like, “Oh, I'm neurodiverse,” or, “Oh, I'm this, and I don't think I'll be able to reach such and such heights in my career.” But knowing what to prioritize, knowing the kind of work that has the most impact is really important, and I think that's something you should definitely be searching for, even with your broader career, for your six month plan, for your yearly plan, but also for your day to day work. What are the things that have top priority, and start working on those. It's something that I'm figuring out and it hasn't been easy, but I feel like that's a starting point that I just have to shout out because for most of us I feel like we want to progress in our careers. We want to start off as junior and senior and so on and so forth, and that's one of the ways that you can do so. So I think knowing your place, knowing the stakeholders, like you said Wesley, knowing those things is super important. Then in addition to that, knowing what has the highest impact is going to really take you far and it can be hard to figure that out on your own when you're neurodiverse but try to do so as often as you need. That's kind of top of mind for me right now.
MK Something I'll add to that as well just because you talked about making sure you're finding the right fit. Everyone's going to have different opinions on this, anyone else feel free to chime in. But I very much view getting a job or interviewing as very much like dating. It's a long process, very stressful, there's a lot of investment from either side, and I think that the most effective thing I've found is filtering early. So for me that would mean disclosing, “Hey, I am neurodivergent. How does your team cater for this? Are you going to be able to accommodate some of the things that I need in my day to day?” And that would be my advice, to kind of be more upfront with that and say, “Hey, I want to make sure this environment is going to be fit for me and that this will be able to work longer term,” because you're obviously going to be trying to stick around in a job longer term. I'm curious if anyone else has any different opinions on that, whether or not they should or they shouldn’t.
CF Yeah, I think that for some people it can feel very intimidating to admit– not admit like it's a confession, but share that you are neurodivergent. It can be intimidating. I still feel like you should be choosing a team where that isn't the case, but personally, internally, it can still be intimidating. So you might not even have to mention specifically, “I have ADHD,” “I'm autistic.” You might not have to specifically say those things but I think you should still outline the accommodations that you need in your day to day and seeing how the people you interview with react to that can be a good sign as to whether or not you would fit on that team. I think it's really important to be upfront, maybe not about what specifically is going on, because you may not know for sure just yet if you feel safe for that. But being able to say, “Oh yeah, for me, I need to be able to check in every day with my manager. Is that possible? Would that be a good fit?” If they don't respond well to that, then it kind of gives you a sign of whether or not that's the place for you.
ML Yeah, I think just one thing. So we're talking about making accessibility accommodations, talking about neurodiversity inclusion, interviews as well. I think something that we often forget is that when we make these accommodations for neurodiverse individuals, they can benefit others as well. So for example, people who come from a different country, a different culture, like for example myself. English is my second or third language so for individuals consuming content or listening to you in a non-native language, it can benefit those people as well when you speak in a clear and concise manner. And then folks have temporary cognitive impairments. People can be tired, people can be sick, all of that. So I think it's just important that when we think about making these accommodations it can really benefit others as well. So it's just something I wanted to highlight.
MK All right, well that wraps up the podcast. Thank you so much for listening. I’m Matt Kiernander. I am a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow, again, joined by my wonderful cohort of co-hosts, Wesley, Ceora, and Mariann.
CF I'm Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate at Auth0. You can find me on Twitter. My username there is @Ceeoreo_.
WF My name is Wesley Faulkner. You can find me on Twitter @Wesley83. You can find my work at polywork.com/wesley83. And generally speaking, if you want to get in contact with me, my DMs are open.
ML And I'm Mariann Lowry, Product Research Lead on Stack Overflow for Teams. It was great to be part of this conversation. And you can find me in LinkedIn.
MK Great. Thank you very much everyone, and we will see you next time.
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