Phoebe Voong-Fadel

Frontend Developer National Foundation for Educational Research

Phoebe was born and educated in the U.K. Before entering the world of web development, she worked for over a decade at various universities in London. Throughout her career in Higher Education, she was a strong advocate of using technology and software to automate repetitive administrative tasks. So she decided to pursue a more technical career. She is currently working full-time as a front-end developer at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).


Today, Saron talks with Phoebe Voong-Fadel, a self-taught Frontend Developer at the National Foundation for Educational Research. After having transitioned from a successful 14-year career in Higher Education in 2017, Phoebe made the courageous decision to pursue coding full-time while balancing the responsibilities of being a mother to her two children. Along with learning about her experience balancing learning to code and being a mom we talk to Phoebe about her passions that extend beyond her professional role. She actively contributes to the coding community by writing articles for freeCodeCamp and mentors early-career developers.

Show Notes


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[00:00:05] SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie Podcast where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I’m your host, Saron, and today we’re talking about going from a career in education to learning to code while raising young kids with Phoebe Voong-Fadel, Front-End Developer at National Foundation for Educational Research.

 [00:00:23] PV: Before you sign up for any kind of like bootcamp, just try the free resources first because it is quite a financial commitment to actually go for a bootcamp. Just find whatever learning style suits you. So it may be like Udemy courses. It may be YouTube. It may be a bootcamp. So I would say just find what style you like to learn, and if that particular style suits you, then go for it.

 [00:00:45] SY: On this episode, Phoebe talks about raising two children while learning the code, how she landed her first developer role in her experience with The Collab Lab after this.


 [00:01:02] SY: Thank you so much for being here.

 [00:01:03] PV: Thank you for having me, Saron.

 [00:01:04] SY: So let’s start from the beginning. What career were you initially interested in?

 [00:01:08] PV: Well, I kind of fell into a career really. So I did a history degree, which is completely unrelated to what I’m in now. But yeah, just kind of like fell into a career in higher education and did that for 14 years. Always had a feeling that possibly it wasn’t the right career for me, but I enjoyed it, moved up the ranks. So I can’t afford, used to work with a range of students from master’s programs to undergraduate programs, switched careers a few times within the university I worked in, which was Imperial College London, ended up in project management for IT projects at one point, and teaching and quality department. So yeah, it ranged a bit.

 [00:01:47] SY: So you went to undergraduate for history. What was that like for you? What were you planning on doing with that degree?

 [00:01:53] PV: I don’t know, to be honest. I kind of studied what I enjoyed and in a way what I was good at. So I really enjoyed English and history at school, but I also enjoyed IT as well. So it was kind of one of those sliding door moments, which one should I choose? So I ended up going for history purely because I enjoyed it, but I didn’t really think beyond that in terms of career, which probably wasn’t wise, but being a student and all that. So yeah. So I just sort of did what I enjoyed.

 [00:02:19] SY: And then you got a career in higher education. Tell me more about that. What did you do?

 [00:02:22] PV: Yeah. So I kind of started off at King’s College London. I worked with undergraduate students, kind of program management. And that was kind of like the day-to-day care of students. So it was kind of almost like client facing and it’s just taking care of their needs, making sure the courses were running smoothly, just administration really. So that was kind of my first job and I kind of stayed within that field within the university and kind of moved up, sort of moved to different programs, ended up at Imperial, looking after MBA students for a while. Pretty much that was it.

 [00:02:53] SY: So how did we get from that work, which you did for 14 years, which is a pretty good chunk of time, over to front-end development? How did that leap happen?

 [00:03:03] PV: It kind of happened quite slowly in a way. I kind of always felt that I didn’t know if I was doing the right kind of career. It’s kind of one of those things when you fall into it, you kind of stay in it, probably out of fear in a way that you don’t want to possibly lose your job, lose your income, and then jump to something else, which may not pan out. But yeah, I mean, I started thinking about it in 2010, ’11. So I spoke to my manager back then and he was very supportive about career development. So he said that if you want to do something a bit more technical, perhaps speaking to the learning technologists within the department. So spoke to my colleague and she recommended a HTML course. So I went on that for three days and sort of applied it here and there when I got back on the virtual learning environment, which was called Blackboard. So I did that for a bit, but it kind of never went beyond that. And yeah, so I just carried on and then I think it got to the point where if I didn’t take the plunge, I would never take the plunge. And that was in 2017.

 [00:04:03] SY: What happened in 2017 that made you decide that that was going to be the pivotal year?

 [00:04:06] PV: I think it was the birth of my second baby, so my daughter. So I thought, “I’m going to go on maternity leave. I have a choice about whether I should go back or not.” And yeah, so I just thought, “Okay, I’ll try a bit. Let me go and find a platform that I can use.” I mean, I used Codecademy when I was back in 2011, but my husband, who sort of acted as my mentor, he sort of recommended looking at freeCodeCamp. So he sort of reviewed the curriculum and said, “You know, you might like this one. Try it out.” So I did. And then I thought, “Okay, I’m going to go for it.” So I gave up my job and just carried on studying really.

 [00:04:47] SY: How did it feel to quit what you were doing to let it go and to go full force into this new territory, this new lamp?

 [00:04:54] PV: It was frightening. It was really scary.

 [00:04:56] SY: Yeah.

 [00:04:57] PV: I think it’s kind of more of the, “Can I do it? Am I capable of doing it? What if it all goes wrong?” And the time that you’ll be out of your job so that you can pursue this new career. So yeah, it was just absolutely frightening. But there’s a part of you thinking, “If you don’t do it, then you regret it.” So I thought no matter what the outcome was, at least I say, I’ve tried it. I’ve done it. So lucky for me, I did succeed.

 [00:05:20] SY: How did you feel about freeCodeCamp? What was that learning like for you?

 [00:05:23] PV: Yeah, I mean it was good. It was quite nice how you had like the editor kind of how… you can see how it renders on the page. So it was kind of like instant feedback. It was broken down into small exercises. So it was kind of like, “Oh, look,” you get a nice little tick when you’ve done it. And I think that kind of instant feedback was nice. I suppose one thing that the platform was lacking was sort of more interactive videos, which is kind of how I learn. So I would combine it with like YouTube tutorials. freeCodeCamp also do sort of video tutorials. But for me, I would sort of delve into other sort of mediums to help me learn. But yeah, it was well structured, so I just followed that.

 [00:05:59] SY: What made you decide to do that versus a paid program, a bootcamp, maybe going back to school? What made you decide to go down the self-taught freeCodeCamp route?

 [00:06:10] PV: University wasn’t an option. I did think about possibly going back and doing like a three-year degree, but it’s very expensive and three years out of my life when I’m in my 30s, for some that’s a possibility, but for me it kind of wasn’t really feasible. Bootcamp was an option. I mean, I didn’t rule it out, but because I suppose I had the privilege of having my husband as a mentor, he kind of guide me and kind of gave me pointers, what I needed to cover to become a front-end developer, what skills I need to have. So I had that. I’m very lucky. So I was able to learn at home self-paced. And mainly because I had the guidance and someone sort of helping me, but had I not had that, maybe a more structured program is better. But yeah.

 [00:06:56] SY: So you decided to take the plunge during your maternity leave. If you didn’t have that maternity leave option, do you think you would’ve eventually gone to coding?

 [00:07:08] PV: Oh, you know, yeah, I mean, like possibly. I guess like having kids, you have less time. So it’s kind of one of those things where ironically, by having less time, it actually pushed me to do it. I think you value your time more.

 [00:07:21] SY: You focus. Yeah.

 [00:07:22] PV: A lot of people say, “Well, why transition when you’ve got kids? You’re extremely busy.” But yeah, I said, “Well, I didn’t really value my time. I’ve find sort of things to do, spare time and go hang out with friends, go to the coffee shop and all the rest of it and go shopping.” But I think it kind of made me think time is limited and it made me value my time, go off and do it, but had I not had children, and I think eventually I probably would’ve done it. But yeah, I think it had to be some kind of life changing event, and I think for me that was it.

 [00:07:53] SY: What was it like for you to code while on maternity leave? You got baby number two, fresh new baby, brand new baby to take care of. What did your days look like? How did you balance this new arrival with your first child, with this new endeavor of learning how to code?

 [00:08:10] PV: I mean it was really hard actually. I think at the beginning it was just code whenever I could. So 50 minutes here, 50 minutes there. I mean, there were times where I just didn’t code at all when the kids got sick, and I think there was a period where I just burnt out. I either just like didn’t take care of myself, didn’t take enough breaks, and I just didn’t code for about two months. It was good because it made me recognize that I was working too hard. I was pushing myself too much, putting a lot of pressure on myself. I think it became more structured after I was able to put my children into childcare for about three days a week. I had savings, so I was able to kind of do that and I had moved back in with my parents. There were sacrifices involved. But yeah, once I was able to put them into childcare, I kind of was quite militant in terms of my day. So I would wake up at like six, get the kids ready, breakfast, bit of family time, and then put them in at about 9:00, sometimes 8:30, code until lunchtime, have some lunch, take a break, do more coding, then prepare for the kids, cook, pick them up from nursery. If you are a sort of an early career developer and you kind of want to make that transition with kids, it’s just making sure that you separate your time, making sure that you’ve got family time and there’s time when you can dig into your coding. So I think for me was having that separation and not mixing the two because you feel like a bad mother or you feel like a bad coder. So for me it was just really rigorous scheduling and just accepting that if you can’t code one day, you just can’t code. Just try again the next day.

 [00:09:47] SY: It is what it is. Yeah.

 [00:09:48] PV: Yeah. So it’s just like you just had to adapt to whatever’s going on in your life. So yeah.

 [00:09:55] SY: Absolutely. Yup. That makes a lot of sense.


 [00:10:15] SY: How do you keep up with momentum? I think that one of the things that can happen, I’ve seen this happen to so many early career devs who are breaking in is they get really caught up with their day-to-day things that happens when you have kids. That happens when you’re taking care of a family and they lose momentum. They lose kind of that steam. And once you lose it, it’s kind of hard to pick it back up. How did you deal with momentum when you were learning?

 [00:10:42] PV: Yeah, I mean it can happen. It did happen to me. Like I said, I kind of just stopped coding for two months and I think it helped when I joined the 100 Days of Code. It’s like a hashtag on Twitter, and it kind of made me more accountable to like the community. I sort of announcing, “Oh, I’m going to do the Days of Code,” which is where you code for about an hour a day. And I think that kept the momentum because it kind of felt, “Oh, when I was feeling a little bit tired and I was thinking it’s so easy to turn on the TV and watch some Netflix.” I thought, “Okay, no, don’t do that. Go do your hour of coding.” And yeah, it was just great because you get a lot of encouragement from the community and you sort of see others who are also taking part and you kind of think, “Oh, they can do it. Everyone’s cheering each other on.” So yeah, for me that kept the momentum going and that kind of coincided towards the end of my sort of learning journey into sort of developer world. So yeah, I think I managed to like land a job right towards the end of that. It was a nice little ending to that.

 [00:11:40] SY: Great timing. Yeah. Great timing. Absolutely. What are some tips that you have for other parents who might be listening to this episode who might want to break into tech and might be feeling a little overwhelmed? What tips do you have for them?

 [00:11:55] PV: I say don’t compare yourself to others. I know there’s a lot out there saying you can become a developer in three months or two months or whatever it is. Everyone has their own personal circumstances. You go at your own pace, which is one of the advantages of sort of doing things like freeCodeCamp Codecademy. You kind of take it at your own pace. You’ll get there. You may be slower than people who maybe don’t have that kind of responsibility. But yeah, I would say just don’t put too much pressure on yourself because it kind of is quite paralyzing when you sort of think, “Oh, I’m not good enough,” and all these negative thoughts sort of enter your mind. So yeah, I think generally from that point of view, and I think more practical tips are things like, just make use of your time. So when you’re with the kids, just like bulk cook stuff, put it in the freezer so you got the meals ready so you can quickly to frost it and do all that kind of stuff. So planning your housework and stuff, it really helps. So you know you’ve got the time for this and you know how much time you’ve got for studying as well. So you don’t sort of feel disappointed in yourself when you don’t achieve that.

 [00:12:58] SY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So how long did you give yourself to transition into the tech industry to get a tech job? How long did you give yourself for that?

 [00:13:09] PV: About two years. I think could have extended it really. But I think for me, if it didn’t happen within two years, I probably would’ve started to consider. Perhaps it wasn’t the right path for me. So I kind of aimed for that.

 [00:13:21] SY: Why two years? Where did that come from?

 [00:13:22] PV: I think financially, because I sort of had savings. If I didn’t start earning some money, then it would start to become an issue at that point. So yeah, two years.

 [00:13:33] SY: Okay. So very practical.

 [00:13:34] PV: Yeah.

 [00:13:35] SY: How did you decide when to start looking for jobs? Especially being self-taught, you’re kind of evaluating yourself and seeing if you’re ready, how you feel. How did you know when it was time to start looking and applying for jobs?

 [00:13:49] PV: I think the answer to that is you never feel ready. I did drag my feet for a while and I did sort of get the nudge from the mentor saying, “Come on. You have the skills. Go out and at least try an interview.” So I think for me, a natural sort of point to start looking was when my son started primary school. And he was in sort of school full-time. My daughter was still a nursery sort of part-time. So I thought, “Oh, okay, I can start probably looking for work and obviously if I can get a job, I can put my daughter in full-time in childcare.” But in terms of skills, I would say I had learned enough JavaScript at that point. I mean, I was no expert, but I thought, “Okay, hopefully they offer training in my first job.” So I think that was probably for me, it was when my son started school.

 [00:14:35] SY: And when you decided to start applying, did you feel ready?

 [00:14:40] PV: I guess you’d like fake it till you make it a little bit. You know?

 [00:14:43] SY: Yeah.

 [00:14:44] PV: So I had a portfolio, so that helped. I did a lot of like projects, so kind of little freeCodeCamp projects I had on CodePen, and also I freelanced as well towards the sort of last six months of my studying, just to kind of get a bit of industry experience. Yeah, so that really helped. That landed my first job, actually, the stuff I did. I freelanced as a WordPress developer. So I just created a lot of really simple marketing websites. And that really did help me land the first job.

 [00:15:15] SY: Very nice. And tell me more about that first job. What did you do? How did you get it? How did you land it?

 [00:15:19] PV: So I applied through an agency and it was just for like a junior front-end developer role. And I worked in the mapping kind of industry. So most of the clients were in local councils. And I created a drawing tool for maps, which was completely something I’ve never done before.

 [00:15:39] SY: Good for you.

 [00:15:38] PV: Yeah. And it was a huge learning curve. But yeah, it was really challenging. I learned a lot in that first role. So I did that mostly just kind of WebGIS. And yeah, it was very interesting.

 [00:15:51] SY: Very, very cool. And how long did it take you from I’m going to start applying to actually getting that job?

 [00:15:57] PV: Yeah. I mean this is the part where people like think, “Oh, that was so quick.” But for me it didn’t take too long. A couple of months I didn’t actually apply to that many jobs. I was gearing myself up because I read so much about how people apply for like hundreds of jobs and go back from no one. I kind of think, “Oh, I’m lucky.” But I mean, I guess it’s like a combination of preparing, maybe kind of having that 14 years and higher education probably helped, sort of being able to interview well, and making sure that I was prepared with the portfolio and doing some side projects. But yeah, I mean it didn’t take me very long at all. And I know that’s not reflective of everyone’s experience. But yeah, that was mine.

 [00:16:38] SY: And have you been happy with your decision to focus on front-end development? Is there any other kind of programming that ever interested you?

 [00:16:44] PV: I have delved into Python. I did the CS50 course.

 [00:16:49] SY: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 [00:16:50] PV: And yeah, so I did a bit of C, which was eye-opening. You realize how much Java actually does for you. But yeah, Python was something that I would probably want to learn as a secondary programming language. It’s just very interesting. So data science possibly. So I’ll see if there is any opportunity maybe in future for me, just to learn that on the side. And maybe I’ll sort of pivot towards that.

 [00:17:14] SY: Absolutely. Tell me about your experience with your first full-time job. How did it turn out? Was it what you thought it was going to be?

 [00:17:20] PV: Yeah. I mean, we were a tiny, tiny company. It was like me and the lead developer. We were the technical team. And yeah, I mean, it was very much. Here’s the goal, here’s your project. There wasn’t much micromanagement, which for me that was good. My manager at the time was there to help me when I was stuck, but he pretty much left me to kind of… it was almost like I was being paid to learn. So I worked a lot with an open source library called OpenLayers, which is used for… I think the competitor is Leaflet. So a lot of people have heard of Leaflet, but it’s just an interactive sort of… it does a lot of things, it is like a drawing tool from apps. But yeah, I mean, I did learn a lot. I learned a lot from him in terms of code reviews and peer programming and things like that.

 [00:18:06] SY: Very cool. Coming up next, Phoebe talks all about The Collab Lab, a free volunteer driven mentorship program that she’s a part of after this.


 [00:18:30] SY: So let’s talk a little bit about mentorship. I know that you were a mentor at The Collab Lab. Tell us a bit about what The Collab Lab is.

 [00:18:38] PV: Yeah, so The Collab Lab is a volunteer-driven kind of nonprofit. It relies on people who are developers acting as mentors for early career developers trying to break into tech. And the fantastic thing is for underrepresented people in tech. So I think half the cohort, so it’s four people and I think three out of the four are women. And yeah, so what we teach is a sort of software team skills. So you have a React project for eight weeks and you have like just like if you are working in a real software team, in a company, you would have like Jira tickets allocated to you. You do pair program. You do co-reviews. You have mentors who guide you. So there are four mentors to four early career devs. And yeah, it’s just a great program. I mean, like I did one cohort, I would love to do more, but unfortunately I’m kind of time poor. But yeah, so three out of the four early career devs actually got jobs, a couple of them whilst they were actually doing the program. And yeah, so it’s just fantastic because it’s these kind of skills that you can’t really learn on your own. A lot of them had such positive feedback and it was just a really good experience as well. For me, it was just very rewarding seeing people get their jobs. And yeah. Fantastic.

 [00:19:57] SY: Tell me more about the value and the power of mentorship. Why get a mentor and also why be a mentor?

 [00:20:04] PV: For me, being a mentor was a way for me to give back to the community. I had the privilege of my husband being my mentor. So I know how important and also how much it helps just having someone encouraging you. I mean, a lot of the times, when I come across people approach me and say, “Oh, I don’t think I’m doing very well. Is this the right thing? My skills aren’t up to scratch.” And a lot of times you just need encouragement. Skills are fine and skills can be learned. So I think for me, being a mentor was a way to give back and just a way to help others as well. And I kind of always sort of championing more women, more parents, anybody who’s trying to get into tech really. So that’s kind of a side mission for me, just to get more people.

 [00:20:47] SY: And do you feel like you’ve personally grown or benefited from being a mentor yourself?

 [00:20:53] PV: Yeah, I mean it’s one of those things where you get asked good questions. A lot of times I couldn’t answer the questions, so I would have to go away and do some a little bit of research and get back to them. It kind of makes you have a different perspective in a way, because when you are learning, you’re kind of quite in the zone and you kind of don’t really appreciate when someone’s actually guiding you. So it’s a big responsibility. So I kind of stumbled a bit first when I started mentoring. I did grow a lot because when you’ve got someone relying on you hoping to give you that kind of guidance, you kind of feel the responsibility and you kind of want them to do well and you want them to succeed and they’ve chosen you to be their mentor. So I do get quite involved as well and I kind of put quite a lot of heart into it.

 [00:21:35] SY: Very cool. How do you know when it’s time for you to be the mentor? I feel like we all want mentors. I’m curious when you think it is the right time to mentor other people.

 [00:21:46] PV: The strange thing is when I was approached by The Collab Lab, it was Andrew Hedges who approached me and literally just like gotten into the new job. I think it was within my first year of the first developer job. I said to him, “I’m not qualified to be a mentor.” And he says, “But you’ve done it. You’ve made the journey. You’ve cracked into the industry and your experience is invaluable. So someone else will find your experience extremely valuable.” So it’s one of those things where, yeah, I kind of, again, I didn’t think I was ready. I was a little bit scared. I actually talked to someone who’d been mentoring for years on The Collab Lab and sort of asked him for a bit of advice and he just said, “Just relax. Just see what they ask you. If you’ve got any questions and you can ask me.” So yeah. I mean, I got kind of a little bit scared by it, but yeah, I think it’s one of those things, if you’ve made it into the industry, you’ve got a story to tell and I’m sure someone will. Appreciate your experience and your perspective and how you kind of broke into that industry. So yeah, I mean, I did it a year into the job. I’m being in the field for like four years now. So I feel a bit more comfortable mentoring, but yeah.

 [00:22:57] SY: That makes sense. What final advice do you have for folks who are transitioning into a new career and taking care of a family at the same time?

 [00:23:07] PV: Before you sign up for any kind of like bootcamp, just try the free resources first, because it is quite a financial commitment to actually go for a bootcamp. I know people who have tried the self-taught route and sort of tried freeCodeCamp and it just wasn’t quite right for them. So they kind of went down the bootcamp route and just find whatever learning style suits you. So it may be like Udemy courses, it may be YouTube, it may be a bootcamp. So I would say just find what style you like to learn and if that particular style suits you, then go for it.

 [00:23:46] SY: Now at the end of every episode, we ask our guests to fill in the blanks of some very important questions. Phoebe, are you ready to fill in the blanks?

 [00:23:53] PV: Yeah, sure.

 [00:23:54] SY: Number one, worst advice I’ve ever received is?

 [00:23:57] PV: Probably when my teacher said go do a history degree. I kind of regret it because I wish I did a bit more technical degree. But it is one of those things where at the time I thought, “Oh, it was great. Go and do it. It’s what I enjoy.” But after 14 years in higher education, kind of doing a career that wasn’t quite right for me, I kind of wish I did a more technical degree.

 [00:24:20] SY: Number two, best advice I’ve ever received is?

 [00:24:23] PV: I’ve heard this from a few people, but from husbands especially saying, “Don’t compare yourself to others,” it’s one of those things where I did it a lot early on. I would just get it in my mind that because I wasn’t working as fast or learning as quickly as other people, that I wasn’t going to become a developer because I felt stupid sometimes. I just thought I’m not getting it. And a lot of time it was just practice, taking the pressure off, and just maybe using a different learning resource. So I would switch over every now and again, so from freeCodeCamp and I would try something on YouTube and I’d be like, “Oh, okay, I get it.” But yeah, I’ll say don’t compare yourself to others because you kind of just put so much pressure in yourself thinking because that person did it in transitioned in three months, you think you should be doing the same. There’s lot. The one really good sort of advice I got, which I will pass on others, is as long as you have learned more today than you did yesterday, and that’s what counts. So it may just be 15 minutes. So for me that was… and I thought, yeah, and I look back and I sort of think, “Do I know more than I did last year? Yes. I learned a lot.” [00:25:35] SY: Yes.

 [00:25:35] PV: So yeah.

 [00:25:36] SY: Very beautiful. Love that. Number three, my first coding project was about?

 [00:25:40] PV: It was a freeCodeCamp one. It was an Ada Lovelace tribute page. It’s awful. I kept it. I’ve kept it in CodePen. I haven’t changed it because I thought this is a bit of history here.

 [00:25:54] SY: It is history. That’s right.

 [00:25:56] PV: And it was just like a biography. It was just HTML and CSS. It’s not responsive. I think I did like a really 1990’s website border around it and then took it off because I thought, “Oh, that looks terrible.” But yeah, so that was my first project.

 [00:26:11] SY: Very cool. Number four, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is?

 [00:26:16] PV: I wish I’d learned that having a community, having that kind of support, I had my husband said who was my mentor, but for me, I kind of didn’t connect. I didn’t go to meetups and things probably because I had children and there wasn’t much around me. But eventually, I did engage in the Twitter community. I know there could be… people find it… they have a love or hate it. But for me, doing the 100 Days of Code, I met quite a few developers from there and it was just nice because I would sort of private message them and kind of get advice and sort of share sort of stories with each other, but I wish I’d done that earlier. And it would’ve really helped with the motivation and just knowing that other people are going through what you are going through because it’s really hard and it can be incredibly lonely sort of learning on your own. So I would say anyone that’s learning coding is to try and engage, whether it’s meetups or online.

 [00:27:09] SY: Wonderful. Well, thank you again so much for joining us, Phoebe.

 [00:27:12] PV: Yeah, you’re welcome.

 [00:27:17] SY: You can reach out to us on Twitter at CodeNewbies or send me an email, For more info on the podcast, check out Thanks for listening. See you next week.

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