S1E24 – Weaving Your Team Fabric (Building Your Engineering Organization Series – Part 3 of 5)

Show Notes

 Let’s imagine that you are just taking on an engineering organization. Maybe it is new to you or maybe it is completely new. What should you do to set yourself up for success? What are some of the important, or critical, aspects to think through, write down, nail down, or get agreement on?

In a five-part series, Mon-Chaio and Andy look back over the long, and sometimes rambling, episodes of The TTL Podcast and try to condense them down to something more digestible. In episode one you learned about defining your cultural and structural north star and in episode two, hiring strategy, clarity of tasks and boundary, and explicit intentionality. This episode dives into building your team fabric, the threads of process and ceremony that underly everything your engineering organization does.


Ep 024 – Team Fabric (Part 3: Starting and Engineering Org)

Mon-Chaio: Welcome to this week’s episode of the TTL podcast. This is part three of five in our starting an engineering org series, where we summarize the most salient tactics from our past episodes to give you a crib sheet for starting an engineering team on the right foot.

In our last episode, we showed you how to define your organizational culture, made up of a minimal set of values, which will serve as the foundation everything else is built upon. We explained how to hire, bringing on people that will reinforce and evolve your culture. And we emphasized the importance of organizing those hires into AAA teams with clear boundaries and tasks in place to enable stability, morale, and high performance.

The next step is the work to set up your new organization for long-term success, something I call weaving the team fabric. Think about the threads that run through your organization. Threads that go beyond any one project, any one problem, or any one process. Threads that, when they’re broken, affect the very ability of your organization to deliver differentiated value. There are great many threads of this nature and they will often vary over time. But what I want to illustrate in this episode is a few of them that I think are quite foundational regardless of the size, stage, or context of your technical organization.

The first thread of your team fabric that I want to touch on is trust. For all high-performing teams, trust is an essential element. But how you wield it needs to be extremely nuanced. And you first need to understand the trust is multifaceted. In episode five, “Navigating the Challenges of Building Trust”, we talk about how there are many different types of trust:

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Andrew Parker: … simplify it down to two. So they had calculus-based trust and identification-based trust.

And let’s take the scenario. You’re a software contractor. You get hired into a company, you’re on a six-month contract. You’re there to join a project to do a particular job for them. Say you’re a DevOps engineer and they need you to set up a Terraform system to handle all of their Azure infrastructure in a infrastructure-is-code manner. They have a few terrible scripts. You’re there just to get it all transformed over to Terraform in a standard manner. Train up the team a little bit and move on For that, you’re there for a very short time. You’re not part of the organization, you’re not part of that team. Maybe you’ll come back in the future. Who knows? There you need calculus-based trust. Calculus-based trust is basically the trust you get from knowing the procedures, knowing the law, knowing your contract. You’re there because you’ve got a very specific job to do and you have the trust that they’re going to honor the contract, they have the trust that you’re going to do the job.

Mon-Chaio: Let me interject briefly. Calculus-based trust is you have that trust because you know there are processes, procedures, or detriments to not following that. You won’t get paid if you don’t do your job. People will get fired if they don’t do something. They’ll get a bad performance review. So it is negative deterrence-based trust.

Andrew Parker: Yeah, the place that they got the name calculus-based, they used to call it deterrence-based and I actually prefer that more even though that name seems to have gone out of practice.

Mon-Chaio: I agree and I don’t know why it’s “calculus” now because I think it’s less descriptive than “deterrence”. But anyway, back to your example.

Andrew Parker: So yeah, that is one of very short term. It’s very procedure based. It’s very tied to an agreement and that’s what you’re doing. Does that sound like one where you don’t need to get to that identification-based trust, which is one much more about the, I understand you, you understand me. We can think in similar ways. And I can believe that what you do, Mon-Chaio, is done understanding my interests and to further my interests.

Mon-Chaio: So you’re saying, in your example …

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Mon-Chaio: Toward the end of that clip, you heard Andy and I started to discuss that sometimes you don’t need to pay the tax necessary to build high identification-based trust. Building high calculus-based trust may suffice for that particular moment in time. But that’s just a temporary panacea for most organizations. High levels of identification-based trust is necessary for sustained high performance. Your job, as Andy explains in this next clip from the Trust episode, is to be ever vigilant and proactive in building and sustaining trust in your org:

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Andrew Parker: … worry about these things. Then pay attention to how people are interacting, and if it’s becoming a problem, either it could be a problem because of the outcomes that the team is able to perform, or it could be a problem because of people’s happiness, like that they’re butting heads. Sure, they’re getting the output, but, or the outcomes that you want, but they’re butting heads and no one’s happy, even though they’re short lived.

That’s just not nice on a human level. And I would say, you might want to intervene to start having some of these difficult conversations, starting with trust, to understand what’s happening. And you don’t need to do it in a big group. It could be a one on one thing, it could be a small pair if there’s like something going on, but having like that, that ladder of inference, using that to understand where those issues are coming from, not only helps resolve the issue, but builds trust in the process.

And I think that’s one of the things is when you are resolving issues, use the trust techniques because it will not only resolve the issue, but it will build the trust.

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Mon-Chaio: As for how you go about building trust, you heard Andy talk about the ladder of inference in the last clip. Here he is explaining more about the ladder as well as some other trust-building tactics:

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Andrew Parker: Getting to the specific tactics people can use to build trust, we’ve touched on one already, which is to be vulnerable. Now, it doesn’t seem like that’s a specific tactic, but it is. There is a tactic there of being vulnerable. It means opening up about the way you’re thinking or feeling. And so that, that can be things like using the phrase and filling in the end of it “the story I’m telling myself …” is one vulnerability tactic, which is “the story that I’m telling myself, Mon-Chaio, about what happened last week is …”, and you tell the person, what is the thing I’m saying? And that is a thing of vulnerability.

The next one is the one that actually shows up all the time in literature on trust, which is be predictable. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you say you’re not going to do something, don’t do it. It seems kind of strange to say, but yeah, absolutely, that is a very fundamental thing. Which also then brings up, don’t tell someone you’re going to do something that you can’t do. Because that starts eroding trust.

Mon-Chaio: I like both those. What else you got for us, Andy?

Andrew Parker: So I’m taking a lot of this from the book Agile Conversations. It’s a layering of different types of conversations, and if you haven’t read the book, I would suggest reading it. And the next thing in their trust conversation chapter, which is the first chapter about conversations, is another one called TDD for people, is what they call it.

It also is called the ladder of inference. And it’s actually a specific way of being vulnerable. So TDD for people is the idea that you start from what exactly you saw. So Mon-Chaio, I saw right now that you just took a drink of water. Is that right?

Mon-Chaio: Yes, that is correct..

Andrew Parker: Alright, you just took a drink of water. And now that I’ve confirmed with you that I saw something that you also saw, I attribute some meaning to it and I say, “I take that to mean that you were thirsty. Were you thirsty?”

Mon-Chaio: Yes, I was thirsty.

Andrew Parker: Excellent. And the fact that you were thirsty makes me think that maybe you’re starting to think that we’re talking too much. Are we talking too much?

Mon-Chaio: No, not in my mind, but maybe in our listeners.

Andrew Parker: Okay. Okay. So I’m glad that the assumption that I put in, I validated that I was wrong and I got your story now.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: So that’s another tactic for building trust, which is this going back and forth through what did I see? What meaning am I ascribing to that? What assumptions am I bringing to it? What conclusion does that bring me to? And now what do I think I need to do based on that?

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andrew Parker: And it’s just step someone else through my ladder of inference to see if it matches your ladder of inference.

Mon-Chaio: Those are three great things. I like all of them.

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Mon-Chaio: As these tactics show, building trust is not easy, but absolutely necessary. I’d highly recommend giving the Trust episode of full listen if you haven’t already.

All right, moving on, the next thread in your team fabric that I’d like to touch on is psychological safety. This one’s a bit tricky. Psychological safety has made its way into the mainstream enough that it’s widely agreed as essential. And yet, what it actually is, is often misunderstood. In episode 21, titled “Psychological Watchamacallit”, Andy explains exactly what psychological safety is and what it isn’t. Here’s Andy:

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Andrew Parker: I think most of us don’t. Instead, what we do is we go by that name, psychological safety. And what seems to happen is that we take that name and we think, what does it mean to feel safe? And we think when we feel safe and we think, okay, well I am comfortable. I am in a place that I know I am around people who I know.

So you start taking that safe aspect of psychological safety. And I think you, you focus on that in terms of other times that you feel safe and that’s what you believe it is, that psychological safety at work, it would then be that you don’t get upset, that you feel very supported all of the time, that you aren’t concerned. And those are all aspects of it. But I think there’s kind of like this warm fuzzy side that kind of takes over a very clinical aspect, which is, I think, shows up in the psychological side of the, of the name that many of us just kind of set to the side.

And so let’s get to what is normally the definition anymore of psychological safety, which is, it’s, it’s, it’s kind of clinical. It’s the willingness for interpersonal risk taking. Mon-Chaio, what does that mean to you? What would you, if, if you were told hey, you need to have high willingness for interpersonal risk taking on your teams, what is that?

Mon-Chaio: I think for me, that’s being able to put yourself out there, being able to take a risk to your reputation, to your comfort, to a number of different types of things in order to accomplish some goal.

Andrew Parker: Mm hmm, yeah.

Mon-Chaio: And so it’s interesting that you talk about safety, right? Because to me, the ability to take interpersonal risk, is this idea that I am comfortable not being safe, or to put it another way, I am safe to not be safe.

Andrew Parker: I think that is an excellent way to put it. And I think, oh, maybe, maybe a different, a different way of thinking about it that might be useful is safety harnesses.

So if window washers on skyscrapers are out there, they clip themselves in, they do all this stuff to be safe. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily comfortable. I mean, they would probably get, I, I’ve never done window washing on a giant

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Mon-Chaio: That definition can seem pretty abstract, and in some ways it is. In episode 21, we talk about a way to measure psychological safety via questionnaire. So give that a listen if you’re curious. But in addition to the abstractness of the definition, another challenge with psychological safety is that it’s not directly able to be manipulated. Instead, it acts as a mediator and moderator between leadership behaviors on one side and organizational performance on the other. We talk about what that means further on in episode 21:

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Andrew Parker: … question about correlation versus causation. What you’re looking for is causation. And the way to think about causation is if you’re thinking like a UML diagram, some sort of flow chart or something, you say you have A, and then there’s a little, it’s in a box, and there’s an arrow pointing to B. And what you would say is A causes B. A happens and then B happens or A happens more and so B happens more. That’s, that’s like the causational relationship.

Now what we’re looking for in this, this kind of research is what are those things? I said earlier, there’s like all these, these concepts that then they turn into ways of measuring it. So the concepts that they’re connecting together in these things are things like organizational performance, individual behaviors, team behaviors, team culture, organizational culture, leadership behaviors, team performance, those kinds of things. They’re trying to figure out how does all of this fit together.

Psychological safety fits into this where they, they connect and the research shows a causational chain where you have, to pick one that we’ll be talking about in a little bit, leadership behaviors impacts or influences or causes psychological safety, which impacts or causes team performance and organizational performance.

And in that case, what we’re dealing with is psychological safety, uh, termed a mediator. So to be a mediator, there is a causal relationship. And a lot of the research shows that yes, psychological safety sits in there. It’s a mediator between leadership behaviors and team culture and, between that on one side and like team performance, organizational performance on the other side. So it mediates that causation. Uh, a way of thinking about it is it becomes an explanation for why one causes the other.

The other way it gets thought of is as what’s called a moderator. You know, it’s kind of like an amplifier. There is a causal relationship. And it’s not part of that chain, but what it is, is like, it turns up the dial on what happens when, like, leadership behaviors and team performance get into this causal relationship.

So with psychological safety, the leadership behaviors get amplified to create more team performance. And so psychological safety in the research, turns out, it does both of these. It shows up as a mediator and it shows up as a moderator. And the reason I’m bringing this up now is because it tells us for one, psychological safety isn’t necessarily something that we’re going to manipulate directly. It’s going to be something else.

So in the mediator way of thinking about it, which is, I think for us a little bit easier to work with than the moderator. So let’s talk about the mediator.

Mon-Chaio: Right. Yeah.

Andrew Parker: It’s, you don’t create … you don’t just like go in and say, hey team, I bought us, uh, 10 units of psychological safety. You’ll find them on the counter in the kitchen. Go and eat yours. And we’re all good. It’s, it’s not, uh, an independent variable that we just manipulate directly. So it’s something that is going to be there caused by other things, which then causes what we want. And so it’s those other things that …

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Mon-Chaio: OK, so you, aren’t going to be able to manipulate psychological safety directly. But you do need to take steps to make it more likely that psychological safety manifests itself strongly in your organization. Well, what are those steps? Glad you asked, take a listen, as we explain:

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Andrew Parker: … sound a little trite, but I’ll admit, I think they all make sense. And they, they, they, some of them are just really simple. Be present and focus on the conversation. That’s, that seems pretty straightforward.

Mon-Chaio: What’d you say?

Andrew Parker: Or maybe it’s not.

Uh, ask questions with the intention of learning from your teammates. Now that one sounds simple. We’ll, getting into other podcasts we should do, that’s another one, how to ask a good question or what are good questions.

Recap what’s been said to confirm mutual understanding and alignment, then acknowledge areas of agreement, disagreement, and be open to questions within the group.

So these are all behaviors that as a leader you can take to foster psychological safety. And I think from those three that I’ve read out so far, you can kind of see they all have a theme of, elicit others talking and acknowledge what they’ve said.

Mon-Chaio: I like it. I think often … …

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Mon-Chaio: It may sound easy, but to doing it well and often requires quite a bit of intentionality. Hm, uh, there’s that word again. And we’ll continue to encounter this concept of intentionality throughout this five-part series.

Next on my list of threads in your team fabric is goal setting. As a leader, you are accountable for the performance of your organization and how much value they’re delivering to the company. And research has shown us a key part of enabling high performance is setting challenging goals. Andy and I talk about why that is in episode eight, “Setting Challenging Goals”. Andy, take it away:

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Andrew Parker: So when setting goals, I think many people probably will have heard of this inverted U curve that we hear about. The kind of difficulty of the goal and the performance you get out of the system. That if you set the difficulty too low, your performance is low. If you set the difficulty too high, your performance is low.

And somewhere in between, your performance is high. I think this is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. I don’t know how to pronounce that first name. Is it Yerkes?

Mon-Chaio: I believe it is. I’ve only read it and I’ve never heard it pronounced.

Andrew Parker: All right. Let’s say that it’s Yerkes. The Yerkes-Dodson Law.

Mon-Chaio: And if we butchered your name, Yerkes …

Andrew Parker: … we’re really sorry.

It’s been around for a long time. It’s apparently a kind of like fundamental idea, but is it something we believe that we should go off of? And does it give it, does it really give us much guidance to work with?

Mon-Chaio: I think it gives us some. When you were talking about your personal experience, I experienced that too, right?

I think if a goal is too easy, Sometimes you set it aside or you don’t focus on it. You’re saying, oh, that’s easily achievable. I can do that at any time. Why worry about it? And obviously we know if a goal is too difficult, such that it’s unattainable, the stress that you get from trying to meet, especially an externally set unattainable goal.

I think everyone can agree that doesn’t help performance. Maybe not everyone can agree to that. I’ve certainly had bosses in the past. Maybe you and I even shared a boss who tended to believe that if you set unachievable, difficult goals and that motivates people. I don’t know, but I tend not to believe that.

Andrew Parker: But it is a common belief that we should talk about a little bit because I think many people will encounter it, which is the idea that if, if some is good, if some stretch is good, why isn’t more stretch better? And I think we’ll get into it a little bit when we get into the research, but there’s this idea of self efficacy, which says if you believe that you can do it, if you can understand yourself as being able to do it, then it’s okay. But, as we all know, there’s a point at which you just think, this is a farce, and you just tune out. So a goal set too hard doesn’t really help anyone achieve it.

Mon-Chaio: And so I do believe that there is something to this inverted U, Yerkes-Dobson Law type of thing, where bit of stress in the system does, I think, help for performance.

And I actually, I’ve been reading this book called Leaders Eat Last, which I don’t know if you’ve read. There are parts of it which are, I think, fantastic. And I think there are parts of it that are, eh, maybe I’ll skip it. But, it talks a lot about how human chemicals come into play and how our evolution has structured us to behave with certain chemicals.

And I do think that having a little bit of stress introduces a little bit of cortisol into your system, right, which is not great in sustained or great amounts, but cortisol is a performance drug in some ways. So, I think all of that combined together, personal anecdotes from you and me, experiences, as well as tying it back to some biology, it does get me to believe that introducing some stress into the system is necessary for us to, whatever that optimal performance is, for us to perform better, let’s say.

Andrew Parker: And you can understand that also just from the idea of how do we learn to be better on something is we push ourselves to try to do something that we haven’t done before. And that is a stressful activity. And if we weren’t pushing ourself into that thing of not having, that we haven’t done before, we wouldn’t know some of those limits of what we can or can’t do.

Mon-Chaio: It sounds like we both are arriving on a consensus that we do believe a little bit of stress introduced into the system is a good thing.

Andrew Parker: Yep.

Mon-Chaio: Too much is a bad thing. Too little is a bad thing.

Andrew Parker: Yep.

Mon-Chaio: And we haven’t really talked about how to introduce stress into the system. Is that the next thing we should discuss?

Andrew Parker: I think maybe how to introduce …

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Mon-Chaio: On this concept of introducing stress into the system, there’s both comforting news and challenging news. The comforting news is that if you build your teams and organization the right way, they will end up creating the necessary stress for setting challenging goals by themselves. The challenging news is that setting up those ideal conditions is difficult and continuous work.

The first step to building those ideal conditions is actually the first two threads of the team fabric that we’ve already talked about: high levels of identification-based trust and psychological safety. The second step is high levels of team self-efficacy, which is the team’s perception of their ability to accomplish a specific task. It’s important to understand how essential team self-efficacy is to their ability to set and commit to challenging goals, but also how fragile it can be. It comes and goes, depending on the situational context. One general anti-pattern that really decreases a team self-efficacy, and is almost always done innocently, is when a leader comes from on high, from outside the AAA boundary to quote-unquote help a team set challenging goals. Why is that an anti-pattern? Well, it all has to do with strong identification-based trust. And we discussed the details further on in episode eight:

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Mon-Chaio: … watch out for. One is that identity piece. Remember, it’s important for those folks to have built a strong trust bond and identity. And so, if you’re a leader who’s on the ground and who they can identify with, then I think that being a partner in that goal setting really helps, or can help. But if you are, again, in the boundary thing, outside of the AAA boundary, right, especially as your orgs get larger and larger, and you don’t have that identity built with your team because maybe you run seven teams, right? And so, team two is like, he doesn’t really belong to team two. He’s just like overall manager of seven teams, right? Then, it’s probably more detrimental to come in because you haven’t established that identity. They don’t identify with you. You don’t really identify with them. And so coming in and really trying to participatively set goals with those folks probably is not a great idea.

Andrew Parker: Yeah, you’re going to trigger all sorts of social dynamics that will probably work against you.

Mon-Chaio: And then the last one that I will touch on, and we will touch on not just this part of it, but more because it’s so important, is that team efficacy or self efficacy thing. Because if you come in and by your actions, whether intentional or not, you are reducing their efficacy, you are going to have a very difficult time getting a successful goal, successful challenging goal out of that team.

And I say despite your actions because a lot of times leaders come in wanting to increase people’s efficacy, but doing it in a terrible way, right? Somebody coming in and be like, oh, look, Joe over there was able to get that done in six weeks. You’re better than Joe. You should be able to get that done. Or saying patently false things or things that people can’t believe. And he’s like, there is no way y’all could absolutely fail. You got this. You guys are the best. You folks are the top engineering team in the company.

Efficacy has to be team and self believed, right? To that kind of commitment. And to your definition of efficacy that you read earlier, and if your team can’t believe it and if you can’t transmit something in a way that they can believe, you’re actually doing harm when you come in and try to encourage the team that they can meet a goal.

So I think those are the two pitfalls that I would see in participatively-set goals.

Andrew Parker: Yeah. If there’s not the belief that the person helping to set the goal should be there and also that they are part of that goal in some way. Is that it? Because I’m trying to figure this out. The person who’s coming in from on high isn’t part of the narrative that the group has about their ability to do these things.

And so it’s highly likely that the stories that they tell or the things that they try to pull out to, to participate in setting that goal won’t be believed and might be actively distrusted. Or when they should have pushed back, the psychological safety, something that we still actually need to talk about more in depth, the psychological safety might not be there to challenge and dispute.

And so there, there is a social dynamics, as I said before, there’s a social dynamics problem that starts to show up in whether or not those open and honest conversations are actually going to happen. Now …

Mon-Chaio: Yes, I agree.

Andrew Parker: … if you have somehow amazingly …

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Mon-Chaio: So you’ve now heard about one specific anti-pattern, but there are also specific things you can do to increase team self-efficacy. Listen, as we talked through a few of those tactics:

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Andrew Parker: … get back to this at some point, the distal and the proximate goals. So a distal goal is the distant goal. It’s like the final goal that might be a real challenge. And there, if you just look at that, self efficacy may stumble. People may look at that and say, I have no idea. So what you do is you help to break it down into what’s called proximate goals.

So it’s milestones along the way or things to try to tackle to get there. And then they build a sense of efficacy through hitting those proximate goals. That’s one other way of building self efficacy.

Mon-Chaio: So there are other ways, obviously, to build efficacy. I think you mentioned one, Andy, probably in private conversation or whatever, which is training.

And I think that’s a clear way to build up the skills of your team, right? They have higher efficacy when they feel like they’ve been trained up to the task. So I think that’s a way to build efficacy. Another one that I found really interesting was what they call vicarious experiences. And one of the research papers suggested that what you can do is record teams, other teams or this particular team, in doing task related activities and then editing this video to only show the positive parts of that and emphasizing what they did.

This gets back into the feedback mechanism as well, where this paper says, look, what you should do is give feedback that rewards the behaviors that they are doing well, and that builds advocacy.

Andrew Parker: Yeah.

Mon-Chaio: And so I think interestingly, those …

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Mon-Chaio: Now, even if you are already applying some or all of these tactics, I recommend you take some time to reflect and see if there are any other ways you can up a team, self efficacy. Because as the research shows, the leader’s job in helping a team set challenging goals isn’t to provide the stress and pressure itself, it’s to cultivate a culture and environment, which naturally breeds those behaviors within their organization. Then being intentional … uh, there’s that word again, intentional … and vigilant to nudge things back toward good when the situation warrants.

All right. That’s all I have for you today. Like any other leadership topic, there’s a lot more to do and learn around weaving team fabrics. But if you start here, that is building trust, nurturing psychological safety, and cultivating the environment that allows your org to set challenging goals, you’re going to be well on your way.

If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard today, I encourage you to listen to the full versions of our past episodes. Also, please rate us and subscribe on your preferred listening platforms and send us feedback at hosts@thettlpodcast.com … that’s H O S T S @thettlpodcast.com. We really appreciate everyone listening and the podcast could not be where it is today without everyone’s support, so truly thank you all.

Well, until next time, be kind and stay curious.


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