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From Prison to Programming: How Nikkole Spurgeon Learned to Code While Incarcerated (S8E3)

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Nikkole Spurgeon

Nikkole Spurgeon has been through a lot – domestic violence, drug addiction, and even imprisonment. She knew that things should change, and that’s where coding came into the picture.

It’s been a long road for Nikkole. After being imprisoned for substance abuse, she took it upon herself to get all the self-help classes she could find. One of the programs she got into was from Persevere Now, a nonprofit organization that runs coding bootcamps for inmates. And out of the 250 applicants, she was one of only 12 who passed! Soon enough, Nikkole found herself with a job in tech after her sentence. Now, Nikkole is the web development team lead at Banyan Labs.

In this episode, Nikkole talks about her life before prison, difficulties with learning in prison, adapting to COVID-19, her motivation for learning to code, transitioning to the outside world, and what her day-to-day life is like today.

This episode was transcribed with the help of an AI transcription tool. Please forgive any typos.

Laurence Bradford 0:00
Hey, thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of the Learn to Code With Me Podcast. I'm your host, Laurence Bradford. And in today's episode, we're going to be talking with someone who learned to code in prison, and now since being released works as a junior developer. But first, a quick word about this episode's wonderful sponsor.

Laurence Bradford 0:36
Linode is a cloud hosting provider built both by and for developers. They make it super easy and affordable to host your app website or service on the cloud. Linode is independently owned and founded on a love for Linux open source technologies and the community that surrounds them. If it runs on Linux and runs on Linode. Even better as a Learn to Code With Me listener, you can get $100 in free credit when you create a new account with Linode. To claim your $100 Just go to linode.com/learntocode. That's all one word. Happy coding.

Laurence Bradford
And we're back in today's episode I talk with Nikkole Spurgeon. Nikkole is a junior software developer who learned to code in prison. I got connected with Nikkole through an organization I volunteered with recently called Persevere Now. Persevere Now teaches inmates and parolees to code. They also help them find jobs and offer other career related support. Nikkole participated in their highly competitive program. And that's what we're going to hear about today. Now, before we get into things, just a heads up that this episode has been edited differently than other episodes in the past. With me giving a little introduction to each part of Nikkole's story, I want to find the most impactful way to share her story. And I hope this is it. I also want to flag that we get into some really heavy topics such as drug addiction, violence, involvement from Child Protective Services, and so on. If any of that might be triggering, or too difficult for you to listen to, we cover those parts right at the start. So what you can do is skip forward to the eight minute 15 second mark of the show in whichever podcast player you're listening on. With all that said, Let me tell you a little bit about Nikkole. So she's originally from Simi Valley, California, and she was an army brat growing up. Those are her words not mine, by the way. And she lived all over the world moving every couple of years. As she got older Nikkole worked in jobs like hostessing or being a cashier. And she even worked at Home Depot later on. So a lot of front facing retail type of work. But unfortunately, she ended up getting into an abusive relationship. And she found herself in a serious addiction for 10 years. So basically all of her 20s and this ultimately led to her serving time in prison. But while she was in prison, and finally sober, she decided to turn her life around. As I said already, Nikkole story's intense, make no mistake about it. But it's also really incredible. All the different things that she has gone through and where she is today. So without further ado, let's start by hearing from Nikkole about what her life was like before she went to prison.

Nikkole Spurgeon 3:38
Back in 2012, I was a single mother of two, I had a two year old daughter and a seven month old son and their father and I didn't get along. I was a victim of domestic violence quite often. I tried to leave him but circumstances about them being native. It's kind of convoluted, but I wasn't able to take my kids away from their father without his permission, like somewhere that he couldn't be, you know, like, for example, I wanted to move to Indiana, I could not leave the county that we were in. I wasn't able to leave the area and I lived in a small little town called bullhead. City, Arizona. It's on the corner of Arizona, really right across the river as Laughlin Nevada, then it's bullhead and then like it's literally on the corner of California and Nevada and Arizona. Um, it got really, really bad.

Laurence Bradford 4:39
What happened next was extremely traumatic. It left Nikkole with scarring on her face and a serious drug addiction. Sadly, things got so bad that CPS or child protective services have to step in and remove Nikkole's children from the situation.

Nikkole Spurgeon 4:57
So March 9, 2012, I was stabbed 13 times to the head face in arms by this man. I mean, everything that followed is what led me into drug use. I lost my apartment, I lost my job, I lost my car, and CPS got involved in I even lost my kids. And I didn't know how to take that. Really, I felt like I was being punished for trying to survive and get away from this guy. But there was no way I could just leave the town or else I'd be like a federal fence removing a native from their land. So I was literally stuck. And CPS taking my kids away. Since there was so much domestic violence going on. I just I couldn't handle that. I flatlined three times, I was fully transfused with my blood volume twice. So you know how, like parents say, like, I would die for my kids? Well, I literally did, I guess, and for them to take my kids away at that just broke me. I wasn't able to really bounce back. Not only that, but being a woman and your face is different. And, you know, bless little kids, you know, if I went to the store, I was getting stared at, like a monster. But I just I couldn't deal with that. I went to therapy. And most times I would hear Yeah, I understand how you feel? Well, you don't, you know, I don't feel like you've been stabbed up or anything like that. So it was just, it was so difficult for me to deal with. And I know, I knew before, like I had experimented a little bit here and there with meth. And that was that was a really big thing in that town. And that's what I turned to it. Unfortunately, I didn't deal with it the healthy way. But it allowed me to not feel and to not care about anything. So I was crazy, deeply involved in my addiction. It did affect my relationship with my kids, but I just, I didn't know how to move on. I didn't know how to move past. So I was I was an addict for almost 10 years, until it finally caught up with me I was on probation. still couldn't stay clean. I was in drug court, I couldn't do it. And finally, it led me to prison in 2018. My time down was the longest time I've ever been sober, obviously. And with that sobriety came, you know, this change of mind, like what are you doing with your life and being in prison, you have nothing but time, but to focus on all the things that you've done. All the people you've hurt, how you've gotten there, just all your mistakes, really, and you have no one else to blame, but you So yeah, I looked around one day and there was this older woman she was like, I would guess that maybe in her 60s and she was still in the drug scene, doing all that and that was just her life, even there. And I just I did not. I couldn't accept that for the rest of my life is to be either in and out of prison or still stuck on drugs. It was obviously getting me nowhere I needed to change and persevere allowed me to achieve that.

Laurence Bradford 8:15
Fortunately, Nikkole was presented with an amazing opportunity, Persevere Now is a nonprofit organization that goes into prisons in the United States and runs coding boot camps for the inmates. Its goal is to help prisoners become productive members of society by teaching them the skills that they need to succeed in the tech industry, Persevere Now is founded by Sean Hoffman. Sean used to be the CEO of a tech company, but he developed a drug addiction, which ultimately landed him in jail. When he got out of jail, he was able to get back into work pretty quickly because of his tech skills. But he realized a lot of the other inmates were not able to do this. So many doors were close to them because of their criminal records and lack of skills. So he started helping other offenders learn tech skills, and He even gave them jobs. Eventually, he found and Persevere Now to do the same thing, but on a larger scale. When Nikkole was one and a half years into her sentence, Shawn son Zack visited the jail she was at to talk about persevere. Now, here's how Nikkole remembers it.

Nikkole Spurgeon 9:26
Okay, so sitting on the yard, I was in perryville prison for women here in Arizona. And first of all, I was down for two and a half years. Most of my time, I just wanted to focus on bettering myself period. So I took almost every self help class you could think of but most were inmate ran. And I wasn't getting a lot of help, I guess you could say because I obviously didn't want to go back to prison, right? So I was thinking everything in anything and then one day We got a flier pass through the dorms. And it was for persevere, there was going to be a huge meeting in the little, I guess you could say, visiting area. And not Shawn. But Zach, his son, Zach Hoffman came and pretty much pitched it to us why it would be great for us to learn these things. He told us about the industry and the job pay. I mean, that alone was like an eye opener, but just their general interest and excitement to introduce this to us. That's what sold me. I've never had a technical background. I've never touched code. I mean, the most code I've ever touched is like copy and paste in my space background or something. So it was completely different to me, but obviously different is what I needed. And why not I had nothing but time. So that's how I decided to join. I believe there was 200 250 applicants, not only did we have to interview, but we had a I guess you could say kind of a competency test just to see where your education levels at how you solve problems, and things like that. I don't really know what the requirements were for making the cut. I'm just glad I did.

Laurence Bradford 11:20
Out of 200 applicants, only 12 people were accepted into the program. So with that first hurdle down, Nikkole began what was initially supposed to be a year long program.

Nikkole Spurgeon 11:31
So we were there for six hours a day, usually from seven till three. But you know, with an hour lunch in between, it was a very, very different, you know, a lot of unfortunately, a lot of staff, I guess you could say we're kind of against prisoners, inmates learning these skills, and advancing, so there was a lot of push and pull, I guess you could say, obviously, they signed a contract. So they had to let us code but we did encounter a lot of issues. As far as staff was concerned, or, you know, allowing us to be in that room behind closed doors. There was no cop to actually sit in. It was it was definitely different. But our teachers, Ruben Valdez and Rodney James, how compassionate and helpful and caring they were just everyone came together. It was me and 12 other girls, we became a family really quick, we were all really frustrated with the code at first didn't understand anything, a lot of us experienced, you know, imposter syndrome. And it took a while just to get past that, actually. But once we were able to get into CSS, and see all the cool things we were doing, everybody was hooked.

Laurence Bradford 12:53
So Nikkole's learn to code journey had begun. But it was far from smooth sailing. As I mentioned earlier, I volunteered with Persevere Now in the past, and I've spoken to groups of students on video calls. And on one of these calls, the students told me that while they're able to use a computer during lessons, they don't actually have full access to the internet. I can't even imagine trying to learn to code without access to Google Stack Overflow forums and so on. It must have been extremely challenging for Nikkole and her classmates.

Nikkole Spurgeon 13:31
Yeah, so I know that they set up like a local host kind of deal. So where we can actually see things on our browser, but accessing the internet and zero, absolutely none. Some programs had to be like whitelisted to be allowed. For example, like w three schools, we use that as a resource to kind of get an idea of how code works, how it would look, examples of it and things of that nature. But yes, now we had to code completely without internet, which is amazing, because now I'm out and Google is my best friend. And prison is such a controlled environment, because we don't have a lot of access to many resources, especially internet. So once I got out and I didn't have that controlled environment, I mean, just discovering like Stack Overflow and and seeing how like, I can copy just an error and put it in my Google. And it'll come up with all kinds of different places that I can find this, how to fix this error. I mean, you can get lost in it really spent hours just seeing how many different ways other developers have come up with the resolution of those errors. So it blows my mind. It was a little hard at first to differentiate like, what the best practices are, like coding best practices and clean code and things like that, but a little overwhelming actually at first.

Laurence Bradford 14:50
Of course, courses and lessons are one thing but when you're learning to code you also need to practice except Nikkole and the other students didn't have have access to computers, let alone the internet outside of their lessons. So they have to get creative. This is where the pandemic did actually make things a tiny bit easier. Normally, the inmates were able to buy things like stationery using the money they earned from the jobs that they did. But because of COVID, a lot of their jobs had been canceled. Thankfully, they were all given pads of paper, and pencils. And that's what they used to practice.

Nikkole Spurgeon 15:28
So thankfully, I guess this just comes with being a woman, maybe we got really creative, and there are these kind of challenges they are they're called whiteboard challenges. And we all collaborated for the most part that was kind of difficult getting permission to go into other bays, with, you know, different class members. But we would do whiteboard challenges all the time, especially when learning JavaScript that was not my friend. So we would all get together and one person would write down a problem, or one of the algorithms that we had to figure out for our coursework, on just, um, you know, notepad paper. So we would all try and come up with our own solution and share and collaborate on what the best way was, or, you know, using ESX, some people weren't as comfortable with ESX. So it was a really big collaboration kind of deal.

Laurence Bradford 16:22
But the pandemic did interfere in other ways. COVID hit just a couple of months after the program started in January, in was still very much around when Nikkole was released from prison in September. So the majority of her time spent learning was during COVID. And the program had to adapt.

Nikkole Spurgeon 16:42
Right. So we literally our teachers were in the classroom, and you know, we were able to just like raise a hand or just call them over to us to help us figure out something. Luckily, they were just on top of it. As soon as everything got locked down. And we were able to meet through the I believe it was Google meats, but they were there with us over a screen. So they were still able to help us. And I can't remember exactly the program name, but they were able to log on to our computers and see our code at the same time to help us figure out problems. So that I mean, that was awesome. Without them, we wouldn't have been able to do class at all. Towards the end there, everybody started getting you know, sick, there was outbreaks of COVID. So then our days got cut down to two hours a day for each Bay, and there's four bays on our yard. So things changed drastically. Thankfully, I got out soon.

Laurence Bradford 17:40
With all these difficulties, I asked Nikkole, what motivated her to keep going.

Nikkole Spurgeon 17:45
It was just the group struggle, we were all you know, so involved, and I can't really, I can't really express like, how how important it was for us to complete this. Like, for example, I was in I was in a job for Taylor farms, and I was making $3 an hour when this class came about, I got bumped down to 15 cents an hour that I would get paid every two weeks. So but I wanted, I wanted something that was life changing, right? And tech is never gonna go away, that industry is never going to go away. We had guest speakers that would come into the class all the time and tell us about all the cool things that they're working on the kind of money they're making different languages that are probably best to, you know, focus on and our teachers did as best as they could to provide those resources for us to see how we could work it. But just the drive, I guess, and the unity within the class and Persevere Now and in its entirety, really kept us going. There was so many more components to what they were teaching us other than just coding. RTS, Stephanie mirallas, she touched a lot of one of the emotional things that came into it along with Mark pepper. And they just they're genuine care for us and how we felt and what we were dealing with. I mean, I we couldn't let that go. There was no other program in prison period, like persevere.

Laurence Bradford 19:22
We are going to take a quick break from Nikkole's story now to hear from our sponsor for this season. Don't go anywhere, because when we come back, Nikkole's going to tell us what happened once she got out of jail. Have you heard of cloud hosting, but you're not entirely sure what it is or if it's something you should be using? Let me bring you up to speed instead of hosting your website or app on just one machine. When you host in the cloud. Your data is spread across lots of interconnected servers. This is great because if your website is hosted on just one machine like it is with regular hosting, and that machine goes to If your site goes offline, but if your site is hosted in the cloud and one of the servers goes down, the others can pick up the slack and your site stays up. The servers can also adapt to accommodate any changes in traffic. So you don't have to worry about bandwidth limitations. And you only pay for the resources that you use. OneNote was one of the first companies to offer cloud computing three years before AWS arrived on the scene. And their cloud hosting packages start at just $5 a month. And as a Learn to Code With Me listener, you'll get $100 in credit, build your next project in the cloud by going to Linode.com, forward slash learn to code.

Laurence Bradford 20:51
Being in prison, learning to code and trying to improve yourself in that environment is one thing. But there are a whole bunch of other challenges that come with trying to maintain that once you add in the obstacles of life in the outside world, Persevere Now also helped Nikkole with his transition from prison, and Goodyear, which is right outside of Phoenix, Arizona, to where she lives now in Mesa about four hours away from where she lived before going to prison.

Nikkole Spurgeon 21:20
Because before I mean, you don't have many responsibilities, you're pretty much told what to do in prison. And that's all day every day. It really the only kind of freedom you have is what you want to do on your free time, or what books you want to read and things like that. So when you get out, I mean, not only do you have to deal with parole, you know, you have to have a job, you have to have an income, you have to be able to pay your fines. When you get out whether you're in a halfway house or not, you still have to pay rent, you have to support yourself, you know, food wise, obviously, we all need a phone or something. So they still have like a persevere plus curriculum. And that teaches us you know, so many different things. There's their family reunification model or module, there's recovery, financial fitness, emotional behaviors, and I think there's like five or six modules, I'm getting into family reunification right now. And that's, that covers more of your personal life, you know how to really function with all these new responsibilities. I mean, they provided us with laptops, they still have all that persevere Plus, you know, curriculum to go through kind of just to learn who you are and who you want to be and how to adapt fully to your surroundings in life in general. I mean, just getting out and being around people that aren't looking at you crazy, because you're not an orange now it's so weird, like going to the store was was really, really scary for a while. So they they kind of they just touched on everything, the integration back into life.

Laurence Bradford 22:54
Persevere Now even provides you with a job when you're released to help you get on your feet in the industry, which has really kick started Nikkole's tech career.

Nikkole Spurgeon 23:03
I've been working in Banyan labs. And that's a company that partners with persevere that gives us a job as soon as we get out, kind of to avoid all the stress of finding a job being able to use the talents and skills that we learned of coding. Within that company. I am team lead of the web development team. I am joining the indeed team we are working directly with indeed, building new technologies in a world not not necessarily technologies, but new features to Indeed, I guess you could say, Oh, I am part of this onboarding group that's coming up with solutions on how to help transition prisoners that are getting out from Persevere Now and joining into Banyan. And we get to work alongside actual indeed, employees. So that's, I mean, that's real world right there. Just especially the PR process, which is like when you when you submit your code on GitHub, they can go over it and tell you like things to change, best practices to use, which can be a little harsh sometimes, you know, like, especially for a junior developer like myself, like I pride myself on Yes, I solved it, I got it working, that's great. And then they'll come up with a better way. It's like, I should have thought of that. But I love the the learning curve that I'm going through learning all these best practices and things of that nature. I had a Forbes interview a couple of weeks ago, or an internship for the summer. I'm still waiting to hear back from that.

Laurence Bradford 24:39
Of course, learning to code isn't a once and done thing. So I asked Nikkole, what technologies she's learning and how she does mention a whole bunch of languages and concepts in this next segment. So if you're not familiar with them yet, do not panic. Remember, Nikkole started out not knowing anything about programming. So If that's where you are today, at this moment, do not worry. One day, you'll be using all kinds of words and phrases that may not make sense to you right now.

Nikkole Spurgeon 25:09
So I was originally, since I wasn't working on indeed the entire time, like on web development team, we started working through Gatsby, which is basically like a platform to use react. I love react. But now I've been learning how to implement Spring Boot. I learned Django recently, along with AWS and Java. I'm not, I'm not exactly strong. On the back end, I'm more of a front end developer. But my goal is to be able to fully take on the role of a full stack developer, I really want that background to be firm. As far as backend work goes, but my goal initially like in all is I, I'm taking a Nanodegree that was offered through Udacity. And I'm learning I'm becoming a scrum master. I'm getting certified through the agile methodologies. management's always been my thing. So I want to be able to manage a team become a scrum master and be certified. So originally, we were, before we started doing the work, they gave us a bunch of do like different tutorials and things YouTube has been the main source with that, thank God. But yes, through the work as well. Like, for example, I'm just now learning how to use like es lint in my code, which is like a format or it's pretty awesome, I think, and getting used to different platforms to use instead of just like Visual Studio Code really using IntelliJ. Or you can use PI charm and telogen Visual Studio code has been the most common to for my work right now. Will joke with it goes around in my team. We say coding is 80% Google. And that's one of the best things I love about coding is, there's never an end to your learning process, everything evolving, and changing, like you constantly have to stay on top of it. Nikkole has

Laurence Bradford 27:15
been out of prison for several months now. I asked her what day to day life looks like now.

Nikkole Spurgeon 27:22
So generally, my schedule is I'm up at five, you just get used to waking up early in prison, you don't really get to sleep in. Especially when you're living in a dorm, there's just way too much noise. So I get up at five, I usually have about an hour to myself just play a game or watching TV. Netflix is like my bestie right now. But at six o'clock, I usually start on my desk at work, I like to devote at least an hour in the morning to my studies to try and get through that. And then from seven to three is all banyon like I said, I'm part of the onboarding process. We've had two new releases, and I'm mentoring one of them. Um, so we usually meet the beginning and the end of our day, he'll contact me throughout the day if he's having any blockers she's got to work through. But yeah, just figuring out these new technologies and how to get these tickets in the best way, you know, using the best form of, you know, codes that I can. And we're like I said, we're all like a really big family. We're really tight knit. So I'm constantly in contact with my team members. Hey, so this is what I did. What do you think about this, you know, before I submit it, and it goes both ways, I mean, between all of us, we all contact each other throughout the day, and then after my work day, I get another hour in on Udacity and then I'll call it a day.

Laurence Bradford 28:47
After being in and out of work for a decade, Nikkole has career consistency now. But as well as making leaps and bounds professionally, she's also transformed other areas of her life.

Nikkole Spurgeon 29:00
Okay, so I've been out for a little over seven months now. I have an amazing boyfriend. And it's funny because we knew each other in our addiction he was he also went to prison, completely changed his life around was writing me while I was inside. But he got closer with my family while I was inside. And he was kind of like the liaison for me. I guess you could say, Yeah, we got an apartment. I'm six months pregnant. Me and my family actually are closer than ever before. I get calls pretty much daily from mom, Grandma, dad, it doesn't matter. So I have a family life. Now. My kids are actually here for their spring break, which is awesome. I'm trusted with my kids. I've just all of my relationships, all of my work life has just been a dream. I feel like I have no boundaries and I can push the limit as far as need be. I'm shooting for the stars and I'm getting there. Relatively Quickly

Laurence Bradford 30:01
circling back to persevere. Now, not only did they help Nikkole learn to code, they've also enabled her to completely change the trajectory of her life. Without the skills and support like this, many prisoners reoffend, fall back into old habits and end up spending their lives in and out of prison. But once you're part of persevere, now, you're always a part of their network. If you

Nikkole Spurgeon 30:26
actually look up, Persevere Now, you know, one of their missions is to reduce the recidivism rate. And I feel like that is a big part of it, you know, I have plenty of people that I got close to while I was in prison that have already gone back. Because they don't have that support. They don't have the means to. And a lot of people have a lot of pride, you know, I need help I can't do this is not really a common thing that many people want to admit, they want to try and do it on their own, especially when it comes to addiction. Like being in prison, it's so much harder, even expensive to get drugs. I mean, of course, it's there. It's not just, you know, this clean environment. That's not how it is. But all of a sudden, you're out and you have either you go back to the same places that you've been in, not many people can deal with relocation I did, I couldn't go back to bullhead. But being an addict, it's not just something that goes away, all of a sudden you get out into, you know, the real world where it's in your face again. And most people fall,

Laurence Bradford 31:34
I asked Nikkole, what advice she would give to listeners who want to make a new start and transition into tech, especially those who are going through a difficult time right now. Whether that's because of an addiction, domestic violence or anything else.

Nikkole Spurgeon 31:50
So number one, get over your pride. I had too much pride to admit faults, failures or shortcomings. Do not be afraid to reach out to people. There's still tons of people in this world that care, like not everybody is going to hate you or judge you or put you down for the things that you're involved in and the sky is literally the limit. You are the only person that's going to limit yourself on what you can and cannot achieve. There's no limit there. There's no walls except yourself. So put yourself out there make yourself vulnerable. I know it sucks the feeling. But, uh, you never know what's going to come out of it. And even if it's not exactly what your goal was, whatever chance you might be taking, you're going to learn from it either way, regardless, and take that, take that with you learn Excel, constantly stay in the learning curve, and you can achieve anything you want. And

Laurence Bradford 32:52
I am beyond grateful to Nikkole for sharing her story with us. She has overcome so much. And I really hope her story inspires you to believe that you can do the same no matter what unique set of obstacles you're facing. If you want to connect with Nikkole, you can find her on LinkedIn as Nikkole Spurgeon. Here's how you spell her name. N I K K O L E S P U R G E O N. You can find out more about Nikkole story plus episode links by heading over to the Learn to Code With Me website at learntocodewith.me/podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating and review on whichever podcast player you listen on. It really helps the show. Thank you so much for listening today. Take some time to process what Nikkole said and then take action. Get out of your own way. And before long, you'll have your own success story. All right, I'll see you next time. Bye.

Key Takeaways:

  • There are immense opportunities in tech. Learning how to code can give you an advantage in the job market
  • If you can’t access the resources you want right now, get creative. While Nikkole and her fellow inmates were still in prison, they practiced coding using paper pads and pencils!
  • And if you still don’t have enough resources on your own, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Even if you don’t have any connections, you can still land a job referral.
  • It makes a difference when you choose to help others who might be on a tough path. Organizations like Persevere Now aim to provide the support they wish they’d had.
  • Life is always about learning. Even if things don’t go your way, you can take what you’ve learned and use it in the future.

Disclosure: I’m a proud affiliate for some of the resources mentioned in this article. If you buy a product through my links on this page, I may get a small commission for referring you. Thanks!

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