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About David Sakamoto
David Sakamoto brings deep passion and experience in leading customer experiences, developing teams, scaling businesses, and optimizing delivery of products and services to deliver customer outcomes and propel revenue growth. He brings a unique background in
customer success, sales engineering, services (professional, managed and support), product engineering and global operations. In his current role as Vice President of Customer Success at GitLab, he is responsible for leading the Customer Success organization, including Solution Architects, Professional Services and Technical Account Management.
Prior to joining GitLab, David built and scaled America’s Customer Success team at Cisco where he developed the end-to-end engagement approach (high/low touch, digital motion, partner success), doubled the size of the team to over 200 people, managed a $2B book of business and contributed over $350M in expansion. Prior to Cisco, David led customer success, services (i.e., professional, managed, support and training), and cloud operations for EVault’s cloud backup and disaster recovery as a service (DRAS). He brings a diverse set of experiences prior to EVault, including Cisco (Sr. Director of Engineering, Global Customer Operations), CITTIO (Vice President of Services and Customer Operations), Genentech, Yahoo, and SGI. Sakamoto holds a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
The Voices of CX Podcast is a podcast that covers all things business strategies, customer decision insight, empathetic leadership practices, and tips for sustainable profitability. With a little bit of geeking out on behavioral science, A.I. and other innovation sprinkled in here and there. The guests span multiple industries, but all of them have years of experience to bring to the table.
Mary Drumond: This is season seven of Voices of CX podcast, still bringing you the best thought leaders, practitioners and academics of the industry. But this time with a renewed focus on the human touch. Empathy is our key word, and we’re going all out on discussing how conversations can reshape experiences and your business inside and out. No matter how big your business is, what your challenges are, or your industry, connecting with your customers and their decisions is essential to leading through empathy.
So we’re back with one more episode of Voices of CX podcast. We are on season seven and today’s guest is a very special guest because this person is fully customer success, and we’ve never had a fully customer success guest on here. So I’m excited about today. We have David Sakamoto, VP of Customer Success at GitLab. Hey David.
David Sakamoto: Hello.
Mary Drumond: Thanks for coming on.
David Sakamoto: Excited to be the first customer success person. Yeah, I definitely think there’s a blurred definition nowadays between CX and CS. So, I’m thankful for the opportunity to connect with your audience.
Mary Drumond: How do you feel about that? Are you mostly like, no, no, no. I don’t do customer experience, I do customer success. Or do you just let it go because eh it doesn’t really matter?
David Sakamoto: No, I think it’s definitely blurred. In some ways I look at CS as having responsibility for that. So I think if you think about the old world, CX oftentimes it’s in marketing, other things like – and I think CS, maybe I’m a little biased, but in some ways is operationalizing that in terms of all of our touch points.
I definitely look at customers as they go through their journeys. So customer success is really around helping customers manage their journey of adoption and ultimately driving to an outcome. And depending on the CS organization, most likely they have touch points across all points in that journey.
So, I think a key focus for CS leaders should be ensuring that that is smooth in terms of that overall experience in driving and delivering value to your customers.
Mary Drumond: So tell me a little bit about your background, how you got to customer success to begin with. Did you like, plan out your career? “I am going to be in customer success,” and you followed that path or was it something that just kind of naturally happened and you embraced it?
David Sakamoto: Absolutely not. So I will definitely, I probably won’t be, no one’s going to be writing a career planning book with me as the center of that. So I try to relate it more towards the TV show Kung Fu where you’re just kind of wandering through, going through your journey and you come across different adventures.
And so that was definitely my career. And I come from an industrial engineering background, which I think is important because I think it really helped build the systems view of how to bring things together. But I was a process engineer, so how do you define process, the things that are to scale? And I then moved into program management, which is how do you bring together disparate groups to do something in CS, like to drive value, whether it’s all different parts of the organization.
I moved into a startup, so did some services. So you kind of build that passion for customers in professional service, you go through great services. People just go through walls or any barrier to ensure that customers are getting what they need. And then ran operations and moved into large corporate experience. So I worked at Cisco running operations and I even ran an engineering team.
So it’s like I’ve had all these eclectic backgrounds: being a process engineer, program manager, professional services, development, and operations. And so I often joke if it wasn’t for customer success, I would be like totally hosed because I even had an interview one time and someone’s like, what are you?
Are you an ops person? Are you an engineering person? You know, so, but I think as it relates to my current role, I just found that everything that I did, ultimately related to a customer. So I openly had passion around the customers, kind of built a bunch of skills that I think are very applicable in the sense that you have to know, you have to build that product.
We talked about the touch points and building out a process that scales and in customer success you’re orchestrating across all of these different resources between sales and product in your, we have CAMs, but CSMs, in services or in partners. So like you’re kind of organizing groups. So that program management comes into play. The services mindset, clearly. Operations being able to build and scale.
So startup experience and large corporate experience, knowing how to build, but also having a north star, what scaling looks like. And obviously engineering and being able to partner closely with product teams and engineering teams is super important. Because I definitely think that most of the success comes from the product experience.
And so we’re kind of wrapping the general customer experience, that kind of ties the CX stuff to build that overall experience to drive value.
Mary Drumond: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because I’ve been working in tech for a while and I meet a lot of engineers. I meet very few that are actually doing engineering. It’s always something that’s process related. And that’s actually pretty interesting to me, that kind of traditional engineering education prepares people so well for process management and project management. Do you see the same thing or am I like stuck in a weird bubble?
David Sakamoto: No yeah, I definitely, again, I’m a little bit biased because it’s my background, but I definitely think at least for me, especially industrial engineering, it gives you that real kind of that systems view, which is very much aligned to me.
And I tell my team like, Hey, I’m a context person. If I don’t understand the big picture, I will flail, right? So I need to always understand the big picture before we get into the specifics. So I think it gives you that. I think the logical aspect of how to build processors, like a sequence of things. In modern engineering, you have to iterate, right?
So you’re either taking one of those agile practice iterate. So, you know, I definitely value it. But I would also say that there’s very successful customer success leaders that don’t come from an engineering background. And I think it largely depends on the product set or the domain that you’re working with.
I’ve always been in really technical products too. So that engineering background is helpful. But –
Mary Drumond: Do you think that like an analytical mindset is necessary though?
David Sakamoto: I do. Yeah. Especially with modern customer success. So I definitely think data-driven, using digital everywhere is really helpful to really be able to look at what’s working, what’s not. Whether it’s small things, small process, like a playbook, but ultimately you’re driving to those ultimate outcomes of product and option, but you also have a commercial mindset around driving that net retention or net dollars.
Mary Drumond: Interesting question here, is customer success something that’s exclusive to B2B?
David Sakamoto: No, absolutely not. So, I’m definitely focused on B2B, but in many ways I actually look at B2C, has informed a lot of B2B. So if you look at digital, a lot of consumer products, that’s all you have. So a lot of those same approaches, strategy you’d use for B2C, I view as we’re applying those now to B2B. In certain ways also there’s, for our approach we’re not looking at digital, just in terms of the long tail. Over time I think there’s customers would prefer it, right? I don’t want your health check meeting. Right? Just give me the information I want. And the smarter we get of leveraging the data that comes from adoption, from sentiment, from support, all these sensing mechanisms.
If you get really smart around that, you can learn how to bring the right information at the right time and to optimize on your value that you deliver to your customers.
Mary Drumond: Yeah, because in my mind, as basically illiterate when it comes to your field, but I always imagine that B2C is like customer service and then B2B is customer success.
And I understand that that may be an incorrect point of view, but I think others share it. What do you feel about that right there?
David Sakamoto: Yeah I look at it as more, how do you engage? And I think most will segment according to economics, like big customers, you get more – you get white glove. Small customers, you get little. I don’t agree with that either.
I think it’s whatever is best suited for the customer. So, you know, I don’t look at them as – I look at them as very blurred and ultimately you want align, you know, it’s just a different types of engage, your engagement approach to what’s gonna work best for your customer. I definitely see, you know, in our business, B2B, there’s a lot of very technical customers that would just prefer to just get the information. So you’re kind of directing them to content and feeding the right information at the right time versus setting up multiple check-in meetings and health checks and stuff like that, where people just don’t have time. You don’t want to do it.
Mary Drumond: So when you lead a customer success team, that essentially has an almost DIY product where – the company isn’t providing a service. The buyer has to execute the service themselves. In that case is a lot of customer success, does it revolve around education and material and resources?
David Sakamoto: I think it somewhat depends, but I think a lot of what we are doing in customer success is that enablement, right? So whether you’re onboarding in some ways, your onboarding is enabling on the product, which is, here’s how to engage with this. Here’s how you do enhancement.
Here’s how you open support. So it’s really onboarding them and enabling them to work with, in our sense, GitLab to get the most value and accelerate that process. But certainly as you get to use case adoption, you want to make sure you’re driving the right use cases. You’re helping them specifically for their needs or the barriers that they’re running into.
But there’s a huge part about enablement. I think another important piece is, you’re also not replacing like services, whether it’s professional services or managed services. So there’s a certain kind of thing you want to kind of keep aligned that we’re not doing hands-on-keyboard. If you need like someone to do some of that work, we bring our services or partners in to help with that.
Mary Drumond: That’s cool. So let’s talk a little bit about one of the most essential portions of your job, which is managing customer expectations. So when the customer arrives at an organization, they’ve been previously conditioned by the organization’s sales and marketing department. Before that they’ve been subjected to advertising, to everything that the market is putting out, the expectations that the market is putting out. So they already arrive at the table with a whole set of expectations and your job is to manage those and make sure there aren’t any gaps.
How do you do this? What is the very best way? Like the foolproof- I don’t know if there is a foolproof way, but if there is. Something that you’ve learned and that you apply in your team that really helps manage those expectations.
David Sakamoto: Yeah. It’s a great question. And if you could find the magic solution that works for everything, I would love to hear it. I don’t think it exists, but I would love to hear it. But yeah, I think it comes back to your original question on CX in that journey, right? Because marketing is ultimately, it’s, there’s just different layers of expectations. I have market or industry expectations before I even engage with your company.
And then we’re going to send out a marketing message that align to a certain values of a solution. And when engaged, great we got them interested. They’re going to engage with a sales rep. Then they’re going to apply: what’s their customer- what’s the thing that that customer is looking to solve in terms of priority and what is their future vision?
So it’s getting more expectations. And when the deal, the first deal gets done, then what we do in customer success with many, many have heard is the success plan. So that’s ultimately around how do I take those expectations during sales, and we do a command plan for that. We actually map it as part of our account planning.
It flows right into our success plan in terms of what are the positive business outcomes you’re seeking. And which of the use cases you’re looking to adopt to do that. And in the success plan, we actually wrap that around in terms of, great let’s figure this out in terms of those objectives, let’s drill down into more detail.
What’s that action plan look like, who needs to be involved? What’s the timing for that and what are your priorities? And then it’s a matter of that CSM or CAM in our GitLab world is managing that full process and that journey. It’s funny mentioning, but, it very much ties to that CX is around- one way to look at it is the experience, but also the, your ability to manage those expectations throughout the whole journey.
Mary Drumond: Oh yeah. I full on agree with you there. Now, do you ever feel that, there is, you’re constantly working to break down mistaken expectations that have been built before, either by marketing.
I’m a marketer here, so you can talk bad about me it’s ok, or the sales team. There are so many organizations, maybe not your own, but for sure on the market that over promise in order to close the deal. And then when it comes down to it, that’s not actually how it is. I imagine that a lot of that responsibility rests on your shoulders, right?
David Sakamoto: Yeah. It’s interesting, I don’t see it at GitLab often. Luckily, because we have a revenue leadership team that believes in that journey and believes in, you know, sell the deal, but sell it in our, Mike Pyle, our VP of Enterprise, talks to the team about landing with vision. So like landing, but not, it’s not just the landing, but it’s like, what is their future vision and how do we align to that?
And how can we build a successful journey for them? What we see at GitLab is oftentimes more, the sponsor is like a change of sponsors. We lose a little bit of that. That champion that’s going to help us message that and drive those priorities within the organization. I’ve definitely seen that other issue though, in, in prior lives, if you think of land, adopt, expand, renew. You know, I’ve been at other companies where it’s, I call it land and leave. And they were just looking to get the deal. And it’s oftentimes you kind of have a little bit more of that perpetual software or perpetual product mindset where I’m like, I’m done, I got my money. Bye, you can work with support for now –
Mary Drumond: Put them on auto renew and just hope that they don’t look at these charges.
David Sakamoto: I think as you see more progressive and I wouldn’t put like I’m using revenue on purpose, but people in CS is part of that. In at least in our organization, the part of the revenue organization at GitLab, but I think you get more progressive leaders and they see that and they’re going to, they know if they don’t set this deal up properly, they’re not going to get the expansion that you want in the long term.
Mary Drumond: Yeah. And so how do you do it at GitLab? Because here at Worthix, we have weekly meetings between marketing, sales and customer success, where customer success is like, no, you cannot promise that. That is not something that you’re going to do. And it really helps. It really helps because I am a marketer, but I’m also a strong believer in authentic marketing.
And that if you sell the wrong thing, you’re just going to lose them anyway. So, you know, Worthix, isn’t that kind of company that’s so siloed off that each department doesn’t care about the success of the other. So we manage, I mean, this was a strategy that we created internally to break down those silos, which is have all three teams communicate on a constant basis and deliver a unified front to customers.
How did you guys do it?
David Sakamoto: Yeah. So we’ve taken a slightly different approach, but I think ultimately you’re talking about product market fit and how do I hit, get the right message in or selling the right solution and setting the right expectations? We’ve somewhat done it through a couple of things that we’ve mapped out the journey.
So we know if customers come in entry point with a couple of our solutions, we have a single application for all the dev ops capabilities. And so we know we want to bring customers into a certain entry points. So for us it’s source code management and/or CI that we land there. We know it can be successful.
And then we build on that success and expand out. So we typically don’t have the problem where we’re setting wrong expectations, but it’s really around- our focus is really around what is the customer’s goal. And what’s the use case that we need to drive for that. And what’s the right engagement, getting them set and progressing on that adoption journey so we can drive to the value and ultimately the outcome.
So we’re very much centered on a couple of assets, what are those- what’s the journey that we want to drive. What are the playbooks to ensure that they’re successful with the use cases they’ve selected. And then how do we help customers continue to progress and educate? So your question on enabling them, educating them on additional capabilities will add value and then helping them buy in, with the organizational buy-in, and then we move in and take the next step in terms of expanding the value footprint.
Mary Drumond: Now, do you believe that this mindset exists at GitLab because of leadership or is this something that’s already a very deep part of the culture just happens naturally. Do you believe that it would be different if you had a different type of leadership in place?
David Sakamoto: So, I’m going to give you yes, to all the statements you said, so you know, I definitely think it is leadership, but I think ultimately it comes down to our values.
So we take our GitLab core values very seriously. And, they’re connected, right? So you can have values, but if leadership isn’t role modeling them, not educating, not building that into our processes. The value, the culture and values change. So for us things like iteration and transparency, we’re hyper transparent.
So if anyone wants to know, everything that we do effectively is open to the public in terms of our processes, pretty much everything, except for financial data, customer data, security related data, but everything else we’re pretty open and it’s pretty scary, you know? Kind of not coming from that. And I’m a pretty transparent guy before this and our customers really value things like that.
And if we have issues we’re very forward, if we run into technical problems, it’s totally open. Everybody can see what we’re working on. They can actually contribute to the issues. So things like that really play an important role into the customer success motion, but also the customer experience.
So, you know, I’m a big person of your culture and values are going to drive that experience, because ultimately they’re people. Engaging, engaging your customers. And they’re the ones that are making, you know, hundreds or even thousands of decisions every day. And if you’re aligned on those core values of what you want that experience to be, people are going to be making the right decisions, also bringing their own creativity and passion into that engagement.
Mary Drumond: Yeah. How much do you think relies on having empathy with your customer? So not only mapping out your personas and, you know, designing the journey, but being truly empathetic to a point where you understand the customer’s pains, you understand their values, you understand their needs and how you fit into that journey.
David Sakamoto: Yeah. I think it’s the most important thing. And in customer success, hiring is probably one of the key challenges because it’s, as a practice, reasonably new, you know, compared to like a sales or marketing. So finding people with that blend that we talked about, the skillset between ops and engineering and, but, you know, it’s hard to find people with all of those skills.
You’re kind of finding pieces and really teaming. What I would say is common across all the team, is that empathy, because I think that really comes across if you care, you’re going to ask the right questions. You’re going to listen. You’re getting really good at discovery. You get better at enablement because you’re actually appreciating and understanding their situation in their environment.
And as you mentioned their culture and values. So that empathy is, I think, is a superpower for CS team members, CS leaders. And I think it’s also going back to our discussion on CX it’s also bringing that empathy and care into the organization. So how do you operationalize that into the business and making sure that that integrates into the broader organization.
Mary Drumond: Now tell me a little bit about where that engineering, David, comes into play when it comes to that roadmap that you built, a success plan? Right. So let’s get into that success plan a little bit, because it seems to be your secret sauce of how to manage a customer success department.
David Sakamoto: Yeah. I think having a good success plan sets up the journey and what I see it is symbolic of it’s a collaborative, shared agreement on what we’re going to do together to drive the business outcomes for you, customer. And so I think that that sets the whole framework and everything that lines that, and we talked about, that part of that process is defined during marketing with the message, part of it is certain sales.
So it’s part of that journey, but the success plan is really the roadmap. It’s like the project. If you think of a traditional project plan, you’re trying to achieve something. There’s a certain set of actions that need to be done. And there’s certain people that need you to do them.
There are certain risks and issues that need to be managed. That’s effectively like a success plan for a customer of like here’s the product adoption journey that you’re going to define and achieve your objectives. Now, everything you set up is for that. So great. We’re doing our check-ins. We do an EBR.
It’s really, everything’s measuring against that plan. So, you know, I ultimately think that’s a really good asset that we can together bring to the customer and that there are sponsors to show, here’s our plan. You sign this agreement, here’s how we’re going to deliver the value.
Mary Drumond: And is there we talked about in our pre-call we talked about the importance of setting up milestones along the way and what that does, even on a psychological level for customers. Right? Can you get into that a little bit too.
David Sakamoto: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you think for us, we think of what’s a positive business outcome and how do you measure that?
Right. So we try to get to an outcome measure. So say, you know, some people will say, oh, I just wanna implement this thing. Like, for what? Do you want to, generally, it’s going to be, you want to save money? Do you want to move more quickly? You want to be more secure. So generally the really powerful conversations and really where you bring that partnership and cloud collaboration, by the way is one of our values.
So that partnership in collaboration, and I’ve seen a couple EBRs and just totally bring it to the right place where we’re talking about. Okay. What’s – we had a customer tell me one time, like, Hey, we want to do a planning session with you, be in your annual planning. Cause this is so great because we’re aligned around.
Here’s what we’re gonna do. Here’s how we’re gonna measure success in your measures against deploying this technology and, for example, we want to increase security coverage of our testing. You know, shifting left into development process, we set up specific measures around that. It brings the conversation to a whole new level.
And we talk about engagement. You want to get to a more senior level, and if you’re actually talking to business outcomes, you earned the opportunity to have the conversation with those folks, those people.
Mary Drumond: Yeah. How interesting is it to dig a little bit deeper and actually answer the why questions?
Because a lot of this is, is what right. What the final goal is and how you’re going to get there, but truly understanding why they need to get there. Is that, is there value in that?
David Sakamoto: Absolutely. You know, that comes from that empathy, that discovery that we talked about. And, you know, I think it’s funny, we just finished […] in one of the sessions was the five why’s.
Why, why, why, why, why to ultimately get to that root problem they’re trying to solve. Or get to the real measurable outcome. And so I think that’s really, because oftentimes people haven’t really thought through it, right? Oh, I don’t, I need to implement this thing. Oftentimes the person that bought it is different than the person that’s deploying it.
It’s like, I dunno, I got told to do this thing. So, you know, getting, in some ways you have to kind of make sure that you’re connecting the dots between the two, because ultimately if you think of an EBR, that’s going to be in three or six months. You want to bring that person that originally drove the deal and you want to make sure that you’re speaking in their language.
So it definitely is a talent because sometimes the level that you’re working at may not have that articulation. So you need to sometimes kind of manage your stakeholder map to make sure that you have a robust success plan, robust definition of what those goals are.
Mary Drumond: That’s awesome. David, what are some of the tools that you have been very successful with that you think that our listeners could maybe benefit from using as well? I don’t know, some cool stuff in your stack.
David Sakamoto: In our stack? So it’s systems and tools, yeah so we, I mean, we use Gainsight, that’s probably the core application. We use you know Salesforce, Gainsight.
We very much use GitLab. With our product, the value is it allows a lot of collaboration in a very transparent way. So if you think of dev ops, the key point is like that collaboration. So, the key things, we use Salesforce, we use our own product. We have shared projects with our customers and then Gainsight. And Gainsight helps us bring the data in and helps – we’re using the digital capabilities. We have a digital journey, and then we also have our high touch. So all we manage all customers within Gainsight and that’s been going really well.
Mary Drumond: And do you still meet maybe peers and colleagues that are, you know, people who don’t work at GitLab, but are in the same space?
That still don’t use CRMs to do their job? I mean, at this point it kind of sounds like a weird question, but I have met individuals who are like, no, we don’t use CRMs.
David Sakamoto: I do talk a lot with CX leaders. I haven’t run into any that don’t use CRMs, so that wouldn’t be – You know, I can respect it if you –
Mary Drumond: Like any CRM rebels, they’re just like, no!
David Sakamoto: I’m not going to use this. I love my spreadsheets. We’re just gonna use, you know, access database. I haven’t, it would be, I think really tricky to scale because ultimately, I do think to our other point, having data-driven experiences and really being able to instrument and measure your journey is super important.
And if you’re doing it in bunch a spreadsheets and stuff, it’s just really challenging to scale.
Mary Drumond: Yeah. Well, the reason I asked is because the other day, someone asked a question on Twitter and it was, Hey, Mary, can you define CRM? And I got like, tossed into 20 years ago. And I was like, what? We’re still discussing the value of CRM.
So I was curious to know whether this was still a practice, but your reaction I’m going to say not really no.
David Sakamoto: But you know, I still even get shocked. People don’t even have like chat type of things and they’re still doing like teleconference calls. So, there’s folks across various points of the spectrum.
I haven’t run across a lot of leaders that don’t have a CRM. That’s pretty – table stakes to me.
Mary Drumond: What’s the name of that super clunky video conferencing technology that people use to – WebEx. Somebody the other day asked me if I was going to go on a WebEx and I was like, Excuse me, sir who are you?
David Sakamoto: Before GitLab I was at Cisco. So I got to keep my corporate, my alumni loyalty to WebEx, but yeah, I think, zoom is definitely up
Mary Drumond: so I wanted to end this by asking if you have any material, anything that you can recommend to our listeners to help them do better at their customer success, or really just bring a little bit of value and kind of a tangible approach to what we discussed today.
David Sakamoto: Yeah, absolutely. You know, one thing I mentioned GitLab’s transparency. So I’d recommend not only for customer success, but for your interest in sales or finance or people ops everything that all of our processes are all written down the handbook. It’s one of our just operational principles.
We write everything down. All of our processes are documented and they’re all totally open, including templates. So, for customer success, do you want to look about what is our onboarding process and what is our escalation process? What are our playbooks look like? All of that is totally open. So I’d definitely recommend there, if it’s helpful, but again, it’s beyond – all our entire company is there. So that would be one of my recommendations.
Mary Drumond: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been so great to have someone that’s CS through and through to bring this, I’m going to say really empathetic approach to dealing with customers. And I do believe that it is the essence of any successful customer journey.
So it was great hearing the same thing from you.
David Sakamoto: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. I definitely agree. You know, the empathy systems view,
aligned to the customer outcomes and build a plan to go drive and deliver it to those and manage it. So, well thank you. I really appreciate it. It’s exciting to be the first CS person on your show.
So, hopefully it goes well and people enjoy it and hopefully they can have a couple of takeaways.
Mary Drumond: Yeah. If people hate it, I just won’t bring any more CS people then you’ll be the first and the last.
David Sakamoto: No, no. All of my CS colleagues are gonna be mad if that happens.
Mary Drumond: Awesome David, thank you so much.
David Sakamoto: Awesome, well thank you.
Mary Drumond: That’s our show. Thanks for joining us. We hope we’ve brought you one step closer to leading through empathy. It’s our way of making the world a better place. One business at a time. Don’t forget to subscribe and hit the bell. If you want to know, as soon as we publish a new episode, Voices of CX is brought to you by Worthix. I’m Mary Drumond, this podcast is hosted and produced by me, edited and co-produced by Steve Berry. See you next week.