Founders Talk – Episode #83

Making the Web. Faster.

with Guillermo Rauch, Founder & CEO of Vercel

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Today Adam is joined by Guillermo Rauch, founder and CEO of Vercel. They talk about building the platform that’s making the web faster and lets front-enders do their best work, his framework for leading as a CEO, what’s next for Next.js and Next.js Live, and how everything for Vercel is built on “Develop. Preview. Ship.”

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Guillermo, I’ve been so excited to get you on this show in particular… I know we’ve talked many times over your software career, I think five years ago… You actually came on The Changelog with me, just solo, on episode #213. This is early days of Zeit, I think it was brand new days of Hyperterm, for example, and we talked a lot about Zeit and where you were at then, but it’s been a while; we’ve been paying attention to what you’re doing, and obviously, you know I’m a big fan of your work and what you’ve been doing, I spent time with you at Zeit Days a couple years back… Just really a big fan of your work, so I’m so glad to have you here on Founders Talk. Welcome!

Thank you. I’m really happy to be here. You’ve been there since the very beginning, which is awesome.

Yeah, I mean - some would say that the business, The Changelog is an institution, and I feel like that’s kind of true, because we’ve been around as a business for 12 years, since 2009, and I think we’ve just had timing, good luck etc. and the good fortune just to be there for so many awesome stories.

I think you have an interesting story, because – obviously, you know your story better than I do, but you started to developer as a software developer very young; you started your entrepreneurship fairly young as well, from what I understand, and I’ve been paying attention to what you’ve been doing for years, and it just seems like where you’re at now as Vercel, as the company and as an individual is just layered on of like all these layers of what you’ve done and learned over the years.

Some people will deplete their career capital bank account, so to speak… You know, like start over somewhere else. It seems like you’re just sort of like laser-focused on iteration over the years. Is that true? And how do you frame that if it’s true?

[04:08] Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of progress happens by building in layers or stages… So for me, going back to even the MooTools days, it felt like we were working on the foundations of “Okay, JavaScript is going to be a very important part of our future. Let’s build a layer on top of what came with JavaScript and the browser. Okay, now we have a library… Okay, let’s build a layer on top.” Obviously, we ended up settling on React as our engine, but - okay, let’s build a layer on top next. Okay, Develop is part of the lifecycle. Vercel’s motto is “Develop. Preview. Ship.” Okay, so what’s the next layer on top of that Next.js developer experience? Okay, it’s previewing and collaborating with your team. Okay, what’s the next layer on top? It’s shipping to your customer. Okay, what’s the next layer on top? Well, it’s measuring that whatever you’ve shipped is performing for your customer. So we’ve launched Next.js and Vercel Analytics. So it does feel like we’re building in layers, and it feels like a meaningful set of progressions.

You know, the one thing I think about is just that path to being a founder. So many people will see somebody’s success today, and they just don’t know how they got there. I’m talking about like everyone else who’s paying attention to Vercel, and to the hockey stick of Next.js, for example… All these fun things. They just think “Wow, they just arrived.” And it’s difficult to see all those iterations; like you mentioned, MooTools, and what’s the next layer, develop-preview-ship, all those things that become the building blocks for Vercel as it is today. The easy question is how did you begin, essentially… But when did you get that possibility of creating software and iterating software, but then building a business around it? When did that begin for you?

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of startups. My first startup was at a young age, even just going to school, and trying to think about little businesses that I could do> Even before I had any technical knowledge, I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of scalability, especially as I first arrived in the San Francisco Bay area… Okay, not only can you build something, but that something can almost become an engine, a self-fulfilling prophecy, in many ways… Because as you mentioned, once you hit a certain level of scale, there is that feeling of inevitability, or some people call it overnight success, that comes with it. But the other thing is that it’s always been for me about addressing pains that I felt myself in the past, and scratching itches, and trying to sort of unleash a lot of the potential that better tools and a better developer experience would create on the world. So starting a business, starting my own company was a very natural next step from there. I felt like I could empathize very strongly with the customer, and I also believed in the customer.

I think there’s an interesting story here, insofar we’re very focused on frontend developers. As Vercel evolves, the workloads that it’s supporting are not just frontend. If you’re server-rendering, is that frontend or is that backend? If you have an API page in Next.js, is that frontend or is it backend? But the frontend developer defined as the person that is working on the UI layer, the person that’s working right next to the layer that serves the customer. The person who’s writing JavaScript or TypeScript - in many ways, it feels like we bet on them; we believed in them. Because going back many years, I would be confronted with the idea “Well, does JavaScript make any sense? That’s a toy.”

[07:58] You know, Brendan Eich always says “First they said it couldn’t work, then we fixed it. Then they said it couldn’t be fast, then we fixed that too, with V8, and SpiderMonkey, and many other things. Then they said it cannot do things like native. Then we layered on Web Assembly.” So we made a bet in that customer, we made a bet in that this set of tools would matter. And I think that bet worked out. I think we’re still in the early innings of that.

Yeah, it’s interesting to be in the early innings and be – how many years? I wanna say Zeit was founded in 2015; Zeit is the previous name of your company which is now called Vercel as of April 2020. That’s six years… I mean, how can you be in the early innings, six years deep?

[laughs] Well, that’s the thing, right? I was just reading this incredible tweet about how old companies were when their most significant innovations came to market. You know, you look at the iPhone… And these companies are like teenagers or young adults. They’re decades old.

That really resonated, I think. Of course, we created Next.js a year in. I think it was October 2016 that we published it. It still very much feels like it’s a young project to us, in how much we still have to accomplish in terms of making the web faster, and making a better developer experience etc. And at the same time, when we look at deploying, edge computing and just making things more dynamic and instantaneous all over the world - very much in the early days as well.

So these things are, in many ways, infrastructure. I remember one time I used the word “frontend infrastructure”, which I borrowed from Facebook, because the team that works on Grids is the frontend infrastructure team, and someone was like “frontend requires infrastructure?” So going back to that asymmetrical nature of the bet that we made, which is that “Hey, these technologies are gonna matter tremendously in the future.” And you know, along the way there’s been some developers or some CTOs that have been skeptical on the value of these technologies, but now it’s become really clear that, with Google for example ranking you by your core web vitals and performance, and a lot of other innovations like TypeScript… This is taking the world by storm, and at the end of the day we are still in the very early days.

What’s interesting about this focus of yours is this in the frontend really, and that developer type… Despite server-side rendering, or APIs skewing the lines of frontend or not…

…is this idea of a feedback loop. It’s right there in your tagline, “Develop. Preview. Ship”, right?

For sure.

That is a feedback loop. You develop an idea, you preview that… Does it meet what I think it should meet? Does it solve the customer’s problems I think it should solve? Let’s ship it and find out. And then rinse and repeat. That seems so easy, you know what I mean? It just seems so easy to think like that. But not everybody gets that idea, and I think you’ve been so focused on that for so long. It’s astounding.

Yeah, I think what’s happening to, and the reason that frontend matters so much is that the complexity is significant, but the tools are getting so good. Not just code tools, but low-code and no-code tools, which we support on the Vercel platform because we have a number of platforms that expose a GUI to these technologies underneath. So as I mentioned, it’s turtles all the way down. We’re seeing the rise of all these tools that compile down the Next.js and Vercel pages behind the scenes, but the end user is facing a GUI type interface, or the writing a notion document, and then all of a sudden they have a website that has been optimized for the best possible performance that hiring hundreds or thousands of developers would have gotten you.

[12:04] So really what we’re seeing is - and this is why fronted matters so much - this is where the value is. This is the cover letter, this is the presentation to your business… Whether it’s found through a Google search, whether it’s found through an Instagram ad, because you just launched your e-commerce business, whether it’s invisible because of the power of APIs… We see so much traffic that is robot-generated today on the internet… But this is literally the entryway into everything. And I continue to think that the web will continue to become the entryway through everything… And that’s the right bet to make, I think, and it’s been super-rewarding so far.

This idea of no code, low code - you say you support it… What are your big idea thoughts on (I suppose) no code/low code today, 2021, to a few years from now? How is this gonna change? Give me some sort of prediction. What are your thoughts?

I think they will continue to co-exist and thrive, and ideally build on the same layer. No code and low code have existed for years and years as throw-away strategies, right? Because you would start the Changelog.com, and it’s just an idea; you wanna put up a quick banner. What GoDaddy would let you do is “Buy your domain, and we’ll host a very simple page for you that says that something awesome is coming.” And you might use that, because you just thought of the name, The Changelog is an epic name…

It keeps it easy.

…and you’re like, “Wait, why am I gonna sit down and develop? This thing is offering here just like “Write down a tagline. Boom.” But later on, you’re building a real business, you’re concerned with appealing to your customers’ segment, who is sensitive to design details, and performance, and they want an intuitive UI, and you’re adding dynamism that is coming from the data source of where you’re publishing your audio files, and descriptions, and viewers, and comments. So you throw away the no code/low code thing.

I think that’s gonna change quite dramatically in the next ten years. I think you’re not going to throw it away, because the no code, low code and full code solution are gonna build in the same frontend infrastructure. We’re starting to see this with platforms that understand React components, and they build even on top of the rendering engine of the browser. So like “Hey, you’re modifying and designing a component visually. Or you’re modifying and designing a section for an e-commerce store, for a promotion, and you’re part of the business team for a certain region of this e-commerce business, and you don’t know the code, but you’re reutilizing, remixing and working on top of the components that the frontend developer team prepared in collaboration with the design team, and accessibility experts, to ensure that this component system represents the brand, and performs well, and it looks good.”

So as these teams continue to collaborate more and more closely, which is – basically a big theme for us is enabling everyone to collaborate on top of the web, not just the experts. So we’re gonna see that what you created visually is not gonna be a temporary thing. It’s gonna eat more and more into different sections, or pages, or even entire subdomains or entire domains of your business. It’s not gonna be the only thing, but it’s definitely gonna continue to grow. And if they share that infrastructure, it’s gonna be a non-regrettable decision for most companies.

When you look at it from that lens, it’s easier to see the bigger picture, because I think people see it as replacement, and as you said, they’re different facets of the same thing, and it’s not gonna replace it. And I think of no code and low code options - to say something super-close to you, with Next.js for example. Next.js live. That’s an on-ramp. So when we talk about lowering the barrier of entry, which is one of your core principles, at least noted by your most recent round of funding - congratulations, by the way, here…

[16:17] Thank you.

…just a few months back, 102 million dollars, series C… Big congrats on that. You put out three principles. You said “These are the promises we made with this investment we’re gonna do.” You said “Build the SDK for the web”, which was Next.js, “Lower the barrier of entry”, which is essentially Next.js Live, and “Focus on the unusual, which essentially you’ve been doing your whole career.”

But when you put that kind of tool, Next.js Live, out there, and you put it out there in that way, in a “no code, low code” scenario, what you’re doing is you’re diversifying who can play in the game, right?

Because to be a software developer - it’s so skewed. Almost everyone comes with this badge of imposter syndrome. I’m sure, despite you being CEO of Vercel, and all your accomplishments, I’m sure that in the last week you’ve had imposter syndrome, to some degree. Maybe not massively, but maybe a little bit. Maybe a lot. Who knows. The point is - who’s a developer?

I don’t wanna say “You’re not a developer. You are a developer”, because why draw that line? This discipline, essentially, this opportunity of no code, low code and having that kind of foresight, like you just played out, is an on-ramp for so many who don’t have a CS background…

For sure.

…or don’t have “a real developer title”, or whatever might be. It’s an entry point. What do you think about that?

Yeah. At the end of the day, I think a developer is anyone who developers. And I think it’s our responsibility as those who work on tools and infrastructure, and guidelines even, to ensure that anyone can develop. It’s like anybody can cook, in Ratatouille.

That’s right.

So Next.js Live for us is the first approach in terms of how quickly can you begin editing a site. How quickly can I make even a small contribution to a Next.js project? When you look at what it takes to just get started developing something that already exists - like, things that people have already been working on for years - just getting started on “Okay, I wanna make a quick change. I wanna learn how it works. I wanna understand what components are available in the system.” It’s a daunting task.

In my blog post I quoted Kelsey Hightower talking about that weekend or that day that we’re looking at helping someone learn programming, and the amount of time it took just to get the environment up and running was daunting. And it was eating into whatever cycles of creativity and willpower you had for the actual task of developing.

So it’s almost like in this industry we have the work, and then we have the meta work. Any second or minute or hour that goes into preparing your development environment is meta work. Every second you spend on improving the experience for your customers, adding new features, optimizing performance, reorganizing content, creating new content - that’s the real work.

Next.js Live will spin up a Next.js project, whether from a template, or an existing one, in seconds. And it’ll run all the tooling directly inside the web browser in a native fashion. It doesn’t even require emulation. And on top of that, it layers on collaboration, so you can comment or point out things to folks in real time. You can even peer-program with it, because you can navigate to a certain page and see “Okay, what’s the deal here with this problem or that problem?”

I think this trend will continue, in terms of blurring the lines between consumption and creation, because the very web browser is able to do this. This is an incredible thing about the web - the thing that you’re used to consume is the same thing that you can use to create; and that’s unique.

That’s what gets people going with the web. The browser has this hidden IDE, if you do the right keyword incantation, right?

Whereas you look at other platforms and it’s just all about consumption. Or you look at the terminal, and - yeah, all of that is about creation, but let’s try to figure out how long it takes someone to get up and running with that… Downloading VS Code, downloading Node, downloading this, downloading that. So we’re very excited about where Next.js is headed, but also where the web is headed, and all these tools that are literally allowing everybody to develop.

Yeah, we’re seeing this movement happen… I mean, it’s been a slow movement towards it. We see automation everywhere, essentially. We see it in infrastructure, build pipelines, all sorts of places… And recently, Codespaces was announced by GitHub… Gitpod has been out there for two years, they’re open source… Would you say that Next.js Live is similar, or in competition with them? Where do you place Next.js in comparison to, say, GitHub Codespaces, or Gitpod, or other web IDE-enabled things?

Yeah, so the main distinction that I see that is a key component of Next.js’ future is that we’re using the browser as a platform. So Next.js Live doesn’t require any VM running, it doesn’t require a Linux operating system hidden somewhere in the cloud, which gives it major scalability. So the next billion developers could use Next.js Live and will not need any additional resources other than their local computer, even offline. So that’s a part of it.

But the other thing is that Next.js is headed in this direction also towards edge execution. So when you want to server-side-render your pages today, we’re relying today on Linux as well to be sort of the under-the-hood operating system and hypervisor and so on, but we’re kind of getting to the limits of what that technology can do in terms of performance, especially cold-start performance in the serverless world, where - you know, you might go to a page that has not been booted very frequently, or it’s a new page that has just been created, and we have the demand to render it dynamically, instantaneously. So what we’re seeing is this symmetry also at the edge, where browser APIs and V8 isolate style technology will be the one that will render your future pages as well.

So in some ways, we’re reconfiguring the cloud to just be web browsers everywhere. The development lifecycle happens in the browser, or mostly in the browser, and then the edge execution is basically a cloud headless browser. You can imagine it that way, that it’s prerendering your page, instead of putting that workload on the client device.

That’s profound. So Codespaces I believe uses VMs, Gitpod I believe uses containers, and Next.js is simply –

Your web browser.

…a headless browser to APIs, essentially.

Yeah, it’s just your web browser. So very much like how every page is already editable if you open the dev tools, right? There’s no need, with how awesome the web platform has gotten, to actually require more technology than that. And it has this incredible advantage that we’ve arrived at the same realization when it comes to serverless and edge computing. We just need JavaScript plus some of the browser APIs to render your pages, and we gain massive efficiencies from that. So I think we’re gonna see these massive efficiencies happening for the cloud, and for your own local development.

[24:17] You said that you started Next.js a year after founding Zeit… So that’s 2016. I think from my perspective it seems like in the last several years I’ve heard Next way more often than the years prior to that… And that’s just maybe naturally how entropy works in the world; how scaling works with a product. But it seems like Next is used by just everyone. And it seems like it’s Vercel’s secret sauce to the scale you’ve reached. Not the only piece to the sauce, but a critical component to reach the scale you’ve gotten to.

Yeah, I would say that the cloud had developed itself in a very agnostic and unbundled way before. So you would hire AWS – I think this is even true for GitHub, and this is why Codespaces requires this very agnostic VM, as well as its engine… Because they tell you “You can do everything you want.” So that increases the addressable space to lots of potential inputs and lots of potential outputs.

I think what’s interesting at Vercel is it’s narrowing it down to the domain of literally publishing pages on the internet. And I think that DNA was right there in Next.js. When we looked at React and we were like, “Okay, this is missing the pages folder, and it’s missing the pages abstraction. Like, where is the page? We’re building web pages here.” And kind of the weird twist of fate of single-page applications that eventually didn’t pan out… But it was this perception that we’re almost gonna leave pages behind.

So I think what’s interesting at Vercel is that it’s constrained the inputs further. It’s saying “Okay, you’re developing pages and you’re publishing pages.” It turns out that that is akin to the addressable internet at large, because there’s just so many things that can be expressed with that abstraction. For example, when we introduced API routes, that is just simply create an API folder and now every file in that folder becomes a serverless function that we run at the edge for you.

So when we constrain those inputs, we’re like “Okay, the frameworks have to be frameworks that produce pages.” So it’s no longer an arbitrary programming language that opens up a server, and can do everything in there. It’s Next.js or frameworks like it. We’re seeing a lot of success also with Nuxt, and SvelteKit, and newcomers into this space.

So what happens next is that when you look at the Preview phase, we’ve built a build pipeline that also optimizes for this. So it’s not that our build pipeline can’t, for example, technically run tests, or do other things that you would do, like build – you can’t build Chromium in it. So we’ve made a lot of automations and optimizations in the build pipeline for also that purpose. And our platform is well integrated into the frameworks. And then when it comes to shipping, we did the same thing again.

For example, something that happens when you ship to Vercel is that we can roll and revert without downtime instantly. I remember when I first saw containers I also got excited… But then I looked at what reverting a server in the cutting edge Kubernetes experience was like, and it was like – I looked at companies, I looked at all the options, and it was daunting, and it was just slow. And I was like, “Wow… But that’s just reverting a set of pages on the internet. It cannot be that hard.” It turns out that when we narrowed our addressable stays in our domain, we found all this incredible - not just optimizations, but newfound powers and newfound efficiencies for our customers, that now they take for granted, which is awesome.

Break: [28:29]

One thing I see that is a trendline for you is your focus on the customer experience. I forget where I saw it, but I wanna paraphrase what you said. You said that there’s essentially two customers when it comes to the web, or Vercel… I can’t recall the exact context, but it was like, the developer, and then the thing the developer is making for the customer…

And that your focus is not just simply on the dev experience - and we hear this a lot… Dev experience must be amazing, etc. That’s true, for sure, because you need to create a technology or a framework or a paradigm that can be adopted by software developers, that can be understood, that can be taught, that can be etc. But then, the thing you make also has to be at the forefront, which is where I love your perspective… And this is kind of where I wanna understand more so where you’re at now CEO-wise, to the originator of where a lot of where Vercel is at now… Because you started – I wanna know more about how the company began, but what I’m trying to get to is your obsessive focus on not just the developer experience, but the customer experience that is the result of what the developers make.

And so I kind of wanna understand - 1) help me dig and unpack that more so, but then from the lens of, okay, back to the early days of Zeit, when it was called Zeit and not Vercel, how you played a role in leading that, and where you’re at now as a CEO. How is your involvement in product today in comparison to, say, six years ago, when you began, for example? Help me understand that obsessive focus, and how you play the role day to day, and maybe how you began.

For sure. How we think about the company and its evolution actually relates very much to how we thought about designing Next.js, in some ways… Because I remember when we introduced that concept of pages, one of the things that I remember telling folks is Next.js provides team scalability, I called it. We didn’t stop at DX. In fact, the DX of single-page applications in React was pretty darn great at the time. But I focused on other aspects that a lot of folks, I think, can miss. One was team scalability.

[32:07] I mentioned we have per-page code splitting, which we ended up improving dramatically and changing a lot of it over time, but the idea still holds that if you’re working on page A and you are a team, and another team is working on page C, they should be able to fearlessly iterate on their respective areas of the system without hurting or encumbering the other team. So it was about creating a framework for not just end user performance, DX, but also the scalability of the organization that made the decision to use it.

I remember interviewing - and I’ll get into how my process works with customers - an engineering manager from a very famous shoe company that associate themselves with high-performance athletes, and I remember asking them “What do you love the most about Next.js?”, their answer was “Any developer gets onboarded into this thing, they open the folder, and they basically understand how the whole thing works by just staring at the file system structure. They can see that we have a page for the product description, we have a page for the categories, we have a page for the search, and this is how we organize our storefront, which is responsible for lots and lots of sales every year.”

So the way that I think about our company - I think a lot about, first of all, taking the right fitness function. If this company gets inherited in decades by a completely different set of people, would they be able to take it to its right conclusion, regardless of who came before? Well, I think that has happened for a lot of amazing corporations, and I think they have to have the right focus, they have to have the right fitness function. So if our fitness function continues to be the end user performance and the success of the business at large that picks our technology, I think we’ll do well, because we’ll be able to work backwards to the technology, to the right framework, to the right technique, to the right set of best practices, to the right analytics etc.

So I think a lot in terms of evolutionary systems, and that’s where the fitness function really comes from - it’s a simple pathway to determining “Are we doing the right thing or are we not?” And also by how we experiment, right? Like, we can launch lots of experiments, and we can ask ourselves if it contributed to that.

On the other hand, I think we over the years had the opportunity to learn in what ways is our technology ten times better than what currently existed. And that was really interesting and a really huge learning lesson for me… Because I started Next.js saying “Okay, we’re gonna prerender and dynamically server-render, because it’s great for SEO and it’s great for performance.” And the technology was positioned as like “Well, it works for absolutely everything in the world. It’s a universal Turing machine. You can do anything.” Over time, it turned out that those qualities of the framework and the platform, for example, ended up being great for everybody, but ten times better or even more, for example, for customers in the e-commerce space. And it’s really interesting to reflect on this, because their needs fit what we offer extremely well.

One example I was reading today - folks are spending more hours on Amazon.com than Walmart, if you count all their physical locations, all their properties etc. The e-commerce players of the world today - not all of them were born in the web; not all of them were born online. Not all of them invented the cloud, and data centers, and EC2, and S3. So on one side, they’re playing catch-up; they have no time to create frontend infrastructure teams. It’s not a differentiator for them at this point.

[36:18] Well, that’s meta work for them, right?

Yeah, exactly.

Wouldn’t that be meta work for Walmart to build EC2 or AWS?

That’s meta work. And then on the other hand, it turns out that all these primitives that we’re thinking about with Next.js, like “Great SEO, great performance, great this, great that…” Yeah, sure, they’re great for my blog, they’re great for rauchg.com; I’m really proud that it has a Lighthouse of almost 100, or whatever… But for Walmart, who actually chose Next.js, it’s a good metaphor. That is kind of the difference between being extremely competitive, even potentially overtaking, or spending all their time in meta work.

So we learned a lot about what are the customers that we’re gonna make those tremendous differences for; we learned a lot about how, we learned a lot about communicating to them in ways that they can understand, across all the layers of the stack, whether you’re a junior engineer, you’re a senior engineer, you’re an engineering manager, you’re a CTO, you’re a VP of engineering… But also, as we spent time talking about no code and low code, there’s so many people that want to contribute to these websites. Like, you wanna be able to go in and feature a product; you wanna add a promotion, you wanna theme it for Christmas, coming in November or December. There’s all these awesome things that it can do, that as I mentioned earlier, they will be developer-mediated. The developer will create the right schematism, or components, or places in which you can add value, but then they’re gonna open those frameworks up for other folks to contribute. So we learned about that as well. We learned about what is the right way that you can empower and enable the entire company, on top of this Next.js and Vercel transformation?

These are all things that I sometimes joke to people that like - I use words that I would have never used in the past, just because the lingo… I expanded it really, because I continue to use our products… My framework for my time is - at least ideologically - I spend one third of my time with customers, and understanding what their requirements are, and pitfalls, and whatnot… And obviously, a lot of my team does that, but it’s always great to deal with the escalation or the requirements that sort of are pressing about the future, and so on… One third with my own team; and I always try to make that – if I’m gonna err in one direction, it’s spending a lot of time with my team and with our customers, ideally together, where we think about how we can do better… As I mentioned, if the company is almost like a framework, how can we improve that framework? How can we have a better experience for working at Vercel, for accessing information, for accessing data, for learning new things etc? And for understanding also the priorities and the philosophies that drive our business forward, which actually relates into the last third, which relates to the ability to drive change. We’re going through this right now; as I mentioned, we’re going through the transformation, in my opinion, of the entire cloud, in terms of its ability to render pages very efficiently with browser-like technology. The future is gonna look similar in many ways because we’re at the end of the day still distributing pages throughout the world, and distributing content. But it’s also gonna be very different from the past. It’s gonna be much more dynamic, much more instantaneous, even less of a operations burden for folks to scale. And driving this change when you’ve already succeeded in many ways sometimes can be challenging; that’s where you have to spend time, because you go through your own internal layers of innovation as well.

[40:20] This happened to us with Next.js many times already, where – Next.js started fully server-rendered. And then we realized “Well, folks also need this beauty of edge caching that comes from static generation, and later incremental static generation.” So we kind of invented new technologies that in some ways almost seemingly went against previous ways, at each layer.

So driving that change is very important, because first of all, it’s driven by customer demands; our customers are always saying “How can I be faster? How can I be more dynamic? How can I either sell more, or how can you help me evolve faster and iterate faster?” So I spent a lot of time driving that change, and helping others drive it, and internalize it, and think of it, and challenge it, and discuss it, and collaborate on it.

I love that. You’re spending time with the people that matter really most, which is first - I’m not sure this is prioritized - customer and then team. I don’t think it really matters, honestly, so I’m not asking you to choose… But those are the two that matter most, because you need a strong team, and you need to satisfy the customer’s needs… And when it comes down to it, you need to be the person leading the company to drive that change. If your team’s doing something wrong, or there’s a process that’s not right, you need to understand that deeply, and you can’t get that understanding unless you’re spending time with them.

For sure.

And still, that ability to drive that change. Can you give me any examples where you’ve spent this time with the customer or with the team, aside from what you’ve just mentioned around Next.js? Maybe the shoe company you’ve mentioned, or anything… I don’t know, I’m just teasing out something.

I have a very interesting example…

So a lot of my customers’ stories relate to understanding why they’re succeeding, or what else could we be doing for them to succeed, and in what ways they’re not succeeding. One thing that I noticed recently is Next.js and Vercel are incredibly organic. You actually alluded to this, where you just hear of it, and you see it pretty much everywhere etc. That actually has a disadvantage in some way, in that you’re not there to witness the internal process or processes that led to its decision of being there; that can even create an interesting pressure, like - easy come, easy go. If it’s so easy to choose it, would it be easy to choose the next thing?

So I spend a lot of time actually reverse-engineering, “Okay, why did this customer choose it? What are the things that stood out to them?”, which in many ways is almost like a synchronization or calibration process… Because maybe I think “Well, this one feature really is awesome”, but then some of the customers are like “I couldn’t care less about that feature. Actually, I’m really interested in that other feature.” So it’s that calibration process.

And then also understanding - okay, as we just talked about, my real goal is to help their customer. I most definitely need to talk to them to understand what problem they’re trying to solve for their end user, and how we can help them.

A good example from recently, I tweeted a DTC (direct to consumer) e-commerce company broke down their monolith… So they had this sort of monolithic build of their storefront, coupled to a particular backend, and they decided to replatform on top of Next.js and Vercel, without making very drastic changes. So this was not like “We’re gonna reinvent the company” type of thing. It was more like, “Okay, let’s replatform and see how it goes.”

[44:07] And they knew that if this project succeeded, it was gonna yield a better developer experience, so obviously, developers were motivated to do this… But everyone, especially in e-commerce - and this is why I love that cohort of our business, is that you do have that pulse that’s very clear on your ultimate performance, of like “Are we selling a lot of shoes? Are we selling a lot of chairs?”

Right. The feedback loop is tighter.

Very tight. So it was amazing to hear from them that ever since the first day that they started A/B testing it in production, they couldn’t believe their eyes when they were looking at the dashboards, which reflected what ultimately became a 16% lift in sales, just from replatforming. This is the kind of confirmation and customer story that, believe it or not, makes sometimes people just knock on your door to tell you. You have to actually ask them, “Hey, how are you succeeding?” And also, folks sometimes just don’t tell you if they’re not succeeding. Like, “Hey, we’re thinking about ditching the web and moving to AMP…”

Right… “Bad news, Next.js is not for us. We’re going native.”

Yeah. We’re going native, or we’re going to AMP, or whatever. I also wanna understand those. So it’s such a large space that obviously you have to kind of pick your battles, especially now with my time being less available… But I try to also understand folks at the different levels. Like, I still talk to the developer that’ll pick the tool.

Recently we organized a little meetup with the Hackers of the Future from Hack Club, who came to our office and told us about the ways that they’re learning about the web, and what their perceptions of the technology and the web are. I also obviously talk to our enterprise customers, and I talk to prospects… So it’s nice to have a view that’s as broad as possible of who’s out there. Because obviously, we’re all impacted by technology.

I also sometimes am curious of what my mom thinks about the web. Like, are you annoyed at GDPR banners? Do thinks load very slowly in Argentina? The world is so global, just like the web, and we’re all in it, and we’re all in it together… So it’s awesome to just kind of get this sense from everybody.

I’m glad you explained this framework, because again, a principle of yours, it seems so simple to develop, to preview, to ship, to spend time with customers, to spend time with your team, and to remain – to have the ability to drive change. I think that those are core tents to someone’s character like yours, that really – they’re complex… But they’re just so simple.

Yeah. I think simplicity continues to be very hard to attain, for sure…

I remember actually the day that we came up with the model… I know that there’s been a pattern of startups saying “Oh, we do A, B and C” and whatnot. It doesn’t seem novel, it doesn’t seem interesting, but I remember when we were talking a lot in the room about “Okay, how do we explain the thing? What do we say? Do we say it’s a frontend framework, Next.js, and an edge compute platform that’s serverless?” Like, it’s just lingo, and how will we make it approachable… And yeah, how can you make it a framework?

For example, the other day – that’s why I love frameworks… The other day I was talking to a customer/prospect that was very, very driven by security requirements. For this person, you could have that developer experience where every page change takes you three hours to reflect, and the end user experience could be you can load one page a day… But their priority was security, so they would be okay with that.

And this is what’s fun too about understanding where everyone’s priorities are, what everyone’s own goals and fitness functions are for technology. I was able to illustrate how we think about security through that lifecycle. Well, on the develop phase, Next.js is introducing conformance for security, to stop you early on in – even before you push; you’re not gonna push something that’s bad for security.

[48:15] React has great support for XSS, and it blocks you from SQL injections or HTML and JS injections being easy, and whatnot… And we’re adding trusted types support for even better XSS protection.

Then on the preview side, we’ve invested tremendous amounts in making our builds completely isolated, zero-trust environments. They get disposed after every build completes, so we’re able to give you a sense of even what the product does while I talk to you about security. And then when we ship - the same; at runtime we have these incredible isolation primitives for executing arbitrary compute in a complete sandbox.

So through that framework that I can use to explain the product, I was able to also explain security. And I can also – you know, maybe if I’m talking to an investor, I might use it to explain the total addressable market, because I say “Well, developers - we have 13.7 million JavaScript developers”, and that’s growing. There’s 550 million Excel users. So we can say “Okay, developers could grow a lot, and will.”

Previewing opens up collaboration. We have customers like Washington Post that use the preview URLs primarily to collaborate with editors, non-technical folks, user testing, and all kinds of reviews. So now preview has opened up the addressable market to everyone who wants to collaborate on a website, which is honestly a lot of people.

And then shipping - you know, as I mentioned earlier, our goal would probably be… We think the top 10,000 Alexa websites will always have top-notch engineering teams that work with developers tools, but then the entire rest of the world will access websites that have been created through no code or low code, so you can argue there’s a very addressable segment there, which is the entire internet. But realistically speaking, you look at the Alexa and you find a ton of websites that need our help.

So it’s a good framework, and as I mentioned, to summarize how I spend my time - I spend my time thinking about frameworks not just for the code, but frameworks for how the company can operate and how we can scale our approachability to customers and users alike.

Break

[50:40]

You know, I can keep going down the layers of Next, but I do wanna take a turn, because… You know what - I’ll mention it, just because I have to. So I don’t develop websites for customers anymore. But years and years ago, I can remember when I was deploying websites with WordPress, ten years ago even, or whatever. Or some sort of CMS. That was the line item, that was what we sold.

They wanted a new website, they wanted to have this ability to capture their market and showcase their value, and that’s what we came in to do. We understood their brand, in some cases it was a rebrand, or it was a refinement of their brand, it was establishing their very first web presence… So this is years ago. But I can recall saying, they always had this need of “I need to be able to have – I want to be able to change my web page.” And I can recall back in those days we would give that to them, but it was terrible… Because it just wasn’t what I think you’re delivering with Next.js Live. I think that we wanted to, as web developers at that time - and maybe we could have, but… We wanted to promise that and sell them that, because that’s what they needed, but the tools weren’t evolved enough to do that. And now, we’re at a place where that’s possible.

Going back, in the last couple of years we’ve seen things happen… Gitpod, for example, is a very close example of at least the developer environment being in the cloud. But that is one step removed from what you’ve done with Next.js Live, which is put that same power into someone who’s “not a developer”, or less developer-friendly, or whatever terminology you wanna use for that person.

[54:06] We wanted to give the office manager or the executive assistant or the person next to the person who runs the company, the power to change their web pages… But failed consistently. And today, I can say that you’re helping people succeed with that, because you are; you’ve realized the promise, essentially.

Yeah, I think for the most part we have a lot to thank to this idea of the component. The reason that WordPress couldn’t get there, I think, is there wasn’t a clear abstraction or definition between like “What is it that you’re gonna be able to go and edit?” Is everything just like a continuum of code, or have you been able to break it down into the right building blocks and right Lego pieces that allow anybody in the world to understand the construction process?” This is what I think our technology is ultimately allowing. There’s a universality to this concept that is fascinating to ponder, I think, because anybody can develop, just like anybody could sit down and build amazing things out of Legos.

Now, it’s fine that there’s gonna be the folks that can create the new types of pieces, and can understand how you even get to the primitives that you’re handing off to the person who’s building something. For sure. There’s gonna be engineers that work on all the layers down, and they will continue to thrive. But I do think that the world is overdue for a transformation of building really more accessible, more approachable, and we’re very, very happy that we have an opportunity to contribute to that.

Yeah, something that you had said when we talked about your goals for your future - so prior to doing these episodes… I ask a few questions to sort of prime the conversation; not all the material makes it into the show, but a lot of it helps me understand your mindset, your frame of reference, and whatnot. And one of the ones I ask you is what are your goals for the future. And you said there’s a very unique opportunity to turn a lot more people into authors of the web.

So what I mean by this is that the web has succeeded in making everyone be able to consume it really easily. I would assume you’d go on and say more about making the web, but kind of focusing this opportunity to turn a lot of people into authors of the web. And that to me is super-cool, because - you think of a creator… You might think, “Okay, well that’s a youtuber” or “That’s a tiktokker”, or somebody who does TikTok, or however you frame those. And the web is sort of this place where we haven’t really thought about enabling more authors. We think of them just simply as developers. Not that developers aren’t cool, because they of course are, but this idea of enabling a lot more people to author the web I think is a pretty astounding thing.

One thing I wanna talk to you about is you mentioned how you think about frameworks… And what I often wanna know is how do you know how to think, Guillermo, essentially? Do you have a CEO coach? Are you just very smart? Do you read lots of books? What is your ingestion of knowledge? Where do you get wisdom poured into you? How do you get to thinking the way you think, essentially?

I would say I’ve developed the privilege of being able to ask lots of questions. And I mention that that’s a privilege because of many reasons. Obviously, I’ve had the support of our entire community, and investors, and creating really awesome networks of people that you can ask questions to. But the other way that that’s a privilege I think is it relates to actually what you mentioned about imposter syndrome… Because I’ve gotten to the point where asking questions becomes easier, in so many ways.

[58:01] I think asking a question can have the opposite effects for a lot of people, because you’re trying to unblock yourself, unlock, learn, but sometimes it can be like “Well, if I ask that question, it creates more doubt.” It creates internal questions about how you’re gonna be perceived, for example.

So I evolve through asking lots of questions, coaches, advisors, investors, customers… Ask away, to really learn. There’s something quite primordial there, I would say… It’s “Ask and you shall receive”, I think. I’ve found that it’s been true for us. Obviously, it’s not always easy, and you have to also find the right people to ask the questions to… But the information is there, and it’s a very open world, and you’d be surprised about how much possibility is just one question away to the right person.

I actually even spend time still answering code emails here and there. Obviously, they are getting to a point where they’re way too many, but I appreciate people’s willingness to ask, either for help, or for information, or really whatever they need. And yeah, that’s a primary framework there. It sounds deceptively simple, but as you pointed out before, it can be quite hard.

And also, a simple framework that I have here too is that there can only be one priority. If you have multiple priorities, then you’ve broken the rule, or you’ve broken the word, or the semantics of the word. So there can only be one thing, and as the machine becomes more complex, as more and more people join the ecosystem or the company etc, you have to be very clear in what you say, or what you ask, and what you prioritize. So there can only be one thing, and that means that your question is very valuable as well, and that you might wanna spend the most amount of time and energy possible in preparing correctly as well.

Are there any habits that you think you have, or you know you have, that are sort of like “These are my secret sauce”? I think about habits for me, and just spending time with my family is oddly a weird productive habit for me… You wouldn’t think that would be a habit. Like, I love my family a lot, and I need them, so I prioritize spending my time with them… And for me, that’s what gives me the energy to be able to step away when necessary, which is obviously – you know, it’s a job, I do what I do, but… I have to prioritize my time with them, so that’s one of my – I wouldn’t really call it a habit necessarily, but I think of it as a habit, because I need to spend that time with them. I’m curious if you’ve thought through any specific habits for yourself that help you be as strong as you are in the day-to-day?

It’s cliché, but I have to say exercise and meditation, which I consider to be a continuum… Because for me, running for long periods of time - I enter a meditative state, and I’m able to think through and solve problems. I’m by nature, I should say, a quite competitive person. I really enjoy competition through exercise, and just running, and try to be faster, or doing some new thing that I couldn’t do before… So I’m very much competitive by nature, and I think sports and exercise, good awesome frameworks for a competition that I just enjoy.

[01:01:44.16] Going back to preparing the right question or deciding the next priority, I think that’s nearly impossible to do without prolonged meditation. And I’m not talking just about meditation of the kind of “I’m sitting under a tree in the Himalayas.” I’m talking about even just sitting down and thinking. I’m a big believer in background asynchronous work; not because I worked my entire career with JavaScript, but I’m a big believer that when you configure the right question for yourself - an internal question, like “What should I learn next?”, the answer can be produced asynchronously through doing other activities, like spending time with your family, or exercising, or walking around, or reading a book.

In fact, I always notice that I’m reading a book, and I always catch myself not reading the book. That’s why I actually don’t read books, because it’s a performative action of I sit down and I look at the page. And sometimes when the books is really good, I do get into the book. But for the most part, my mind goes into that background processing of other things to do, and I find that awesome. It happens with dreams as well for me, where a lot of my thinking happens at night, while I sleep…

So yeah, staying healthy and connected is, I think, the number one priority. Everything is downstream from that, I think, ultimately. Everything is downstream from health. There is this awesome – a lot of people think it’s corny and weird, and I would agree to some extent as well, but the Softbank deck of their Vision Fund… What I think is awesome about it is that it explains in very simple terms what their ideal of the future is, and how they’re going to invest to make that future happen. And it has this slide that says “For us it’s all about making people happy and removing suffering from the world.” I think it is as simple as that. It is about prioritizing happiness, which is not necessarily defined by joy. It can also be defined by challenge, and competition, and some amount of stress in terms of becoming better and achieving an award at the end. I like to stick to those simple things.

Yeah. You mentioned meditation, and I think an alternate word I might consider based upon your definition would be contemplation.

Yeah, that’s great.

Back in Cornelius Vanderbilt’s day - you know, the early pioneers of our country here in the United States… You know, there’s a few well-known entrepreneurs that really pioneered what entrepreneurship is. Early entrepreneurs, essentially… And this is a day when they didn’t have Next.js Live, or the internet, or an iPhone in their pocket. They didn’t have all these 1) possibilities and opportunities, but at the same time, to some degree, quite a distraction… To send a message to their manager on a thing they were building, they would literally have to send a person with a message, days on end, to deliver that message. And they would wait for it to come back.

And so in between that latency, they would have room. Room for thinking. Room for contemplation. And I remember reading - because I read his biography - that he would just take naps, during what we call the workday. Like, just take a nap. Because he could. Not because he could because he was so powerful, but that was doing business; that was working, taking a nap and contemplating.

Yeah, I cannot possibly agree more with that sentiment… Because I think the internet has made us all hyperconnected, but the benefits are not in the places which – I think it could have been easier to say “We’re gonna be 100 times smarter.” You know, when science fiction folks make predictions on the future, “We’re all gonna be super-connected, and we’re gonna be a hundred times smarter.” I think we’re a hundred times smarter collectively, through some efficiencies that we’ve generated with the internet, but I think individually, the person that was in that position of deep contemplation, deep thought, in a combined state of relaxation, with work, in a good, balanced state and whatnot - that person competing with you today… I don’t know if you’re better with all your technology and whatnot in raw intellectual power, for example. I think I would even say certainly not.

[01:06:27.13] I think in some ways our need is now to recover and claim back some of those techniques, while we continue to merge with the machine in to cyberspace. And this is why I always emphasize exercise, because it’s very primitive and primordial. It’s you confronted with the terrain, and the elements of weather. It’s down to the metal, basically, of the compute of your body. So it’s an experience that is ultimately even more necessary today, even though it’s just so basic.

Yeah. Well, it’s been fun talking to you through product and journey, frameworks, prioritization, obsession on the customer and their success… I mentioned earlier - congratulations for your recent series C. Amazing next steps for you… But I’m curious where you’re going from here. When you think about the horizon for either yourself personally, or the horizon for Vercel - what’s on that horizon? What’s just over the horizon? What can you share about where you’re going?

I talked a lot about how I think that we’re still in the early innings of the technology, which makes me really excited… Because with the post-Covid world, something nice that has come is that there’s a global workforce. We’re all better connected, we can all create from everywhere. We talked about how a lot has been done with the web for consumption, but not as much has been done for authoring for the web. And the web browser as a technology is in this incredible position of being both a consumption and a creation tool. I wanna see that promise through, which will take us quite a bit of time, honestly; it’s not gonna happen overnight. It’s gonna feel overnight once we accomplished it, of course, but… [laughs]

Of course, yes.

But I think it’s still gonna take quite a bit of time. I think there’s a lot of technology that we’ve built over decades that will continue to exist, just like the radio exists today. And even develop itself. I’m sure radio today is even better. I love SiriusXM actually… So radio is awesome. And radio has not ceased to exist. But new, more innovative media have come, that have grown and really cast a shadow on those technologies.

Like podcasts.

[laughs] Yes. I think that that’s gonna happen with the cloud, and that’s gonna happen with the web.

Any particular examples that you can think of for the creation process? I’m curious where you might hone in initially.

So one example that I think is super-interesting is that technology that has been approachable for authoring for the web has also been quickly discarded, as I mentioned. I actually used to use DreamWeaver, many years ago… And I remember – again, you kind of outgrow it. I think we’re gonna create technologies very durable in that sense.

[01:09:52.10] I always actually point out that I would have investors years ago tell us “Well, frontend is not interesting, because frontend frameworks get changed every other day, and whatnot… And now we actually look at reality and we see that actually the choice of React, for example, for major organizations, corporations and storefronts etc. in the U.S. has been super-stable, super-durable. Durable like Git has been durable. And I think that’s gonna happen in lots of different ways. I think you see it with Shopify now taking headless a lot more seriously, and welcoming React developers worldwide to build on top of that… But I think the same is gonna happen with folks on the authoring side, on the editing side. The folks that contribute through no code and low code. It’s not that they’re gonna be any less of a contribution or that their work is not gonna be as important, or that it’s gonna get rewritten by a developer a year later. Perhaps even the opposite. Developers will start saying “Well, for this simple page that I need to build, I’m gonna build it entirely visually. Or I’m gonna build it entirely in the web browser. I’m not gonna use the power tool for this anymore.” And yet, that’s gonna be the right decision, that’s likely to stay for years and years and years to come.

At the same time, I think AI will play a very important role here. I’m a big fan of the work that GitHub put out, with better autocompletion. I’ve always been a fan of this. I created a demo called ThoughtComplete back in the day, where you would type and it would autocomplete from tweets that other people wrote, to just augment your cognition. I think there’s gonna be a lot of that going on, where we augment the developer cognition, we augment the non-developer cognition, we augment the marketer cognition, in that marketers can try more things, more permutations of copy and ideas assisted by AI. You can almost think of this as a website building itself. And we’re not really far away from that. We’re talking maybe months, if not single-digit years; obviously, I’m too optimistic sometimes… But the websites that build themselves are certainly coming.

Oh, yes… GitHub Copilot and the opportunities there. It’s a new world. It’s somewhat scary, but also welcoming, to some degree.

Liberating.

Everything that’s scary in a lot of cases ends up being liberating. I actually was listening to this great podcast of Gary Kasparov and Lex Fridman… And he lived a very interesting first-hand experience of what it’s like for AI to defeat what seemingly you had that was, first of all, unique in the entire world… Because if you’re rating as a chess player, but also you had what’s seemingly considered for a computer not ever be able to do. What he said in the podcast that I thought was really interesting is that “Well, that’s awesome that they beat us.” Okay, the computer is getting another 9 in the SLA of things that they can do better than humans. So now they’re a 99.9. And ten years pass and they get to 99,99. Here’s the deal - the remaining 0.001, which is human capability - now it just matters more. It’s not that because there’s fewer things in which you truly excel that your impact is diminished. If anything, it’s the opposite, because now you’re truly able to focus on your creativity. And I think ultimately, that’s what we’re seeing with frontend. Like, okay, now you don’t have to worry about the cloud at all. You might not even ever know what a server used to be or looked like. You might not even understand what the infrastructure is made up of. The other day I didn’t even know this anymore; nor maybe ever.

[01:13:59.05] But I’ll give you a really good example - S3, the CTO of Amazon said, is composed of 250 microservices. And I was like, “That’s insane.” There’s 250 independent services that are making up this greater service that I interface through two API calls, get and post. And patch maybe, sometimes. And it’s just astounding. I think that’s just ultimately gonna happen with – again, we’re continuing to like… Okay, now Vercel is helping at the other 9. Not only will you not know what file storage - how it actually works, now you’re not gonna know how a page is built and rendered in the cloud… But that’s awesome, because now your remaining 0.001% is how you express your brand online, how you engage with your customers, how you choose to communicate with them, what your values are as a person doing business, how you express your identity, and all these amazing things… And ultimately, your own product that you’re building, whether it’s hardware, whether it’s software… How you give that service, in what language it is, in what markets etc.

So I think it’s awesome, and I think we’re just gonna continue on that trajectory of more and more undifferentiated work being automated, and more power to you.

Yeah. It sounds like a throwback to what you said earlier, with meta programming… It’s like automating the meta. You know, to be a developer today, to deliver an application to the web, I don’t necessarily need to know about servers, right? That’s kind of meta. In some scenarios it might make more sense for you to have greater granular control. But to deliver an e-commerce store - I don’t really need to have that. I wanna pull that into Shopify and use headless, or something like that. Or just go straight up Shopify. It seems like automating the meta.

For sure.

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you, Guillermo? I know we’ve always appreciated you coming on the Changelog, and then recently JS Party… As a matter of fact, another thanks to you… We opened up this year’s episode list on the Changelog with you, and that was a fun show, talking about the future of the web, and essentially where we’re going with the web. That was a lot of fun, so I appreciate you being a staple around here… But is there anything left unsaid in this show with me today?

I think we’ve covered plenty. It was a great new take; there’s a whole new side that we talked about today.

The only piece we didn’t cover - and I’m not asking you to go into this, but it’s still unclear to me if Zeit is a bootstrap company or not. Or what the early stages were. Because it took you several years to raise. And when you raised, you changed your name. I think you may have had some seed funding, but your first series A - five years in, essentially.

Yeah, we spent a lot of time – we did raise some seed money, but we spent a lot of time on R&D, basically. I guess, looking back, I think we had a very high bar for “We’re gonna go out and raise series A and truly build this out”, but we had a really high bar for ourselves… Again, this is a lifetime commitment, right? It’s a very long journey. And I needed the confidence that there was something that was ambitious, but it was also working and resonating with customers. So we took our time, and I’m really happy that we did… And we’ve learned a tremendous amount through experimentation and prototyping and lots of different ideas. And then by the time we announced our new name, and Vercel, and a lot of the traction that we had built up as well, it felt like the right time.

I agree. I’ve been enjoying watching your journey. It’s been fun. The work you and the rest of your team have done make me more excited about the web. I appreciate the work you’ve done, and thank you for sharing your time here today, and your story today, and your frameworks… I appreciate you. Thank you.

Thank you.

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