In this episode Peter talks to Joe Topinka. Joe is a CIO and also the chairman of the board of directors of the BRM Institute. He has written a book about IT Business partnerships and is active as a consultant and coach to other CIOs. In this episode we talk about challenges of setting up BRM teams, connecting portfolio to strategy, convincing C-suite about BRM and technology, the changing IT organization and leadership skills for BRMs.
Peter: Welcome to BRM Cafe episode 14. In this episode I talk to Joe Topinka. Joe is a CIO and also the chairman of the board of directors of BRM Institute. He has written a book about IT business partnerships and he’s active as a consultant and coach to other CIO’s. In this episode, we talk about challenges of setting up BRM teams connecting portfolio to strategy convincing C-Suite about BRM and technology to changing IT organization and leadership skills for BRMs. Joe, welcome the podcast. Can you please introduce yourself?
Joe: Will do, Peter and thank you for having me on. It’s really an honor to be a part of all of this. I’ve been listening to your podcast now since you started back — I don’t know how many — 6 months ago. Well, I’m Joe Topinka and I’m a 40-year IT veteran. I’ve been in a CIO position for now 20 years and a variety of different companies ranging from multi-national large, billion dollar plus global companies to very small companies which is where I’m at today. I’m also an author. I wrote a book called, IT Business Partnerships, a field guide which is something I wrote while the BRM was being born. So that was a fun experience to learn about the BRM and Erin and everyone else that’s been involved for all these years. I actively coach other CIO’s and IT leaders around the globe. So I’ve got an activate practice that I call, CIO mentor dot com where I help IT leaders in a variety of different ways and that’s a little bit about me, Peter.
Peter: Okay, great, great, thanks. Like I said, welcome; we’re going to talk about your book. But the first thing I want to do is how do you get into BRM? Because as a CIO, I mean, 20 years CIO you’re saying, so how you got — did you get suddenly get interested in BRM?
Joe: Well, as a young child — no, just kidding. It’s really funny. Everything happens by accident or at least a lot of things happened by accident, but I was in a software business. I was working for a company that, it’s a very large company now. It’s about 8 billion dollars in revenue and I was building software for financial institution mostly banks and the company I worked for was really progressive. I owned a business unit which meant I owned, it’s sort of a business within a business so I had software engineers. I was responsible for product direction. I was responsible for the revenue for the product, etcetera. One of things that company did, is they sent me to — a number of us, like 20 of us to a class at Northwestern University and really started to introduce this concept of product management which was a very early kind of similar to where the BRM is today. But it was a startup not-for-profit, and they really is spousing the virtues of the skills center ground being a product manager and as an IT professional and some of were building software for banks, it really struck a nerve with me. It really taught about products and markets and competitive advantage and that sort of thing. Then at the same time, at that same moment in time, I actually got introduced to a gentleman by the name of Tom Gumoll who started the usability practice at Apple computer back in the day when the Mackintosh was first coming on board. It was a combination of being an IT and those two experiences that really lulled me to thinking about my role as an IT leader. To start thinking about what is it about my products that drive value and drive revenue and how does my product stack up to the competition. From there, Peter, I got my first CIO job at the bank in New York or division of the bank and I started to use those principles and concepts and approaches to manage my IT organization. I started to look for projects that drove strategy or projects that drove top or bottom line value for the organization. A really unique and different approach back 20 years ago and that’s how it all started for me. It was more by accident and just sort of sponging and learning from other really smart people. I sort of put it all together and ultimately, that’s what led to the book.
Peter: Talking a bit about the book, you talked about product management a lot for your BRM? So is that where it’s coming from mostly that, that interest in product management?
Joe: Yes, that’s exactly, right. I think that and the user experience. The usability side of it just getting out of a field and seeing users in their natural habitat, that in combination with thinking more like somebody who owns a business and you start thinking about markets and how your product stacks up to the competition and value. What’s your value prop, that sort of thing, really led me to writing the book. The things we talked about at the BRM are all about these things now. So it was sort of an accident but that’s what really got me thinking differently as an IT leader, is that whole product management experience because after all, every company that I’ve ever worked for has a limited dollars to spend. It’s not a bottomless pit or an open check book to do anything you want. So you’ve got to rationalize and think through what investments you undertake to and which one’s drive most value which usually means driving either revenue or say, in a promoter score or some other metric that drives engagement with customers, so that’s how it all started.
Peter: Yes. In the several CIO roles you’ve had, you’ve had BRM teams, and what was some of the challenges you’ve seen along the way with those teams to actually set them up?
Joe: That’s a great question, Peter, and I would say that the problems that I faced even after 20 years of doing it, they’re still pretty similar in each company that I go in. It starts with the exact team and most of them have concepts and ideas around what IT is. I spent a fair amount of time trying to educate them on a new way, a different way. A way that sets different expectations for IT and one that’s really rooted in driving value on the business and that’s hard not to crack sometimes when you have a sort of an unconscious bias about a function that’s been around for 30 or 40 years. So I spent a fair amount just doing that and one way that I’ve done it, is to take the active project portfolio that IT is working on and tried to connect it to the strategy of the company that I’m working for and invariably find there’s a lot of stuff in that list of projects that don’t really connect to the company’s strategy. So when you bring that information back to the exact team, they can easily go, “Wow, that’s interesting. We should do something about that.” So yes, so it’s exact said. I don’t know when you do a fair amount of coaching yourself and teaching, is that similar to kind of things that you see out in the marketplace when you’re coaching and mentoring?
Joe: Yes, absolutely. That was one of the first things is indeed we will keep saying is that, the devotees or started up without really linking to strategy. There’s a different I think between you have the CIO that can talk with the executives quite different see on the levels of the BRM with the business partners etcetera, that we see the same challenges but one of the things is that sometimes the business partner, specifically on the business side today, they want to just push solutions. They’ve seen something new. They just want to have it, without really think about what it does. So yes, I absolutely see that and this is a challenge I think for a lot of business relationship managers as well is that having that insight in the overall portfolio but also having the understanding how strategy links to that is for a lot of organizations they’re struggling with but that needs to indeed be communicated to the C-level indeed. That’s come questions for me as well. I mean, what you see, there’s a lot of CEO’s or CFO’s etcetera that have seen IT just really more as transactional systems and nothing more. And, and they keep saying yeah that’s just to just the IT side. That, that requires them to start thinking differently around IT as well and I see for you, for you to from your perspective.
Joe: Yes, I have this thing I talk about. I called the IT Transformation Trifecta and it starts with a lot of CIOs don’t still think of themselves as a natural part of the business or business unit in it of itself. You’ve got to first believe that you can drive value and that your skill set, your bilingual skill set, bilingual being able to speak the language of business and the language of technology and married it to really create a powerful opportunity to move the needle on strategy within the companies. So you got to believe that. You go to get your teams think, thinking and believing the same thing. It’s easy when you have a portfolio that connects to strategy and you could talk about this project. This is what it’s doing. It’s engaging customers or we’re trying to increase wallet share, whatever, people start to wake up to the fact that, “Wow, we really are making the difference.” But I think the third component of that Trifecta is the C-suite is getting them to believe it too. It’s reorienting, reprogramming their concept of what IT is and usually what I do is I start by asking the exact team. I work, unfortunately, throughout my CIO career, I’ve always worked for the CEO of the company which is the current case for me today. I usually, I’ll start by asking them, “Don’t you want to know what we’re spending money on and how we’re helping move the needle and drive value and achieve the goals that we’ve set out for us as a company? Let’s look at those investments? So at least once a month then you should set your expectations about our accomplishments differently than you have in the past. We’re not, to help us, we’re not just the people that the make email system work or the phone system work. We’re much more that. Yes, yes, we do that. That’s absolutely table stakes but in this day and age and this market place that we could do so much more. I spend a lot of time in every company, I ever worked with or worked for spending time with the C’s, by convincing that life is different. I’m starting to see, Peter, some hiring teams when they’re looking for a new CEO within companies and I’ve been called on out to help with this just recently, as a matter of fact, where, “Hey, we’re looking for new CEO. We don’t really like our digital strategy. We want a CEO that really has some experience.” And there were questions should we be asking that CEO about how they have leverage technology groups in the past. So I’m starting to see it for the first time in my 20 some years as somebody who’s focused in the space.
Peter: That’s great to hear because it’s, sometimes I have the feeling that most IT organizations are somewhere in the basement and that’s and they want to keep them in the basement but that’s just good to hear that they even start looking at skill sets possibly on the C-Level. I’ve said to organizations as well, it’s not business in IT, it’s business. We’re talking about business and IT is embedded in everything we do. That’s I think in these where the skill set needs to come out as well. It’s very interesting to actually see that and I think the very successful companies are actually will see that as a requirement for their C-Level. It’s the IT organizations that are still reporting up through the CFO, that is really more focus on the transactional systems that might be a little bit more of a challenge sometimes.
Joe: Yes, you’re spot on it. The marketplace is, it’s not as common as years ago when I was working for the bank in the New York and this guy was up giving us a presentation on companies and investments and one of the things he said is that the marketplace is brutally efficient and reach out bad management and bad ideas. In some respects although it’s a harsh statement, it’s very apropos for where we are in history right now as it relates to BRM and IT with all of the digital, the phenomenon that’s happening with a mobile mind shifting the age of the customer big data, cloud and all those things we talk about. Those almost seemed mundane and routine but what I remind people of is if those things are really having a profound impact on companies. Just stop and think about Uber and Airbnb and Amazon and Alibaba and Netflix and all these companies that 10 years ago wouldn’t have been market leaders. No one would have never imagined the power that those companies would have. You see companies like Toys R Us going out of business now at the horrible digital strategy. They said, “Let’s use Amazon.” I believe that’s what they’ve decided they were going to do and generally embraced this thing called the internet. Thought it was a fad apparently and now look at them. Lots of other famous or infamous cases of that, blockbuster and others but I think the marketplace is brutally efficient and one way or the other, technology’s going to take up front center position. I think really lies by BRM’s, one part about it that really has been fascinating recently for me, Peter, is I look at those market forces that I just talked about and I was in Atlanta meeting with Manhattan associates, one of the premier providers of Warehouse Management Software solutions and in the past when I was working for companies where warehouse management systems are important, you go out and you’d start to a selection process. The typical thing we do is we do NRP and kind of think about it and then you start, you select a vendor then you go, “Oh man, I’m going to have to install this stuff and I’m going to have to hire an application support team and the DBA and then I’m going to host it somewhere.” You start thinking about those routines sort of design build run things that you do in IT. I realize, “I don’t have to do that anymore.” They have a SAS offering that is pretty powerful and all I have to do is feed my ERP data to it. I don’t have to worry about servers, standing it up, upgrades, none of that stuff. I don’t have to hire app support. They provide that all in the cloud. So IT organization are going to shrink and I think what’s that going to give rise to is the absolute critically strategically important role of the BRM. I said that because the options and choices that are in the cloud are going to be exploding. It’ll take a BRM whose familiar with the capabilities of those solutions in the cloud and marry it to the strategy and initiatives within the company. They’re going to need to know how’s that stuff going to actually fit together. Maybe not the technical mambo-jumbo aspects of it but at least from a business technology and architecture standpoint, they’re going to have to build the drive that conversation inside firms so I’m excited about that. I think this is an early sign for me that the BRM roles going to have a really exciting future in front of it because of that phenomenon I just described.
Peter: Do you see that the IT organizations that exist now are going to go away in this case? It’s going to look completely different?
Joe: It’s going to look completely different and I, for as long as I’ve been around in this role as CIO, I’ve always heard the CIO role is going to die and go away. What it really is, it’s going to change and reshape itself and like it is right now. But I do honestly think that IT organizations as we know them will shrink because I don’t have to hire that app support person to run the warehouse management system anymore. All I’ve got to do is figure out how to integrate it, how to get the data out of it and report it on it and keep that whole ecosystem secure. So I do think, if you’re an app support resource or you’re a software engineer who really wants to continue on that journey, with the proprietary system, you’re going to have to work for one of those SAS providers because that’s for those jobs they’re going to exist. But I think the big explosion of jobs that I see in the future will be around the BRM or being able to shape to man and find solutions that connect to company’s strategy and that’s sort of thing. I really think that orchestrating that and integrating that will also be a big part of what IT has to do in the future. But, yes I do think it’s going to shrink.
Peter: So I mean, you say BRM and relative role so I mean, what I’m thinking about is that business architect role that is more on maybe an enterprise architect but more people actually can help you build the solutions instead of just — or sorry — help find the right solutions from a cloud perspective but it’s a very limited group of that moment though.
Joe: Yes I think so and it’s going to take someone who’s got a pretty deep understanding of the business and a pretty solid understanding of the company and how it makes money and how to connect those two dots. That’s the thing that I think BRMs will be pressed to do. I think companies are going to rely on them heavily in the future. I’m, in the small company that I worked for, I’m kind of the chief BRM, that’s how I see myself. I know my title is CIO but I’m constantly looking for solutions. That’s why I was in Atlanta trying to find a way to get a warehouse management solution up and operational in a cost effective way where I don’t have to hire an army of people. The organization’s counting on me to do that. I think that story will repeat itself over and over and over in companies in the future.
Peter: Yes and you’ve been talking a little bit about your book. I mean when you started your book, there was at the same time that or at approximately the same time from the BRM Institute actually started as well which is kind of interesting. In your book you talked about different things really which if you look at it now, would you start, a little bit what you just described, would you start changing some of the material in the book and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going more in that direction now? Because it’s about 4-5 years now so.
Joe: Yes, it was released 4 years ago — almost, well, 4 years ago and two months now — I would probably place a lot more emphasis on the big picture solutions side of it. A lot of what I wrote about really came from my own experience in companies trying to make a difference and driving value. So a lot of the book that I think is timeless because the concepts that I wrote about are timeless. Be it bringing business cases forward in measuring top or bottom line in investments and the tools that I wrote about in the book. Those sort of grew out of — oh people been putting business cases together for as long as there’s been business — so those things I think which stay the same. I think the nature of how you think about IT and a role within the organization, I would probably spend more time on that. One aspect to that, that I really come into a new way of thinking about is, and new for me, speak about personal accountability. I know it’s more of a leadership mindset and I know we don’t like that term accountability at the BRM but I still use it. Sorry, Erin, if you’re listening. But it, to me and I think that’s a major part of it, is teaching BRM’s, they’re in role where they’re interfacing with sometimes customers of the company, they’re interfacing with the supply chain leaders and HR and sales leaders, the executive team, they’re in and out of all aspects of that organization so the skills that we need as BRM’s negotiating skills and understanding and valuing emotionally intelligent skill sets. I love, Cy Wakeman stuff, reality based- leadership stuff where she talks about what her definition of personal accountability is which is really personally committing to something and being resilient and expecting change and not freaking out when it happens. Try again a new course, owning the output. You have ownerships. You take the good and the bad and then learning from your mistakes. Those are the four things that she describes as that leadership mindset. I think I will spend more time, Peter, on that aspect of the role, the tools, and the techniques and the tips that we talked about are also going to stand the test of time. But it’s those their skills that I would have to spend more time on.
Peter: Yes and that’s great to hear those skills but what you just described is really unchanging in culture and behavior that is required. That is what I see a lot in the market at this moment is where we need to evolve to a different way of working different leadership styles, etcetera. I think that’s again where BRMs can really drive that but it’s a lot of IT people very difficult to actually make that change.
Joe: Yes. Yes. One thing too that I’ve seen recently are the likes of KPMG, PWC, Mackenzie, Gardner Forrester, all of those thought leaders are writing about this whole BRM role. Yes, so these guys, are writing about this phenomenon that everyone’s sort of what to trying to weigh on and I think everyone’s grasping for — we’re on the dark and it’s hard to see around the corner sometimes. I think everyone is sensing and feeling a big shift in the way we think about business and the way we think about technology’s role in it. BRMs are coming up time and time again. I’ve never seen as many articles about it as I have lately. What frustrates me when I read them though is they talk about, they usually are talking IT transformation and the BRM role which is fine. But they’re, again, when they talk about transformation, they are just speaking about how IT has to change and they don’t think about their own way of viewing IT and what their expectations of IT should be. They kind of putting it all on IT by as if it’s a solely IT’s responsibility to change and think how IT should operate. That’s the thing that I see that I really like to try to get people to think differently about.
Peter: Yes that’s one of my challenges as well because we quite often talk about cultural change or behavioral change. One of the first things that indeed that needs to be discussed is how do you get your business partner to go away from maybe that order- taker mentality to more that partnership? How do they see technology, etcetera? The nice thing what I see with some of the BRMs that move into business groups where they become the leader of the business group that you get that technology perspective in there. So I do see that a career path but it’s slow go indeed. Yes, I’m always a little bit frustrated with DEN, the whole thing around IT needs to change. Yes, we know we need to change but there is more than that.
Joe: Yes, you Mr. Cs, Mr. and Mrs. C-Suite have to change too. Come on, come along for the ride and help us row that boat.
Peter: Yes but you know what? That’s, even years ago when the auditors started talking about governance etcetera, and enterprise governance of IT and even there the C-Suite has some like yelled, “It has nothing to do with us. That’s just for IT.” I always say, “No. No. That is for everyone.” Despite the fact that we’re actually a governance is sometimes a little bit challenging and I think that will change dramatically in the next couple of years as well because we’re starting to see more of that’s it add value, etcetera, as well so that’s good. It’s very good to hear that so. If you hire BRM’s or you call them IT business partners I think, but do you hire them? Do you look for certain competencies from the start and the things that you look for in a person?
Joe: Yes, I do and this is actually in my book. I got excited about Gallup years ago. I took one of their strengthsFinder tests and subsequently, it was the scratch up in the back of the book called, StrengthsFinder 2.0 which is like 10 or 15 bucks on Amazon. But you take this test, it comes back and tells you it ranks the top 5 strengths that you have in strength order. I started thinking about that and I, “Well, gee, what does that mean for BRMs and which of those do I really think are important for BRM to have? I wrote about eight of them in the book but I think there are three that really speak to me and the three what Gallup calls dot connector is one. That’s where someone has an ability to see events and circumstances and there’s a kind of zoom out and see the big picture and then zoom back in and they can prescribe solutions that connect dots. So they’re kind of that’s what I call, dot connector. I think Gallup actually calls this one, connectedness but I think that’s a really important skill. Famous people that have had that skill, guys, like Steve Jobs when he married iTunes to the music industry in the iPad back in the day when there were MP3 players out there but for whatever reasons Steve saw that connection in a different way and really brought Apple back into the floor with that solution. Then the next idea is futuristic. I think if you bring up BRM and they love the ERP platform that they help stand up and that’s all they can see. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, you really need somebody who’s willing to say, “What if?” Or “Let’s imagine a new world and maybe a different solution.” So you want to have someone who’s futuristic and probably the core strength that I look for someone whose got the relator skill because that’s the nature of this job. It really is all about building relationships and interacting with people. I imagine in your coaching, Peter, that you spent a fair amount of time on the people side of the role because that, it is really a major component of it being able to get along or interact or challenge people in a way that doesn’t feel threatening and makes it safe for people to have good honest conversations inside firms and hated debates even. So that relator skill is really, really important in that role.
Peter: Absolutely, and then I see that I think coaching is well although sometimes I have a feeling I’m more of a therapist than a coach but sometimes you have a good plan, “Okay this is what we’re going to coach on.” And then the meeting goes into a totally different topic where we’re talking about issues like that, indeed how to relate to people? How to work with people, etcetera. I think that is part of the BRM role as well so. You are very involved in the BRM Institute. You’re a chairman of the board. Your excitement basically, I’ve known you as always showing basically in your presentations. The BRM Institute had been in place now for over 5 years so what have you seen change in the market? Is that part of the market changes do you see or it’s just the overall market basically looking into BRM?
Joe: When I first got involved like 4 years ago just as it was a year old, we were I think trying to find our home in the world. I see- I’ve always thought about BRM just being IT professionals but I’ve even come around to the idea that it’s not just for IT. IT I think resources and people have the most opportunity to drive big time value because we’re driving system of engagement and we have an ability to influence customers in a way that most other units within a company can’t do with websites and mobile devices and that sort of thing. But I see a phenomenal growth and I think relieving through this age of a customer phenomenon where you’ve got a customer-obsessed business model emerging in almost every company, I see the BRM role catching on like I’ve never seen before. I think there are 30,000 active participants now on a global community in 60 some countries. That growth has been continuing to climb at double digits rates and I see people writing about it. We just recently formed the partnership with the Heller group, so Heller Search and it’s an exciting time I think. I’ve talked to a number recruiters recently and the number of BRM jobs that they’re being asked to look for and search out is increasing. I had a local recruiter here recently asked me, “Tell me more about this BRM thing because people are asking me to find them.” I spoke to a local company, I would say, a multibillion-dollar company who’s got a BRM program and I’ve had the opportunity to interact and work with them and help them sharpened their program but it starts to bump into BRM’s pretty regularly and that certainly was not the case back 4 years ago.
Peter: That’s what I see as well. I sometimes think it’s my confirmation bias that I just see BRM everywhere but I’m glad I’m not the only one.
Joe: Yes, maybe that’s my problem too, Peter. Well, you know what? What I would say too, is I’ve been to the last several BRM conferences and so you and I have fun time interacting there. But these last couple have been — it’s a phenomenon. It’s unlike any conference that I’ve ever been to. People bond and connect and talk. I’ve had numerous conversations with people I met in Washington DC and it’s just been a whole lot of fun. It feels like we’re part of something big. I believe that’s the case. I think it’s exciting.
Peter: It’s very, very exciting so, great. Do you have any questions for me?
Joe: Yes. I mean, I’d love kind of what are the top three challenges that you run into as you’re working with BRMs in the world? What are the things that you consistently seem to run into and that you’re really hoping that we turn the corner on?
Peter: Couple of things there. One is the lack of understanding of how to show business value. A lot of them are struggling with, “Okay, how do I show this to the organization? And that sometimes and that’s not always financial but also intangible. Another one is, a lot of the BRMs I meet are still very much into a more tactical role. So they’re on the career path of becoming maybe the strategic BRM but there, the challenges to actually get to that higher level. To that more mini CIO level where they are really accountable. They have ownership over several business units etcetera so that’s something that for a lot of them is still very difficult to make that mindset difference. I think the third one is the challenge what we talked about already a little bit around the fact is that business groups actually do not have the right behavior on how they actually interact with IT. I mean IT behavior is sometimes not correct but especially in business groups need to change their behavior as well. So those are the three I think that I’m seeing in the market but specifically the tactical to strategic perspective, I don’t like tactical BRMs and strategic BRMs as a definition but it’s a mindset basically that we need to have to become more the strategic BRM.
Joe: Yes, I hear you on that. How often do you run into the service management implementation that wants to own a BRM roles? Had still very prevalent in your experience?
Peter: Yes it is. There’s a lot of influences from that. There’s a lot of BRM drive now from that and quite of the problem is it becomes very operational. It becomes a link to service level agreement. It’s sometimes very, very tactical or operational activities that, “Can you help with major incidents? Can you help with these kinds of things?” It takes away from the really strategic perspective that we need to have. That’s what I see from a service modeling perspective. Some of them have done it well but that’s where a lot of the drive actually is coming from. But I think we really need to market and that more of that strategic role and when you mentioned to the Heller Search etcetera, that ultimate BRM job description is absolutely more on the strategic level. That’s great to actually see that. So that’s definitely something to fix in the market where we need to provide them guidance absolutely.
Joe: I have one more question for you. Where do you see BRM roles most successful or where do you — I meant conversely — what types of organizations seem to struggle most with the role or is there a common theme there?
Peter: The ones that really struggle with role are the hierarchical organizations still where it’s very much directing control where the BRM team is too low on the organization. A large part of success with BRM teams comes from support from the C-Level. So the moment you see CILs really driving the BRM role it becomes more accepted and easier accepted as a role in the organization. They can really thrive there. I know I mean, I’ve met some companies where the CIO talked to you and then they actually start having the BRM team etcetera and that makes them a significant difference. Great for doing that; that’s absolute. But I do see and it’s not really market or industry-driven. I see some very good BRM teams in certain industries and other runs that actually are still struggling so it depends a little bit — I’ve seen BRM change in manufacturing that is really effective. I’ve seen them in government even really effective BRM teams and then in all the government organizations, they’re struggling really. So it’s not per industry but it’s more, I think based on culture and C-Level support.
Joe: Yes. Yes, that is the secret sauce right there. You got a C-Suite exec or a CIO that embraces the role. Really have some passion around it and then the odds of success go up exponentially.
Peter: Yes, absolutely. So great, it was so great talking to you, Joe. We should do this again sometime and talk about other stuff but thank you very much for participating on this podcast and I’m looking forward to meeting you on another BRM connect conference or any other conference. Thanks.
Joe: As always a pleasure, Peter. Thank you for having me on. It was a lot of fun.
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