Margaret Lee, Director of UX Community & Culture at Google, began her career before the Internet was really a thing. After majoring in architecture, she decided she didn’t want to be an architect, then stumbled into technology by accident. As she describes it, her career has almost been a process of elimination, of trying different things and figuring out what did and didn't work for her.
From early days as a design practitioner to becoming a design lead and a manager, she never planned to be a leader—or really saw herself as one. Her journey has been an organic one, shaped by her willingness to volunteer for new roles and get outside her comfort zone.
Margaret joins us to talk about her path to Google, nearly 10 years leading the Geo UX organization and the many different faces of leadership. Hear how her current role cultivates UX knowledge, community and talent, and why it's better to call it early than to try to stick with something that doesn’t feel right.
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Carl Smith: Hey everyone and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. Today we have got with us someone that I met at Design Leadership Camp in Gateway Canyons. She is the director of UX design at Google. It's Margaret Lee. How are you Margaret?
Margaret Lee: Hi, Carl. I'm good.
Carl Smith: Now, I am excited to talk to you because the little bit of time that I get to spend with you at the event we actually implemented changes. We now have this really nice printed dossier, because you had mentioned a few things probably would be easier to use when they were printed, and we actually changed our programming. We have a Women's Leadership Camp this year.
Margaret Lee: I'm really glad to hear that.
Carl Smith: Because you said women in technology could use an event like this.
Margaret Lee: Absolutely.
Carl Smith: So it's funny. I even stumbled a little bit out of the gate because, honestly, I'm a little excited, beyond excited to nervous just to catch up with you and talk through your career and the exciting things that you're doing now. So one of the things for me is you've often referred to yourself as a reluctant leader, and I would love for you to just talk about what that means and kind of share with us your career from when you started up until when you got to Google.
Margaret Lee: Sure. Well, I always think of my career almost as a process of elimination, of trying things and figuring out what didn't work for me. When I started, I'll go way back, when I was going to university and deciding what I wanted to do I started out in business school and quickly realized in my freshman year that that was just not for me at all. I kind of just stumbled my way around the arts and humanities until I started doing some art classes in the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania where I was, and I just loved it. It was there that I really discovered design. At the time it was design and architecture, but it really was about problem solving, you know?
So that's what I ended up majoring in, but when I got out of school, when I graduated, I realized I didn't really want to be an architect. I realized that the parts that I really enjoyed was some of the graphical representation of the architecture. I really enjoyed some of the drafting and actually trying to visualize some of the ideas. So that moved me into graphic design.
From there I did print design for many years until desktop publishing came out and then I discovered the Macintosh computer and how powerful that was and eventually the internet. So it was just sort of this process of discovery that I couldn't have predicted when I started out at university or even graduating from university because a lot of the world was evolving around me. And, like I said, some of it was process of elimination, of like realizing, well, maybe I'm moving beyond this, but also a process of moving towards what was starting to happen, you know, in the real world around me.
So that's basically how I ended up in technology, and eventually just going from an individual contributor and a design practitioner to being a design lead and then you become a manager and then before you know it you have like this large organization that you're overseeing and it's not something I ever planned, let me put it that way. The reluctant part really comes from I never really thought of myself as a leader, you know? It wasn't something that I set out to become, and it was somewhat of an organic process that took me a little bit of time to catch up with mentally and emotionally as well as, you know, in reality I was being a leader, but matching up sort of my self perception with that took a little bit of reconciliation personally.
Carl Smith: It's so amazing because you and I think started our careers roughly around the same time, and the capabilities, things that felt like you would never be able to do, you don't even think about being able to set your own type, which wasn't a thing. Right? Then suddenly it's just like an explosion of being able to do everything. And the people who grabbed it and went with it suddenly found other people around them. So, I truly appreciate that concept of reluctant leader because you look around and you're like, "Oh, my goodness. I'm responsible for people I don't know where that happened."
Margaret Lee: Yeah, and I think some of it too, going back to setting your own type. I mean, I did that as well and I did like literally copy and paste before Photoshop was copying and pasting. I was literally using wax and glue and whatnot and setting out type for setting and setting out photos to get airbrushed and whatnot. And you know, what would take so many people suddenly you had the power to do on your own was pretty remarkable. I really enjoyed that part, but at the same time it was a little bit sad to see people who weren't making the transition quickly, you know, who we're hanging onto the really traditional way of doing things. I see them actually get, I don't know, almost like become dinosaurs in the industry, you know? Like their skills were no longer viable.
Carl Smith: Yeah, no it's absolutely true.
Margaret Lee: I had a stat machine.
Carl Smith: I worked a stat machine for a long time. It was beautiful, it was leather and had this gold trim and all this stuff. And then one day I saw it in storage and it's just sitting there gathering dust. I was like, "This is a beautiful piece of equipment and I know we can't use it." So it was similar with some of the people, right? There was no way for them to adjust or they were just set and they moved on. So then you go on and you, I know that you worked at TiVo and you work some other places, and that idea of architecture I think is impressive or important because that's about user experience. You're designing something for people to use even before we thought in those terms. So talk about what you did with the other companies leading up to Google.
Margaret Lee: Yeah, leading up to Google. I worked for a long time, first, you know, actually just freelance back in Philadelphia. Then when I moved out to the bay area I worked for this company called Ziff Davis and they published a lot of basically technology magazines. Through that I learned a lot about the industry because I worked with a lot of reporters and whatnot and I was surrounded by this information. I found it really interesting. It was actually through a fellow reporter that he told me, he's like, "You know, there's this company called CNET. You should really check them out. They're doing this thing with the Internet for consumers to use."
And we're talking, what? 1995 or 96, somewhere around there. So a long time ago.
Carl Smith: Right, the beginning. Yeah.
Margaret Lee: That's how I learned about the Internet, you know, and it wasn't like I was that behind anybody else, but back then I thought, "Oh, my God. I don't know anything about designing for the Internet, and it's, you know, you can't control things like you can with print. Everything has to be like this really tiny resolution," you know? So it was interesting because I went back to this period of like I have to learn what is in my control as a designer working for the internet versus like in print, it's a whole different kind of context. Right?
So I did that for a couple of years and then I moved to a company called At Home Network, which was at the time like this big broadband service provider and they were laying down like cable across the country. Really kind of a big physical changes in the infrastructure. My role was working on the content, the front end, right? And it was basically to showcase the capabilities of broadband, so we were just creating these gigantic, basically image mapped gifs, but things that you couldn't do over dial up.
So that was a whole other thing. Eventually there was a merger with this other portal called excite.com. I don't know if you remember them. This was during the crazy .com era where everything was becoming a .com and I saw it through the crash and I actually took part in a layoff where I decided to be laid myself off along with a lot of other people because I was just like, "I don't want to do this right now." Like it just felt really like, to be honest, it felt a little bit soulless at the time, you know? It was just such a frenzy leading up to that point. Then seeing things start to kind of like go under. I didn't want to be part of it.
So I took a three-year break. My husband and I started a family. I didn't know if I would get back into the business at all because I felt like ... three years is a long time, you know? The industry is changing. Right? And then 9/11 happened during that time. I mean, it was just a really, really intense time. My career didn't feel like the top priority for me as we were starting the family and the world was changing. So I actually had almost resigned myself to maybe not get back into technology and I was trying to figure out like, what do I want to do? Like, do I just, you know, focus on the family, do I take an occasional freelance job, you know, what do I do?
And a former colleague from excite.com called me and said, "You know, I'm at Yahoo now. We're looking for somebody to lead the media team. Why don't you come in and an interview?" And I was like, oh, should I do it? I was, I had such imposter syndrome over this because I was like, "I've been out of the game for so long," you know? But I went for it. I went and somehow scrambled together a presentation from like work I had done three years previously thinking like, "Oh, my God. This is just never going to fly." But I went in and I just, you know, it was a case study of like how I'd lead some change in my prior roles like design systems and things like that and how you had to kind of a socialize the changes with all the different teams and whatnot.
And you know, basically it was like, "Oh, yeah. That's exactly the kind of stuff you'd need to do here," you know? So I realized like, "Oh, I guess some of the technology's changed in the three years," but honestly, the problems that come with leading teams were not that different than when I left three years before. It's still people. It's still bringing people along and how do you influence and-
Carl Smith: Still people.
Margaret Lee: Yeah, [inaudible 00:11:53] yes, it was a Director of User Experience.
Carl Smith: So you get to Yahoo and was that a user experience job?
Margaret Lee: [crosstalk 00:12:02] was the content stuff. Right? Yahoo was very much into the content piece. It wasn't just about. Yeah, it wasn't just about search. Yeah. I didn't do the magazine, but it was things [crosstalk 00:12:14].
Carl Smith: I got the magazine. I was a subscriber.
Margaret Lee: Famous sports, news, finance, all those types of context. So that was the team that I lead and I got back into it. Honestly, it really didn't feel like I was away for three years. It really felt like just sliding right back into the same sort of challenges and opportunities.
Carl Smith: Well, that's amazing. So what was it like when you moved from being focused on the family to now being focused on Yahoo? I mean, after three years that's a huge shift. You're not just joining something, you're kind of adapting something else.
Margaret Lee: Yeah, it was a little challenging. I mean, our son was in preschool. I think he was two or something like that when I got back in and we ended up choosing to put him in a preschool that was near the office. So that involved a commute. But it also allowed me to use the carpool lane because he was riding with me. So it did actually, you know, it worked because we could spend some time together in the car up and down, and he wasn't that far if I needed to get him. So we made it work. And I think it was good. It's always a question, I think, for parents and particularly mothers, that balancing act, but you do what you have to do for the good of the family, and yeah.
Carl Smith: Right. I remember reading this research on entrepreneurs and leaders and people who basically, from sunrise to sunset, were off somewhere doing something, but they would come home and they would be energized by it, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. But the children of entrepreneurs, people who are truly throwing themselves, and even if it's not your own company, but just somebody with that spirit, those children want to get out in the world. They're excited to see what is it that takes mommy daddy out there. Whereas, people who have a nine to five but just don't like it? Those kids are worried about going out there. I bet that transition for you actually opened him up.
Margaret Lee: I hope so. I mean, it's funny, because we still talk about some of the visual influence that he had, literally as we commuted. He's an artist now. I mean, he's very much into art and drawing and so many of his first drawings were of the trucks that we would watch along the road, and just like the music that we listened to on the commute and whatnot. And my, both my kids, I have two now, they love coming to visit me at Google. They talk about like, especially my daughter and it's great. She talks about like having aspirations of having a role that, you know, she could be proud of.
And I swear I don't push this on them. This is just what they've observed. So I'm glad. Yeah.
Carl Smith: So you get to Google and what's that transition like? When was that when you got to Google?
Margaret Lee: I got to Google in 2007. So I was at Yahoo, I think, for about three years. At TiVo for a really brief time before I made the switch to Google. I just, for whatever reason, TiVo wasn't the right fit for me.
Carl Smith: Well, that's why I selected it as when to reference.
Margaret Lee: That's okay. It's was fine. I just, you know, honestly, I just kind of felt like the challenges at the time that I was working at TiVo, they weren't of the scale that excited me personally. And it's really important for me to be highly motivated every day when I go to work. That's just how it is.
Like I have to be super motivated, and it can't feel like it's not going to be exciting. So I think actually that's a piece of advice I give a lot of my mentees is: if you know that something just doesn't feel right, it's better to kind of call it early than to try to work it every which way if in your heart you know something's not right.
But when I got to Google it was really interesting because even though it was very similar to Yahoo and Excite before that in the sense that it was a large company, I was joining an internal UX org. It was a product development team that, you know, the three-legged stool of UX, PMs, and NGO. A lot of parallels. It wasn't unfamiliar, but the culture was so different than Yahoo was or Excite before that. Very, you know, everybody had a sense of ownership for being responsible to the user, which to be honest with very different than Yahoo. Yahoo is much more of an MBA-driven PM culture. And Google was much more of a engineering-type PM culture. The PMs at Google at that time all had computer science degrees, and many of the user experience folks also had computer science degrees.
I did not have a computer science degree and when I got there it was right as the company and the UX team was transitioning from being a very flat bottoms-up culture where, I mean, literally people would have like 100 direct reports, right? Because it would be so little management. Right? And I came in as a manager, so I was like this kind of pariah, like who? You're a manager? You're not gonna be hands-on designing? And I was like, "That wasn't what my understanding of coming to this role was," you know? So it was an interesting time.
Carl Smith: So when you came in what was it that you worked on right away? What was your challenge? What was it that got you motivated?
Margaret Lee: Well that was the other interesting thing, was when I came in I thought I was working on search, because that was my understanding from my last conversations with my hiring manager was at the time, but I showed up, she says, "Oh, no, no. You're going to be working on the client team," and that at the time was things like desktop and toolbar and right now really client basically evolved to Chrome, the browser. I was like, "Wow, that's really interesting.”
That was a space I really wasn't that familiar with, but that was very typically Google where it was like, things change all the time, you know? Like you just had to be flexible and dynamic. So yeah, the things that got me motivated was just I had to learn a really not just a new culture, but this domain space of desktop and toolbar and a new browser and whatnot. Was very, very different than working on content and media like I had at Yahoo. That was more kind of my familiar zone, working, designing for content. This was working, designing for software basically.
But it was really good because the industry was heading towards building more apps and whatnot and heading towards mobile than it was just designing for more content. You know, that that became more of a, you know ... that that wasn't as challenging anymore. Right? So that was great. Then eventually I raised my hand when the manager, the UX manager for Google Maps stepped away and it left a hole. When I saw that, I was like, "Oh, that sounds really interesting. Hey, I'd be willing to cover for that, because I feel like the role that I have now, I can handle both."
Then eventually that became my full time role, because I was really interested in Google Maps at the time. But that's kind of how Google is. You can really be dynamic and you can sort of shape your destiny as much as anybody else there.
Carl Smith: So how long were you on the Maps team? So you got there fairly early?
Margaret Lee: About 2007. Yeah. So, I mean I raised my hand within a few months of landing there and it really became like my role, even though I started in one role. It was pretty easy to transition back to somebody who really understood that space better than I did. I mean, I kind of recognized, I was like, "I could do this, but it's probably not the best fit for me. Whereas, I felt like a passion for working on Google maps that just, you know, it was clear to me, you know, it was just one of those gut feelings. That's what I want to do.
Carl Smith: So what were some of the challenges when you get to Google Maps, and, I mean, was the plan to map the world? Was that kind of the overarching plan?
Margaret Lee: Well, yeah. I mean this was 2007 and, by the way, I worked [crosstalk 00:21:57] It was a breakthrough that you could actually pan the map. Right? Remember, this was before mobile. You could actually like pan the map and, you know, you didn't have to ... I think Mapquest was the biggest mapping product back then, and you'd have to kind of click, click, click to move the map. Right? And this was just this like very intuitive panning thing.
Right around that time Streetview was a 20% project for some engineers and one designer. So at the time that was super interesting because it was one of those things where nobody knew what it would be for, right? It was like, okay, so you can stitch all these photos of the street together and then, you know, pan through it in your browser, but why would you want to do that? At the time it really was unclear what would become of this thing. But, you know, fast forward. Can you imagine not having Streetview when you're doing things like travel planning or real estate searches or, you know, there's so many must haves with Streetview now.
Carl Smith: It's one of those things where like coming through it, like Mapquest was part of that evolution. But, my teenage daughters, for some reason, The Office, the American version of The Office TV show came back into vogue. Like everybody was watching it. I came home one day and my oldest at 16, she looks at me, she goes, "Dad. Do you know what Mapquest was?" And it was like, yeah, it was kind of like Google maps [crosstalk 00:23:51]." She was like, "Why did everybody print it out? That makes no sense." And I was like, "Well, it wasn't Google Maps. You didn't have any way in your car to ..." Yeah. So, but for somebody looking backwards it makes no sense. They [crosstalk 00:24:07].
So you're at Google Maps for nine years. Then you started at some point to envision a new group.
Margaret Lee: Yeah. I was on Google Maps for nine years, which was great. I loved working on Google Maps, because it was like this endlessly fascinating problem space that was always evolving, because the technology was evolving, iPhones came out and then we had Android so suddenly you go from desktop to like the map is in your hand out in the real world when you really need it, you know? Two things like suddenly have Streetview and then like local search is integrated with Maps.
So I stayed on Maps for nine years because it was just so fascinating. I mean, you asked me before what motivates you to get up every day? It was, that was just, there was so much to do. There really was. And when I started it, it was, I think, two or three designers, you know, and one of them was on it 20% or something. So it's a super small team, and when I finished nine years later, again, it was so interesting and I could have kept working on it, but I kind of felt like because I had grown the org to about 60 or 70, I can't remember exactly how many it was by then, and was much more a diverse set of functions by that time.
It wasn't just like general designers anymore. It was designers, researchers, motion designers, visual designers, et cetera. I felt like I had started to repeat the process every year of planning and hiring, you know. And even though the problem space was always changing, I was getting farther and farther removed from it, because it was about the org more and more than my involvement in the product design piece. So I just felt like, you know, I think I'm ready to do something different. I do think that that's an important thing to realize as well is when you just like, it's like playing the stock market, right? Like when are you kind of, you feel like you're still feeling like at your high and know that and step off before it starts to feel like you're going down in terms of your interest.
So I was talking to my very enlightened boss, who's still my boss, and just saying, "You know, I think I want to give you a really long heads-up so we can plan this together. I think I'm gonna leave, because I think I've done this enough times that it's somebody else probably will bring fresh enthusiasm to it." And the commute was also killing me because it was just getting, you know, the Bay Area traffic is notoriously bad, and I was starting to crave a little bit more work-life balance again as my kids were getting older, you know? So I was saying like, "Let's plan in about a year I'm going to be stepping off," because it takes awhile to find leaders and to have that whole courtship and whatnot to bring them in.
So just during the course of that early conversation he encouraged me to think about like, what would you do if you could do something else? So I kind of wrote something up and proposed it and he said, "That would be great. Let me kind of socialize this to a few other stakeholders and let's see." And you know, it was almost suspiciously easy, but that's what I'm doing now.
And that role, you know, I had to think of something that I felt like I could add value to the company while balancing my life in a way that like made it possible, right? Like I didn't want to just kind of go from one high-demanding role to another. Like it was important that I recognize my need to spend a little bit more time with my family, which meant not commuting.
So that role is basically looking after the community and culture of the Global UX org. And that can mean so many different things. What I proposed was: there's so many things that I do on the side and that other people do on the side, you know, 20% or whatever because no one owns it but it needs to be done. It can be something as pragmatic as, "Can somebody please work with staffing on evolving our job descriptions or our hiring interview questions and rubrics?" Or internally our ladders our job ladders, performance criteria, things like that. To, hey, what's our external community presence look like? Can we coordinate what types of sponsorships or speakers and narratives that we want to have out there, because historically we just never really had anybody coordinating that. Right?
Because the company had scaled to such a point, I mean, we're almost 3,000 UXers at this point, which is enormous, because when I started, 2007, I think it was just over 100. Right? So this is, yeah, it's a really large organization, and when you're kind of organized by product areas at that scale it gets harder and harder to have that cohesion, you know?
Carl Smith: That's not easy.
Margaret Lee: So outside of working on the actual product there's a great need for the UX community to have somebody looking after it as an organization, representing it on many different levels. So, we do everything from ... I mean, we don't do everything. I shouldn't say we do everything, but we do a wide variety of things that otherwise kind of used to just be hit or miss or catch as catch can, depending on who would raise their hand to take care of something. And it still requires a lot of volunteers, but now with me in my very small team, we can at least coordinate it. We're a central point of contact for a lot of teams that need some type of representation or partnership, you know. So we partner with the staffing team. We partner with the learning and development team. We partner with UX leaders. So it's filling a very clear need.
Carl Smith: When you were starting out a couple years ago I think you told me there were three people.
Margaret Lee: Yes.
Carl Smith: What's the makeup of the team now?
Margaret Lee: Now we're six people, so we've doubled. Yeah, it's enormous. But I think what we've gotten better at it scaling through others. So, because even if we got to 9 people or 12 people, when we're talking about-
Carl Smith: Whoa, you've doubled. That's enormous.
Margaret Lee: Dealing with the population that we have. I mean, it's just a lot of people. What we really need to do is to figure out, okay, there's only so many actual programs that we would outright own and drive and we do have a few of those. But really where the impact is going to come is through influencing through other orgs. So we have a lot of focus on that.
I have people who are very versatile, right? So they might have come from like the UX design background so that they know what some of the challenges are firsthand. I think that's what made my role something that could be done is because I've lived it so I understand what the challenges that UX orgs have. Then I have several program managers, so people who can really help coordinate and drive. But all of them have to have an understanding of like user empathy, because really it's a design problem, it's just an organizational design problem instead of a product design problem. So I really look for people who have that really flexible and open mindset that can understand opportunities, needs. I mean, it really is like being a designer in the product design space except for people.
Carl Smith: Yeah. So I'm curious, with a group that size within such a amazingly huge organization do you have your own vision? Do you have your own mission, mantra, something like that for the group?
Margaret Lee: I mean, when we first started two years ago, three of us, we basically kind of did a little design sprint on just the opportunity space. [crosstalk 00:33:28] new organization, a new program. We quickly converged on sort of three thematic areas of focus. The first was knowledge sharing, because that can be a challenge when, you know, the UX org is decentralized and reports into, you know, various product streams. How do we share knowledge across? Because there's a lot of duplication of efforts when people don't know what's going on. Right? And like, "Oh, this has been solved before."
So that was one area. The second area was community, how do we actually foster community because we saw that people try to do this on their own, if they couldn't figure out a way to make it happen. So we initially focused just on internal community, how do we build internal community and you know, like at many different levels, but we've also started to focus on what's our role in the community in the industry.
So really looking at how we exist externally as well as internally as a UX community. Then the third work stream was everything people focused in terms of like, you know, talent is kind of what we call it, but it's everything from how do we attract the best talent in the industry, but also how do we develop the talent once they are in Google. So how can we ensure that people have a long and healthy career within Google?
So it's like knowledge, community, and talent, but really like if you look at any one of those, there are so many different sub work streams that can happen. And a lot of them overlap too. They're not just like in one or the other, because they're all about people as well.
So, we have ... one of our big flagship programs is actually coming up in about a month is called UXU or UX University, and it's our big internal conference that we hold once a year. The whole entire UX Org is invited to fly in and partake. It lasts for about four days, and it's a peer-to-peer education experience. So we have lots of people proposing courses and sessions, so they want to teach their skills to other people, and then people sign up. We also have keynote speakers, we have an internal keynote this year. It's Ivy Ross, who's the VP of design for hardware and she's fantastic. I love her. Super inspiring. And our external keynote that we have is Debbie Millman. So she's does the Design Matters podcast. So it's really great. It's super fun. I love it. The community loves it. It's an opportunity for us to all come together, learn from each other. It's the type of thing that, you know, that's the kind of thing that motivates me to do this. So yeah, that's just one example of what we do.
Carl Smith: Nice. I have to say the turnover in huge tech companies, like you look at Uber's got the worst of it with like 1.2 years, and then whoever rates out the absolute best is like around seven years. When I was looking at it, you know, Google was in the top quarter with like 3.2 or 3.3 years, and for you to be there for 11 years, it got me thinking, like, you're in the perfect spot. Right? If you're looking to grow that culture and make it that place where people can stay and want to stay, well you've been shown the way, because every time you raised your hand and you did something new ... It just feels like you couldn't be in a better place right now.
Margaret Lee: I don't think it's just me. Google does have that culture, because there is so much to do that if you say, "Hey, I see a need for someone to address this," like all the time you'll get somebody that says, "Yes, I will invest in that." [crosstalk 00:37:49] Timing does play somewhat of a factor, but it's something I encourage and I do a lot of mentoring and I tell my mentees, you know, if you see something that you really wanted to at least try to figure out how to propose it, right? Like at least make the effort and don't just assume you can't do it, because you never know what's going to come out of it. It might not be the exact thing that you proposed, it might be something else, or it might not happen right then. But when the time is right, someone will remember that you had proposed to before.
So I feel very lucky to have been able to propose things or raised my hand and have people say yes. But I don't think it's just me. I think it's something that we all should feel like we can do. It has brought me out of my reluctance to lead because it made me realize, no, it really did make me realize like, oh, you know, it's ... I dunno. Leadership doesn't have to just be one way, you know? It can look like a lot of different ... It has a lot of different faces, you know?
Carl Smith: Yeah. Well, I just have to thank you so much for coming by the podcast today and hanging out with us on The Briefing. It's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you, Margaret.
Margaret Lee: Oh, thank you. I really enjoyed it.
Carl Smith: And for everybody listening, we'll be back next week and we'll talk to you then. All the best.